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#Years50

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The year 1966 – that’s nearly fifty long years of history trailing backwards to it from 2016. For those who have some kind of origins rooted in 1966, the present year would have diverse meanings and values. 2016 would mark the 50th wedding anniversary for some couples; while for few others, it would be the golden jubilee year of their company’s establishment, or to many, it could be a rite of passage into 50 – the latter being the case of a friend who invited us to his milestone birthday bash few months ago.

02When that occasion arrived, it turned out to be a lovely time for us to relax and spent some time together with likeminded people – lots of good talk, good food, good drinks, good fun and a speech by the host. The truth is that, on occasions like this, we often swipe our past at the gate and it opens. Then we get back in and out comes thoughts constantly recurring to our friends and events of our early life – in the context of the present occasion, it was how it had all started for our friend in the summer of half a century ago and came up to the time he dipped his toes in the big 5-0, the youth of senior age.

We are the sum of the experiences in our lives. Looking back on his journey from the distance of fifty years, our friend went through a recap of his ups and downs, gains and losses, drawing cameos of his life. Unlike this occasion, I had been to parties where, like an overwound toy that would not stop until its winding is completely unfurled, the host went on and on with narration about himself to make too big a meal of it.

03In the end, the summary of our friend’s reminisce sketched the figure of a man with the good sense to confine his ambition to the safer and less contentious way of living – adhering to his belief that all things would come into being, blossom and ripen at the appointed time.

The party had gone with a swing. Back home that same night I had settled in the comfort of our living room while the music of Giacomo Puccini let loose its energy and passion from the music player. With our life-long fascination for the creative genius of Giuseppe Verdi and Puccini, no wonder our hearts lingers in nineteenth-century Italy for good musical experience.

With the happenings of the day still fresh in mind, my attention had wandered to my IPad to google the events of 1966. In history’s roll, 1966 was a conspicuous year. However politically neutral I could be, I could note that, drawing a contrast to the outcome of the present local election, 50 years ago there were celebratory moments for some when on January 24, 1966, Indira Gandhi made her debut entry as the Prime Minister of India owing to the untimely death of the incumbent Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkant in Soviet Central Asia on January 11, 1966. Customarily, Mrs. Gandhi’s intellectual-looking face had then dominated the covers of many Indian and some foreign publications. The 5ft. 2in. petite 48 year-old with Nehru elegance and style had certainly reached high places for someone who had once said, “At the age of four, my favourite game was to stand on a table and make thundering political speeches to the servants.”

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05Another popular face of that year was of the international fashion icon Twiggy (Lesley Lawson, née Hornby). At just seventeen years old, having been voted British Woman of The Year, she was named the Face of ’66 by the Daily Express. In time, her androgynous look splashed across not only on glossy publications, but also on display boards, garments, etc.

Concurrently, British bands like The Beatles dominated the world of popular music while England, beating West Germany 4-2 after extra time at Wembley Stadium in London on 30 July 1966, took home the 1966 FIFA World Cup.

Citing the flash trends of that fab year, if vinyl was the most “in” fabric worn by the young go-go set in Paris, in Britain, besides zippy Mini cars, hemlines of the trendy Mini Skirts progressively climbed upward to the level where some designs had the hem exposing more acreage of leggy delights as popularity for minis grew amongst those who like a mini to be a mini, successfully pushing the squabbles over longhair out of the headlines. At the same time, in the United States, a mandatory health warning appeared on the face of all packaging of cigarettes: “Caution : Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous To Your Health”.

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I would not miss out on the disasters that occurred later during that year. Before dawn on November 4, 1966, whipped by gale winds and rainstorms, disaster struck Florence (Firenze), Italy, the city for art lovers and one of our favourite haunts for many years. The rising muddy water of River Arno overflowed into the city flooding it to a maximum depth of 20ft, killing many, leaving thousands homeless and damaging not less than 14,000 works of fine art masterpieces and countless historic books, manuscripts and antiques housed at various locations in bella Firenze. At Galleria dell’Accademia, the “David” of Michelangelo tilted on its pedestal owing to buckling of the wet floor.

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Just to think of the green and white marble Il Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), Giotto’s belltower (Campanile) and the Baptistery of San Giovanni in the Piazza del Duomo, the Cappelle Medicee e Chiesa di San Lorenzo, the Bargello (Palazzo del Bargello), the piazza and cloisters at Santa Croce, the Piazza della Signoria, the Galleria degli Uffizi, Palazzo Vecchio – all standing waist deep in soiled water with flotsam, oil drums, roofbeams, toys, trees from the diluvio….had brought sadness to our minds whenever we are there.

