A Friar In New York

By Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Meet Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Fr. Steven Patti was born in Boston and grew up in nearby Burlington, MA. He joined the friars in 1994 after having served for a year as a volunteer at St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen in Philadelphia staffed by Franciscan Friars. He was ordained in 2001 and has served in Wilmington, DE; Durham NC (at Immaculate Conception); Providence RI; and at the St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia.

Steve is a fan of all the Boston sports teams. He is an avid reader of fiction, history, poetry, and spirituality/theology, and also likes to go to the movies, and to visit art museums. When he gets the chance, he loves to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with family and friends, and to spend time at his family’s lake house near the New Hampshire/Maine border.

Saturday Night on The ER

October 18, 2021

My father and me, and his friend Ed, at the base lodge at Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire on Friday. Ed is 87 years old, and my father will turn 87 next month. We stand here at the base and look up at the ski trails, green now in autumn, the ski lifts – the quad chair and the triple chair – motionless now, but once the snow arrives, ferrying skiers to the top of Wildcat.

These two have known each other since college, which is what, 70 years almost now, and they tell stories about days in the late 1950s, early 1960s, taking the ski train up from North Station in Boston, skiing for the day, and then taking the train back. There is at Wildcat an old gondola from maybe the 1950s, and it’s preserved there, and you can take your picture next to it, and I remember riding that back in the 1970s and 1980s. I take a picture of Ed and my father, one on either side of it.

Across Route 16, hidden in clouds and fog, is Mt. Washington, and high up on the mountain is Tuckerman’s Ravine, where they used to walk – walk! – with their skis, boots, poles high up to the ravine – a good two miles up hill – and then ski down its steep side. On this day, a mixture of sun and clouds, they talk about those days, but we’re going to walk instead a short path, maybe 3/4 of a mile, to Thompson Falls, which our White Mountain guide book tells us is a short, easy hike from the Wildcat parking lot, and certainly far more manageable for these two skiers/hikers now in their 80s.

It’s a trail going in, among the pines, with tree roots that need to be navigated, and at one spot a stream to be crossed by carefully stepping on stones in the water. I watch them both and help them across – watching for balance. Later, the path ascends, and we stop to rest and breathe in the pine and fresh mountain air. The sound below of water flowing. Then we arrive, the sound of water closer, and there it is, these falls, the water flowing from somewhere above, and a pool of water below, and we stop and allow the scene to settle with us: fresh air, water, sun and clouds, smooth stones in the pool.

The days of grueling hikes to summits are in the past for my father and for Ed, but here we are on this day, not high up but still here in this place of memories, of mountains and streams and rivers and fresh cool autumn air, and it brings us all back to days when we went hiking in the woods and mountains and what it felt like to be alive in God’s good creation, and this maybe part of the roots, for me, of my Franciscan vocation, to feel a part of it all. I take a picture of my father and Ed by the rock pool, and I am grateful for just this time, this day, these memories of what came before and what’s here now, of what we hold.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Cloisters

October 10, 2021

The A train way up to the northern edge of Manhattan, off at 190th Street which is a long way from where I started at Penn Station, and out into the sunshine and to Fort Tryon Park where I walk up steep pathways looking for….the Cloisters. I have to ask someone who points me the right way, and even this seems a nice moment of civility on this bright and sunny Monday morning.

And here it is, like a medieval castle in this park in northern Manhattan, and inside I am immediately transported to some other time, long ago, this chapel with an archway and a crucifix from the thirteenth century, stone carvings of the Annunciation and the Visitation, a stone baptismal font from that time and I gaze at it and wonder, what has this stone witnessed over these many centuries, how many people baptized who have lived lives and now live in an eternal life that all this beauty witnessed to in its time?

It’s something to just pause, look around, look up, imagine these artifacts from another time transported all the way to New York, set up here looking out over the Hudson River, on this Indian-summer-esque day. There’s a way outside to a stone balcony, and from there the river flows as if to remind us of the always-present flow of life and all things, of the change in color of leaves which hints at a new season. There’s a garden with herbs and flowers which would have been of the time of the Middle Ages. There’s a breeze. The city, in all its bustle, is somewhere to the south, and for now everything feels like grace.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Saturday Night on The ER

October 4, 2021

The evening begins well, on this weekend of the Feast of St. Francis, with a bottle of wine at dinner that comes from Umbria, which we request because Umbria is where Assisi is, and it seems appropriate. But soon after, the friar here with us has to leave the table, and he returns not long after and doesn’t look well, and tells us he needs to go to urgent care, something with his esophagus, which has happened before with him, and so we go to an urgent care at 13th St. and 7th Avenue, around 8:00pm on a Saturday night.

We are there for 3+ hours, and by 11:30 or so the doctor agrees to his being discharged, and he’s relieved to be able to go home. And what’s it been like, on a Saturday night in Manhattan, waiting in the emergency room for some sort of resolution?

A big part of it is waiting. And waiting. And more waiting. Here’s half a can of ginger ale, see if you can hold this down. Here you are in this room, room #4, one room among many rooms, and outside this room is a nurse’s station, and next to this room is an armed police officer, in case of something, and the view out of this room is to the place where ambulances arrive, and every now and then the friar will say, here comes another one, someone being admitted, on this Saturday night in Manhattan. A woman in room 3, right next to us, leaves her room and wanders out into the hallway, and turns to enter our room, and an attentive nurse says to her, no honey, not there, what do you need, let’s go back to your room, and takes her back. The doctor comes in, asks some questions. The friar guesses he might be from some central European country, and he sort of looks like Novak Djokovic. He’s formal, says, “please drink your ginger ale, sir.” A nurse comes in, does what nurses do, checks things, adjusts things, leaves and comes back. The room is plain: a bed, a chair, a cabinet, a patients bill of rights on the wall, hospital lighting above, a clock which continuously reveals just how late this evening has become.

