Helping at church, on being an usher

One of the resources I leveraged years ago when I went through a rough crisis was going to church. While the church had always been there, I never really had a spiritual connection to it. Then I started going regularly, enjoying the time to recollect myself, the ceremony, the silences, begging for forgiveness, etc. and hopefully, if I was lucky a good lesson in the form of a sermon, these however are understandably rare.

The first church I went to during this crisis was St. Elizabeth in Milton, outside of Boston. I only went there for a couple of weeks and I spent most of the time (ok, all the time) crying. From there I went to Our Lady of Victories in Boston, which unfortunately has now closed. One day one of the Marist brothers who ran the church asked me to help during mass. I explained that I was not worthy of helping but they insisted. My first job was ringing the little altar bells before Consecration and Communion, then I started reading. Then I moved to North Carolina where I was warmly welcomed by the UNC Newman parish and Franciscan Brother Bill of whom I have written a lot about before here.

St. Ann’s in Naples was my home for a couple of years. Here in Madrid, I went to cute, tiny Our Lady of Lourdes for a while, and to the Jesuits for a few years, but my official parish and the one I have been going to for many years is San Fermín de los Navarros, which is basically across the street and where both my sisters got married. Like in Boston, the Pastor after seeing that I was a bit of a regular asked me to read, and I do so humbly and with pride.

Cut to the chase, after a few times at St. Marks in in Boynton Beach, I was approached by an usher and asked if I wanted to join their crew. I had never really thought about it, but I am happy to serve. The team is a fun, hodgepodge collection of characters, Christine who recruited me is, of course, the boss, the usher coordinator. I have to wear black pants, a white jacket, white shirt, and a tie. Yes, I look a waiter but since I am snob, I prefer to think I look like a sommelier. Since I did not have a white jacket, they lent me one… until I found a vintage one that I much preferred. The job is easy enough: be charming and welcome everyone as they come in, once mass has started guide the late comers to socially distanced seating, manage the Communion flow, at the end open the doors and say “goodbye”, then clean up bulletins left in the pews and put the collection in a bag. Easy peasy.

In conclusion, no job is too simple, too easy. Every honest job is honorable. I am happy to serve and to be useful.

Greece again (five years later)

My love for Greece started during my first visit there in 1985. Since then I have returned a few times and enjoyed it every single minute. It is easy for me to remember the last time I went to Greece because it was the Summer right before my father died, 2015. This time was a bit different.

My love for Greece is very much in the Romantic vein, like Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats or Shelley. Maybe even in a philosophical vein like Socrates and Plato, like the Stoics. In Greece you are transported to the origins of our Western civilization, our education, our way of thinking, dare I say, we haven’t even improved that much the concept of Democracy… other than the obvious -although we might even be regressing on that front since it looks like the state of Florida will not allow convicted felons to vote, as if they were not citizens.

The special aspect to this visit was that I arrived by boat! (see previous post). Our first stop was Methoni. This village sits on the farthest South Western corner of the Peloponnese (the mainland) and is therefore a strategic location for anybody passing by. Because of this strategic location, there has been a castle there since Medieval times. During the Venetian expansion they took over the Ionian sea, up to and including Methoni, building or re-building the tower which manages to be strong yet elegant at the same time. Later, the Ottoman Empire took over, and they added their characteristic Byzantine “touch”. Eventually the town and the castle passed hands a few more times as it saw action during the Turkish invasion and World War II. In this fortress in Ottoman times Cervantes was held captive after his participation in the Battle of Lepanto.

Right between the castle walls with its Venetian coat of arms -The winged lion of St. Mark’s- and the beach is the lovely Methoni Beach Hotel, where Efi served us a couple of delicious Gin and Tonics! Since we had swam ashore, we were lucky to find a generous fisherman that gave us a lift to the boat. Even though he was a Barça fan and that he did not like Real Madrid, I am grateful for the lift.

Our next stop was a couple of “fingers” over, the quiet little island of Elafonisos, with a great wild beach at Simos. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore the shore.

The next day we sailed by the amazing Monemvasia, a massive island plateau with a fortified village. It is reminiscent of the Israeli Masada fortress! But our destination was the island of Spetses. We arrived at the lovely cove of Zogeria, with its obligatory chapel and beach restaurant (what in Spain is called a chiringuito). A short motorboat jump away is the main town of Dapia with its old and new harbor. The village sits -like most Greek island villages- on the slope of the hill. Fortunately, only residents can have cars on the island, but still everybody moves around on dusty old scooters and quads with the occasional golf cart or electric runabouts.

Due to the relative proximity to Athens (there are a few high-speed passenger ferries from Piraeus), Spetses is one of the popular getaway islands for Athenians to weekend. Think Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket for Bostonians. This influx of well to do Athenians leads to nice restaurants and shops, with the downside being higher prices and some crowding.

