Smells like it was big

This may not be the most obvious take on the recent visit of Pope Francis to Washington, but stick with me…  Also, enjoy this Friday’s Morning Glory from EWTN Radio in which we discuss the Holy Father’s DC Visit

We’ve all heard that smell memories are the strongest of all.  My kindergarten teacher – who I’ve not seen in decades, at this point – was immediately present to me one day when a woman wearing her distinctive perfume walked by.  Smells communicate as much as anything, perhaps more so.

One commonly known smell is crushed grass.  Not freshly cut, not alpine heather… you heard me, “crushed” grass.  It takes us back to the pumpkin patch trip in first grade… or the state fair we attended on a visit to grandma’s house… it’s the distinctive mixture of oft-trodden grass and well worked slightly damp soil, now fully exposed to the breeze.  In Washington, the smell of crushed grass usually means that something big happened on the National Mall, and this week was no exception: the Pope came to town.

Crushed grass in DC connotes many things… It can mean that a protest has taken place, or that the Smithsonian’s Folk Life Festival is in full swing.  Usually the smell of crushed grass is attended by a general feeling of exhaustion, political fallout and a desire to return to the status quo as soon as possible.  Taking America by storm in his Fiat 500L, Pope Francis generated something very different.  As tens of thousands traversed the Mall and the Ellipse, the days were not marked by exasperation, but by HOPE… pure unadulterated HOPE, of the kind that no politician has brought since – perhaps – Kennedy, or Roosevelt before him.  For two days everyone believed that something better could happen… that common ground can be found in a shared sense of humanity.  As the National Mall springs back from its latest thrashing, will the scent of hope stay in the air?  I pray so.

Picnics and Ponderings

IMG_0564It’s spring in Washington… one of our two all too brief seasons when we can enjoy outdoor activities without either freezing or melting.  One of may favorite spring activities is picnicking.  I don’t get to do it all that often, but when I do, what a gift it is.

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By it’s very nature a picnic pulls us out of our normal routine… gets us to look at things differently by placing us in new surroundings.  Since picnics work best bucolic settings, they can also be a chance for us to strip away the worries of the world and get back in touch with our truest nature.  Two easily reached picnic destinations I’ve enjoyed recently are: The C&O Canal and Sugarloaf Mountain (see photos throughout this post).

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The Canal was intended to be a great water highway connecting the capital with the western hinterlands of the new United States (i.e. Cumberland, MD back in the day).  Never able to turn a long-term profit, the canal never really worked out.  Thanks to preservationists though, it has become a hugely successful national park with ample opportunities for hiking, biking and camping from here to western Maryland.
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Sugarloaf Mountain (in Dickerson, MD about an hour northwest of the city) was a privately owned estate that has now become a nature preserve with trails for hiking, climbing and mountain biking.  It also boasts some wonderful opportunities for animal watching and great views of Montgomery and Frederick counties.

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Picnicking with friends is obviously a great chance for conviviality – a subject covered in previous posts.  That said, don’t discount the blessings of a solo lunch-in-the-wild.  Consider the following thoughts from 20th century theologian Fr. Romano Guardini:

“…man’s attention is broken into a thousand fragments by the variety of things and persons about him  His mind is restless; his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing.  Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing man’s attention from sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to his spirit.”
This “rescue” mission, Fr. Guardini goes on to say, restores man to his fullest sense of self allowing him to face the world in a more genuine way.

Guardini applies his teaching to composing ourselves in preparation for mass, but I think we can reasonably extend his thoughts to another type of meal: the picnic.  Eating out in nature is a great exercise in composure.  It’s a chance to focus on the basics: eating, breathing, perceiving the beauty around us.  Over time, the storm of other sensory and emotional distractions calms… or rather all these “other” things enter orbit around the joy of the meal.  We might even suggest that if a picnic on a beautiful day is a manifestation of God’s love for us, then it is precisely his LOVE that restores order to our chaos.

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So, if you’re feeling a little frayed at the ends this week, take advantage of the good weather, grab some food and a blanket, and enjoy a picnic… you might just come back from it a better version of yourself.

Reflections on an Urban Trek

Last week, with spring’s return, I put on my walking shoes and took my first urban trek of the season.  As regular readers know, the purpose of this blog is to look on life in Washington through eyes of faith.  What better way to do that than to just get out there and start walking.  This trek took me from the heights of Brightwood in far upper NW, to the carefully manicured gardens of Georgetown.  I’ll present my reflections in two parts.  The first follows:

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I began at Nativity Parish (13th and Peabody, NW).  Nativity one of the best examples of local church architecture that we have.  Built in a gothic revival style, it’s pointed arches and stained glass windows provide a feast for the soul, a lavish space where the Lord can easily enter our day-to-day experience.  And isn’t that precisely what the mystery of the Nativity is all about?  The parish population has shrunken significantly over the last several decades, but exciting work is going on there under the new Administrator, Fr. Evans, who is so dedicated to his people and their neighborhood of Brightwood.  If you live nearby, consider popping in for a prayer and a visit.  You may find yourself prompted to ask, “How can I be a part of bringing Christ to this part of Washington?”  You’ll find a warm welcome from Father and the angelic staff at the Rectory!