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A similar catastrophe had struck Venice on the same day as La Serenissima flooded as the level of the lagoon rose about 6ft 5in above its normal level.

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As Florence gradually came out of isolation and, light, food, and water reinstated with the calm and courage of the Tuscan people and other relief workers, a cause for further joy also came about in England ten days later. On Monday, November 14th, Prince Charles, still a school boy, officially came of age on his 18th birthday.

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This enabled him to apply for a driver’s license, or to drink legally in a pub and to draw an income considerably larger than his classmates or teachers. But more importantly, it was the age at which the Prince of Wales, next in line for the British throne, became eligible to assume the throne and rule without a regent. The first joyful cheer to that rang out fifty years ago.

Until next time. Jo

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 (©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Kaleidoscope of Hoof Prints

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(This follows my article The Ballad of JEANETTE and MICHEL  of March 2, 2016)

If there are phrases on my tongue which connote the blessings that can unwittingly come in many disguises to the gentle-natured donkey, it is those plans and purpose which chanced upon as revealed in some events of “The Bible”. With Palm Sunday (March 20, 2016) followed by Easter (March 27, 2016) coming up, bringing in a time when it is not unusual for people to be religious in thoughts, I take a little liberty to reflect on those events.

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Animals like sheep, camel, donkey, have afforded their presence to many episodes of the Bible. Indeed there are momentous occasions when the donkey was part of events that were important junctures in the life of Jesus Christ.

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The ass of Palestine and the Bible has been identified as the Nubian wild ass of Egypt. This common beast of burden, used for agricultural work and also for riding, is not in the East by any means a despised or a despicable animal – but considered part of a moderate household. Whole families rode him, shared food with him, and sometimes allowed him to stay in a section of the room with the family.

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Visitation: It is related that Mary, pregnant with Jesus, used a donkey when she set out on her journey for her ‘Visitation’ to congratulate cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with the child who would one day become known as John the Baptist. According to tradition, that donkey had travelled about seventy miles from Nazareth over hills and through valleys to the little town in the Judaean hills where Elizabeth and her husband, priest Zachary dwelt. Considering that the feast of the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus is held on March 25th, this journey could probably have occurred during the last days of March or early April when the rainy season was just over. Although Joseph is not named in this journey, it is unlikely that Mary would have ventured on a long and arduous journey alone and abode with Elizabeth for about three months before she rode back to her home in Nazareth. Besides, it was customary to have a driver for the donkey, when women rode on them.

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To Bethlehem: The initial scenes of William Wyler’s biblical epic movie “Ben-Hur” (1959) portrays Joseph, a village carpenter, leading a meek donkey by the bridle, on which sat his pregnant wife Mary covered with a long cloak, during their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea to enrol their names in a census which had been ordered by Caesar Augustus. The vague details of that journey of about seventy miles could be visualised as five days of privation, fatigue and discomfort through an uncomfortable path in the winter chill of December. A book on the Virgin Mary names this donkey as “Eleabthona”, but we could only wonder if it was the same animal which had previously been similarly used when Mary went on her “Visitation” to Elizabeth.

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To Jerusalem: Whichever donkey it was, that animal had the opportunity to be closer to the newly born Jesus in the stable outside Bethlehem. Besides, amongst the few other domesticated animals present there, he was the one who would render service as the mode of transport to Joseph’s family when, at the age of forty days, the infant Jesus was taken to Jerusalem for presentation in the Temple and return.

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To Egypt: Sometime thereafter, warned of an imminent danger to the child, the family hastily embarked on a journey in the middle of the night, with Mary and the child riding the donkey, as they rushed out of the territory of King Herod to retire into Egypt. With the winter still persisting, that journey of ten days covering about two hundred miles via the city of Pelusium (modern Tell el-Farama) was not without difficulties and dangers arising from cold, wet and stormy weather, lack of shelter over their heads, less water, attack by robbers and wild beasts, proceeding partially through the shifting sands of the desert as far as the land of Gessen, where they resided (1). Not until had King Herod died in the spring of 4 BC, did they retire to the early home of Joseph and Mary at Nazareth of Galilee.

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Soon after, the donkey of those journeys slips into obscurity even though according to a recorded event of Jesus’ youth, at the age of twelve, Jesus was taken on a long journey to Jerusalem to attend the Passover before returning to Nazareth when the service of a donkey would have been required.

