An American In Italy

A semester spent in Europe... Rome, specifically.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

To refer to Cnytr

See this post about the crucifix in Spoleto.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

More compost ... nice to say, but I don't really like it.

I am definitely a Dominican at heart. If I had gotten my license years before, and if I hadn’t been so terrified of driving, I would have driven the two hours from my house to Washington, DC where the only local chapter of third-order Dominicans was located. St. Rose of Lima was one of my first favorite saints ever, and in my maturity I love to read the Summa Theologica and anything by St. Thomas Aquinas, I consider him genius.

When it comes to other saints, of course I love them as my friends and brothers and sisters and whatnot, but I’ve always felt more of a particular kind of kinship amongst Dominicans – it seems we think similarly.

One thing I’ve often noticed – and my confirmation sponsor, a priest, affirmed this – many people (children and adults) like St. Francis “because he’s the patron saint of animals.” Oh that’s deep.

Granted, I’m sure there are those who have a better connection with St. Frank than this, but among Franciscans – especially lay persons acting in the “Franciscan spirit” – there seems to be what a former teacher of mine would call “a lot of new age woo-woo.” I noticed some of this when our class visited Assisi this weekend. We had just come from Florence, and I was a Very Happy Lauren after I spent a morning at the convent of San Marco, admiring the very sweet, very beautiful, very Dominican paintings of Blessed Fra Angelico. Each reflected a very deep insight through Dominican-colored glasses; they were not without a sort of mysticism as many paintings of biblical events included modern people such as St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Peter Martyr, et cetera: this reflects the mystical view of time, specifically that God is timeless, as are events like the crucifixion.

When we came to Assisi, I saw many modern works of art devoted to St. Francis and his followers. All of them seemed to reflect his love of nature.

That’s nice. What about his love of God?

Yes, he preached to the birds blahblahblah, but what about … other things? I admit the main cathedral with the Giotto paintings was much better about this, but that doesn’t count, as that’s not as modern as I mean. There was one image of St. Francis with his arms out, surrounded by what looked like a sunburst, with the star of David, the crescent moon and star of the Muslims, a cross, something that looked like an astrological symbol, and a sun. After thinking about it a bit, I came to the conclusion that the message must be ecumenism, but at first it seemed to be an equation of these things … or … something. Either way, it’s not something St. Francis would have been really concerned about back in his day – ecumenism is a fairly modern thing which gets many over-conservative traditionalists upset.

That’s not really entirely fair I admit, but I think it does something to point out my preference for the more concrete and analytical Dominican spirituality.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Franciscans as a whole, and I love my Franciscan brothers and sisters. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I saw such abominable works of modern art throughout Assisi that really reminded me of Our Lady of Concrete-type parishes back in the United States (a further example, in Santa Croce, there was a side chapel whose main work of art was … a tree-trunk).

I did like the whole idea of St. Francis calling his body “brother ass”, because he treated it badly, like an ass. This was the only thing of which I could think when climbing the 3k hill to his hermitage in the heat of midafternoon – keeping myself going felt very much like beating a stubborn donkey. And that gave me an idea – I’m always rather critical of the Franciscans, I figured I ought to spend this day walking in their footsteps – what more appropriate place than Assisi.

When I arrived at the Hermitage, I found that we were not, in fact, able to have Sunday Mass in the chapel, but that we were compelled to have it outside. I found this rather annoying, but I tried to think like a Franciscan. Okay, I told myself, we must be too big a group to have it indoors… legitimate enough reason to have it outdoors, in God’s creation. I believe St. Francis said that his monastery was all of God’s creation. Therefore we’ll be having Mass in St. Francis’ monastery.

This is what I told myself to cover my annoyance that I was sitting on a tree-trunk and kneeling in the gravel.

But, I realize, Mass has, in times of necessity, been held in much more humble places. Indeed, our Savior was born in a foul-smelling stable. Of what do I have to complain?