From Nativity, I strolled through Brightwood on my way to the bus corridor of 16th St., NW.  It was mid-morning and everywhere parents and children were walking to school and work.  Neighbors used to taking the same bus each morning found ready smiles and greetings at their various bus stops.  There was a wonderful sense of new life for a new day.  Along those lines, I was inspired by a local community garden.  What a perfect metaphor for new neighborly life!

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To cut just a little walking out of the trek, I took the S9 Metrobus down 16th Street to Mount Pleasant.  If you’re a resident of Silver Spring or another nearby suburb, the “S” bus lines from Silver Spring Metro are a great gateway into the city.  They’re generally prompt and there’s just something nice about commuting above ground.  I find that when I’m not behind the wheel myself, driving in DC is actually a pleasure… especially on 16th street where stately homes, and expansive recreation zones mingle in bright sunshine to cheer up anyone willing to look.  Those who have eyes should see!

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The S9 dropped me at Mt. Pleasant, a district always teeming with life.  Mount Pleasant is an interesting intersection of urban cultures and histories.  Rich in civil war history as a major medical camp for the Army of the Potomac, it has been considered alternately as: a site for the Lincoln Memorial, a palatial gateway to the city, a hub of DC’s African American Jazz and literary scene, a civil rights launching point and now a hub of urban renewal.  Here, The Salvadoran immigrant community mixes with the bohemian crowd from Adams Morgan, the well-heeled residents of expensive condos and the longtime African American population of the area.  Some iconic points preserve the the imprint of these distinctive cultures.

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Sacred Heart Parish has been the hub of Spanish speaking Catholic ministry in DC for decades.  It’s grand architecture was a double statement of (a) God’s glory and (b) that the Catholic community of DC had ‘arrived.’  Today it remains a palace for any soul looking to be ennobled and comforted by the vision of God.

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A colorful mural adorns a 15th Street row house just south of the merge into 16th Street.  It presents an intermingling of cultures and communities that is the reality and not fully realized goal of Mt. Pleasant.

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Following 15th Street South, I eventually came to Meridian Hill Park (a.k.a. Malcolm X Park).  The Park was one of the sights originally considered for the Lincoln Memorial.  This plan was eventually abandoned in favor of the National Mall.  Standing on Meridian Hill Today, it’s easy to understand why.  Locating the Memorial there, Lincoln would’ve dominated the city like an Olympian god; not at all in keeping with his devotion to our democratic republic.  The park became an ornamental Italian garden to rival anything you’ll find in Florence.  Cascading waterfalls, walking paths, shade trees and the occasional statue make Meridian Hill Park the perfect place to find some peace in the middle a busy day.  Here, you’ll find monuments to President Buchanan, Dante Alighieri and even St. Joan of Arc.  Situated at the head of the park’s upper mall, St. Joan charges into the bright sun shine, her horse rearing up over DC’s skyline… a powerful witness to her faith, hope, love … and patriotism… virtues available to each of us every day.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cardinal Newman advised that we should always look at life poetically… seeking mysteries wherever we can find them.  If you’ve enjoyed this first set of reflections, looking “poetically” at last week’s urban trek… stay tuned.  Part II will be posted soon!

Divided but undimmed

Spring is here and with it a familiar smell.  Laden with memories of late night conversations, laughter and so much more, we begin from time to time, block to block, to smell barbecues alight once more!  Friends from the south and from Texas will admonish, “They’re not real BBQ’s, all you have are ‘grills’…”  In NY (where I come from), if you burn stuff and cook over it, it’s a BBQ.  …’nuff said.   And in DC it’s not just BBQ’s burning nowadays.  Folks sit in their front gardens and back yards gathered around swiss chimneys, and firepits (which incidentally are not pits so much as elevated braziers, but again, I digress…).

All this pyro-centered social gathering has me thinking, examining the phenomenon through eyes of faith.   In the Church, we’re still celebrating the Easter season.  At our masses, the Easter (Paschal) Candle is still lit at all masses to remind us of the night when the light of Christ re-entered our experience at the end of Lent.  During that ceremony on Holy Saturday night, the new Easter fire is kindled, the candle lit, and then – from the one flame – hundreds of others spread as the faithful light their individual baptismal candles from the Easter candle.  The great hymn that captures all this has a great line, the flame is “divided but undimmed.”  That’s the great quality of holy light and holy joy… it can be spread without diminishing its beauty.