A fair amount of anxiety: what will happen, admitted to the hospital, or free to go home? We don’t know. More waiting, and signs, in time, of improvement, of getting better. But waiting still. And this nurse. She is from Scotland, has lived in Philadelphia and Australia, speaks with the kind of accent that leads to the question, where are you from? She is attentive in all the best ways. Tends to the patient with warmth and compassion, dignity and kindness. What must it be like to work an ER in New York City? She tells us that Philadelphia was harder, working in a hospital in North Philly near Temple University, the violence of that part of the city. What she’s seen.

The constant motion of all of it, all of these ER workers, and I can see why there was a long-running TV show of the same name, so much drama, so many stories to be found here. A young woman who is wobbly from something, being guided in by a friend. A man mumbling to himself as he sits alone in a small room. Police officers arriving, and what kinds of things do they see on a Saturday night in the city?

Waiting, more waiting, and then good news: you are free to be discharged. Even this takes time. Some papers to sign, instructions to take home. Good finally to leave, and it feels like leaving a drama that started before we arrive and continues after we’ve gone. Human life in its fragility, and in that, the tenderness and care of those who work on the front line of it all, tending to wounded people, like this nurse from Scotland with the captivating accent, who made an anxious friar on a Saturday night feel a little more at ease. That’s grace right there.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Jubilee of Profession

September 27, 2021

A program in my hand from Thursday night, and it reads ”Jubilee of Profession of Vows in the Franciscan Order,” and ”jubilee of profession” means those friars in the province who made their first profession of vows either 25 or 50 years ago. My first profession was in June of 1996, in Providence, RI, and so this is the year for my 25th, although one wise guy in the house asks me if it’s my 50th. Friars can be like that. Profession is not ordination – profession is vows made to the Franciscan order, and once those vows are made a friar can decide to pursue ordination, as I did, or decide to pursue other things, such as teaching or social work or really anything at all. One friar who is currently in formation is a barber.

The jubilee is held this past Thursday night, postponed from its usual time in June due to the pandemic, and there are around 30 or so friars in the church. It’s a mass, the presider is the provincial minister of the province, and after the homily, the “renewal of vows by the jubilarians” which we all speak together (there are 7 of us, including last year’s group which could not gather at all due to the pandemic).

I save the program and read over these vows a few days afterwards. It begins ”All praise be yours, O Lord, for all creation gives you glory. All praise be yours, O Lord, for all good things come from you. All praise be yours, O Lord, for you call us to the life of your risen Son.”

25 years ago in Providence RI I was a nervous, ”what am I getting into” 32-year-old who professed vows, but who honestly had little or no idea of what he was getting into. Which is probably to be expected, right? In his homily on Thursday, the provincial spoke about our lives as friars, the 7 of us over the years serving in ministries all over the East Coast, and our lives formed and touched by encounters with people, seeking to create a space for the Holy amid the everyday.

The 7 of us stood behind the altar, looking out over the church and seeing friars we’ve known for years, remembering our years of ministry in places we’d never imagined we’d be, and for me, that includes a death row ministry in North Carolina, a soup kitchen in inner-city Philadelphia, having to announce the friars’ withdrawal from parishes in Providence RI and Raleigh NC, countless encounters with people as signs of grace and goodness along the way.

And as I read over the program from Thursday, the renewal of vows begins with praise: it all belongs to God. As much as we sometimes might think ”it’s up to me” (and don’t we all think that sometimes?), as I read this over, all goodness, all life, all everything emerges from a loving and creating and renewing God, and 25 years into it all, it still feels ongoing and surprising, and that’s a good thing!
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Unmapped Territory

September 20, 2021

From a book I found at the Strand Bookstore, called ”Consider the Birds” by Debbie Blue, and it’s a reflection on birds in the bible and also a wider reflection on the bible itself, and in a reflection on the Israelites’ time wandering in the wilderness, she writes, ”There’s no logical or geographical reason for it to take forty years to get from Egypt to the Promised Land. We sometimes believe the shortest path is the best one, but maybe there is a need to wander. There is unmapped territory that needs to be explored – desires to be let go of, renounced, or transformed.” (p. 57).
I write all this down in a notebook, the whole quote, because it seems to get at something of the human experience, and how to interpret the bible. The ”unmapped territory” of the forty years of wandering: reading this not as a story about how they got from Point A to Point B, but maybe there’s an interior story here about the human experience of wandering, of not getting there promptly, of way stations along the way, of paths taken that don’t seem to lead anywhere, but then do, of God’s patience with our right turns and our wrong turns, and our general puzzlement sometimes as to how or where to go in life. The ”unmapped territory” that can be the place of divine presence and encounter, whether we’re aware of it or not (and usually, at least for me, it’s not!).
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Stream in the Woods

September 17, 2021

In New Hampshire, a few weeks back, and how I love to be in New Hampshire, whether it’s in the Lakes Region or further north in the White Mountains, it all holds memories. I’m in Sanbornville, NH, where our family has had a home since 1976, when I was 12, and on this day a few weeks back I walk from the lake house, down past the Poor People’s Pub, past the Lovell Lake Food Market, past the town hall, and turn right onto Forest Street where I walk all the way down to where we had that first NH house back in 1976, until we sold it in 1992 for the current house on the lake. And I look at that house that we had, now added on to, and it doesn’t look like the original house but it sort of does, and it holds all kinds of memories, with the tennis court right next to it, and I am sure dozens of tennis balls lost in the marsh next to it, sent over the fence sometime back in 1979 or so, when we were gathering around the old black and white TV set to watch Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in their heyday. It’s all there, it all looks much the same, and I stand there and remember that 40 years ago we were teenagers here, playing games, going for swims, planning hikes and ski trips.