After Mass, I wandered off alone. I wanted to think and just be by myself as I often am, but it wasn’t long before I was joined by one of my classmates in what I learned was a very great act of compassion. And so, discussing Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning, we climbed the steep, rocky and overgrown mountain of Assisi together. Physically more demanding than the hike up the paved road to the hermitage, I don’t think I would have done it alone. Then I realized that St. Francis’ rule called for a monastic community, for one cannot practice virtue (especially humility and obedience) totally alone. And I realized that the climb up the mountain was not only physically edifying, but spiritually and mentally so as well.

And the view from the top of the mountain was well worth the sweat and aching joints of the climb up – before us lay the entire region of Umbria, visible for miles on end. With the glory of Italy before me, I felt entirely humbled. I think I would have acted in exactly the same manner as Francis … it was so beautiful, and it amazed me to consider the creator of the world creating this and creating me.

Up on the mountaintop, Joe and I were entirely alone, yet surrounded with life. It was so amazing, the beauty so overwhelming, that I just had to tell someone. But the only things around were some cows, a donkey, the birds, a grasshopper – not another soul for miles. If I weren’t embarrassed to do so in front of Joe, I probably would have started talking to the grasshoppers. But like a good Dominican, I stood atop the mountain and recited Psalms in Latin. Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei, et opera manuum eius adnuntiat firmamentum.

Some are called to walk in the footsteps of Francis. I am not. But, spending the day in the footsteps of my brother Francis, I silence my tongue too quick to criticize, and I thank him for one of the most edifying days of my life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

I told myself I'd do some writing today...

...yeah right. I'm glad I scribbled a lot in Florence. [G] Oh, I was in Florence and Assisi this past weekend. Pictures are coming.

In the meantime, I have an Art and Arch project on Santa Maria Sopra Minerva to do. (YESSS I ROCK!)

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

By the way ...

In the works is my genius, a trip to Oxford, England, which (without food and with accomodation) should cost somewhere between 60-100 Euro.

I was watching Shadowlands this evening as I did my laundry and remembered that I HAVE TO GO. HAAAAVE TO.

Trip details should emerge shortly for those interested in the planning stages; looks like it'll occur between 05 Nov - 07 Nov.

Some pictures

Unfortunately, I haven't been keeping up with my journal writing like I ought (I have notes, but no significant entry yet). However, I do have two sets of pictures -- one from Sperlonga (which merits an entry before the pictures get posted), and Positano on the Amalfi coast south of Naples. This also merits a journal entry (best food ever tasted was at the ristorante da Constantine -- Renee cried), but the pictures also stand alone. Ecco:

This is a random picture of the best bruschetta we've ever had ... with Dan in the background. (That's water)
Renee so happy she's crying ... "This is like ... St. Peter's! But less hungry!"
The view that greeted us as we woke from our hostel Saturday morning.
And again
Amy and Terry at the table
The other side
Me and the view from the hostel
The city ... which looked to be carved from the mountainside.
The streets ... so narrow, almost got hit by a bus twice. INCHES. I saw my life flash before my eyes.
But I'm glad I got to live ... just to see this
Dan and the view
Me and the view
The main piazza before the beach... deserted, early in the morning
The town as viewed from the beach
The main church there had a few broken tablets on the side... I was very interested in the carving of a chalice, so I, like the nerd and wannabe archaeologist I am, broke out pencil and paper and took a rubbing and a picture of it. Here's the picture.
A silly picture of us posing on the beach
My friend Renee insisted on this picture ... the wall was pretty.
I, in turn, insisted upon this picture.

Leaving for Florence and Assisi early tomorrow morning ... will be back on Sunday. Ciao!

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

(More compost)

“Character is fate”, I was told this morning. On a literal level, supposedly moi=ra both “character” and “fate”. Reaaaally ... is that so?