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It is widely held that the dark line down a donkey’s back and across the forequarters in the shape of a Latin cross denotes the heritage of that race from the day one of their forebears carried Jesus on its back during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem which is commemorated as the first Palm Sunday (Dominica in ramis Palmarum), and marks the beginning of what is technically called Passion Week.

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To Jerusalem: According to the Gospels, Jesus, having come to the little village of Bethphage (Beitphage) on the summit of the Mount of Olives sent two disciples into the village to fetch an ass and a colt they would find tied there. Having brought the animals, they cast their garments upon the ass and made Jesus sit thereon. (2) The animal carried Jesus, sitting meek and gentle on its back, as it treaded over the olive palm fronds strewn over the garments laid on the path, amidst the joy and singing of a multitude of accompanying people wielding branches of palm trees as a testimony of honour and respect.

At that time Jerusalem was surrounded with fertile fields and trees, and on the southern slope of Olivet, where they were passing, date-bearing palm trees grew in great abundance. The Palm has been in all times and places the emblem of victory and its reward and it was the custom to carry and wave palm-branches as a sign of joy and victory.

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At length, the donkey carried Jesus down the hill, passed between the walls of Gethsemane and the Garden of Olives, crossed the Cedron valley (Kidron), through the road leading up to St. Stephen’s Gate (Lions’ Gate), and entered the Temple through the Golden Gate with its beautiful pillars. This occasion, commemorated on Palm Sunday with a Procession of Palms was customary in Jerusalem as early as 386 when it was first mentioned, and was adopted in the west by the seventh century as attested to by Isidore of Seville, who died in 636.

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Until the Reformation in the Middle Ages, the event was remembered in a folklorised ritual on Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) in some southern German speaking regions when, in addition to the tradition of the blessing of palms (Palmbüscheln), a procession known as “Palmesel” (Palm Sunday donkey) was held when a statue of Jesus mounted on a wooden effigy of an ass fixed on a wheeled wooden bier was taken round the streets spread with clothes and strewed with palm branches. To mark this joyous occasion, people sang hymns and waved fronds of palm or of some other similar tree, while at some places bouquets of flowers attached to boughs of trees were sometimes carried in the procession calling it the Easter of Flowers.

The ass was not forgotten either. A book on ecclesiastical architecture relates an old tradition that “the ass on which Christ made His entry into Jerusalem left Judea immediately after the Crucifixion, and passing over the sea dry-shod to Rhodes, Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, and Aquileia, finally reached Verona, where it lived to a very old age. After its death its bones were collected and deposited in the belly of the wooden ass of Santa Maria in Organo, which was made as a memorial of it and its exact image.”

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Just as that event at Jerusalem made them an object of peculiar reverence to the early Christians, the cross on its back inspired belief that children suffering from whooping cough will be cured if they are made to sit on the mark and the donkey walked in a circle nine times.

It is interesting to think, with what different sentiments one regards the donkey at different periods. The poor quadruped which tradition says earned its reputation for stupidity in the Garden of Eden when it could not remember its name when God asked it, is actually, as one of my friends wrote, a poorly understood animal.

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Ass, when properly kept, is a handsome animal – much stronger in proportion, and much more hardy than the horse. The positive efforts of institutions such as Kölner Zoo in Germany, The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, England, etc, very much help the welfare of the docile and friendly donkey to save them from becoming snapshots of a bygone era. Let us be glad that they are there and keep alive the age old tradition that to see a donkey will bring one the good luck. Until next time, Ciao, Jo

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Notes:

  1. According to some publications, the particular place where Joseph settled in Egypt is probably Metaryieh, near On/Heliopolis, about two hours distance north-east of Cairo.
  2. A Franciscan church, built on the foundation of an ancient shrine, stands to commemorate the place where Christ mounted the ass, contains a stone traditionally identified as used by Jesus to mount the ass for the journey to Jerusalem.
  3. Thanks to: Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, AG Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany for the picture of Michel and Jeanette; to Ms. Pippa Helock of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon for the picture “Looking Handsome”; and to Stefan Ahrens of Bistum Regensburg, Germany for the four pictures.
  4. Print and visual versions of “Ben-Hur” is available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.

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Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

SURVIVING WITH DIGNITY

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The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.

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Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.

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One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available.  “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.

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A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).

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Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.

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These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).

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The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.

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Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.

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Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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12The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.

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The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.

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The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.

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The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.

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Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).

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Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.

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The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.

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21Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.

Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.

Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!

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Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.

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26As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.

Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.

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Now with the three wise women  in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama.  Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.

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Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.

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31As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.

Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo

Notes:

  • In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
  • The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
  • In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
  • The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.

