Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Expense averted

I was planning to buy a candy thermometer, some expensive matcha powder, and liquid pectin, all in order to spend hours making this complicated recipe for Matcha And Peach Pate de Fruit Macarons.

But on my way home from church this morning I stopped by Starbucks for a huge green tea latte, and by the time I'd swallowed the last of it, my craving for the yummy grassy flavor of matcha had been completely satisfied. I now have no need of the macarons.

All the money I saved surely justifies the 450 calories... :)

A post to throw out some recent links

Horrific recipe cards from 1974. These literally made me laugh until my sides ached.

Also via Sancte Pater is a story about Voyager 2 still going strong. I had thought it was kaput when I heard a few months ago that it was transmitting gibberish back to Earth, but engineers were able to fix the problem-- a flipped bit.

Cool fact: my father, Don Gray, was chief navigator of Voyager 2 during its heyday, which means he was head of the big team of people calculating the equations that would save power by slingshotting it from one planet to another.

Quotes from Benedict XVI on the traditional Latin Mass, reminding me that I love him and want to read a lot more of his writings and speeches, because I'm impressed whenever I do. He's intelligent, understands the motivations of others, and writes in an irenic, measured way, yet without pulling any punches. His long speech from 1998 surprised me in parts, for example when he says, "the disappearance of the old liturgical books was of no importance in many countries and caused no sorrow."

Elizabeth Scalia and Jennifer Fulwiler have similar takes on church sex abuse scandals: good and evil living side by side. Jesus said something about that too.

Martyr priests of the Mexican Revolution. One little detail that stood out was a soldier who refused to participate in a firing squad to execute one of the priests. He was executed himself. I'm sure none of the soldiers knew they'd face such an agonizing choice that day-- God grant me the grace to be like the one who had conviction.

Reminds me of a story, I can't remember from where, about a group of Christian martyrs in the very early centuries. It was cold and snowy, and Roman soldiers forced them into a lake to freeze to death. They also built a fire and said that anyone who denied God could come get warm and save his life. One of them did, but the rest were so joyful about dying for their faith that one of the Roman soldiers suddenly declared himself a Christian and threw himself into the freezing lake with them.

Naughty boys in 1909.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Thomas Merton, and how the devil holds you back

The priest's story in my last post, about the unreasonable fears the devil uses to hold us back from religious life, reminds me of Thomas Merton's struggle as recounted in The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton lived quite a reprobate life until his radical conversion to Catholicism as an adult. Then he felt strongly called to religious life, but the Franciscans who initially accepted him ended up rescinding their acceptance when they learned the full story of his past. He was crushed by this but told himself he had to put the possibility out of his mind, and he feared to speak of his longing to anyone lest he be rejected again. He started teaching at a Franciscan college, and tried to be content just with living as much like the friars as possible. But the idea of religious life wouldn't go away, and eventually the possibility reopened, and he arrived at a crisis:

Finally, on the Thursday of that week, in the evening, I suddenly found myself filled with a vivid conviction:

"The time has come for me to go and be a Trappist."

Where had the thought come from? All I knew was that it was suddenly there. And it was something powerful, irresistible, clear.

I picked up a little book called The Cistercian Life, which I had bought at Gethsemani, and turned over the pages, as if they had something more to tell me. They seemed to me to be all written in words of flame and fire.

I went to supper, and came back and looked at the book again. My mind was literally full of this conviction. And yet, in the way, stood hesitation: that old business. But now there could be no delaying. I must finish with that, once and for all, and get an answer. I must talk to somebody who would settle it. It could be done in five minutes. And now was the time. Now.

Whom should I ask? Father Philotheus was probably in his room downstairs. I went downstairs, and out into the court. Yes, there was a light in Father Philotheus' room. All right. Go in and see what he has to say.

But instead of that, I bolted out into the darkness and made for the grove.

It was a Thursday night. The Alumni Hall was beginning to fill. They were going to have a movie. But I hardly noticed it: it did not occur to me that perhaps Father Philotheus might go to the movie with the rest. In the silence of the grove my feet were loud on the gravel. I walked and prayed. It was very, very dark by the shrine of the Little Flower. "For Heaven's sake, help me!" I said.

I started back towards the buildings. "All right. Now I am really going to go in there and ask him. Here's the situation, Father. What do you think? Should I go and be a Trappist?"

There was still a light in Father Philotheus' room. I walked bravely into the hall, but when I got within about six feet of his door it was almost as if someone had stopped me and held me where I was with physical hands. Something jammed in my will. I couldn't walk a step further, even though I wanted to. I made a kind of a push at the obstacle, which was perhaps a devil, and then turned around and ran out of the place once more.

And again I headed for the grove. The Alumni Hall was nearly full. My feet were loud on the gravel. I was in the silence of the grove, among the wet trees.

I don't think there was ever a moment in my life when my soul felt so urgent and so special an anguish. I had been praying all the time, so I cannot say that I began to pray when I arrived there where the shrine was: but things became more definite.

"Please help me. What am I going to do? I can't go on like this. You can see that! Look at the state I am in. What ought I to do? Show me the way." As if I needed more information or some kind of a sign!

But I said this time to the Little Flower: "You show me what to do." And I added, "If I get into the monastery, I will be your monk. Now show me what to do."

It was getting to be precariously near the wrong way to pray-- making indefinite promises that I did not quite understand and asking for some sort of a sign.

Suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night wind, and then, clearer than any of these obvious realities, in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani ringing in the night-- the bell in the big grey tower, ringing and ringing, as if it were just behind the first hill. The impression made me breathless, and I had to think twice to realize that it was only in the my imaginination that I was hearing the bell of the Trappist Abbey ringing in the dark. Yet, as I afterwards calculated, it was just about that time that the bell is rung every night for the Salve Regina, towards the end of Compline.

