Rejoice with me, what was lost has been found. Where the bag went is a mystery that will never be solved. We were ticketed on a Delta flight to Rome operated by Alitalia that we would catch after flying from Nantucket to Boston. The last time I saw it, it was being checked at the Nantucket Cape Air counter all the way through to Rome, which threw a bit of a curve at the agent who did not have Rome in his system and had to trust me that the airport code was FCO. Carry on is not allowed. Their planes are light twins carrying eight passengers. There’s no room for carry on. They do check bags through from Nantucket, not often, to domestic destinations. Most bags are picked up at Cape Air’s baggage chute behind some stairs and not too far from the real carousels. Anyway, it never arrived in Rome. Neither did Dianna’s, but the Alitalia people promised they would be found and delivered soon. Dianna’s was, three days later. Mine wasn’t.
Rome was not our destination. Castiglion Fiorentino, about a three hour drive north, was. It was where we would spend the next nine days with me attending a writing workshop led by Cary Tennis who, with his wife Norma, has become a permanent resident, having made his escape from San Francisco. Nine days in a small old fortress town atop a steep hill can be a wonderful experience, and it was. But that’s another story, because this is about my bag. It took Alitalia eight days just to find it, and who knows where it had been. It might have sat on the Cape Air baggage chute behind the stairs until someone noticed it hadn’t been picked up. It might have gone to Delta instead of Alitalia, and sat around for days until someone spotted the FCO tag. It might have been lost in the baggage labyrinth in Rome, where efficiency is not the highest priority. In any case it was found on the eighth day, with delivery promised that day or the next. Some promise!
It was consigned to a courier service whose website boasted guaranteed four to eight hour delivery anywhere in Italy. One day passed. Two days passed. The courier service denied any knowledge of the bag, didn’t have its tag number in their system, and didn’t want to be bothered with my crank calls. The airline assured me it would be delivered ‘today’ and quit bothering us. Day nine passed. Day ten dawned, and we were ready for the drive back to Rome for one short night at the airport Hilton and then home by way of Amsterdam and Seattle. Wonder of Italian wonders, the bag was magically delivered to Residence Le Santucee in Castiglion Fiorentino five hours after we left. Cary, being the good guy that he is, hopped in his car, drove three hours south and put it in to my hands. We celebrated with a dinner and hugs and handshakes before he headed back north, and we to bed for a few hours.
So what had I done in the meantime? Locals buy a lot of their clothes at a store in the middle of the old city called, oddly enough, Blu Jeans Mania. With Norma’s help we became their best customers, no doubt making the month for them. Pants, shirts, sweaters, underwear, and a jacket, enough to get by, proving that we tend to overpack. And now for the big question. We checked our bags through to Walla Walla from Rome. Would they make it? Alitalia to Delta to Alaska: what could go wrong? We got home last night, bags with us. Mine full of clean, never worn clothing. Oh yeah, why were we on Nantucket in the first place? A family visit before the start of our Italian adventure.
Readers know that we are in Italy and loving it, but my luggage never made it. Dianna’s was lost momentarily, but showed up two days after we arrived. Mine has not. It’s been a week now, and a minor inconvenience has evolved into something greater. To be sure I can buy what I need, and most of what is missing is just stuff, replaceable. But what is missing is also stuff in which I had invested time and emotional energy as I thought about buying it, wearing it, and packing it for this trip. All of that had symbolic importance beyond mere stuffness. What we wear says something about how we see ourselves, how we want others to see us, what make us feel good about ourselves. Other things among our stuff are expressions of our passions, desires, loves, hopes, delights, treasures, maybe even anxieties, fears, dislikes, enmities.
Stuff that has symbolic meaning is the key to understanding. George Carlin had a brilliant piece on stuff where he talked about the importance we attach to our stuff as we haul it around with us, treating it with religious favor. It may have been a famous comedy routine, but it also addressed an important truth because it is what underlies the emotional disorientation that people experience when they are forced against their will to be stripped of belongings. Burglaries, robberies, fires, accidents of various kinds are events in which stuff is forcibly taken from us that has important symbolic meaning for us, and it is the missing symbolism more than the physical stuff that is what causes such uncomfortable disorientation. A friend observed that such losses are made worse by the knowledge that what has been taken away was just inanimate stuff of no important symbolic value to whoever or whatever took it. It’s personally demeaning.