I linger awhile, because memories have a way of settling and holding on, and I look around at the houses and the pond and the trees and the tennis court with the original chain link fence, and remember all of us back then, younger (!) of course, and how the years have a way of adding up and disappearing, and yet how places continue to hold us, as in, these things happened here, in this place, and the landscape holds it all.

I walk on, go and see St. Anthony’s Church which is not far away. The doors are locked. I walk back in the parking lot, and behind the parking lot there are woods, and I remember from all those years ago there was a stream back there. I go back and look. Cars drive by in the street out front, but they seem far away. The parking lot is empty. It’s late in the afternoon and no one is around. I go to the edge of the asphalt, look into the tangled woods. I hear, faintly, running water, and there, I can see it, just a glimpse of a stream in the woods. And then, just then, sunlight reflecting off branches, off the water, and is this a sign? A sign of what? Maybe, it seems, of a kind of abiding baptismal presence through the years, a stream of life that runs through it, even when the traffic of everyday life seems the only thing we can hear – here, now, this sunlight on water and tree, this is the abiding presence in your life, and sometimes we are granted a look, a moment, in which it all seems to be there, an ”I am with you” kind of moment, and I linger, again, for a moment, and then begin walking back, deeply grateful for a hidden stream in the woods which reveals its presence within the everyday and the ordinary.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

9/11

September 13, 2021

Walking down Sixth Avenue on a sunny and cool Saturday morning, and the date is September 11th, 2021, and in the distance, all the way down the avenue, I can see the Freedom Tower, and I know that twenty years ago on this day, right around this time, there was a very different view looking down Sixth. I have visited the site, seen the empty footprints of where the buildings once stood, read the names of those who died, including that of Mychal Judge, a friar who died that day in the towers, and whose name is now inscribed on South Pool, Panel S-18, under the grouping of First Responders, agency name New York City Fire Department Chaplain, OFM. Not far from there is a tree that survived the day, now fenced in with a plaque, its branches reaching outward and upward. I talk to a friar who lives here and who tells me on that day, he remembers seeing Mychal Judge come down the stairs and going out the door, and he thinks he may have been the last friar to have spoken with him. He now has Mychal’s umbrella in his room, as a kind of memento. I talk with a friar who tells me that Mychal’s body was brought to the fire department which is right across the street from here. I talk with a woman who, on that day, was living where she lives now, in lower Manhattan, and remembers the ash and smoke and awful terror of the day. In the church, on the left hand side, is part of the wreckage from the towers, and someone has set a single rose in the midst of it. A friar at dinner tonight tells me that yesterday, 9/11/21, he walked down to the memorial, said it was filled with crowds, with people leaving flowers at the site. At mass, there are prayers. There is a moment of silence at the beginning, and a bell tolls five times. At night, rising into the night sky, two beams of light which symbolize what used to be there, a memory of what happened twenty years ago, rising like a prayer for those who died, like hope for those of us who remember.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Driving Back into the City

September 6, 2021

Driving back into New York City on a Sunday night of Labor Day weekend….with all the hopes that maybe, just maybe, traffic may be lighter because of the holiday. The way that traffic comes to a near halt on 95 approaching the George Washington Bridge; the truck or whatever it might be behind me with its high beams shining brightly; the ever-present fast-moving car weaving in and out of lanes; the trying-to-make-sure I’m in the right lane so I can exit onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, and then finding that the right lane that exits onto the Hudson Parkway merges with incoming traffic from somewhere else, and so in the darkness and lights the right-hand blinker to get over there; the way the parkway splits into north and south and trying to make sure I’m in the southbound lane, which means a quick look and a quick crossover into that lane; the parkway and its multiple lanes and multiple cars changing lanes quickly and so the attentive watching, all with the Hudson River on the right, and the city in all its bright lights and traffic and high buildings sprawling on the left; the exit onto 42nd St, the right turn onto 11th Avenue, the left turn onto 37th, the right turn onto 7th Avenue, and watching, watching, watching to see what that bicycle will do, where that pedestrian will go, and finally the left onto 32nd and then right into the garage, which, strangely enough, feels almost peaceful and calm compared to the spectacle of the city outside. And so I have driven back into the city on a Sunday night, and I remember that only yesterday morning I was at a lake in New Hampshire, a cool breeze coming in off the water, sunshine, kayaks, and a day later in an altogether different place, now back in my room, unpacked, and how is it that we are who we are and where we are, that I can be among the lakes and mountains and fresh air of New Hampshire, and not long after turn into a parking garage on West 32nd St. in midtown Manhattan, and as I wait to turn left onto 42nd St., the window down, the city air, “Exile on Main Street” side 3 on the speakers, it seems true to me that God has led me places and shown me places that I quite possibly never could have imagined, and it feels like grace.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Driving in NYC

August 30, 2021

Early Sunday morning and I am leaving the city by car, driving north out of Manhattan on my way to Massachusetts, with a stop in Providence RI on the way to meet my brother. The car is ready to go in the garage, parked on the side, and this part, the exiting of the garage onto 32nd St. , and the navigating the streets of Manhattan to leave the city, is the high-alert part, the leave-the-radio-off part as I fully concentrate on driving these streets. Sunday morning at 9:00am is not a bad time to venture out – streets not so busy, not a lot of traffic, not so many pedestrians. But the pedestrians are still there, and they still crowd the intersections, and so driving becomes a combination of pressing forward and claiming the lane, always with a large dose of defensiveness and caution that anything at all could happen on these streets.