The bell seemed to be telling me where I belonged-- as if it were calling me home.

This fancy put such determination into me that I immediately started back for the monastery-- going the long way 'round, past the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes and the far end of the football field. And with every step I took my mind became more and more firmly made up that now I would have done with all these doubts and hesitations and questions and all the rest, and get this thing settled, and go to the Trappists where I belonged.

When I came into the courtyard, I saw that the light in Father Philotheus' room was out. In fact, practically all the lights were out. Everobdy had gone to the movies. My heart sank.

Yet there was one hope. I went right on through the door and into the corridor, and turned to the Friars' common room. I had never even gone near that door before. I had never dared. But now I went up and knocked on the glass panel and opened the door and looked inside.

There was nobody there except one Friar alone, Father Philotheus.

I asked if I could speak with him and we went to his room.

That was the end of all my anxiety, all my hesitation.

As soon as I proposed all my hesitations and questions to him, Father Philotheus said that he could see no reason why I shouldn't want to enter a monastery and become a priest.

It may seem irrational, but at that moment, it was as if scales fell off my own eyes, and looking back on all my worries and questions, I could see clearly how empty and futile they had been. Yes, it was obvious that I was called to the monastic life: and all my doubts about it had been mostly shadows. Where had they gained such a deceptive appearance of substance and reality? Accident and circumstance had all contributed to exaggerate and distort things in my mind. But now everything was straight again. And already I was full of peace and assurance-- the consciousness that everything was right, and that a straight road had opened out, clear and smooth, ahead of me.

Father Philotheus had only one question:

"Are you sure you want to be a Trappist?" he asked me.

"Father," I answered, "I want to give God everything."

I could see by the expression on his face that he was satisfied.

I went upstairs like somebody who had been called back from the dead. Never had I experienced the calm, untroubled peace and certainty that now filled my heart. There was only one more question: would the Trappists agree with Father Philotheus, and accept my application?

Answer: yes, they did. :)

The fact that he finally conquered through the intercession of St. Thérèse ("the Little Flower") resonates with me too. On those rare occasions when I find myself up against the same obstacle-- some strange and very powerful unwillingness in my own mind to do what I know is God's will-- I pull out the big guns: "All you angels and saints in Heaven, please pray for me!" Then I find strength in my soul I didn't have before, and I manage to do whatever it is I know I'm supposed to do, and it's such a straightforward simple thing that I don't understand how it seemed so confusing and difficult. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and they are not indifferent. They want to help us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Merton's autobiography was an unexpected joy. I didn't think I had anything in common with this man who was born in 1915 and lived a completely different kind of life, and indeed the first half of the book was alien to me. But when he started moving towards becoming a Catholic monk, it all became delightfully familiar. I don't know much about his later career; apparently he studied Eastern mysticism and some seem to think that he fell away from the orthodox faith, but I haven't looked into it-- I just know that Seven Storey Mountain is awesome.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Those Nashville Dominicans

Here's an article about a girl who'll be joining the Dominicans Sisters of St. Cecilia, better known as the Nashville Dominicans, on August 11. She started thinking about being a nun in college when a priest suggested it. Amazing. When I was in college I was far from knowing what I was supposed to do with my life.

As it happens, today I was chatting with a girl from my own parish-- Hi, Teresa!-- who's also going to be joining the Dominicans on that day, and she's going straight from high school. She tells me there are nineteen girls so far in this year's postulant class, with time yet for others to join them before the entry date. There are two other eighteen-year-olds, so Teresa's glad not to be the only one who hasn't been to college. Anyway, they'll get their degrees and teaching credentials during the years of formation. I think of my mostly-wasted twenties and admire the girls who live their lives deliberately while they're young.

Apparently three of the nineteen incoming postulants are named Courtney. And whaddya know-- I happen to know one of the Courtneys, and here's her blog, currently featuring a great post about finding her vocation.

All this news about the Dominicans' latest postulant class has me remembering my own visit to them. I went in May 2009-- that's where I met Courtney-- and I posted pictures of it on Facebook soon after, but I never wrote much about it. I'd asked the Dominicans about visiting because I thought they had an important apostlate and I loved all the studying and learning they get to do. But I knew almost as soon as I arrived at the motherhouse that this wasn't the place. It was obvious how good the order was-- there's a sense of mission and purpose and joy there; they love being teaching sisters and they're in love in God. The girls who were on retreat with me were fun too, friendly and interesting. Yet I felt detached from all the awesomeness. It was as obvious as could be that this was not my call.

So I philosophically settled in to enjoy the five-day retreat as a nice visit with a great religious congregation. The joke is that discernment is the fourth state of life (the others being singleness, marriage, or consecrated life) and one benefit of living in the fourth state is that you can travel around enjoying the hospitality of various orders, and meeting a bunch of holy nuns. How many laypeople get to do that?

Everyone was fond of the dorms they had us sleeping in with their rows of white beds. Back in the 1800's when the convent was also a boarding school, the girls who lived there had exactly the same sleeping arrangement. They would goof off at night and sisters would come upstairs to hush them up, but they could never catch the girls in the act of breaking the rules because the girls heard them coming by the rattling of their Rosaries. Finally one night a sister kept quiet by clutching her Rosary in her hand, and she succeeded in sneaking up on the reprobates.

We retreatants didn't goof off at all-- we needed the sleep! Our days there were so packed that we all just dropped dead at lights out.