Likewise with people of faith… we can spread out across a hundred block parties, BBQ’s, happy hours ’round the fire pit, you name it… and bring the fullness of Christ to each of those encounters divided but undimmed.  He is present in our joy, our hope, our compassion and mercy for others and always our living of the Truth.

Pope St. Leo the Great said, “not in tis life, it is true, but only in eternity will God be all in all, yet even now he dwells whole and undivided, in his temple, the Church.”  That goes not only for the whole Church across the globe… not only for each individual parish tabernacle… but also for each of the faithful who become living tabernacles on the day of their baptism and each time they receive the Eucharist at mass.

As the light of springtime festivities spreads across Washington, let’s bring the light of Christ, divided but undimmed to each of those encounters and show the world how brightly the Church shines with the glory of his light!

The Gracious Ginkgo

Plants make for such wonderful inspiration when you’re walking down the street.  Lately I’ve been noticing an old favorite, the Ginkgo.  The German poet Goethe also took note of this tree and its bifurcated foliage while walking in Heidelberg.  In inspired him to IMG_0275write a poem:

This leaf from a tree in the East,
Has been given to my garden.
It reveals a certain secret,
Which pleases me and thoughtful people.
Is it a living being,
Which has separated in itself?
Or are these two, who chose
To be recognized as one?
Answering this kind of question,
Haven’t I found the proper meaning,
Don’t you feel in my songs,
That I’m one and double?

(Ginkgo Bilboa, by Goethe)

Sophomore year of college at GWU, noticed a tree outside my window.  I had never paid much attention to it before, but as fall got underway  and again in spring, it bore the most brilliant golden leaves.  Really, they were mesmerizing to watch out the window (either that or my studies were just that dull…).  I discovered that the tree was a Ginkgo and that there are many of them scattered throughout our city. IMG_0277

Ginkgos can be grown in any number of ways, but when they’re trained vertically as they often are in our narrow streets, they take on a gracious draping character.  Combine this with their luminous foliage and one finds an elegant ornament right in the middle of the side walk.  Frederick Law Olmsted once described Central Park, NY as an outdoor cathedral… If we apply similar language to Washington’s streets, the Ginkgo makes for wonderful gold leafing in the DC’s canopy in the spring and fall.

Rock Creek, A Perfect Place for Re-Creation

The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures you let me graze;
to safe waters you lead me;
you restore my strength.
You guide me along the right path
for the sake of your name.
(Psalm 23:1-3)

“The best things in life are free.”  so the saying goes… and here in Washington it’s true!  Among the most primordial examples is Rock Creek Park, recently featured in the Washington Post Magazine (13 July 2014) as the “wild heart” of our city.  The park overflows with opportunities for personal renewal and growth.  Whether it’s a good trail run on its miles of woodland paths, a pensive horseback ride through arbored scenery or time spent at picnic and play, Rock Creek Park is place to better encounter ourselves and God.

The Stone Bridge in Rock Creek Park
The Stone Bridge in Rock Creek Park

Gaudium et spes (para. 22) speaks beautifully about how man, peering into Christ discovers his own best self.  One could also add that staring into the best parts of each other… we human beings observe sparks of the divine, the latent image and likeness of our Creator.  The result of this mutual study between us and God is re-creation… itself the origin of our term “recreation”.  It’s the whole reason we have parks like Rock Creek: places set apart from the hustle and bustle of the world where we can stop looking at other things and just contemplate ourselves and our Creator.  To experience this point in a an overt way, one of my favorite Rock Creek pastimes is biking the length of Beech Drive listening to Haydn’s “Creation.”  A sumptuous oratorio setting the first chapters of Genesis and other creation-related Scriptures to music, the “Creation” raises the ordinary exercise of a Rock Creek bike ride into a religious experience.

Another faith-dimension to places like Rock Creek is their gratuitousness.  In Washington we’re blessed to benefit from numerous free public institutions.  The nature of these sites, whether the monuments, or jazz in the NGA Sculpture Garden, or Rock Creek park or anywhere else… is to be free gifts that the people of our country have given to each other.  Sometimes these gifts come from the will of individuals.  Andrew Melon, for example, donated the nucleus of the National Gallery collection.  Other times these gifts are organized by the collective will of our nation, as is the case with the national parks.  In all cases these institutions were given as a free offering for the flourishing of our fellow citizens.  In this, our free public institutions participate in God’s own free gift of creation.  How blessed are we as to see the nation’s capital, our home, not only as a monument to human striving but indeed as a place where God’s own virtues can take flesh in us to make us a little more like him.

See “Touring Tips” for more info on visiting the park and beyond.


Now ask the beasts to teach you,
and the birds of the air to tell you;
Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you,
and the fish of the sea to inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of God hand of God has done this.”
(Job 12:7-9)