And so I pull onto 32nd St., a right turn out of the garage, stopping and waiting for pedestrians on the sidewalk coming from both directions. Then it’s the intersection of 32nd and 6th, and I have a red light, and yet an officer is waving me forward – why? I go forward, look both ways, and she is doing this because there is a major bicycle event going on this day in the city, and she tells me through my open driver-side window that I can’t turn left onto 6th Avenue as I’d hoped, there are “too many bikes,” and I can only go straight ahead.

And so I go…straight ahead. 32nd to Madison, left on Madison, right on 34th, then straight on 34th to the FDR Expressway, which goes north out of the city and onto 95. The city streets at this hour, in these neighborhoods, are mostly quiet, and the most challenging part of the drive is making sure I’m in the proper lane, as lanes have a way of suddenly turning into right-turn or left-turn only lanes, but it does not become an issue on this morning.

And the highways, the FDR becoming something else, which becomes something else, and I haven’t left the city via the east side in a long time so I have to pay closer attention to all the exits and signs, since I usually leave via the west side, along the Hudson. There is something about driving in New York City – it requires a whole other level of hyper-attentiveness, and at least on a Sunday morning it’s not so bad, and it all eases up once I’m out of the city and onto 95, like whoever thought that 95 would be a relief from driving anywhere?

And then, three hours later, I am in Providence, RI, and I stop at St. Mary’s on Broadway where I was once pastor 10 years ago, and then to Wayland Square where I meet my brother for lunch, and then to Wakefield MA where I am staying with my other brother, and at night I take his black lab out for a walk around Lake Quannapowitt, and I look across the night water and marvel at how we can inhabit such different worlds in one single day.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Profusion of Line

August 23, 2021

Back, and back again, and back even again, to the Museum of Modern Art, to the Cezanne Drawing exhibition, and from the exhibition catalogue this description of the artist’s work:

“What is most distinct about his drawing is the profusion of line – the way it multiplies, repeats, twists, trembles, searches. Wary of singularity, definition, purity, Cezanne warned that, however beautiful, a precise ‘bloodless’ contour should not be trusted….what we comprehend in these multiplied, repeated, crossed, and aligned strokes is the material equivalent of seeing, whether that seeing is wholly contingent, uncertain, and precarious; on the verge of coming to terms with its subject or an allowance that something may be more than one thing; or a demonstration of how vision fails as it rounds an edge, the limits of sight…such a refusal of contour, or borders, of finality, of commitment is found throughout Cezanne’s pencil drawings.” (“Cezanne Drawing”, p. 15).

I write all this down in my little notebook because it so well describes what I see at MoMA and why I keep going back. Drawn lines as repeating, twisting, trembling, searching; precise contours “not to be trusted” (!); some thing as maybe “more than one thing”; how vision can fail “as it rounds an edge.”

It’s all an acknowledgement of how life can seem to be, made up of searching lines that may go somewhere or may not; how things are seldom precise or perfectly resolved; how there is more to things or people or the world itself than we think we know; how much is unknown or unseen on the other side of whatever horizon I see; how life can seem a trembling, twisting, multiplying, repeating search for what’s there or not there.

And so I keep going back, maybe for only 25-30 minutes at a time, to look again at a drawing of apples and pears, or a study of trees which only hints at the subject and leaves large sections of empty, unfilled space, or of a forest path which disappears into blankness, a few trees, some foliage, not much else. As if to say, you fill in what’s not there, leave room for mystery and the unknown, be open to the presence of grace in the unfilled places of your life.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Larry Looking for a Place to Rest

August 16, 2021

The early mass this morning, 8 o’clock, and where do people come from at this time of the day on a Sunday morning, from the nearby subway, from the streets, and in any case they are here, maybe, like the presider, still not quite fully awake, waiting for a post-mass coffee with its jolt of caffeine to spark the day.

From where I stand at the chair looking out over the church, I can scan the crowd, some familiar, some surely visitors to the city arriving from nearby Penn Station, or on their way somewhere in this always-moving city. It’s not a neighborhood church, it’s not a place where people necessarily know each other. At the sign of peace during the mass, the now standard turn and wave to anyone within waving distance.

Mass begins, begun by a beautiful song by the cantor who later will solo an Ave Maria that transports me to a medieval church somewhere in France, this soaring voice. And I look out, and halfway down the center aisle, settling into an empty pew, I see Larry, whom I know only as – Larry.

Larry is a regular on the Bread Line, he shuffles up to the Line toward the end, and all of us working the Line have developed a strange sort of affection for him. He barely can speak. He arrives in an old blue jacket, old white sneakers, carrying a bag with him, inside of which I once saw, among the sandwiches and peanut butter snacks he had, a Rubik’s cube. Larry approaches the Line and always has to select what he wants himself: we stand back and let him take his sandwich, his peanut butter and jelly, his cake, his coffee.