One girl on our retreat had come all the way from Australia, and the sisters picked her to perform a little nightly ritual for us. It's the custom after the sisters retire for one of them to walk by the closed doors of all the cells, blessing them with holy water. So the Australian girl did the same for us visitors: at bedtime each night, she'd go around the dorm flinging holy water at each curtain and murmuring "Hail Mary..." every time. It was comforting to hear as I drifted off to sleep.

The order is huge-- something like 250 sisters. Everything was on a big scale. The day we arrived there was a constant parade of vans between the motherhouse and the airport to pick all of us up. Fortunately the parking attendants let the sisters park for free. At the motherhouse there are about a dozen visiting rooms and a gigantic common room, dozens of white rockers on a lovely back porch, and so on. The chapel is new, big, and gorgeous, and is packed to the gills when all the sisters are home on vacation and pretty full even when half of them are out on assignment.

Our meals were mostly eaten in silence while a sister read to us from "Peter on the Shore: Vocation in the Scriptures and in Real Life". I was sorry she didn't finish it before the weekend ended because I found it fascinating, no doubt because it was so relevant to my situation.

Towards the end of the retreat we broke into smaller groups and I found myself with two sisters and three other girls in one of the pretty visiting parlors. We asked the sisters lots of questions and I was completely absorbed by the conversation, but there's only one topic I recall now: Sister Michaela urging us to ask God for big things. When I heard her say that, I at once asked Him to change my attitude in a certain way, and almost at once, He did! No one else knew anything about it, but I knew a little miracle had happened in my heart.

There was a young priest on the retreat, who in one of his talks to us mentioned the irrational fears the devil uses to keep you from pursuing a vocation. He illustrated with his own story. He'd always wanted to be a lawyer, and he became one, and he was dating a woman he thought might be the one. But he was hesitant to propose to her and he didn't know why, and he also wondered from time to time, "Is this all I'm supposed to be?"

So he decided to sort things out on a weekend retreat, and he made arrangements to stay at a monastery, but driving up to the place he suddenly panicked, felt he couldn't do it, and nearly drove right away again. However, he knew it would be rude to just take off when the monks were expecting him, so he went up and knocked on the door just to say he wouldn't be staying. A monk answered and immediately began to show him to his room, and he had to keep up and didn't really have a chance to say, "No, I'm leaving!" They arrived at the room and the monk disappeared at once; our hero was left alone. He went looking for the front desk to cancel his reservation, but monasteries don't have front desks, and finally he decided to just settle down and stay.

On the Saturday evening of his little retreat he prayed the Litany of Loreto and was moved to tears. He realized he'd never asked what God wanted him to do. He was terrified of being asked to be a priest because it seemed like it would be the end of his life; all his work as a lawyer and his relationship with the girl would be for nothing. But he realized that if he left the chapel without asking the question, he'd be saying to God, "I don't care what You want." So he gave up, and prayed "If you want me to be a priest, I will," and he felt his fear disappear. In due course he became a Dominican priest, and he told us, "You couldn't give me anything in the world to make me go back to the life I had before."

I loved his story because part of it reminded me of me: the whole approach-avoidance nonsense. Afraid to stay and afraid to go, afraid to ask and not to ask, wanting to speak but feeling inhibited, unwilling even to think of certain possibilities-- yet once the obstacle is overcome you wonder how it ever seemed so insurmountable. That dynamic cropped up a fair bit when I was converting, and again when I was first feeling drawn to become a nun. The stress and nervousness I sometimes felt was out of all proportion to the situation; I remember wondering why I, a theoretically mature person in my late twenties, was having such a hard time calling up the nearest parish to say I wanted to be Catholic, or asking a priest if I could talk with him about religious life. I can be inconveniently shy, but I suspect that most of the problem was flat out spiritual warfare, and that it's very common whenever anyone's on the point of doing something the devil really, really doesn't want him to do.

Anyway, I left the retreat glad to have had the experience. The Nashville Dominicans are obviously not hurting for vocations, nor are they the least bit interested in pressuring girls to join, so I had no problem telling Sr. Mary Emily what was thinking and how I didn't seem to be called to their congregation, and she set up a meeting with the priest, who had the scoop on some places that might fit me better.

Now let us pray for the continued discernment of the nineteen-and-counting girls who are heading to Nashville this August. :)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dr. Pepper Cake with Awesome Frosting

Heehee-- I had my dad take a shot of me holding a piece of this cake, and my arm's been caught at an odd perspective...

I was intrigued by this recipe for Dr. Pepper Chocolate Cake and ran to the store to buy the prime ingredient. (Bought two liters of it because that was actually the cheapest option.) But instead of making the frosting it calls for, I tried out this recipe, daringly advertised as "The Best Frosting I've Ever Had".

I didn't take a ton of pictures this time because it's just a simple recipe, but here's my bottom line: the Dr. Pepper cake was forgettable. It was a nice moist chocolate cake, but I couldn't taste the Dr. Pepper at all. I think I've given up on cakes made with soft drinks now-- I couldn't taste the Sprite in my Sprite cupcakes either. If anything it just made the cake too sweet for even my taste.

The frosting, however...! Okay, I did have texture issues with it-- it was sort of strange; perhaps I didn't beat it enough. But that didn't matter because it was simply delicious, and a lighter texture than frosting usually has which was a nice change. In the fridge it held up very well; I don't know what it would have done at room temp. I'll have to make another batch for further evaluation. :)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Quickest takes yet!

Jen's post is here.

