A short bus ride from the city of Palermo is the mountain town of Monreale. The first site you see except for the mountain in the background is The Cathedral, a combination of Norman and Byzantine architecture dedicated to the Birth of the Virgin Mary and famous for a mosaic of Christ looking downward at Mass goers and visitors alike from above the altar. Unfortunately, the Cathedral interior was so dark the day we visited that photos were nearly impossible. My photo of the mosaic of Christ is from too great a distance and does not do justice to his penetrating look, which even nonbelievers find compelling.
The Benedictine Monastery suggests the fondness of the Benedictine religious order for mountainous places apart from the world very much like the similar monastery a bus ride away from Barcelona, Spain in the mountain region of Montserrat. This Sicilian one consists of a cloister and the monk’s dormitory (closed on the day we were there). Mount Caputo slopes down below the Cathedral and Monastery to a valley where orange, olive and almond trees were (and maybe still are) grown. A garden in the monk’s cloister produced the same on a smaller scale.
The site also has a museum, belonging to the Diocese of Monreale, where its artifacts are exhibited.
I am writing this blog on April 16, 2019, the day after the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was burnt down, and the reactions of Parisians to that event (prayers, rosaries, tears) remind me of the extent to which European Cathedrals in some sense are their respective countries. Believers and non-believers alike are deeply affected by them.
After my disappointing photo of the mosaic of Christ inside the dark Cathedral is the one taken in the inexpensive trinket shop outside. That one, though in a comparatively shabby commercial setting, gives you a clearer idea of what the mosaic actually looks like.
Mary and I did lots of walking on our own around Palermo before we left the city for our tour of Sicily. Two of the squares we found most intriguing were the Piazza Verdi, site of the Opera House, and the nearby Piazza Olivella, site of the Baroque Church of Saint Ignatius.
The Opera House seats between 1300 and 1400 people and its acoustics are supposedly perfect. The Church of Saint Ignatius is run by the Oratorian Fathers, founded by Saint Philip Neri.
Sicily, located south of Italy, is nevertheless autonomously governed. Ill spent money due to the corrupting influence of the Mafia on government and vice versa is noticeable in some run down buildings, especially outside of town. Masterpieces of painting that have not been restored and hang loosely on crumbling church walls indicate similar corruption. And yet on the whole this huge island remains enchanting, especially for visitors who love wine, pasta, fish, music and religious observance that still thrives on public ceremony.
The ancient city of Palermo is Sicily’s capital, and I have decided to offer you some photos simply of its streets, with their outdoor marketing and restaurants. (In my next group of photos you will likewise notice outdoor wash unashamedly hanging from balconies.) The last photo here, taken by a friendly Sicilian passerby, is of me holding Mary’s bag while she shops for overpriced dresses in a fancy modern store, and doesn’t buy.
For over thirty years of my academic life I was a writer of scholarly essays and a book on the 19th-century British poet and religious philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. To people who may have become acquainted with Coleridge as part of their high school or college English curriculum, he was the “Romantic” poet who wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” and who was addicted to laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol). Spending as much of my life as I did on such an apparently head-in-the-clouds character as Coleridge may well now seem a colossal waste of time. Whatever the effects of all that work on the thousands of students I taught over the years, surely it could not have made much of a difference in their lives, or so it may be thought, and could hardly have helped them get a job.
Nevertheless, aside from the handful of students who have located me after they graduated and thanked me for the considerable effect I had on them, I have recently received some unexpected evidence of the comparatively hidden influence of my Coleridge scholarship. In the immediate aftermath of the publication of my book (Coleridge’s Progress to Christianity, Bucknell University Press, 1995) there were the usual reviews, most fairly complimentary and one or two less so. There was also the opportunity my university gave me to attend Coleridge Conferences in a little out of the way town in the west country of the U.K near Bristol, where I had the good fortune to make friends with teachers and scholars as involved with Coleridge as I was.
But I have just heard from a British scholar who has referenced my book in one he himself has written, to be published later this year by Oxford University Press. He has asked me to review it and, after reading all the material he sent to help me understand his thesis and argument, I have decided to do just that. I will do it because I admire this forthcoming book and sympathize with its view of Coleridge, which emphasizes the practical value of his thinking for society: the importance, for example, of making ethical decisions, understanding history, and appreciating the achievements of culture.
So here is a vigorous young scholar, born many years after me and teaching in Japan, who was influenced by a book I wrote well over 25 years ago. I understand that most college students these days will be in so much debt when they graduate that they need good jobs. But are there not some longer lasting, even global benefits which, though not immediately obvious, come from a kind of education that tries to get beyond that?
I turned eighty the day before yesterday. My older daughter Jennifer, who brought the helium balloons to the restaurant where we celebrated, had heard that I recently started yoga classes. So she sent me a birthday card that asked whether I do yoga to “burn off the crazy.” Now that I think of it, I do if you understand by “crazy” the effects of living in a country of people more mutually disrespectful than I ever expected and by “burning off” the search for occasional peace of mind in the midst of all that craziness.
My younger daughter Margie picked the restaurant where we celebrated my 80th, which was back in the neighborhood where she and her sister were raised. Margie, like Jennifer a little girl then, said she remembered me setting off from our house to catch the bus for work carrying a briefcase with student papers crammed into them. That was in the nineteen seventies, way before the arrival of backpacks and laptop bags, and the briefcase she remembers was the one my father, who was a heating salesman, had carried to show brochures to his customers. I took that briefcase to work until it was almost in shreds when my wife Mary finally insisted on buying me a new one. My most recent briefcase–the one I used until I retired from teaching–was the laptop carrier you see below. That added up to three work bags in almost fifty years of teaching college English. My favorite one, though, was that first one.