I suppose I tend to get a bit arrogant when it comes to Greek and Latin things. Back in Irving, I got so frustrated with myself dozens of times. I was told I am the only freshman to have completed a junior/senior-level Greek class. I remember my first day of Homer with Dr. Davies. I was scared out of my mind. All around the room like a panel of senators or members of the e)kklhsi/a were The Seniors And Juniors. Who am I that the Upperclassmen should come to me? Depart from me, O Upperclassmen, for I am a sinful (fresh)man. I remember being so paranoid about absolutely everything and everyone in that class. It was my first semester in college, and first semester in a real school since junior high since I had been home schooled during my high school years and I had a senior level Greek class. It was both a huge triumph and a tremendous source of stress, both in terms of the difficulty and work assigned in the class and the pressure I put on myself to try to fit in.

That class nearly killed me, but I believe that it was worth it. Some of my better friends were made in that class and the subsequent semester’s Euripides class; furthermore, I discovered just how much Greek I could force myself to memorize over the course of one week, and on just how little sleep it was possible for me to survive.

I did it. I, little stupid Lauren.

It was great – but it has also given me a dangerous temptation to u(/bris to which, I’m afraid to say, I too often succumb. However, once I get around my upperclassmen friends whom I consider absolutely brilliant (Tyler Travillian, for example), I once again feel put in my place – what am I doing here? I’m not a classics major, I’m a dork.

But around people who are not classics majors, I’m a genius. This semester I have seen an inordinate number of eyes widen and jaws drop when they find through inquiry (I’m not keen on exposing myself as an uber-nerd by volunteering this information) that I know Latin and Attic Greek. “So,” they say, “you can speak Greek?” “Only ancient Greek,” I say, thinking of the Greece trip and reminding myself how useless I actually am. “But, like, you can read it and stuff – Homer? And these plays we’re reading?” “Well... yes...” I usually respond, as my head inflates a little more.

I think my biggest claim to fame in that class was the 27 lines I memorized from Book III of the Iliad. I recited them in class and drew a surprisingly positive response from the Very Scary Dr. Davies, at which point the clouds parted and the heavens were opened and I, Lauren, beheld the nine Muses and Graces.

And this sometimes leads me to believe that I know everything.

I do, however, know that I strongly disagree with the idea of character as fate.

I believe this first and foremost because I hate Greek and Latin. I won’t say I hate languages, and I think that’s the only thing that’s gotten me through my Greek and Latin languages thus far. The first time I took Latin, I failed. But then I took it again and passed with flying colors, and requested to skip a grade. My teacher informed me that, while I was fully qualified, she preferred that I not. I complied, but lived with the secret ego-inflation that I could have, as I vyed constantly with one other student for top Latinist in magistra’s class.

But I hate Latin. Hated it, rather. But not because I was bad at it.

And I hate Greek, and I still hate it. As a language, it’s very interesting. I must admit that, for all my protestations of the classics as a useless major, I’ve learned quite a lot about language and its structure which has facilitated the learning of other languages. At heart, I believe I’m a linguist. But not a Greekist. Just a Geek.

I started taking Greek for the stupidest of reasons which I will not divulge here. The only reason I was good at it was because I had a goal: I wanted to catch up with the class which started a year or two ahead of me, and I wanted to do it in the shortest amount of time possible. Sure enough, in a year and a half I had caught up to them. Disappointingly enough, when I “caught up” to them in terms of the book we were using, I found I was bored with the Greek they were doing.

My resolve started to waver some but then my ego was again inflated when my high school Greek teacher said that we could do whatever I wanted ... and so I chose the most difficult author I knew of: Euripides, whose Bacchae comprised the Greek level VI class.

I did the Hippolytus, which I did again second semester of Freshman year in Senior Greek class.

Why did I do this if I hate Greek? I have absolutely no idea.