1) Thank you, 48 hour embryos, for not clumping up like the 55-hour timepoint did. It's 11 pm and I shall be heading home. :)

2) Our lab retreat will be tomorrow and Saturday at our fabulous marine lab by the sea in Corona del Mar, California. I'm pleased that I don't have to give a talk-- I can just listen and enjoy.

3) I am so going to make Vietnamese Coffee Jello. I made another dessert tonight, something rather fancy, but I don't have time yet to post about it.

4) Busy busy weekend-- tied up all day Friday and Saturday at the lab retreat, and on Sunday I have lunch plans, and then Archbishop Jose Gomez, L.A.'s new coadjutor bishop (who'll replace Cardinal Mahony when he retires), will be celebrating evening Mass in the San Fernando valley. He's going around to different parishes meeting people. I don't know if I'll stay long enough to talk to him, but if I'm not too tired I'll at least go to the Mass.

5) If I was going to lobby the new archbishop for anything, it'd be for him to invite in the FSSP or the ICKSP, or find some other way of providing at least one parish in this archdiocese of five million Catholics where people can hear a traditional Latin Mass any day of the week without being illicit about it.

6) I have a friend who's getting into Dr. Who and she's picked out a few favorite episodes for us to watch when we get together later. Should be fun! I know almost nothing about the series, but I don't have to because she'll bring me up to speed-- muy conveniente.

7) Oh. Conveniente doesn't mean "convenient"; it means "advisable", according to Babelfish. Darn false cognates.

I have to tell you this story; I don't know if it's true but it's definitely memorable. When I was thirteen years old and went with some other junior highers on a weekend missions trip to Mexico, one of our counselors told us about a high school girl who'd gone on the same sort of trip. This girl spoke a little Spanish, so her pastor urged her to share her testimony at the Mexican church they were visiting. She nervously got up and tried to begin by saying "I'm really embarrassed; it's the pastor's fault!" What she said was, "Yo soy muy embarazada; es la culpa del pastor." Unfortunately, embarazada means "pregnant".

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Our international lab

I thought I was almost the only sports fan in the lab, but it turns out I just needed to wait for the right sport. We have lots of people from outside the U.S.-- I haven't counted but I think American-borns might be the minority-- and everyone's going crazy for the World Cup, all rooting for different countries. Folks are streaming the games live on their laptops and hooking them up to the break room's projector so all can enjoy. And out on the street I see the Gadsen flag cropping up everywhere; I thought Obama might be inspiring an outburst of anti-statist sentiment until I realized it's a symbol for U.S. soccer.

The international character of our lab reminds me of when I first started working here, six years ago. I owned a bunch of posters from the time of World War II, and when I saw the drab basement rooms I'd be working in, I decided to bring one of them in to hang over my desk. My big framed B-17 Flying Fortress seemed suitable. And then I took a look around and realized that:

The guy at the desk next to mine was German,
The other girl in our room was Italian,
And the guy training me was Japanese.

The three Axis powers! It seemed tactless to display a poster of the plane that bombed the heck out of their countries, so I bought some nice irises instead.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Literal coffee cake for Father's Day

This weekend was Father's Day and there were three fathers at our house: my own wonderful dad, my uncle from Virginia, and my cousin who's a father for the first time this year. What a great excuse for cake, so... Literal coffee cake! I can always count on Pioneer Woman for the great recipes. This one is not chocolate cake with coffee added; there's no chocolate at all. It's just massive amounts of COFFEE, baby! Follow the link if you want the recipe; all I'm going to do is give you pictures.

I baked the cake in two layers (and incidentally, the 20-22 minutes in the recipe is ridiculous; I gave it 27 and the layers still weren't really done in the middle, even though a toothpick came out clean by 20 minutes. Was it my nonstick pans?)

Then I made the lovely speckled frosting and covered one layer.

You could stop right there, really...

The top layer came out missing a chunk (you really need to butter and flour the pans well). I just shoved the chunk back in there; it'll all be covered with frosting anyway. That's the beauty of cake.

Mom told me you normally frost the sides of a cake and then do the top, but she didn't tell me that until after I'd taken this picture.

Hey, it's only my second time making a layer cake, and I think I'm doing pretty well considering I'm frosting with one hand and taking a picture with the other.

See, it's looking decent now!

Downright yummy.

The little tube of gel frosting I bought at the grocery store had barely enough for me to write this message; you can see I got stingier with "Day". I left my offset spatula in this picture because I just bought it and don't know how I went 32 years without it. I'll give you one guess how it got so clean.

And here's the cake in action! It was quite good, excellent for coffee lovers, and we had it for breakfast the next morning too.

May God bless all fathers, especially mine! (He liked the cake.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Adoratrices... de Justin Bieber?

Someone just clued me in to Google Alerts-- you tell Google what topics you're interested in and get emailed every time your search terms show up on a new page on the internet. So two days ago I set up a whole bunch of alerts, including the names of religious orders I've visited or find interesting. One alert is simply "Adoratrices".

Now I've got an email alerting me to a news story in French. It begins: "Pour les adoratrices de Justin Bieber, un message de 140 signes envoyé sur Twitter par le chanteur adolescent équivaut à un bouquet de fleurs de leur bien-aimé."

And here I was thinking of "Adoratrices" as a very religious word, evoking traditional nuns in flowing black habits. I must say I'm a little disillusioned.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bed in Summer

I'm so tired and I'm getting up very early tomorrow, but how can I go to bed when it's still so bright outside? It makes me recall this poem from my childhood:

Bed in Summer

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

-Robert Louis Stevenson

On a completely unrelated note, I really liked this post from Brother Charles on asking one of his older confreres for a blessing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Adoratrices

Time for a mega-post of pictures from my visit to the Adoratrices. I first heard of them about two years ago, and wrote them off because they were a bunch of French nuns in Italy. But I got more interested recently when I heard that they were planning to start a foundation in America. After talking with one of their sisters and then meeting with a priest of their brother order, I asked if I could visit the motherhouse. It's in Tuscany, near Florence, so I arrived in that city on May 18th (a day later than planned-- thanks, Iceland volcano!), and was met at the train station by one of the sisters.