The village is well distributed and has all the requirements of a nice Greek town -and then some:

  • A cute shopping street
  • A grand, old-school hotel: the Poseidonion
  • Great fish restaurants on the harbor
  • Coffee shops
  • Old churches
  • A fantastic bar with the biggest collection of Scotch I have ever seen, and old Rock and Roll!
  • It even has a couple of museums, the Spetses museum which chronicles the history of the town and the small but rich Bouboulina museum. This museum in housed in Bouboulina’s grand 19th C house downtown. She was the first woman ever to have been named Admiral for her continued fight for the independence of Greece. If you are in Spetses it is worth the short visit.

On my last day, my dear friend Matthieu came to lunch on his lovely Boston Whaler motorboat and we went to his house on the mainland village of Tolo. The next day, after a nice dinner by the sea, it was time for me to return to Madrid. Just like that, my short visit was over. But I cannot wait to return to my spiritual home.

Mind, body, and soul, meditation, exercise, and yoga and more (not in any order)

Read good books, life is too short to read trash!!

Read good books, life is too short to read trash!!

Going to church, any church will boost your soul

Going to church, any church will boost your soul

A walk in the mountains

A walk in the mountains

Last outdoor meditation of the day

Last outdoor meditation of the day

A simple cell in a monastery helps you focus

A simple cell in a monastery helps you focus

The Camino will change your life. Source: Club Renfe magazine

The Camino will change your life. Source: Club Renfe magazine

High fiving all around

High fiving all around

Practicing Yoga on the Camino, wonderful session!

Practicing Yoga on the Camino, wonderful session!

Richard Rohr's wonderful lessons

Richard Rohr’s wonderful lessons

For a few years, since 2010 to be precise, I have been actively seeking inner peace, not just talking about it with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other, looking at the stars. It is only with breakage that one slowly lets go of the ego and matures through Kierkegaard’s three stages that we have seen before (the aesthetic, the ethic and the spiritual). I believe that all of philosophy and religion is based on understanding the existence of the ego and separating from it. We see it in the Stoics, in Jesus, Buddha, good literature, etc. etc.

With my divorce and the life changes brought about by that trauma, I started seeking solace and understanding. My knee-jerk, basically subconscious, reaction was going to church on Sunday– and have not missed a Sunday since (maybe a couple but only for reasons of force majeure). Other organic resolutions were to crank my exercise, to work with a therapist, starting with the amazing Dr. Nemser and others since, and volunteering. I started reading Scripture every night, and speaking of reading, I started seeking more profound books. Then I got hooked on Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. Then I started yoga. With time I started meditating, then came walking the pilgrimage to Santiago (I can’t wait for my fourth this Summer) eventually, back in Spain, my retreats to El Paular Monastery and starting a gratitude diary. Has it worked? All I can say is that I am happy to be on this path.

All these actions have gradually made me know myself better, which is to say my mental construct of myself: my ego. Understanding this is the first step in breaking away from that tyrant. You see, we are born ego-less, just living the moment, enjoying life. This is what Paul Tillich calls the Ground of Being, where we will return -hopefully- just before dying (if this is of interest, I recommend Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying). Then as we grow up we develop a strong sense of self, necessary to establish oneself as an independent being. This is one of the reasons I love teaching adolescents when this ego creation is on full blast. Once we establish ourselves we don’t really need the ego any more, but we stick with it, most of us until we die. Only through trauma, breakage, do we realize that the ego is not necessary, in which case we start to let go of it. That is where I find myself.

The church part is easy, you just go. While I do not necessarily enjoy all the dogma, I do enjoy the chance to reflect, the ceremony, the sermon if it is good and eventually the community. In fact, my church in Boston, Our Lady of Victories and here in Madrid, San Fermín de los Navarros both asked me to participate more actively by reading or being an altar helper. This tiny contribution to the community goes a long way in making one feel helpful.

I started seriously meditating in 2016. It is painful to quiet the mind –the ego- by making it sit still for twenty minutes, but eventually you manage. The trick is to be very still and focus on your breathing: feeling it, visualizing it, maybe quietly reciting a mantra to help you focus on the breathing. I use the Insight Timer app and it really helps and motivates.

The gratitude diary works like this:

  • Monday: write three good things that happened over the weekend.
  • Tuesday: Write about a good moment in your life.
  • Wednesday: Set a task and accomplish it!
  • Thursday: Write a letter (in your diary, or you can send it) to someone you are grateful for.
  • Friday: Write three good things that happened during the week.
  • Saturday and Sunday are off.

About the life changing experience that is the Camino de Santiago I have already waxed poetic many other times on this blog, so scroll down to read it!!

The Yoga bit is really enriching. As opposed to the US where Yoga is basically a workout, my teacher in Madrid, embraces it as it should be: a way of life, a philosophy. So there are lots of breathing exercises and meditation, and in between some movement ashanas. When a class is not available I use the Down Dog app on my phone

Last weekend I again managed to escape to El Paular Monastery to spend four days with the Benedictine monks. This is as simple a life as you will ever live. Praying five times a day, walking in the mountains, eating in silence, working in the monastery, meditating. If you get a chance to do a retreat, do not hesitate, the silence is worth it!!