It’s easy to talk about the spiritual value of kenosis, to follow Merton into his hermitage, as long as it’s only as far as reading a book or going on a brief retreat. It’s harder, but not overwhelmingly so, to make a conscious decision, a free choice, to rid one’s self of selected stuff. Having the symbolic meaning of stuff forcibly taken against one’s will is another experience altogether. Those who are involved in pastoral counseling need to do more than just know this, they need to develop a keen sense of empathy (that dreadfully overused word) that gives adequate recognition of and respect for the deeper meaning of what has happened to those who have come to them for help.
We are in Italy right now. In fact we are the small town of Castiglion Fiorentino for a workshop held in an inn called Residence Le Santuccee. I may have more to say about the trip another time, but for now I want to talk about the inn and the church next door to it.
What is now an inn was once part of a convent and adjacent buildings that were bombed into unrecognizable rubble during WWII, and left for decades to lie in ruin. A local man, Alfeo Tangenelli, and his family, bought it a while back and began the slow process of restoring the structure, maintaining its architectural integrity, while crafting modern conveniences into it. Residence Le Santucce is perfection. A many storied inn working its crooked way by stages up the city wall. I’m not sure how many rooms it has, or even how to get to most of them. It’s a little like a cross between Hogwarts and an Escher painting. Our room, number 12, is a goofy combination of old, new, cheap, expensive, lovely bedroom, breakfast alcove, kitchenette of dubious parentage, bath down four or five twisting steps, and, for some reason, a sort of loft with another bed in it. The Windows look south over the valley. It’s a beautiful view.
Next door is the deconsecrated Convent Church of Santucee. Small, as convent chapels tend to be, and everything of substantial value, or that would have been consecrated for worship purposes, taken away. Open only for a few community events, we went in for a free piano concert on our first evening here. It was something to do. Ceramic tiles mounted high on the wall depicting the stations of the cross remain. So does a painting on the south wall, but from our place at the back of the crowded space, I could not see it. Maybe it is important. Probably not. What I could see was a huge, dark painting in dire need of repair that dominated what was once the eastern wall reredos behind and above what would have been the altar. I couldn’t see the pianist, so it captured my attention. In the upper right was Mary dressed, oddly enough, in red, holding the baby Jesus. Below her and to the left was a Franciscan priest, probably a saint, in a pose of supplication. His face turned toward Mary, his arms, overly long arms, stretched out toward the viewer, his enormous hands open with fingers reaching. He was begging Mary to intercede for the congregation seated below. Another figure lingered in the upper left background, undoubtedly the patron who commissioned the work. Other symbolism littered the painting, but they are not important to the question, which is, why?
Why would the priest implore Mary for her intercession? Why was Jesus portrayed as a baby? Some others in the workshop wanted to know. It’s complicated. By the time of the Renaissance, not long before the Reformation, the resurrected Jesus had been exalted to such high status that he had become unapproachable to the average person on the street. Holy Communion was taken maybe once a year, around Easter, and then with intense fear that any unworthiness in the communicant would condemn them to eternal hell. Even the consecrated bread, the body of Christ, was held in fearful awesomeness. It could not be touched by any but a priest, and then only after careful preparation. With Jesus so far away, and God the Father even more remote, to whom could one turn for help? Mary of course. She at least was human, full of motherly love for all. She could intercede on one’s behalf. She could be trusted to do the right thing. Her Son would listen to her.
The baby Jesus in her arms underscores her status. One cannot converse with a baby. Babies cannot understand. Babies are beyond the world in which adults live. Only the mother can be asked. A baby can be adored and worshipped, but only with the mother can one have a conversation. And so Mary, in whose arms the baby Jesus rests, is the one, the only one, to whom one can turn for divine help. Yet this baby is not like others. He sits erect. He looks out upon the congregation. His right hand is slightly raised in what? A sign of blessing? Perhaps. Tentative. There is hope.