Maybe you've heard that there's crazy driving over in Italy? There is. Lots of tailgating and cutting people off, but what terrified me was the way drivers create their own lanes. Three cars abreast on a two-lane road-- my people, THIS SHOULD NOT BE!

And maybe you're thinking that the nice young sister who picked me up would be a meek driver, not aggressive like everyone else? WRONG.  :)

I was glad when we left the heavy traffic behind in Florence and followed the Arno River upstream through a bunch of little towns to one called Sieci. (see-AY-che).  I like visual aids, so here's a map of our route.
A is the Florence train station, B is the Adoratrices' convent, and C is the seminary, of which more later.

Past Sieci and up into the hills, I began to see a bunch of roadside shrines decorated with flowers. That made me happy. In Florence there's a grand old church on every street but not much evidence that the religion of the past is still actively practiced. There's plenty of American culture there, though. To me it felt like Swaziland four years ago, in that I was surprised by how foreign Florence
wasn't. Same fast food restaurants, same clothes, and I even saw some of the same ads I'd seen in America just before leaving, with the same English text. Other ads were in English but with a kind of Italian accent, like the one for jeans that said "Be intelligent". I guess ad agencies figure that Italians can understand, and maybe English seems sort of foreign and with it over there. I admit that I keep saying "Adoratrices" instead of "Adorers" because it sounds cooler in French.

Anyway, in the hills over Sieci we came to a driveway marked with a cross:

And up the driveway I saw the front of the convent. (You can click the pictures for bigger versions.)

The motherhouse was once a vacation home, and clearly it used to be fabulous. I've no idea when it was built, but definitely before electricity and indoor plumbing (both of those features were added later.)

In 1949 the house was donated to an organization that ran it as a foster home. This plaque commemorates that:

The foster home lasted for a few decades and then the house stood empty for decades more, except for squatters who did some damage. The back end of the house was even burned, and the doorways were all bricked up to keep people out.

While all this was happening with the house, a society of priests called the Institute of the Christ the King Sovereign Priest was founded in 1990. It started in Africa, its seminary was established in Italy, and French is its common language. It's like the FSSP in that they have parishes on several continents where all the sacraments are celebrated in the traditional rites.  Ten years after its founding, some blood sisters of ICKSP members felt called to consecrate their lives to God in support of the Institute's work.  That was the start of the Adoractrices, who became official in 2004.  Many others joined them soon after that.  I think their first convent was in Austria, and they lived in France on a farm for a while, and then for a while they were in a convent in Florence. But all the time Monsignor Wach, head of the Institute, had his eye on this house because the sisters wanted a motherhouse close to the seminary in Sieci. Finally in 2007 he was able to buy it and the sisters moved in and began patiently restoring the place.

There's a pretty garden in back:

The side of the house that overlooks the town has a terrific row of French doors:

Those doors open to a patio:

And from the patio is a FABULOUS VIEW:

That's the Arno River, and the town of Sieci neatly arranged along its banks. You can see a dam in the center of the picture, and standing outside the convent I could always hear the distant sound of water roaring over it.

Further downriver it gets hilly and there are fewer houses and more green:

And darned if this doesn't look like a castle with battlements, facing the convent from right across the river, silently menacing. It makes me want to ready the catapult.

A big archway is the house's main entrance. Its double wooden doors open onto a tunnel, at the end of which is a grill with the Adoratrices' crest in it.

And that opens onto a little courtyard.

Said courtyard was not a perfect square but an irregular polyhedron, a quadrilateral, a trapezium.

I've heard the house described as "a beautiful ruin".

The French sister who'd driven me to the convent let us both in to the courtyard and summoned another sister, who spoke fluent English with a beautiful Irish accent though she was, in fact, from Normandy. That sister led me through some doors to this set of steps...

And let me just pause here to say that the house is kinda crazy. I'm not sure what all the spaces were for originally, and I'm pretty sure it's been altered in various ways since, but as it is now you can't predict at all what rooms are going to be where. Some sides of the castle are one room thick, some two rooms thick. Some parts have two stories, some have three, and towards the end of the week I accidentally discovered a basement as well. There are tiny rooms and huge rooms, brand new windows and old windows with wavy glass, rooms with pretty painted ceilings and rooms with holey ceilings and rooms with no ceilings. No staircase in the house is remotely like any of the others, and at least one staircase would not be allowed to exist in America owing to its high injury potential. The walls are two and a half feet thick. Some rooms look like they've been empty for decades, and others are very elegant, depending I suppose on where the sisters have been working. And just check out the front of the home again:

Do you see how some of the upper windows are divided? You're actually looking at the high windows of the second story, and the ankle-level windows of the third story. That's all I have to say about that.

(Except that I think the round shutter on the round window is cute.)

So the stairs I left you at opened on to a longer staircase,

and at the top I encountered this vintage door:

It opened on to a very large attic room, half full of wooden desks.

Lots of old books too, in several languages, most often Latin.

One corner of the room was mysteriously shielded from view by a red brocade curtain:

But I'm not the least bit interested in knowing what was back there, are you? Let's move on.

My hostess told me that most of the other sisters were at the seminary down the road, helping out with the mail as they occasionally do, so I was left to my own devices until suppertime. This suited me very well, as it gave me time to go all round the house and take the pictures you've just seen without worrying about interrupting anyone.

