Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Journey, Well Ended

When I was in high school, I had the very good fortune of attending a small, private school for girls.  Nestled on a gracious campus in the heart of the City of White Plains,  The Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel provided me with not only a very fine education but an introduction into the world of tradition and gentility that could only have come from the Sisters of the Divine Compassion.  The sisters lived on the campus in a convent that held many of the rich traditions and was always a source of wonder to we students because in those days, they were semi-cloistered and the convent, the beautiful chapel (in which I was eventually married), and the "ladies" of GCA, were their whole world.  They were beautiful examples of piety and they were very different, as a group, from any other set of vestal virgins known to me at that time.  My impression of nuns was tainted due to my earlier scary and negative experiences, so when it was time for high school, my parents were shocked and waited with baited breath every moment for my demand to change schools....but it never came.  My four years at GCA flew by all too quickly, bringing with them a deep love of the sisters, the school and its traditions and rituals, so many of which I recall to this day.  It also brought my very best friend into my life so I was blessed and fulfilled as a result of my decision.

Throughout the years at GCA, we honored the patron of our school, the Madonna, in our case known as Our Lady of Good Counsel.  Her beautiful picture was everywhere, not simply in our chapel.  We sang to her every First Friday as we attended mass, little lace chapel caps on top of our 60's styled hair.  Following Mass, we returned to class and had milk and freshly delivered crumb buns, breaking the requisite fast for we had all received Communion during Mass.  I enjoyed this ritual and still can remember those fresh buns as if it were yesterday, over fifty years ago.

Years later, my daughter, Sara, chose GCA and entered into the world that, while it still had its traditions and rituals, had changed so much from "my day".  Some things did not change.  The nuns, no longer in their mysterious garb, were now in simple habits or street clothes.  There was a new gym and some other modern additions to the high school and campus.  Rules were relaxed and uniform skirts were rolled up to reveal teen aged knees without fear of "detention".  Friendships were formed and still exist, just as in my case.  On her graduation day, it was I who handed her diploma and hugged her so tightly for so long that she had to remind me that she was to return to her seat and could not remain in my proud embrace for the rest of the program.

The year before I started high school, the campus chapel, shared by the sisters, the high school, grammar school and Good Counsel College, had undergone a complete renovation.  It still stands today, exactly as it did the first time I entered.  No further renovations were necessary.  The chapel is beautiful and the highlight is the lovely altar and the painting of Our Lady of Good Counsel.  It's an iconic painting, flat and softly colored, taken from its original fresco. It shows a mother, cheek to cheek with her baby, his arm stretched to the top of her head and his other hand, softly holding on to the top of her garment.  Its an intimate picture of a mother and child, the child perhaps about to nurse.  It is the picture that gave meaning to all of the things we were taught and the sisters were proud of it and all it stood for.

Perhaps because I am of Italian heritage, I remembered all these years later that the sisters told us many times that the original painting, the one attached to a great miracle, was located in Italy.  Oh, how they wished they could see it for themselves, but they did not travel at that time, rarely off the campus and then only for doctor or dentist visits.  So, they dreamed, and once in a while, they heard from alumni who had taken the time while on holidays, to visit the town of Genazzano, Italy, to see for themselves.

I've returned from my five week journey, accomplished all that I set out to.  During my stay in Assisi, I was living a semi-cloistered life in that I rarely stepped out of my personal time zone.  Instead, I used my time alone to reflect, to look for teachers, to listen and to live, if only for a short time, in a culture foreign to me but not to my spirit.  I know that my own mother, now in Heaven with her own mother, planned my journey and guided me along the way.  Many times, I had the feeling that I was channeling both Mom and Grandma, that they were showing me parts of a life lived long, long ago and that I was fulfilling a dream that my own mother had, to spend time in the homeland of her own parents.  She never did get the opportunity so she allowed me to.  I felt her presence every moment of every day and was comforted and confident.  My spiritual work was completed and it was time to move on with the arrival of my husband Joe.

Before we left Umbria, I had one more inspiration.  We had some time, we had a car and we had an internet connection which allowed me to locate the story of Our Lady of Good Counsel and her miraculous arrival at a little church in a town, little known to tourists, called Genazzano.  The love of a great man made the excursion happen and off we went...

Located about an hour south of Rome, Genazzano Italy has its origins back to the times of Roman emperors.  You can find out so much more about its history here:  The purpose of my story is not to fill in the blanks but the history is interesting and Genazzano, a beautiful little walled town that allows one to step back in time and understand better what an Italian town and it's inhabitants truly consist of.  No Disney Wold Italy here.

Because it is a walled town, Genazzano, as most of the others, allows only residents to drive in beyond the tall walls that lead, naturally, up a steep hill.  The church I was seeking, Santa Maria Maggiore would be, I assumed, in a piazza at the very top, typical of all walled Italian towns.  We could not drive in.  Nor could we, savvy travelers that we are, leave our car with luggage exposed.  We found a parking lot at the base of the town and Joe waited as I made one more excursion on my own, into the world that was being revealed to me by my most beloved dearly departed's.....despite the promise that I had made when leaving Assisi of "no more major climbs up stairs".  Up, up, up, I went.  My legs allowed me to keep going.  My desire to get to the top, climbing countless cobblestone steps, past doorways to private homes which were perched on small landings.  The path upwards twisted and turned. One more flight, no, another....don't give up, you can do it!!! And finally, as I rounded the last corner and climbed the remaining steps, I saw was a the light of the sun in a piazza and there were people there, enjoying a little Christmas fair, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of Italy's biggest religious holidays.  A few inquiries, a simple set of directions, and I was off to the next piazza and there before me stood the object of my pilgrimage.....Santa Maria Maggiore, her doors open, a baptism just ending, the chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel, open for the family of the newly baptized baby.  Was it luck?  I took full advantage of whatever it was and there, before my eyes, in a glorious setting, surrounded by flowers and total beauty, was the glass enclosed Our Lady of Good Counsel.
The original. The very one that was delivered to the church, according to the legend, miraculously, and to this day, the eggshell thick fresco rests on a very small ledge, unattached to the wall, floating on air.

I won't go on about the miracles prayed for, the prayers answered, the adorations and the truth versus the legends, but I will tell you that for me, this was a moment to remember.  Fifty years later and still going strong in my mind.  Our Lady of Good Counsel.  How fitting for me to be here now, asking for all the help I need to give my own good counsel to my father, mother in law, my children, my grandchildren.  Good counsel.  Good words of wisdom in a world that is becoming more and more confusing.  Here was I, enjoying one last gift from my own mother, remembering the words to the hymn.....

Oh, Virgin Mother, Lady of Good Counsel, sweetest picture artist ever drew.  In all my doubts I fly to thee for guidance, Mother tell me, what am I to do?

To the people of Genazzano who allowed me to enter their home town for a few moments, to the family of the baptized baby who I am sure wondered who the strangera with the camera was, to the nun who opened the chapel for the baptism and to the husband who patiently waited in the car for my return and who made the visit possible, thank you for helping me to close circles, to accomplish what I set out to and to give me yet one more story.  My mother told me what to do......

1 comment:

  1. This is such an emotional and beautifully written post. Thank you for taking me there with you, Lynn. Another crossing of our paths: I attended Pace Law School on the ground of Good Counsel. I never went in the Chapel, always too busy, too frantic, too stressed. I should have done so and I probably would have enjoyed my law school years so much more.