November 4, 2010

The Monks' Apples

On November 1st, public life stops in Italy. This is All Saints' Day, a celebration of the harvest, an honoring those who have passed, and a connection to the spirit that weaves the seen and unseen worlds together. Businesses, public offices, and schools are all closed. Time is spent at a slower pace, often at religious ceremonies and in cemeteries. Gravestones are adorned with purple, red and yellow chrysantemums or dried flower arrangements, tall red luminaries, and the love of family members who visit them as they would a living relative.
In the tradition honored by the local people of the Dolomites, Catholic beliefs twine with the agrarian tradition that came before them. When we visit our local church, we see the altar adorned in purple satin and covered with baskets of apples, grapes, nuts, cabbages and corn, rye, and buckwheat in thanksgiving for this time of year. A hand-cranked wooden grain thresher, a desk and writing implements, a scythe and felted hat, a pair of dancing shoes and rows of large pillar candles also decorate the space. Altar boys and girls with thick-rimmed glasses or unkempt curls swing censers burning spruce resin incense, which breathes forest blessings for work accomplished by all those who help this community thrive. Then, they light each candle as they name those who have died this year. I recognize surnames of families who have baked bread, made sausages and wine, fixed shoes, built chapels, carved Christmas angels and raised goats and chickens in this area for generations.
The choir intones Gregorian chants as they guided all who were present towards the cemetery atop one of the town's sloping hillsides. Sacred space for the living thrives in the village heart but, for those who have passed, the mountain view is more important: it opens a doorway into the next world. Rodella is a craggy peak covered mostly in conifers and occasional post-glacial fields where people centirues ago managed to erect a chapel with a pointed red steeple, some hay barns and houses, and terraced cultivations. Its ridge is snow-covered already and the majestic pink rocky Dolomites stand behind it. Tears always spring to my eyes when I see this majestic view and feel the mountain's protection. This is quite a spectacular place to be buried.
The procession is separated between men and women, but I walk with my dad anyhow. No one seems to mind. Many are whispering in the local German dialect, recounting stories about relatives who have died or saints whom they have invoked for assistance with some life challenge. Even though this territory technically belongs to Italy, there is a strong sense of the Austrian culture that dominated the area before World War I. The bi-cultural politics of this region remain complicated, but the two ethnic groups continue to co-exist and run their schools bi-lingually.
A ruddy man with thick glasses recognizes my father, shakes his hand, sees me, laughs, and says, "der apfel felt nicht so weit von den baum, ya?". "The apple does not fall so far from the tree, does it?" He refers to our striking family resemblance. When I walk through town here in Bressanone, people nod and smile warmly at me. Even though I do not know them by name and I rarely get to visit, I realize that they know me because they see my relatives in my nose, my smile and my eyes. My roots wrap around me and I grow stronger thanks to this kindred connection.
When we arrive at the cemetery, everyone turns to face their families' graves in prayer. We walk around and around the chapel, honor the Mary and Child inside who are adorned with all the gifts brought by those who have been healed thanks to her, and greet friends with whom my dad has been linked for sixty or seventy years. There is so much joy in this reunion. One friend from my dad's art school days, with his green felted Tirolean hat tipped at a jaunty angle, even has tears in his eyes when he sees me after so many years. Walking home, we pass the local monastery and notice that the ancient, twining apple trees in the expansive orchard are laden with fruit. "Why aren't they picking it?" I ask my dad. "There are not many monks left anymore", he replies.
The Catholic renounciate's path is an arduous one, and this particular sect of monks spends much of its time in African missions. When they return, illness often keeps them from fulfilling many of the agrarian roles associated with members of the clergy in Alpine regions. I feel a sadness welling inside me as I realize that this integral human relationship between land, seasons, and prayer belongs to an austere religious tradition that does not appeal to most modern people. However, we do not need to be monks and nuns in order to grow the food that nourishes us, honor the spirit that binds us, and therefore feed something greater than ourselves. "Let's come back and pick those apples after dark", I suggest. He laughs, nods, and we walk on.

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