The painting has been darkened by age and too much incense. There are holes in the canvas. Are they bullet holes? The artist gave hints of being influenced by El Greco, but who was he or she? Maybe no one knows. In any case it was left behind. The arms and hands of supplication extend out to an empty space. There is no one there to bless, unless one counts the occasional concert where music is adored and the musicians worshiped.
What do you think of the Nicene Creed, or, for that matter, do you think of it at all? A friend cornered me the other day, dismayed that a priest he knew wanted to dispense with it altogether if it could not be rewritten to make sense to the American mind. The creed had not been something he had given much thought to. It was just what was recited each Sunday after the sermon and before the confession. So we talked about it with me giving a highly digested version of its story: that it was written to make clear the relationship between God the Father and God the Son in terms that made sense to the 4th and 5th century Greek way of thinking, and to resolve the argument between those who followed Athanasius and those who followed Arius.
As you recall, the dispute was more complicated than just two schools opposing one another, but they were the main event. Arius claimed that Jesus (the Christ) was the first and greatest of God’s creations, but not divine. Athanasius said, no, Jesus (the Christ) was of the same substance of God, but he was also of the substance of Mary, and therefore fully divine and fully human. The emperor Constantine called a council of bishops to resolve the issue. It took them about 75 years to finalize what we now call the Nicene Creed, which throws in the Holy Spirit at the end to make it clear that we are Trinitarian Christians. The Arian side lost the debate, but they didn’t go away. The dispute rumbled on for centuries, and today the largest remnant of the Arian view are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
With that as background, I thought I might take a shot at an Americanized version of the Nicene Creed that would appeal to the tiny rural congregation of Grace Episcopal Church where I serve a few times a month. As long as I was going to commit gross heresy, I thought why not do it publicly and see what happens. So here goes.
A Creed More of Less Approximating the Nicene Creed
We believe in one God whose love for us is such that God desires to be called father and mother.
We are only beginning to understand the vast expanse of the universe, whence it came and how, yet in that nascent understanding we affirm that it is God who has brought all things into being whether we can see them or not. We do not have the vocabulary to explain it. The best we can do is say that God spoke, and that God’s Word began the process of creation.
We believe that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus, who is the Christ. Because he is the Word of God, he is of God and not a creature, and because he is of God there never was a time that he was not of God. Yet by God’s power, known to us as the Holy Spirit, he took form through Mary, a virgin, so that he shared with us all that is human in a time and place certain. He came so that we might see and believe that through God’s love for us all that has burdened and broken us will be healed, and that by following him human death is not the end of life, it’s the beginning of life, full, abundant, and everlasting.
The record of Jesus life, work, teaching, death, and resurrection are known to us, and to history, as occurring when Pontius Pilate was governor in Judea. It’s not a myth or fantasy. It’s an event in human history. In Jesus we see all that is true about God that can be communicated in human form, and, as his followers attest, he did not stay but returned to be one with God, yet he remains for us the face of God, and it is to Jesus that we turn to seek God’s presence in our lives.
It is said that he will return to judge the living and the dead. We cannot presume to fully understand, but we do know that the end of time for each of us comes swiftly, and we are confident that in following Jesus we will enter through the gate of death into a new and greater life.
While in our human limitations we cannot know God fully, we are content that God has called us to say he is our Mother, our Father, and we are comfortable in saying that Jesus is God’s Son, and we his sisters and brothers by invitation. We have experienced God’s presence with us in ways we cannot see, but which are powerful, and we say that it is God’s Holy Spirit that is with us and for us for all times. God is not elsewhere. God is here now.
To be clear, there is only one God, but God has chosen to reveal God’s self to us, and we have come to know him, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our faith is not something new. It is rooted in God’s self revelation spoken through millennia of prophets. We proclaim that we are the gathering of God’s people, the Church, which is itself one in faith, holy, and universal. We are not called to be exclusive, but to proclaim God’s love to all people in every place. We believe that through the water of baptism we have been ordained as ministers of God’s work of love for all persons. We anticipate that every person will experience resurrection, and while we cannot say how or when that will happen, we await it in joyful expectation.