We are glad to see him, we ask him how he’s doing, and he always replies, “good, good” in a vaguely mute way. He might say “OK.” Or he might say again, “good, good.” There is little if anything more. And here today, at the 8 o’clock mass, he arrives and takes his spot, but he does not seem to be aware of what’s going on, or what the mass is, he’s just here in the church, a place to rest, or a place to find some peace perhaps, and he is familiar and surely troubled and someone once said that he spends most of the day standing up in Penn Station, and so when he comes to our church on 31st St. he rests, during the week in the lower church, head bowed down, bag by his side, left alone.

And today he’s in the upper church, he’s found his place whether he knows what’s going on around him or not. At the end of mass, as I walk down the center aisle, I pause and I lean his way, tell him hello, and he looks up and says, “good, good”, and then I continue on my way. Where will he go afterwards, where does he come from, what does he do – he is, no doubt, one of God’s own, dispossessed in some way and yet in his gentleness, maybe even his lostness, his needing a place to rest for a while, an image of an incarnate God who searched and searched and searched until finally born into this world in a forgotten stable.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Directions?

August 9, 2021

I am walking south on Sixth Avenue one day last week, amid the usual crowds and the usual distractions, the bicycles riding the wrong way either in the bike lane or (maddeningly) on the sidewalk itself; the street vendors selling what must be fake bags and sunglasses and iPhone cases; pedestrians walking with earbuds and talking to….someone else somewhere. An overall effect of utter distraction and rapid movement – add in cars, trucks, sirens, horns leaned on, walk/don’t walk signs, and you realize quickly that walking in New York City is not like walking around a pond somewhere, but like merging into the far left lane on the highway, from 0-60 in hardly any time at all, constantly watching for what’s coming at you, and needing to pivot quickly to avoid…something or someone.

And so I am walking south on my way, and at the corner of 6th and 25th, a woman walking near me turns to me and asks, “is this 8th?” It’s a rare moment, someone asking directions or for orientation, and that hardly ever happens anymore in these days of smartphones. And, she is younger! A younger person than me asking directions! What universe have I landed in?

Is this 8th? She wants to know if she’s on 8th Avenue and she’s not, she’s on 6th. I am momentarily startled by the question, or not so much the question as the fact that it’s a question that’s been asked: a person wanting to know if she’s in the right place, going the right way. This hardly ever happens anymore and so when it does happen, it’s a recognition of a kind of public accountability we have to one another: we can offer a courtesy, we can share what we know, we can help place a person on the right path to somewhere. For a moment, there are no earbuds, no squawking phones, but a question, an encounter.

And so I answer her, tell her she’s in fact on 6th and that to get to 8th she needs to turn right here, pass over 7th, and then she’ll get to 8th. And she turns right and is on her way. And I continue on my way, south on 6th, and I feel like what, a New Yorker, or one who knows my way around the city, or one who has had an encounter with another person in the city that is not electronic or virtual, but one that involves a few words, a gesture, a pointing that way. And as 6th Avenue once again reclaims its chaotic flow, I walk along happy to have shared one bit of minor knowledge with a stranger now on her way, in this vast and beautiful city.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Early Saturday Morning Walk

August 2, 2021

Early Saturday morning, and it’s unseasonably cool on this last day of July in the city, temperatures in the 60s, and I walk down the five flights of stairs to the first floor and out the door onto 31st St, and now, the question, where to go? Which direction? Here on 31st between 6th and 7th is sort of like living in no definable place: it’s not a neighborhood, there is little or no charm, no trees, though there are a couple of restaurants across the street which seem to do well. We are a place on the way to somewhere else: Penn Station is nearby and everyone, it seems, is in transit. We are a crossroads, but hardly anyone would say, “let’s go explore 31st St. between 6th and 7th.”

So, to go out the door, where to go? I go to the left, to the east, and then south on 6th, and stop at Chelsea Flea Market on 25th St. where a few weeks back I found a Neolithic arrowhead for sale, and some time before that I found a pre-Colombian axe-head. An awareness of deep time as I hold them in my hand. It’s early at Chelsea Flea, warm in the sun, and I like to just look and see what’s there. And then from there further east on 25th St., all the way to 1st Avenue, and it’s in these places that you feel like you’re in a neighborhood, brownstones and little shops selling coffee and snacks, dry cleaners, shoe repair shops, the ubiquitous pizza shops (“$2/slice!”). A sleeping city slowly beginning to emerge into the light.

And then south on 1st Avenue, all the way down to Houston Street, the temperature slowly rising into the higher 60s or lower 70s, a cool breeze, a blue sky. People out getting their coffee. People walking their dogs, all kinds of dogs, the dogs a kind of conversation piece for those passing by. Hardly any traffic this time of day – even with the “don’t walk” sign, you can look down any of these side streets and see that no car is coming and make your way across the street.

Late morning now, the city now coming to fuller life, especially in the Village, and it’s mostly younger people out in the fresh morning air. The clear blue sky, the sun on the sidewalk, all the little stories being told on all the blocks, tables set up selling bags and books and iPhone cases, food trucks selling kabobs and bottles of water. Noontime now, a lot of walking, my bottle of water run out, and here’s a pizza place with freshly made pies, and I’ll have a slice of meatball/pepperoni and a slice of pineapple and another bottle of water, right there in the shop on Bleecker Street. Early afternoon now and….time to begin to walk back to 31, and the city this morning has been exhilarating and alive and such a joy to walk and take in.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Incomprehensible Universe

July 28, 2021

I read an obituary in Monday’s New York Times, and it’s of a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his work, and I’m drawn to some lines toward the end which read this way: “In his interview with the Nobel Institute, he was asked about [an oft-quoted line] – ‘The more that the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. What I meant by that statement is that there is no point to be discovered in nature itself; there is no cosmic plan for us. We are not actors in a drama that has been written with us playing the starring role. There are laws – we are discovering those laws – but they are impersonal, they are cold.”