In conclusion, yes, I am in the search for spirituality. Many folks say we they are in spiritual journeys, the truth is more that they are spiritual beings in human journeys.

 

 

Mind, body and soul, exercise, yoga and meditation

For a few years, since 2010 to be precise, I have been actively seeking inner peace, not just talking about it with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other staring at a sunset. It is only with breakage that one slowly lets go of the ego and matures through Kierkegaard’s three stages that we have seen before (the aesthetic, the ethic and the spiritual). With my divorce and the life changes brought about by that trauma, I started seeking solace and understanding. My first, basically subconscious moves were to exercise, to work with a therapist (the amazing Dr. Nemser), I went to church on Sunday – and have not missed a Sunday since (maybe a couple but only for reasons of force majeure), and volunteering. I started reading Scripture every night, then I got hooked on Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, I tried to find inspiring readings, revisiting Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Illich, Milton, Jalics, etc. With time I started meditating, then I started yoga, then came walking the pilgrimage to Santiago…

Little by little I started realizing in my body, mind and spirit that all these things were connected, that working with one affected the other two. Yoga, even weightlifting quieted my mind, meditating relaxed my body and spirit. Breathing helped me stretch during yoga. I realized that while we are made up of many different things, we are in fact one totality of being with a single energy.

I started yoga lessons in North Carolina about six years ago. It was the perfect thing for saturdays after friday night soccer games. And just like that I was hooked. I normally find a gym or a studio that has lessons, but in a pinch I use an app called Down Dog which is very scalable!

For meditation, I usually wait until the end of the day so I have nothing left to do that day. Or I parcel out a time to mediate. I sit and breathe, focussing on my breathing for twenty minutes. I use a great app called Insight timer where I can time myself, take courses, dial into guided meditations – and it keeps track of your progress!

Then I started using these techniques with my athletes when I coached, most recently and successfully the tennis players at the Hun School. Yoga on days in between games, a bit of meditation before games, it all translated to happier, less injured, more understanding players.

Volunteering has been a key factor in my recent growth and maturity. First at Community Servings in Boston cooking for sick, homebound families. In Chapel Hill I volunteered every monday night for four years at the Ronald McDonald House. In Naples I helped out the St. Vincent de Paul charities. Now in Madrid I’m helping at the Ronald McDonald Family Room at the La Paz Hospital in Madrid, for families with premature babies.

My second pilgrimage to Santiago I really focused on walking, meditating, stopping at churches for contemplation, doing yoga after the day’s walk. It really was magical, and I noticed a holistic improvement!

Healing is a long process that there is no way to rush. Acceptance, gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion, perspective, humility, understanding, generosity, none of these knock on your door overnight. One must consciously work at healing, it is slowly working for me, give it a try!

 

Mallorca

My family used to go on holidays to Galicia, the Northwest coast of Spain. Atlantic water temperature and Atlantic waves. When my little sister Rocky was born we decided to switch our holidays to Mallorca island on the Mediterranean, where we found a little “cala”, inlet on the south shore of the island. Warm, beautiful, tranquil, crystal clear water.  We have been coming to the same place for the last forty odd years, Camp de Mar. First we stayed at the “Gran Hotel”, old world style and panache, real furniture, “sit down dinner”, even a springboard on the beautiful pool! Unfortunately, after falling into disrepair it was razed and turned into a gaudy monstrosity.  So we rotated through a series of rental homes until in the early 00s we found the Dorint. A resort built on what used to be an old farm where we used to go on nice summer evening walks eating the carobs off the ground. Some of my fondest memories are of excursions around the island, walking the old streets of the capital, Palma de Mallorca, with it’s beautiful squares and Gothic cathedral. I loved coming to the island when I had my own business and customers to visit. For many years when I had the money I rented a rag top Jeep to drive around the island and to go to the village to pick up freshly made ensaimadas, the local pastries, enjoying the sun and wind in my face and hair (I had hair then).

For the last few years my parents have been bringing their grandkids on holidays here. The rest of us come and go as time and money allow! I have been able to come for the last three years and I love it.

There is something magical about these islands. The light, the sea, the warm, dry days and nights, the intoxicating sweet smell of night. Not surprisingly it is, and has been home to Phoenicians, Romans and Moors, Chopin and George Sand, Agatha Christie, Rubén Dario, Joan Miró, and more recently Michael  Douglas, Claudia Schiffer, and of course Rafa Nadal.

Our life here is very quiet. Wonderful breakfasts with local pastries, quiet beach, pool, siestas, and nice meals. I enjoy the gym, swimming, running on the local forested hills, evening walks with the family after dinner and the bar at night. But most of all I am getting a ton of reading done for my Ph.D. exams next spring! On Sundays I go to the village to the 1248 church for mass (granted it was pretty much re-done in 1703, but still).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA View from Andratx village Andratx village View from the Dorint Hotel OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Camp de Mar Beach SAMSUNG Dorint Hotel Camp de Mar Hotel entrance, Dorint