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(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

On the Path of Il Poverello

How we remember, what we remember, and why we remember form the most personal map of our individuality

– writer Christina Baldwin

Pope-1Today March 13, 2014 marks the First Anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis. Looking back, it brings to mind that Wednesday night of March 13, 2013 when the conclave of 115 cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic church, gathered inside the Sistine Chapel, elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, (born December 17, 1936) the archbishop of Buenos Aires as the 266th pontiff, due to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on February 28, 2013.

Pope-2We were watching the late night news when the TV Station cut into this news and shifted the focus onto the central balcony called “Loggia della Benedizion” above the main entrance on the façade of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, from where Cardinal Protodeacon (for the 2013 conclave) Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran would proclaim the newly elected Pope. Soon the announcement came:

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  • * Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; Habemus Papam: 
  • Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,
  • Dominum Georgium Marium
  • Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio
  • qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum

Pope-4WhoBergoglio? As the world waited, the man in white robe finally made his first appearance before the rain-soaked crowds in the vast Piazza San Pietro, to give his solemn blessing “Urbi et Orbi”. Following the prayer for Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, the new Vicar of Peter from almost “the end of the world“, asked the faithful to pray to the Lord that he be blessed by Him – so that he may proceed with the mission as the Lord would wish. The crowd prayed, cheered and waved flags: Francesco! Francesco! A man clad in midnight-blue coveralls, with a look of happiness etched on his face, shouted: Viva il Papa! Viva il Papa!“. The journey Jorge Mario Bergoglio was destined to take has begun.

Pope-5A year has now passed and during this period the bespectacled Holy Father’s days were a continuous thread of revelation about himself; about his thinking on a variety of issues: religion, politics, global issues, lifestyle, … As his pontificate acquired a definite shape, he reasserted himself as a man who had let the potent power of simplicity work in his life – a man who radiated love and charm and concern for the common man.

Pope-6The Argentinian-born Pope who took the name of San Francesco de Assisi, Il Poverello (the little poor one), is currently on a Lenten spiritual of preaching and prayer at a spiritual retreat in the town of Ariccia, in the Alban Hills about 15 miles outside the Vaticano.

Pope-7At this time, in the run-up to the Supreme Pontiff’s first Easter, I could envisage the long days ahead of him in the journey of fraternity, of love, of trust; and his efforts to promote, safeguard and symbolize the unity of the church. May he receive the benefit of our prayers to remain admirably robust and our wishes that all his days will be lit with the brightness of God whom he represents. Jo

Pope-8 Benedict-(2005)* Note: English text of the announcement: “I announce to you, news of great joy: We have a Pope! The most eminent and most reverend Lord, Lord Jorge Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Bergoglio, Who takes for himself the name of Francis.”

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  • Photo credits (from top):
  • 1.. The marble bas-relief “Delivery of the Keys” (Consegna delle chiavi) by Ambrogio Bonvicino (1552-1622) put up in 1614 just below the central balcony called “Loggia della Benedizion” (Loggia of the Benedictions) (May 19, 2010 – Photo by Andrea Lalis Sebastine)
  • 2.. Pope Benedict XVI at Piazza San Pietro. (October 22, 2008, Manningtree Archive)
  • 3.. Basilica di San Pietro, Vaticano (October 22, 2008 – Photo by Bianca Celine Diane)
  • 4.. Pope Francis
  • 5.. March 13, 2013: Pope Francis just after his election at the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica (author: Tenan – Source: http://en.wikipedia.org)
  • 6.. San Francesco d’Assisi – painting by Cimabue (part of Frescoes in the Church of San Francesco, Assisi) – (Source: commons.wikimedia.org)
  • 7.. Pope Francis (Source: en.wikinews.org)
  • 8.. Pope Benedict XVI at his window on the third floor of the papal apartments facing Piazza San Pietro. (March, 2005, Manningtree Archive)
  • 9.. Pope Benedict XVI during his weekly general audience in Piazza San Pietro (October 22, 2008 – Photo by Bianca Celine Diane)
  • 10.. Architectural elements on the façade belltowers of Basilica di San Pietro. The Saints on both sides of one of the clocks (designed by Giuseppe Valadier) are S. Thaddeus and S. Matthew (April, 2012, Manningtree Archive)

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(© Manningtree Archive)

MICHELANGELO – IL DIVINO

Painting is good to the extent that it resembles sculpture; sculpture is bad to the extent that it resembles painting” – Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) *

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Pietà (1498–1499) at Basilica di San Pietro, Vaticano

A son was born to Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena and local Podestà, Lodovico di Leonardo Buonarotto Simoni,  on THIS DAY (March 6th) in 1475 (1474 – according to Giorgio Vasari) in the small village of Caprese (today known as Caprese Michelangelo) in the province of Arezzo in Tuscany, Italy.

