Tag Archives | church

Italian Ladies in the Rain


These ladies had just left Saturday morning mass, in Naples.  The church where they worship, Pio Monte della Misericordia, dates to about 1678. We were asked to leave the church while Mass was said–for about ten people.

Why were we in this little church on a rainy Saturday morning?  Because it houses this painting:

File:Michelangelo Caravaggio 029.jpg

Seven Works of Mercy, Caravaggio

Yep. Just saying prayers in front of a masterpiece and then going on with their day, these ladies in their sensible shoes and their cardigans. I loved them and wanted to follow them home.

Continue Reading · on October 30, 2013 in religion, Travel

in which I try to avoid cliches about Italy

Memory works in peculiar ways, doesn’t it? I mean, I know that when we were traveling in Italy a few weeks ago, I was tempted to leave my bickering children at the top of Vesuvius as an offering for the gods but now, weeks later, what remains in my mind is a blur of ancient beauty, tiny streets, motor scooters, and meals comprised exclusively of variations on cheese, tomatoes, and bread (which is, I think, what gets eaten in heaven, if there is such a place).

But in trying to write about this trip, as was the case when we went to India, I find myself frustrated.  If I talk about laundry hanging off balconies, sheets flapping against the bricks, it’s as if I’m describing the opening shot of an old Sophia Loren movie.


If I tell you about the Mediterranean light splashing across peeling pastel buildings, I’m channeling every bad romance-in-Italy movie ever made.


Should I tell you instead about walking out of our lovely little hotel in the Piazza Decumani in Naples, on a Sunday morning with bells ringing across the city to call the faithful to Mass?  And that further down the narrow cobblestone street (awash in garbage, it being Naples), we heard glorious opera pouring from an open window, a secular celebration of the morning? By the late afternoon, however, the morning music had been replaced with the scents of cooking garlic and onions, so fragrant that we were stumbling with hunger.


Maybe instead I should describe a narrow street in Rome, where cars bump alongside pedestrians shopping for vegetables and people sit at cafe tables sipping wine, a barely functional chaos?


See what I mean? Italy has been a subject for millenia, long enough to make me glad I’m not Italian: I’d be paralyzed by all that history, all that beauty, all that language.  (Frank Bruni offers a somewhat bleaker view of history’s weight in a recent op-ed piece, here).

Instead I’ll go with these pictures taken inside a church, San Giovanni Decollato, in Rome. It’s a private church and gaining access can be complicated, unless you know someone with a key, and keys are only given to those in the brotherhood or descendants of those who were in the brotherhood of the church. It’s straight out of Dan Brown, isn’t it? And unbelievably, our friend G., whose family belonged to the order, and his wonderful wife, unlocked the church with a satisfyingly big key, and let us walk around inside.  There was a lot of decollato; I couldn’t decide if going to a church with decorations like these would hold my interest during dull sermons or terrify me into leaving the church completely.  Probably the latter, given my heathenish proclivities.

IMG_1059above the altar (Caleb was very fond of the bleeding neck detail)

IMG_1062head on a plate (detail from ceiling fresco)

IMG_1058skulls were everywhere in the church: memento mori

The church was beautiful, a tiny gem tucked into a corner of Rome we never would have found on our own.

I don’t know. I’m beginning to think that Rick and Ilsa may have had it wrong: maybe everything would’ve been different for them if instead of having Paris, they’d had Rome.



Continue Reading · on October 29, 2013 in expat, family, Kids, Travel, writing

in which the godless heathens go to a wedding


image source

Old Longtime friends of my husband’s got remarried this past weekend. For those of you in blogland, yes, I know, can you imagine? They got married on Blogher weekend, thus forcing me to choose between…well, between blogging and my family.

My family won although frankly, it was a tough call. Not only would I miss actual face-to-face conversations with people I generally talk to only on the interwebs, I would also miss the amazing writers who were chosen as Voices of the Year.

But you know, marriage is all about compromise, or so they say, so I bid farewell to my Blogher dreams and off we went to Cape Cod for this wedding. Which was great and lovely and optimistic, as all weddings are and maybe even more so for being the second time around for both bride and groom. After all, in round two, you know what’s coming: stinky socks and weird sleep habits and fortheloveofgodputdownthetoiletseat. In other words, you know that “happily ever after” is more of a wish than a certainty.

My kids have never been to a wedding that they’re old enough to remember, so they had no idea what to expect from this one. Their most recent context for “marriage,” in fact, has to do more with the Supreme Court’s decision about DOMA than about two people plighting troth.  This wedding reminded me, once again, that while I grew up in a nominally Episcopalian household, my children are growing up without any religion, other than the rituals they witness because they live in a Muslim country.  Their lack of religious education meant that instead of spending the ceremony looking at what people were wearing and running my own little Tom and Lorenzo dialogue in my head, I was trying to field questions that should really only be tackled by a licensed theologian.