He added: “It is not an entirely happy view of human life. I think it is a tragic view, but that is not new to physicists. A tragic view of life has been expressed by so many poets – that we are here without purpose, trying to identify something that we care about.” The obit added that he “opposed religion, believing that it undermined efforts to seek and discover truth.”

I am not a physicist and I did not do well in science in school. But I love what scientists do. When I studied theology in Washington D.C. there was a professor there who taught a course on science and religion, how they each were their own “magisterium” – they each had their own way of seeking, their own questions, their own approach – and yet they did not need to be at odds with one another. They each help to make sense of the world in their own ways.

The quotes from the obit are insightful into the laws of nature, but so, so bleak about what we mean by meaning. What does it all add up to, it seems to ask. We can study it, we can find patterns, we can discover what’s happening, and yet, in the end, everything just sort of stays distant from us, observable and identifiable and classifiable, and yet….nothing really beyond or behind at all. Religion (my field!) cannot explain a lot of things, but “identifying something to care about” is something that religion does have something to say about. The life of Christ is a life immersed into the beauty and terror of human life – no promises here that everything will be easy (“take up your cross!” = expect that life will you bring you difficult and painful things).

And it’s those figures in human history who somehow, in a world and culture in which “care” seems far away, saw something beyond that, and through their lives and witness, spoke or acted in a way that made the existence of God real, even if unseen, doubted, or disbelieved. I think of Oscar Romero in El Salvador in the 1970s, Dorothy Day in New York City in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr.’s deep faith during the civil rights era. And so I read this obit, am amazed at the life’s work of this physicist, am curious about this apparent gap between what we can see or know or classify or describe, and the other kind of knowing – more intuitive, more heart, more drawn to love and mercy and compassion as somehow embedded into all of this chaotic life, and I respond not with despair but with a deeper kind of looking and longing at what’s there and what could be, a Franciscan view of the goodness of the whole creation (even amid suffering), and a sense that whatever God we believe in is not just “up there” but within it all, suffering along with us (see the cross!), and with us even in that, with a kingdom yet to come.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Joshua Tree

July 24, 2021

I find at a Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue a book with the title “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know” and I am right away drawn to this title. It has a subtitle “The fascinating stories behind great works of art, literature, music, and film.” So who wouldn’t want to see what’s there? There are images on the cover: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (which happens to be 7 blocks north of this Barnes and Noble, at the Museum of Modern Art), a cathedral, a photograph of Mahalia Jackson, an image of the Tanner painting of the Annunciation, and there in the far left corner, the album cover of “The Joshua Tree” by U2.

Later in the week I find a used copy of that U2 album and I play it on my CD player. It was a huge hit for the band in 1987, when I was much younger than I am now…:), and I remember seeing the band play the Orpheum Theater in Boston in 1983, getting tickets for a group of friends and me for $12 each, being in the balcony on that night, and the sound of a band that was on the rise.

And knowing, also, that there was something spiritual about them, that their soaring sound carried a kind of longing or yearning or searching, and that their song lyrics referred to the band members’ own Christian spirituality. And on “The Joshua Tree” – a song called “Mothers of the Disappeared” which is about the mothers of those who were “disappeared” during the war in El Salvador in the 1980s; a song called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with the lyric “I believe in the kingdom come/and all the colors, bleed into one, bleed into one…” It’s that lyric, with that song title, that stays with me: the title of the song is about searching and looking and longing and hoping, and in what? Some kind of kingdom to come, in which all the colors (of what? Humanity, right?) bleed into one – and it’s an achingly beautiful song that expresses hope that, amid everything going on every day in the world, there is a kingdom to come that God will usher in, and we are all still hoping and searching for it. And so the “75 Masterpieces” book has me looking for more, and what’s there? Bob Dylan, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Rembrandt, Graham Greene, Willa Cather…and more. The world in all its beauty speaks to us.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Cezanne Drawing

July 19, 2021

An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and on this day, as the crowds begin to come back in the city, it’s more crowded than I’ve seen it in a long while. This one I’m drawn to, it’s called Cezanne Drawing, and for whatever reason Paul Cezanne has become an artist I want to learn more about – he was a kind of bridge figure between Impressionism and what was to become Cubism and abstraction.

I am in no way a trained art scholar but there is something about Cezanne, the way he could look at a landscape, or a human figure, or a table with apples and pears, and draw these things in a way that makes them look vital and infused with their own kind of internal energy.

And so I enter the crowded gallery, read the signs and descriptions that help orient the viewer, and begin to just look – and maybe that’s the key, it’s all about looking, not for “meaning” or any kind of big picture thing, but only to look and see what’s there.

From the introduction: “Cezanne believed that drawing each afternoon prepared him ‘to see well the following day.’ To consider Cezanne drawing is to recognize his tireless efforts to look, and look again.”