A further example: I consider myself to be a very girly girl. I’ve never taken a huge interest in sports other than things like gymnastics, ice skating and baseball. Football was odious to me, and soccer, miserable. Lately I’ve taken to skirts and French manicures and a whole host of other silly girl things I despised in my youth. Yet at the same time, I am positively dying to go into the Army. I am in the midst of applying to West Point, and I am beginning to practice for the physical test I will have to take. I did ROTC and camped out in the woods without showering for four days – something I’ve always regardde with disdain. Heaven forbid I should get my hands dirty or even worse, break a sweat. But I find the oddest and most wonderful thing to be the post-workout “YEAH” feeling, as if I could take on the world. I dread working out lest I break a terribly unladylike sweat, but once I have completed a number of pushups and a two-mile run until I am extremely red in the face and soaked through, I wouldn’t trade the Tantaline asphyxiation for the Elysian fields. My family has always ridiculed me for the cushiness of life I’ve had as the youngest child. I questioned myself, at first, what kind of ridiculous idea I thought I had.

But when I started doing ROTC, I had found my niche. It was difficult, yes, but it was extremely rewarding. I went on our field training exercise (FTX) with proudly painted toenails beneath my freshly polished, mirrorlike combat boots. I came back with sanitized dirt ground into the delicate whorls of my fingertips which refused to be removed for some days hence.

Why? If I had looked at myself four years before, I would have thought myself absolutely nuts, as most of my friends and family did. To all appearances, it was totally out of keeping with my character, and I still rather believe it is.

If I were to follow entirely through with my character, I believe my fate would be condemned to some dusty academic corner in some slightly less-than-prestigious university on the East Coast instructing a bunch of disinterested tweens about Hesperides and the blahblahblah of the umpteenth century and the conquests of Whatsisface the Ubiquitous over the Highly Obscure persons of Asia Lesser. And I would probably like it, because I do have a thing for history, obscure knowledge and dead languages.

But I reject that fate and I reject that character. I reject the self-absorbed person I let myself become.

And for that matter I don’t think Oedipus was all that bad. He killed Laius because he was threatened. He stumbled into the city and solved the riddle of the Sphinx and, hey hey hey, here was this rich and awesome widow queen who wanted to reward the nobody with his own kingdom. Seeing as he was entirely displaced from his old kingdom for the very fear of fulfilling the prophecy, who wouldn’t take such an offer? If someone tries to kill you, most thinking persons would fight back. After that, marriage as a reward for saving a kingdom is almost a natural thing at the time. Consider Theseus, consider Whatsisname the Ubiquitous.

Hubris? Who wouldn’t react with shock and an extremely strong knee-jerk reaction if they were accused of bringing ruin to one’s family and kingdom, of killing that which one nurtures above all. What’s worse, sullying the family – killing one’s father and marrying one’s mother. If the idea is wretched and disgusting enough to us, how much worse would it be for a culture of honor. I recall the Spartan mother who told her son as he was going off to war to return triumphant with his shield or dead on top of it.

I guess one could grumblingly say that it was Apollo’s priest Tiresius who ought to know and not just some random schmo. However I think that the emotional reaction would still cover over this for even the most pious of Greeks.

And so I think the gods, as Sophocles portrays them – impersonal, random, absolute and unescapable – are very much akin to a Calvinist’s view of predestination. As a Catholic, I reject the idea of predestination and embrace the notion of free-will (voluntas) and furthermore reject character as fate. For what Paul could escape his moi=ra? For a long span of years, Paul was being formed and forming himself into the person that he was, the Saul of Tarsus who killed Christians. Moi=ra not only ignores the heavenly vocation knocking one off one’s proverbial horse (who would say that Paul’s subsequent actions were completely within character of Saul?), but also the idea of repentance. What most hardened of criminals could repent of his own will and volition, since repentance is de facto out of keeping with the character of a hardened criminal?

I never in my life thought I would pass an Army physical fitness test because I am lazy and I hate to run. But who plans on their birth? Oedipus did not anticipate being born into his family situation and prophecy, nor did I plan on being the daughter of a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. Dad wanted me to carry the Brannon name on to something, to follow in his footsteps somehow. Being the only one in my family who likes to read and has the slightest academic bent, I continually ran in the opposite direction, until I came to the 9/11 crossroads where I killed my Laius of laziness, doubt and inaction which threatened to dominate my life.

I would even say Oedipus did a brave and pious thing in making every effort not to offend the gods in fleeing from his adopted parents. He faced adversity at the crossroads and preserved his life.