As I ambled about I came upon this in the front yard:

Pasta? Seriously? What poor creature is being fed pasta?

It turned out to be this poor creature:

He has abnormally short legs and a slightly squashed face and he's very cute. The sisters have named him Thésis, which is a Gregorian chant rhythm that's slow and restful, just like this cat. The only time I saw him looking nimble was when he leaped through the locked courtyard gate to get inside. I'm impressed that he perseveres in religious life on the diet they give him, but maybe he's just too lazy to run away.

Oh, that red curtain? Well, you probably guessed already:

It was my bedroom! As soon as I saw it I thought it was awesome. An attic room in an old castle in Italy beats even the Li'l Orphan Annie setup that the Nashville Dominicans had us in. I love all the interesting rooms I've stayed in on my quest to find a religious order to join. I should write a whole post just about that.

From the window I could see the comings and goings at the front gate. I could even see without being seen, if I used the reflection in the window glass, but I'm an ingenuous aspiring nun who wouldn't think of a thing like that.

My desk held a nice carafe of water...

And a pink rose...

And a daily schedule! So helpful! If only I knew French!

I wrote in the translations that a sister gave me:

Lauds, Terce, Vespers and Compline are the Hours that the sisters pray together in the chapel. As for
petit déjeuner, collation, déjeuner, goûter, and diner, those are five opportunities to eat. Yes, my friends, five. You know, I've considered orders that are big on fasting. There were some Benedictine nuns, for example, who eat only two meals a day, and during Lent they wait till after sundown to eat at all. And now here I was visiting a place where they have plenty of meals and tea and cookies in between. An Institute priest told me before I visited that the sisters' rule is based on that of the Visitation nuns, founded in 1610 by St. Jane Frances de Chantal and St. Francis de Sales (my confirmation saint! Hooray!) with a mitigated rule for women who couldn't handle the very strict penitential life that was standard in religious orders at the time. Father said if I wanted lots of corporal penance I'd better join the Poor Clares or the Carmelites, not the Adoratrices. When I saw the schedule I understood what he meant. :)

That first night I slept like the dead. Breakfast the next morning, like all the meals, was in the refectory-- that's what religious congregations call their dining room. The mother superior's empty chair was under the crucifix, the postulants were in the middle, the sisters were along the walls, and I as a visitor had my own table in the corner of the picture.

This refectory is behind some of the French doors you saw above, which means that it has the gorgeous view. So as I sat down to breakfast in solitary splendor that first morning, I looked out over the town and felt a big grin spread over my face.  Such a ridiculously lovely room to breakfast in.  All week I felt unreasonably happy at every meal.

Even the refectory ceiling is lovely. I think ceiling murals were the fad in Italy for a while in the 1800's.

But there was something funny about the refectory. It was this:

Four chocolate eggs sitting on the table at Reverend Mother's chair. I knew they were out of place as soon as I spotted them. Every convent I've ever visited has been very neat and clean with everything put away, and definitely no candy laying about unless it was in its own nice little bowl. So what could be the meaning of the eggs, sitting there in such haphazard fashion?  Was this a signal of some kind? My suspicions seemed justified the next day when I saw that the eggs had shifted position and were now in a perfectly straight line. The next day they were arranged in the form of a cross. The next day they had disappeared entirely. The next day they reappeared, surrounding a small wooden clock.  It drove me crazy.

But I wasn't curious about it or anything. Let's move on.

Lunch and dinner in this convent are served in courses, with two or three sisters waiting on the rest, which made me feel rather grand. Meals begin with some appetizer, and then a main dish and a side dish, and then a cheese course, and then dessert, and lots of bread throughout the meal, and wine on every table. I watched the sisters surreptitiously, trying to copy their French table manners, and I discovered that much of what I would eat with my hands, they attack with knife and fork instead. On the other hand, they start each meal by taking a piece of bread and putting it on the table. There are big empty plates in front of each sister, but no, bread goes on the table. I highly approved their habit of using said bread to sop up whatever sauce or dressing might remain on their plates, since that's the best part. Makes it easier for the sisters in charge of washing dishes, too.

There's no talking during most meals; instead one of the sisters chants some spiritual reading or other (in French). In fact the Adoratrices keep silence all day except during "recreation" when everybody gets together and talks. It's that way with most of the congregations I've visited, and I appreciate the rule of silence so much, especially at breakfast when I don't feel like talking to anybody. It makes you more deliberate about conversation when you're allowed to have it, and more aware of God's presence the rest of the time. Also I bet it militates against the formation of cliques.

With the Adorers, recreation usually happens after lunch, when everyone moves to the next room for tea accompanied by little pieces of cake or chocolates, as well as by some kind of cordial or brandy... actually I have no idea what to call it; my knowledge of the names of alcoholic drinks is pitiful. But I know the sisters make this drink themselves, from plums I think, and they pour it into tiny glasses and it's sweet and flavorful and I have to drink it slowly because the vapors go right up my nose, and it comes in two varieties, one called Philothea and the other Théotime, after the fictional people to which St. Francis de Sales addressed his
Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God. I wish I could've brought a bottle home.

Anyway, at recreation I got to know the sisters.
It sounds like nearly all of them were associated with an Institute parish or acquainted with an Institute priest, and heard of the Adoratrices that way. Most are French, with varying levels of English fluency. The three Americans there (and the Irish postulant) have learned French, which is the order's common language.