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Left: Rebellious Slave – Right: Dying Slave (1513–1516) at the Louvre, Paris

Second of five brothers, he will be commonly known as Michelangelo and would go on to create wonders in sculpting, architecture, poetry, and engineering. Besides being an architect in the creation of Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, this Italian High Renaissance artist who painted the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel which includes “The Last Judgement” and created his most famous sculptures, “Pietà” and “David” amongst others; would capture the hearts and imagination of millions all over the world.

McMichelangelo’s original “David” displayed at Galleria dell’Accademia in Firenze

The endless hours spent reading a plethora of sound biographical material on Michelangelo; the hours spent studying his arts displayed at the Louvre in Paris and at various places in Firenze and Roma; the visual documentaries and movies like “The Agony and The Ecstasy” that had flashed past before my eyes – all of these conjure up an image of an extraordinary genius with infinite talent. One this day, we salute this Il Divino (“the divine one“) of Firenze who once walked upon this Earth.  Jo

MdBasilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross), Firenze where Michelangelo’s tomb (designed by Vasari) is located right opposite to the tomb of Galileo Galilei  (designed by Giulio Foggini). The cenotaph of Niccolò Machiavelli is on the same aisle in close vicinity.

PS: Quoted on Page 337 of “In the Arena” The Autobiography of Charlton Heston.

(Photos: © Joseph SébastineManningtree Archive)

Viva Italia – 5: Le Celle – The Light above Tuscany

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(At Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok – January 2013)

The jingles, bells and whistles have faded – the calm has set in around me. Arriving back in Cochin was like a locomotive train pulling into the last station after a long journey, letting out the steam and settling down.

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(Cochin, Kerala)

But my mind is always travelling. After all these years of visits to Bangkok, that mysterious appeal of Bangkok still pulls me to it. There are many special people in there that I care about – not too many places in there I can go without someone saying, “Hi, It’s good to see you back, Jo” or similar. Missing someone is just a part of moving on…. after all, Goodbyes are not forever.

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(At Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok)

Back home, the wind has scattered one month’s deciduous leaves on the ground. But this is not unfamiliar to me. Then again, there is the blissful tranquility and peace of our home – the old, familiar pillow to rest the head on. When we are able to find tranquility within ourselves, only then it is worthy to seek it elsewhere too. I had often found it in the twinkle of a smile, in the presence of my loved ones, in the solitude of a church, up the hill at Le Celle in Tuscany.

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(View of Tuscany – taken in Assisi)

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Today I wish to write about Le Celle, a Santuario of San Francesco di Assisi situated above Cortona. It is one of the most distinctive hermitages of medieval Franciscanism – a place that draws you close to God, whoever and whatever you believe that to be.

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(View of Tuscany – taken in Assisi)

Tuscany is a place where, more than anywhere else, I breathe easily. It was in Firenze at Il Porcospino, a Trattoria owned by our good friends Valerio Lo Cascio and his lovely wife Elvida where Valerio suggested that we visit Eremo Le Celle.

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(Valerio and Elvida)

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That lovely autumn day appeared perfect for visiting this pious hermitage for which our friendly abbots of Basilica de San Antonio in Padova had so much praise. Carina and Bianca were enthralled when they heard of this place.

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We have had a good number of wonderful meals and hearty times at Il Porcospino. There prevailed a homely ambiance exemplified by an efficient staff serving Tuscan cuisine. I had read somewhere that the most exquisite food was served for the Medicis in Firenze, especially during the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492). Situated right opposite the entrance of Cappella Medici, Il Porcospino seems to have gained certain competence in their quest for the cuisine Lorenzo il Magnifico savoured.

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As we got into Valerio’s four-wheel drive, their black Labrador, Asia, jumped in and took his place in the luggage area where he was safely tucked in. Well, San Francesco loved birds and animals – Asia would be welcome there.

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A momentous event occurred some eight hundred years ago which was to affect the course of history for many people to this very day. This was the moment when a young man named Giovanni “Francesco” di Bernardone (1181-1226), born into wealth, realized that he was personally called to his vocation – to follow the way of the apostles in poverty and simplicity. This little pauper known as Saint Francis of Assisi who cultivated austerity, but had retained his love for singing, is not a stranger to any of us.