However, the Editor in my head reminds me – the Editor formed partially by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) – ignorance of the law is no excuse.

I’m almost certain, however, that had Oedipus come up for trial before an Army court that he would not have received a dishonorable discharge, but merely demotion and some time in Leavenworth.

Thursday, September 02, 2004


Note: since this is my Rome blog, I am going to use it for English class as well; the posts known as "compost" are for the journal project in English class and will sometimes reflect on Rome and sometimes on the literature we read... just something to keep one writing. Therefore, some will have greater relevance to this blog than others. This post may more properly belong to Cnytr, but as my English professor actually reads this blog it will be posted here. Thank you for your patience, The Management.

I believe my favorite Greek play that we’ve read thus far has been “The Libation Bearers”, this because it reminds me, tonally speaking, of the funeral scene and the death of Polonius from Hamlet, and I’m sure that William Shakespeare borrowed some from it as everyone used to be schooled in the classics at one time.

But I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Aristotle’s “Poetics” does not seem to understand art. People often criticize the scholastics (and modern people with a scholastic bend) that breaking beauty down into categories so as to explain the modes in which it is received and appreciated kills the beauty-appreciator or it kills the beauty.

Aristotle, on the other hand, seems to think that art – specifically tragedy – can be broken down into a set of criteria which can be called “good” if and only if it fulfills this criteria. Furthermore, what is to distinguish a work of art from a work of engineering built to a certain set of specifics?

Tragedy fulfills a function. It would seem that if someone didn’t go to a tragedy every so often to achieve the kathartic purgation of emotions that he would be an unhealthy person in much the same way that someone who continually bottles up his anger is.

On the whole, I assert with C.S. Lewis in “An Experiment in Criticism” that art – tragedy – is to be received and not used for its kathartic function (assuming that one such function even exists). Art is supposed to do things to you, you’re not supposed to do things to it.

One positive thing about Aristotle’s understanding, if we take it to its full implications, is that a work of art could be universally acknowledged as good or bad based on the set of specifics of its function and how well it fulfills it. We could finally get everyone to acknowledge that “Pirates of the Carribean” is not the greatest movie ever made but a mind-control plot to take over the world. I believe that this is the only way to explain its otherwise inexplicable popularity.

I often find this frustrating at home, I will recommend a movie to my parents that I find particularly wonderful – say the German film “Mostly Martha”, or the recently released biography of Cole Porter, “De-Lovely”. When my parents see the recommended film, they often level at it the criticism of “it’s not uplifting”.

…? So? Is “Hamlet” uplifting? Is “Hamlet” awesome?

That is, I find, another frustrating example of using art and ignoring artistic value for its use. Art does not need to be uplifting! Art is not a happy-go-lucky let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya that many people (iconoclasts *cough*) want it to be.

The last time I was in Rome, I went to this particular church whose name I have forgotten on the Via Veneto. A very macabre but fascinating this about this church is the crypt attached to it – the walls, ceilings and floors are practically paved with the bones of monks and others who died in the various plagues that swept through Rome. The image of the arm of God (bared) crossed with the arm of Christ (clothed, with his pierced hand) is re-created with actual arms. That sounds disgusting, and on one level it is. Death is horrible. But “Death, where is thy sting?” The entire crypt is a reminder of man’s mortality so that he may shed his sinful nature and choose eternity with God. At the very end of the crypt, there is an entire skeleton on the ceiling circled by vertebrae. The skeleton is holding an hourglass and a scythe, and in four languages, a sign says

As you are, we once were
As we are, you will become.

“Frater, memento mori!”

The thing was explained to me beforehand in a “how cool is this” manner, and I approached it with a similar attitude. But when I actually saw it, my first unthinking reaction was one of shock and horror – the explicit visual reminder of death and decay was almost too much for me. And now I think that going into the crypt with a “let’s see how gross and cool this whole thing is!” totally misses the entire point.

First reactions should not be immediately discounted, and sometimes they can reveal to us the entire point of a thing.