There is a holy kind of beauty in all this: seeing, looking (and looking again!). You could say that the gospels are all about seeing and looking, and seeing and looking all over again, all in the light of God’s kingdom. Artists help us with that. I am grateful to be able to walk the 22 blocks north to MoMA to be reminded of this.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

My Octopus Teacher

July 12, 2021

I hear somewhere about a new documentary about an octopus, and a diver who develops a kind of attachment to the octopus, and one day I have a chance to see this documentary, which is called “My Octopus Teacher.” Interesting, just the title, right? That this diver would be open to being taught something by an octopus – I’m in.

The documentary is set somewhere near Australia, and it’s about a diver who decides to commit to diving every day to “visit” an octopus. The undersea world is fascinating, filled with all kinds of sea creatures swimming and hiding behind things, small fish and bigger sharks, all kinds of life. Octopus, we learn, are extremely intelligent, and we see this throughout the documentary. An octopus can hide from a predator by collecting shells and hiding within all the shells, and this is the way the diver first encounters the octopus.

What is moving in this documentary is the way the diver and the octopus begin to develop a kind of trust between each other. The diver commits to diving every day, and over time the octopus begins to emerge from its hiding place, as if to seek to know somehow this strange diver who appears, and who does not appear to be a threat. Over time, the octopus begins to reach out one of its tentacles, like a gesture of greeting, or of trust, and it’s both strange and beautiful to see this begin to happen, this creature of the deep and this human diver, developing a kind of trust between each other.

The diver, over time, begins to see the octopus as his teacher, as helping him to understand what it means to encounter “the other.” And what, really, could be more “other” than an octopus? We see, throughout this documentary, how this daily encounter with an octopus begins to open him up to the interrelatedness of all things (very Franciscan, I might say!). It’s moving to see this, and it opens our eyes to a natural world that is far more connected, and far more sentient, than perhaps we have imagined. Most definitely worth a look…
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Smoothies On The Way

July 5, 2021

A walk up Fifth Avenue with my brother one day, and it’s a lot of blocks from where I live on 31st St. up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 82nd St. But it’s an interesting walk: block after block of all kinds of busyness, people tuned into their earbuds or talking on their phones, shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalk, someone begging for a dollar or a scrap of food while holding up a cardboard sign, the ongoing game of pedestrian vs. automobile at every intersection, the guessing just how many cars will drive through the just-turned red light before the pedestrians once again claim their spot in the intersection. It’s a long walk, a sensory-overload walk, and when Fifth Avenue arrives at Central Park, a calmer walk. No intersections to cross, the park with its green on the left, distinguished older buildings on the right, and now, just up ahead, among the many food carts, one that sells smoothies. Healthy, right? We stop and look. There are more than 30 combinations you can choose from: strawberry, banana, lime, pineapple, ginger, honey, apple – in all sorts of mixtures.

It’s that time of the morning when I am not overly hungry but a smoothie, a healthy smoothie, with fruit and other healthy sounding things, sounds like the thing for the moment, and so my brother and I each get one, as the man in the food truck starts the blender whirring, and we each have a cool and presumably healthy drink as we continue our walk up Fifth Ave.

The sun is out, there is the sound of kids playing in the park nearby, we walk by a building somewhere in the 60s with the words “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” inscribed on its facade, we draw close to the Met where my brother, visiting from Rhode Island for the day and in the midst of a divorce, has wanted to see paintings by Thomas Cole of the wilds of New York and New England, these expansive images of open space and light. We stop a moment outside the museum as I retrieve my membership card, good for me and one guest, finish our smoothies which have been cool and refreshing, and go in. On days like this, this city is beautiful.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Canticle of St. Francis

June 28, 2021

In these days of virtual everything, even as we emerge from the pandemic maybe more quickly than anyone expected, I try a virtual session for the parish on Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures.” This canticle of Francis was composed by him in the year 1225, about a year before his death, and it’s a kind of summation of what he has seen and experienced in his life and now reflects back upon.

Francis, nearly blind, composes his canticle from the Church of San Damiano down the hill from the main town of Assisi, and it’s a hymn/song of praise to the created world: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, and onward as Francis draws from within himself his experience of simply seeing the wonder and beauty of God’s good creation. And it’s a reconciliation of sorts: his alternating use of brother and sister, of things forceful (wind) and receptive (calm water) almost mirrors his own inner reconciliation of competing forces within himself. He wanted to be a knight, a warrior, he wanted to be recognized by that kind of glory, and yet his experience of openness to God’s voice within (the mysterious inner voice he heard: “Francis, who is it better to serve, the master or the servant?” Francis’s response: “The Master”, and he is drawn more deeply into following the voice of Christ which speaks to him from the cross).

And so what of this Canticle today, nearly 800 years after its composition? Is it just a nice song/poem from the Middle Ages that sings the praises of God’s created world? Well, yes, on one level. But on another level it speaks to us of this man at the end of his life who has, through openness to grace, come to an inner sense of peace, and who by that is able to reflect that peace to the world and culture around him.

Francis of Assisi is sometimes reduced to being the “saint of the birdbath” out in the backyard. But there is more: there is deep experience in this saint of the presence of God working within his life, and we look to him as one who was open to receive that grace, and one who thus became an instrument of that grace in the world.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

One morning in June...

June 21, 2021

Observations early on a Friday morning from behind a plastic folding table as I help hand out sandwiches to a long line of street people which stretches down the block….

There’s a near-developing fight between two guys who are in the line and then out of the line, going back and forth with each other from a little distance, out in the street, back on the sidewalk, in between cars. Is it real, are they posturing, will it lead to anything? Who knows how or why it started: usually one says something to another and that sets it all off, and usually it all just fizzles out.