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San Francesco is the embodiment of the spirit of Christian romance. We know of his belief that love alone, not suffering, can bring us in unity with God. We know that he had this great intuition to not keep for himself the inspiration that came to him but to pass it on to a community…..

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Even though Asia had remained quiet throughout the ride, at times, resting his doggy-long snout on Bianca’s shoulder, or looking out through the windshield, once we started climbing the five km road through endless sloping ranks of vines and olives up to Cortona, he showed signs of impatience to get out of the vehicle.

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Past Cortona, on the well paved path of the villages that wind among settlements on the hillsides where there is no traffic at all, Valerio allowed him to run before our car, something Asia apparently enjoyed, which is absolutely impossible in the streets of Firenze.

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The Etruscan city of Cortona with its medieval and Catholic influences, offers an interesting archaeological element to the visitor. Dominating the entire Valdichiana, this walled city with streets and buildings dating from ancient times offers wonderful view as far as Lago Trasimeno. In “Aeneid III and IV”, Virgil called it “…mother of Troy and grandmother of Rome” while in 1993, Pope John Paul II regarded it as“… a marvelous city where everything speaks of God – the nature, the mountains, the woods…”

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You have to pass by Cortona in order to reach Le Celle and Chiesa di Santa Margherita located above it. Situated around 80 km from Firenze, at about 600 meters above sea level on the border between Tuscany and Umbria, it is the birth place of many artists, namely Pietro da Cortona (Pietro Berrettini, 1596/7–1669) who designed the silver urn in the 17th century to contain the body of the great Franciscan Saint Margherita (1247-1297) which is on a windowed casket on the high altar of Chiesa di Santa Margherita. Likewise, artist Luca Signorelli (1445/50–1523) whose important works can be found in the Museo Diocesano, was also born here.

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Cortona is home to a good collection of Etruscan and Roman bronzes, Athenian and Etruscan pottery, and ancient coins which can be viewed at Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca in the Palazzo Casali. The Bistecca Festival (Sagra della Bistecca) is held here in mid August which is in homage to the delicious char-grilled Bistecca alla Fiorentina made from Chianina cattle. The city is featured in the book and movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” (2003) starring Diane Lane.

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One of the first places of the friars, Le Celle is located just five km from Cortona, backing on to Mount Sant’Egidio. I was told that, more than 30,000 visitors leave behind their routine of daily life and hike or ride up to this hermitage each year. This is hardly surprising since the moment you step into its premises; you could feel the air of mysticism that engulfs it.

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I have visited a few sacred places allied to early Franciscanism. Though no two monasteries are alike, Le Celle, ranks amongst one of the most prominent of them where you can experience the beauty and tranquility of the uncorrupted nature.

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In the absolute silence that cloak this area, you could feel the mildness and wholesomeness of the air, you could hear the rustling of the wind, the natural sound of the running water of the stream, the chirps and calls of birds in vocal communication, see the green meadows and flowering pastures, well-watered gardens, useful growth of various trees…… Indeed, the sense of peace Le Celle exudes is almost tangible.

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Le Celle’s architecture has a predominantly medieval character to it, similar to Cortona and the habitations in the surrounding areas. Devoid of much artistic value, it has a very humble appearance.

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Constructed in an irregular manner during a period spanning 1200 to 1600 without a pre-established design, it epitomizes the poverty and simplicity of the early Franciscan architecture which gives it a charming appearance amidst the natural beauty of the surrounding leafy mountainous area – thickly populated by trees and bushes including age-old oaks, spruce, acacia, beech, sweet chestnut, cypress, parasol-pine or rows of maples and olive groves with River Vingone streaming on one side.

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The sanctuary became known as Le Celle after Francesco and his companions chose it as a temporary place of domicile in 1211, a few years after his conversion. To Francesco, it was a period of two halves, one was down-to-earth, the second inspired and imaginative. As per his custom, Francesco used to spent long periods in solitary and secluded places in silence and prayer because he felt it offered him better atmosphere to be with God and converse with Him.

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While he was preaching in Cortona, inspired by the brotherly love and peace spread by Francesco, a young noble named Guido Vagnottelli offered him great hospitality in his house. Impressed by the devotion and humbleness of Guido, Francesco was only happy to receive him into his Order – no resume, internship experience, and credentials such as extra certification in specialized skills. Having given away all his wealth to the poor, Guido soon embarked on a rigid discipline of Franciscan ideals at Le Celle.

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Years later, San Francesco’s charisma would also conquer the heart of young Margherita who was born in Laviano near the Castiglione del Lago in Umbria but spent the second part of her life in Cortona. She was fascinated by the Saint’s life which reminded her that you cannot convince other people of what you say unless your own life is in accordance with it.

