Monday, July 2, 2012

Naples: Lost (and Found) in Translation

Each morning of my pilgrimage this summer, I have asked the Lord to please help me to get lost. And, amazingly, each day my prayer has been answered. My little jaunt about Napoli was no exception. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about wandering around the city by myself. Friends and fellow travelers—especially those who had never been here-- warned me: watch out for the thieves—especially the pickpockets. They are everywhere. Everywhere! Such negative encouragement made me all the more determined to see Naples on my own terms, try to avoid the crooks as best as I could, and manage to have an enjoyable time. Actually, I was able to do all three.

My first stop was a little church with an enormous name: Real Basilica Pontifica de Santiago de los Espanoles (the Royal Pontifical Basilica of St. James of Spain), built 1450-1547. I asked the sexton for help finding the Franciscan friars (no map, no contacts, no website, no nothing, mind you) and he graciously pointed me in the direction of the Monasterio di Santa Chiara: “It’s somewhere over there, but I’m not exactly sure. Go to the corner and turn right where that white building is,” he told me. “And then after that, just ask people along the way and they’ll help you out..” So, I did as I was told and lo’ and behold!—people pointed out the way and, eventually, I found the place. But first, I made a stop at the Church of the Gesu Nuovo—a vast and commanding Baroque confection close by my destination. Even on a weekday morning, a steady flow of visitors--pilgrims, people attending Mass, and tourists like myself steamed through. It was beautiful, but a tad overwhelming for my taste.

When I saw austere fa├žade of Santa Chiara across the piazza, I was immediately relieved. The present basilica-style structure replaces a much older church destroyed in bombing raids during World War II. But, no matter, inside and out, this “new old” worship space really reflects in aesthetic terms the spiritual values of Franciscan simplicity and humility. The huge gashes of graffiti that, quite literally, are climbing the walls of the church—yield to the simple beauty and calming relief of this urban sanctuary’s interior.

The basilica stands next to the monastery of the Poor Clares, but there were no sisters or friars about the place. In fact, when I made some initial inquiries, nobody appeared to know where the friars lived. At the tourist office immediately adjacent to the church (!), the clerk diligently googled ‘frati minori’ for me and jotted down an address several Metro stops away that I just knew could not be right. “I’m not exactly sure where it is, but once you get out of the subway, just ask anyone. They’ll be happy to point out the friary for you.” Where had I heard that one before?

At the museum behind S. Chiara, the folks at the front desk sent me back to the church, whereupon the attendant in charge started to quiz me: Who are you? Where are you from? Why do you want to talk with the Franciscans? She then suggested I return to the Museum office for further instructions. When I told her that I had just come from there and had the feeling I was being sent around in circles, she shrugged:“Va’ bene!” and walked away. Welcome to Napoli!

I was ready to call it a day--faggettaboudit! as they say in Brooklyn– when a little voice told me to give it just one more try. Back to the Museum once more I trotted, only this time I actually spied a real live friar in his habit on the grounds— turns out he was an older missionary back home on vacation from Taiwan. After taking my card, he shook my hand, told me he hoped I would enjoy myself, and walked on. Then a second younger friar appeared in the doorway with some visitors of his own in tow. He nodded my way, smiled, and off they all went into the bowels of the house.

So, I went to the Museum all by myself. And had a truly wonderful time. Its treasures include a marvelous collection of majolica ceramic ware, numerous medieval antiquities—including some magnificent reliquaries, vestments, sacred vessels, and other artifacts saved from the old church. A side door leads to an impressive excavation site-- a Roman bath dating from the 2nd century AD. The Museum’s main entrance leads onto an exquisitely landscaped cloister garden in which are positioned still more elegant examples of vibrant majolica ware.

Satisfied with my museum-ing venture, I slumped onto a bench in the courtyard to sip some water, catch a breeze and admire the gardens—only to encounter a third friar ambling down the corridor. “Pace e bene, Fratello!” I smiled and waved-- both weary from the heat and amused by all of the rigamarole of trying to meet some confreres. He smiled back and then he, too, walked on into the friary. I said to myself: Well, even if I haven’t met the friars, at least I can say that I’ve seen them.” But a few minutes later, this same young friar came out to ask me: “Excuse me, are you by any chance the Franciscan visiting from California? “ Bingo! “ Please, Brother, we would really love it if you would in and have pranza/ lunch with us,” he insisted.

I was escorted into a large hall with about fifteen friars—including all of the ones I had seen previously-- seated at tables placed in a horseshoe arrangement, enjoying a hearty meal of fish, pasta, vegetables, salad and fruit. I was warmly welcomed by the friar in charge (the guardian was away for the day) and invited to dig in. As I sat down, I had the most wonderful feeling. I was home. It didn’t matter to me whether I was in Italy or California—I was with my brothers. I felt truly grateful and content. Friars are-- well—friars. We are pretty much the same cast of characters everywhere: the young and the passionate; the gentle and the gruff; the serene and deeply humble; the overworked and the not overworked.

Shy smiles and welcoming nods around the table. I tried to communicate in Spanish and they tried to understand in Italian. Good-natured shrugs alternating with sudden flashes of linguistic eureka. The gist: the friars were preparing for a three-day provincial celebration—priestly ordinations-- in Sorrento. This particular fraternity houses 16 men, including several in studies at a branch of the main Franciscan university, the Antonium, in Rome. The province, I was told, gets about 4-5 vocations a year. Excellent for these times. I told them a bit about myself, my work in California. They knew about Beato/ Blessed Junipero Serra, and a little about the California missions. “Everything in California is named after a saint, isn’t it? San this and Santa that. Everything!” I nodded in agreement, but don’t tell anyone in Bakersfield that.

As the brothers gathered the dishes, I offered to help with the clean up but was waved away hospitably. So I thanked the brothers, took my leave, and spent a few more hours watching, wondering, and wandering on my own but not alone. That you, God, for getting me lost. And found.

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