They told me that when they first moved in, the refectory was all bricked up from the inside, so it was a dark cave lit only by a bare buzzing fluorescent light. They have seriously improved the place. Some of them specialize in doing all the remodeling work around the house; others do the cooking or gardening or sewing.

After breakfast on that first day, one of the sisters pulled me aside and explained that the mother superior had been forced to travel unexpectedly, so I would see her in a few days. In the meantime I could join the sisters for chapel and for meals, and have most of the rest of the time to myself, like on a retreat. The sisters had Lauds and prayer in the chapel right after breakfast-- here's one of the the chapel doors:

The Hours are chanted in Latin. In the morning they chant on that single high note that I encounter almost everywhere I visit-- the bane of my second-alto existence. In the evening they do a really pretty chant accompanied by the organ. I was pleased to find how much Latin I understood just from praying the same Psalms in English. If I could figure out one line from cognate words, I might recognize which Psalm it was, and that would help me figure out the rest of it.

Here's what the altar looks like. It's a small chapel with rows of benches for the sisters on either side. If they get many more vocations they'll overflow the space, so they're already fitting up one of the larger empty rooms to be a new chapel.

After prayer we had second breakfast and then I wandered out into the yard to pray. Gradually the sky clouded over, and around the time Mass started at 11 am, it was raining buckets. There were loud cracks of thunder during the Consecration; it was really something.

It rained all day, so the sister who went out into the courtyard to ring the bell for meals brought an umbrella with her.

There was another girl sitting at my table at lunch. I had no idea who she was, and as we were keeping silence I politely ignored her. But the next day after tea and cookies, when all the sisters had drifted out of the room, she made bold to introduce herself. It turned out that she was another American interested in joining the Adoratrices, and what's more she's from the L.A. area too! We had great fun chatting and comparing notes and exploring the house until the Vespers bell called us away. She'd noticed the chocolate eggs too and had the same suspicion. We speculated: could someone be sending coded messages about... us?

Days later we learned that the eggs mean nothing at all. The sisters are just amusing themselves by changing them around every day. So they

I spent most of the week praying. There were hours every day to sit in the yard or walk up the road, and read the
Diary of St. Faustina and ponder and ask God a hundred variations of "Do you want me to join this order?" which is what I always ask Him when I visit one. This was my favorite hill to look at outside. It has so many shades of green.

That calls for a closeup:

I also enjoyed this side yard. The tall trees and wildlife remind me of Yosemite, which is the nicest thing I can say about a place, and the resident birds sing loudly during Mass.

I don't have any good pictures of the birds I saw, or the deer, or the red squirrels with their tufted ears. But here's a nice snake:

When I visit active congregations they keep me pretty busy and I usually can't even find time to keep up with my diary. With the cloistered congregations I visit some of the nuns at the grill for an hour or so, and have the rest of the day to myself. The Adoratrices are in between, mostly contemplative but not strictly cloistered. They were founded to support the priests of the Institute, chiefly by prayer, but they also envision sending sisters out to some of the parishes to help the priests there in the sacristy or with catechism. Right now they're almost all at the motherhouse, and I gather that the apostlate will have to wait until more of them have finished formation. In any case they intend that prayer and contemplative life will always be the main thing.

Occasionally they hike into the hills, or visit museums in Florence, or even take a trip to Rome (a few hours away). On weekdays priests come from the Institute seminary to say Mass for them, and on Sundays the sisters go to the seminary. The Institute has more than fifty priests, I hear, and nearly seventy in formation. None of the seminarians were around the week I was there, because they always join the annual pilgrimage to Chartres (Great video on that pilgrimage here).

On most nights I lingered in the yard for as long as I could while darkness fell, then returned to my room and saw this lovely view of the courtyard.

In the mornings I had a penchant for photographing the roof.

Lots of stuff growing on that roof.

It's like a forest up there.

An entire ecosystem!

I also made friends with
Thésis. Wasn't difficult. It turns out he loves attention, so when I squatted down to pet him, he put his li'l paws on my leg...

Then climbed halfway onto my lap...

Then hopped right on board...

And mugged for the camera.

By that time I'd discovered that he sheds like crazy and drools when he purrs. So the next time he wanted to cuddle up to me, I took off my nice wool coat so it wouldn't get messy. He promptly cuddled up to the coat.

I got to meet with Mother a few times once she got back from her travels. We went walking up the road together and she told me about the order and answered many questions. They have a bunch of patron saints but it sounds like the one that most influences their spirituality is St. Francis de Sales. They don't have much corporal penance but they try to accept everything that God sends them, every circumstance whether good or bad, for love of Him. That of course can be very hard. They do expect to be sending their American nuns back to America, but there's no guarantee of that. Joining them means going wherever the superior sends.

Sunday was the feast of Pentecost. I entered the refectory at breakfast time for my usual bread and jam and cereal, and discovered... Nutella!

NUTELLA! Chocolate hazelnut goodness... for breakfast!

It's great to be a nun because the menu changes with the Church calendar, so on holy days you feel very festive.

"And one of the best things about it," said one of the sisters to me, "is that in the old calendar, Pentecost is an octave. So we might be having Nutella all week!"

The Adoratrices have the traditional Latin Mass, follow the old calendar, and pray the old breviary in Latin. They have classes to learn Latin. The native English speakers knew very little French when they entered, but in full immersion they picked it up, and the postulants who'd been there for only six months were already able to converse pretty well.  Of course, outside the order everyone's speaking Italian.

Since the seminary was empty, we headed into Florence for the Mass of Pentecost.