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Similar to “Blessed Guido”, Francesco’s words also penetrated the hearts of many citizens of Cortona, springing spiritual enthusiasm in them. On many occasions they had listened to the priests without actually hearing anything. When they listened to Francesco, they actually heard.

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(Statue of San Francesco at San Damiano, Assisi)

Seeking his future presence amidst them, the inhabitants of Cortona generously offered him the desolate site of a small chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael which existed at the foot of Mount Sant’Egidio since the Lombard invasions. We can see a similar pattern here when Count Orlando Cattani of Chiusi donated the Mount of La Verna to Francesco in 1213, which became Tuscany’s holiest pilgrimage center.

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The small chapel situated by the clear stream, the waterfall (together with the stream, it becomes active during winter), caves, ravines and trees, was at that time surrounded by few small cottages of hermits and peasant dwellings.

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Here heaven seemed to reach down to earth. Francesco found it to be a suitable place where he could direct his mind completely to God – away from the world, peaceful, with the essential solitude and water. The area was engrossed in nature, beautiful and untainted, which was joyful to Francesco for he loved beauty in everything, in life. What he saw then at Le Celle is rather what the visitor sees today.

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Having chosen a cave, he built his little shelter there with stones. This is the little cell, Le Celle in which he briefly lived. We can see a boulder here which is the remainder of that early cave of San Francesco.

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We enter Le Celle after we cross the middle bridge known as Ponte Barberini, so named for having been built by the Capuchin novice Antonio Barberini (1607-1671), the cardinal-nephew of Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini – 1568-1644).Ponte del Granduca which is a bit downstream is named after Gian Gastone de’ Medici (Giovanni Battista Gastone, 1671-1737), son of Cosimo III de’ Medici and the last Medicean Grand Duke of Tuscany, who constructed it in 1728.

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The first impression as we step into Le Celle is of peace, silence, plainness and good sense. Inside the cell where San Francesco stayed and prayed, there exists his wooden plank which was his cot, in its original place.

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Above the door of the cell is an ancient manuscript: “Take off your shoes because the place in which you stand is holy ground.” Surrounding Francesco’s cell, other poor little huts were constructed at that time, out of natural caves or with branches of trees to accommodate his companions who underlined the similarity of their souls, to lead a life of meditation and spiritual friendship.

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Some documents cite that San Francesco visited the sanctuary in April, 1215 for Easter after having spent the period of Lent in Isola Maggiore, the second largest island on Lake Trasimeno in Umbria. In Chapter VII (105) of “Vita prima S. Francisci”, his first biographer Tommaso da Celano set down that, during April 1226 while in Siena for treatment of the infirmity of eyes, Francesco fell gravely ill and upon recovery, he had gone to Le Celle with Brother Elias where he fell ill again. He was escorted to the Church of St. Mary of Porziuncola (later Basilica Papale di Santa Maria degli Angeli Porziuncola) where he will die peacefully at the age of forty-four on October 3, 1226. It was at Porziuncula where he founded the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor back in 1209.

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(La Porziuncola)

During that final stay at Le Celle, his body bearing the marks of stigmata which he received in September 1224 on the mountain of La Verna (Monte Penna), Francesco had documented the ideals he had believed in and his last wishes. Probably, Le Celle holds the honour of being the place where he dictated his Testament.

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(Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi)

After completing the construction of the Lower church forming part of Basilica di San Francesco on a hill at the west side of Assisi in 1230 (Foundation stone was laid on July 17, 1228 and construction started as per design and supervision of Brother Elias, by then the second Minister General of the Order of the Friars Minor), in order to promote the growth of the Order and to conserve the precious places where Francesco and his first followers had stayed, in 1231, six year’s after the death of San Francesco, Elias undertook a number of restoration and expansion works at Le Celle strictly according to the virtue of poverty loved by San Francesco.

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On the upper floor, he arranged eight cells measuring two meters by two that opened onto a long corridor that cut across its center. A door marked no: 4 with Elias’ picture above it, is traditionally believed as his cell (one of Elias’ two residences, the other being in Assisi).  It is believed that Sant’Antonio di Padova, who was educated and specially fitted to preach, was also a visitor to Le Celle during this time.

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Caught in the differences between Pope Gregory IX and excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), Elias was forced to retire to Cortona in 1239 where he built a church and monastery dedicated to San Francesco.