What’s a Eucharist? What’s a celebrant? What’s a communion?  Are the bride and groom Christian? Are we Christian? What’s an Episcopalian, anyway? Do I have to get married as an Episcopalian? What if I don’t want to get married? What are these books for? What’s a hymnal? Do people know all these prayers, like memorize them? Did you and Daddy get married like this, with a minister? Do you know these prayers?

I got through Eucharist and celebrant, but communion meant trying to explain the whole body-blood-bread-wine thing, and that’s where we went a bit off the rails: how to explain that something can be a literal truth to some, a symbolic truth to others, but not relevant at all in other religions. Caleb was adamant: I am not eating that! Not someone’s body, no way.  Needless to say, we stayed seated during the communion bit of the ceremony

As for the rest of it, what surprised me is that some of the basic prayers stuck with me–the Lord’s Prayer, the call-and-response recitations–although I haven’t said any of those words in decades.  I remembered that when I was a little girl, I had a nightgown with the “now I lay me down to sleep…” prayer embroidered around the collar. Because really, what could be more comforting to a small child about to go to sleep than the phrase “if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take?”

It’s as if along with that prayer, the others also stitched themselves into my subconscious, all because my mom thought she “should” take us all to church when we were young, even though she was not herself a particularly religious woman. I don’t know that my life has been significantly improved by my years in Sunday School or my stellar performance as a horse in the Noah’s Ark pageant, but I suppose it’s been useful to have what amounts at least to a cultural understanding of religion, if not an actual, you know, faith.

I know that cultural awareness and understanding have to be learned; they’re not innate. So my mom chose to teach us about, or at least expose us to, Christianity, while Husband and I are making a very different choice with our kids. Sitting there in the pew, as our friends pledged their troth (again) and my kids flipped through The Book of Common Prayer, I realized that my kids probably won’t ever have Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Zoroastrian) prayers swimming in their subconscious; there is an entire body of ritual that they aren’t learning.

Most of the time I think that’s fine…although I think it’s too bad neither boy will get the opportunity to play an animal in the Noah’s Ark pageant. They’d make great ocelots, or maybe meerkats. Noah saved the meerkats, didn’t he?


Continue Reading · on August 1, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, family, Kids, marriage, Parenting, religion

in which I am revealed as a godless heathen

Caleb and I are in the back of a cab headed to a soccer tournament, early Saturday morning.

“Mommy? Have I ever been in a church?” he asks, apropos of precisely nothing.

I think to myself that surely he must have been in a church, at some point in his eight years on the planet.  I stall: why?

“Well,” he says. “We were looking at an exhibit of chairs and we saw one of those church chairs for Christians–wow, that’s a lot of “ch” sounds–and anyway, I looked at that church chair and told Mrs. Allen that I’d never been to church.”

With the flair of a natural-born storyteller, Caleb paused and looked at me. “And then,” he continued, drawing it out, “the entire class looked at me with wide eyes and said what? you’ve never been to a church?

I am triumphant: Notre Dame! We went to Notre Dame when we were in Paris!

Caleb shakes his head, disappointed. “That’s not what I mean. We were just looking at things, so it wasn’t really church.”

Kid’s got a point. We were tourists, not worshippers, but his question has sent me into a parental tizzy of “shoulds:” I should be taking the kids to church, I should be reading to them from the various holy books, I should be better about explaining the principles of world religions…

“Actually, mommy, do we know other people who don’t pray?”

Add that to the “should” list: praying, instructions thereof.

I point out that none of his aunts, uncles, or grandparents pray, although one aunt has lately become a Buddhist, so she meditates. He snorted. “Meditating is not praying.”

For a heathen, he’s pretty clear about his spiritual definitions.  “But besides, that’s all family. I mean regular people we know who don’t pray.”

True, our family is not exactly what you’d call “regular,” but luckily most of our friends are unchurched, so I rattle off some names.

I grew up going to an Episcopal Church, which I liked mostly because of the word itself, which I stretched across my tongue: e-pissssss-co-PAY-leeeeee-an. I found out many years later that we went to church because of my mother’s own “should” list: she taught Sunday School because she “thought she should,” even though she didn’t like doing it and wasn’t much convinced about the existence of god.

Now I live with my children in a country where religion is an inescapable presence, from the mosques on every corner, to the adhan that sounds across the city five times a day, to the sprawling grounds of St. Andrews Church, which is used by all manner of non-Muslim congregations. The sheer physical fact of religious practice here makes our family’s absence of religion much more noticeable than if we still lived in New York. I like to think we’re raising our children in basic humanity 101: treat others as you would be treated, be grateful and generous with what you have, look for ways to make the world a better place.

But I wondered there, in the back of that cab, if somehow my son was feeling some profound spiritual absence, some gap in his life that only rituals could fulfill.

I took the plunge and asked the question: would you like to start going to church and learning prayers?

He looked at me, shocked. “No,” he said in those slow tones that children only use when their parents are being particularly idiotic. “I mean, maybe. But only to look around. I don’t want to do any of that church stuff.”

He’s a chip off the old heathen block, that boy.



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Continue Reading · on March 11, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, family, Kids, religion, UAE

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