It was fun walking the streets of Florence together. People stared and took pictures-- one guy aimed his camera at us and then as we got closer he suddenly jerked it up as if to demonstrate that he was photographing the buildings and certainly hadn't been interested in us. Some children seemed very interested, but one little girl was frightened and hid behind her mother. We walked right by the hotel where I knew my parents were staying, so I kept an eye out but didn't see them. Too bad. It would've been fun to shout, "Hi Mom! Hi Dad!" from the middle of a flock of nuns.

Our destination was Santi Michele e Gaetano, which is a beautiful old church that's been given to the Institute to run. The priests say the TLM there every Sunday, and on this Sunday the Adoratrices did the chants. I wish we'd had time to hang around and see all the artwork in the place.

In the afternoon we took a walk to the empty seminary. Here's a sign we passed on the way. "Chianti"-- I think I've heard of that. :)

At the seminary the sisters gave us a tour of the place. I wasn't the only one taking pictures:

I'm told that the seminary buildings were even more run-down than the convent when the Institute seminarians first moved in, but they've had a lot longer to work on it.

The convent used to be a rich family's vacation home, but the seminary's even better: it was an estate of the Martellis, one of the noble families of Tuscany. The last two Countesses Martelli had no descendants, so when they both died a few decades ago, the estate was willed to an order of Benedictine monks who had the traditional Mass. The Benedictines lived there for ten years to see if the congregation would flourish, but when they didn't get any Italian vocations they decided to fulfill the Countesses' will by passing on the property to another traditional group of priests, and that's how the Institute got it.

There are lots of fun details around the buildings; I'm not even showing half my pictures. Here's one room:

I like this statue from near the entrance. The Blessed Mother with her awesome veil is crushing the serpent with her foot while her Son gets ready to administer the killing blow with his Cross, and they're both completely peaceful about it, quite unperturbed as Satan in serpentine form writhes in his death agony.

Some Easter candles that the seminarians decorated themselves:

The candles were in a tiny chapel that had this statue of Jesus over the altar. What a powerful visual representation of the sacrifice of the Mass.

Here's the seminary's main chapel.

That's not a great picture, so I stole another from the Institute website. The sisters like being near the seminary partly because they can go there for solemn liturgies on Sundays and important feast days.

This painting hangs on the wall of one of the seminary's sitting rooms. I bet you'd like an explanation of it.

So would I. Some liturgical dance of the Gregorian Rite, perhaps?

Check out this huge painting. It's the Martelli family tree, spanning centuries.
There are little symbols near many of the names, often hats or heraldic shields.  See that one entry in the upper left that's twice as big as the others?

That's the cardinal in the family. :) Here's his Wikipedia page, but there's not much info there.

Outside the seminary were flowers and another lovely view. I was told that the Martelli estate includes the whole hillside.

The side yard. The seminarians themselves tend to the grapevines beyond the wall and make their own wine.  See that half-ruined arch right in the center?  My parents have been to the famous Chelsea Garden Show in London, and they say there are manufactured ruins for sale there.  You can buy one for your backyard and pretend you're the scion of a noble and ancient house... or you can go to Casa Martelli and see the real thing.

At least... it better be the real thing.  Anyway.  There was a huge circular lawn, originally for exercising horses, so we took a turn around it. The girl on the left in this picture is one of three postulants and the girl on the right is one of two candidates who just entered. In addition the order has seven novices in white veils and six professed who wear black veils. It's a long formation: candidacy for some undetermined length of time, postulancy for a year, novitiate for three or four years, and temporary profession for six or seven. In fact I'm not certain whether even the most senior sisters have taken final vows yet. Most of the sisters in the Adoratrices look young(er than me.  I'm 32).

The back of the seminary overlooks the valley. See the big family crest on the wall?

It's a "griffin rampant", as they say in heraldic jargon.

I did some Googling and learned that the griffin rampant is indeed the coat of arms of the Martelli family, and it turns out they once had Donatello carve them a much better griffin for their palace in Florence:

This site has a critique of the work: "It possesses all the traditional attributes of the griffin. It is fearless and heartless: its horrible claws strike out to wound in every direction, and the whole body vibrates with feline elasticity, as well as the agile movement of a bird. Regarding it purely as a composition, we see how admirably Donatello used the space at his command: his economy of the shield is masterly. It is occupied at every angle, but nowhere crowded. The spaces which are left vacant are deliberately contrived to enhance the effect of the figure."

Fearless and heartless with horrible claws!  Perfect for a seminary!  I need a coat of arms. But I digress, and now everyone's walking home without me. :)

On Monday, my last day, I came down to breakfast and found Nutella again. A Pentecost octave is a beautiful thing. :) I slathered some graham crackers with Nutella and crammed them in my mouth, and fortified by that breakfast I fetched my suitcase and headed back in to Florence with the same young sister who doesn't speak English.

It happened on the city outskirts that we stopped at a light in a long line of cars. A young man with black hair, kinda tough looking, starting walking down the row of the cars handing out some kind of newspaper to each driver. I'll never know what he was advertising, because when he came to our car he took one look at Sister in her black habit and hastily switched direction. He glanced back over his shoulder as he retreated, and I couldn't tell if he was suspicious or frightened or just in shock, but clearly he did not wish to meet a nun that day. Sister and I both giggled.

That's pretty much all, folks, since I already complained about the plane journey in the other post. :) It's high time I got this one published and started answering emails. Gold stars all round to those who read through to the end!

By the way, in a post this long and full of information I heard second hand and remember more or less vaguely, there are bound to be mistakes, so it would be better not take it as an authoritative description of the Adoratrices-- just the impressions one visitor had. Same goes for all the posts I write after visiting different orders.

Update: So this is the order I'm going to join. :)  Here are some posts with more information about the Adorers: part deux and part trois.