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With the departure of Elias, Le Celle gradually lost its significance though some hermits lived there, including a community of Fraticelli (Little Brethren or Spirituali). This group of Friars Minor observed extreme proponents of the rule of San Francesco, mainly regarding poverty, his original lifestyle. Fraticelli developed into a separate entity after they were declared heretical in 1296 by the Church under Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303).

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It was during the period of Fraticelli that the present church was constructed at Le Celle, but after their departure in 1318, the convent was left abandoned though no one proposed that it should be abolished.

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By 1537, the hermits from the newly founded Order of Capuchin Friars Minor, offshoots of Franciscans, took their turn to occupy Le Celle after it was granted to them by the Bishop of Cortona, turning it into the seat of their novitiate.

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They led a life of extreme austerity, poverty and simplicity – as closer to the ideals of San Francesco as was practicable, working among the poor and teaching the Christian life by living it.

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Retaining the original architectural style, they enlarged the convent, constructing the highest part on the existing structure which now houses some twenty cells in the size of two meters by two on the upper level, corresponding to the number of novices who enter the Order each year to engage in prayer and work.

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The present chapel which the visitor will find adjacent to San Francesco’s cell was the Dormitory of the first community which was transformed into an Oratory dedicated to the Stigmata of San Francesco in 1614.

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It has a small altar, devoid of art objects, but only an essential picture of Madonna and Child, hanging above it. Similar paintings, including one by Italian painter Simone Pignoni (1611-1698), can be seen elsewhere in the sanctuary.

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The building also houses a Bibliotheca to cater to the religious and cultural needs of the brothers. Of the good number of old theological books, you could see leather bounded volumes of “Compendium Theologiae Moralis” by Fr Gabriele De Varceno. Apart from vegetable gardens, the front and sides of the buildings are adorned with beautiful lawns and hedges, well maintained.

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This atmospheric and evocative place has changed little since the Middle Ages. The humble friars of Le Celle are not bounded by its walls, but live their lives in the public eye, inspiring others to follow their example.

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The laity could observe the lives of the friars as they went on in a continuous succession of prayer and work. Rituals like daily procession after reciting Matins, etc are observed in their monastic life.

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A placard here displays the timing of their daily routine in which private prayer, public reading, communal worship and manual work are balanced.

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Over the centuries the sanctuary grew famous among the believers as a godly inheritance of the past. The serene ambiance, the simplicity of the buildings, the way of pious life, the contents of the library, the regular activities of preaching and catechesis, the grooming of the novices, the signature look of the friars – all reflects austerity and the original poverty and compassion towards every suffering person – aspects that reach out and touch the discerning visitor.

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Eremo Le Celle heartily welcome homeless people who seek their solace or anyone who want to know and assimilate the very essence of Francesco’s unique vision and wish to involve in the life of their community.

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(Valerio with Asia)

They provide facilities for spiritual retreat to priests as well as to independent groups of visitors in the little houses beside the convent for limited period of time. A friar, who generously allowed us to take photographs on the site, told me that some couples even chose the hermitage to bless their wedding. The charm of San Francesco remains irresistible.

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There were fewer visitors today. But unlike the lot I have observed in some places of worship in Italy where they simply chatter and click photographs; loiter around in flip-flops, wearing revealing tops and trousers that reach just below the knees, that impious phenomenon was missing here.

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This is not a place for sightseeing and the air of serenity draws your attention to the notice that enjoin strict silence – for almost everywhere you walk, San Francesco’s spirit reappears.

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As I walked out into the side courtyard, I could see Asia happily moving around on the paved ground in the company of Bianca. He was staring at the swallows darting by the old oak tree. Upon seeing me, he came running towards me. How happy he appeared in this special place…

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At this point, I could hear bells calling the friars to pray. It is time for us to leave – for now. I believe I will come back here another time and I know I would be welcomed to this magical experience. When you start believing, you will discover that all things are really possible. San Francesco was a house without windows or doors. We all could come and go – in peace. Ciao, Jo

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PS: Asia left for dog heaven in November 2012.

Paintings Courtesy:  Wikipedia Public Domain:

1) “Êxtase de São Francisco de Assis “ (1642) by Jusepe (José) de Ribera (1591-1652);

2) “San Francesco di Assisi “ (1597-99) by Lodovico (Il Cigoli) Cardi (1559-1613);

3) “Estasi di Santa Margherita” by Jacopo Alessandro Calvi (Il Sordino – 1740-1815)

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(Photos: © Joseph Sebastine-Carina Simeon-Bianca Celine Diane-Andrea Lalis Sebastine/Manningtree Archive.)