The security guard is on it: he moves with the two of them, always staying between them, telling each of them to calm down and walk away. He’s good – he’s a big guy with a presence about him, and he also knows how to defuse things. The Bread Line, which is set up to run as a system with everyone in their place, each volunteer placing one thing in the bag, is now distracted by this street theater, by the rising voices, by the threats which pierce the early-morning 31st St. air. Everyone seems to watch, volunteers plus those in line, almost like the way traffic slows down to see the wreck on the side of the road.

Soon the two guys take their case further down the street, away from the line, and we hear an occasional raised voice and then we don’t, and then they seem to be gone. Later, after we’re packing things up, I say thank you to the security guard for his calm and professional work.

Meanwhile, that same morning, from across the street, a woman with her arms stretched toward us as she seems to be – maybe? – placing a hex on us. It looks that way as her voice takes on a repetitive pitch and she holds out her arms, and in this neighborhood, at this hour, who knows? And then she’s gone. The volunteer next to me at the table, who’s been around here longer than I have, says to me, I’ve seen it before, don’t be surprised. He places a cake in the next bag, and I place a sandwich, and it all goes on.

Toward the end of the line, all of us wondering if it’s a full moon or what today, a man appears in the line pushing a cart, and in the cart are more than a dozen pink roses. He hands one to a woman who is waiting in line, who thanks him for it. They both get their bags and continue on their way. Just another morning on the line…
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

A Day In The City 
With My Brother

June 12, 2021

My brother took the train down from Rhode Island yesterday, and after we had a couple of slices of pizza at a corner restaurant on 33rd and 5th, we walked around the neighborhood for a while, and on those streets I never get tired of gazing up at the Empire State Building which looms over everything, an icon of 20th century art-deco design. We decided to meet up again at 4:30: he wanted to walk down to the site of the 9/11 Memorial.

It’s a long walk all the way down there, and we walked west on 31st St. toward Hudson Yards, then up the steps to the High Line, along that till it ended near the Whitney Museum, and then over to the Hudson River. We walked south along the river, with a cool breeze coming off the water on a very warm day. Sailboats out, some kayaks on the water; bicycles, strollers, walkers, all out on this sunny NYC day.

We walk and walk and walk and are soon near the Freedom Tower, and nearby the deeply moving memorial to 9/11. Twenty years this September. We look up, imagine the skies on that day. The footprints of the Twin Towers are there, now with the names of those who died on that day, and an endless flow of water in the empty space. The name of one of our friars – Mychal Judge – is inscribed on the South Tower memorial. It is after 6:00pm and so the memorial is closed, but we remain and look for a time.

We continue on our way, over to Wall Street to see the bull, and then turning back north, and we stop in Greenwich Village at a sushi restaurant for a glass of Japanese beer, sushi, and tempura. Not many in the restaurant, and the server comes by to refill our glasses of water and ask if we want another beer. Then back outside, early evening shadows and sunlight on the facades of buildings, and a walk up Sixth Avenue back to midtown. One of the great things about being back in the northeast: closer to home, closer to family, able to walk the city on a June day and spend the day with my brother.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

A Day In The City With My Brother

June 7, 2021

My brother took the train down from Rhode Island yesterday, and after we had a couple of slices of pizza at a corner restaurant on 33rd and 5th, we walked around the neighborhood for a while, and on those streets I never get tired of gazing up at the Empire State Building which looms over everything, an icon of 20th century art-deco design. We decided to meet up again at 4:30: he wanted to walk down to the site of the 9/11 Memorial.

It’s a long walk all the way down there, and we walked west on 31st St. toward Hudson Yards, then up the steps to the High Line, along that till it ended near the Whitney Museum, and then over to the Hudson River. We walked south along the river, with a cool breeze coming off the water on a very warm day. Sailboats out, some kayaks on the water; bicycles, strollers, walkers, all out on this sunny NYC day.

We walk and walk and walk and are soon near the Freedom Tower, and nearby the deeply moving memorial to 9/11. Twenty years this September. We look up, imagine the skies on that day. The footprints of the Twin Towers are there, now with the names of those who died on that day, and an endless flow of water in the empty space. The name of one of our friars – Mychal Judge – is inscribed on the South Tower memorial. It is after 6:00pm and so the memorial is closed, but we remain and look for a time.

We continue on our way, over to Wall Street to see the bull, and then turning back north, and we stop in Greenwich Village at a sushi restaurant for a glass of Japanese beer, sushi, and tempura. Not many in the restaurant, and the server comes by to refill our glasses of water and ask if we want another beer. Then back outside, early evening shadows and sunlight on the facades of buildings, and a walk up Sixth Avenue back to midtown. One of the great things about being back in the northeast: closer to home, closer to family, able to walk the city on a June day and spend the day with my brother.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Walking the High Line

May 30, 2021

There is an old elevated rail line that runs along the west side of Manhattan, built long ago and abandoned also long ago, which in the last ten years or so has been rehabilitated into what is now known as the High Line. It is no longer used as a rail line; it has been repurposed and reimagined as an elevated park.

There are a number of entrances, and the closest one to here is on 30th St. near 10th Avenue, and so sometimes I walk that way, walk up the steps, and begin to walk south along this old rail line. There’s a view. You can look down on the streets below. You can see old brick buildings which are now residences and shops.

And as you walk, you can see the old rail tracks – worn down, left as they were, a palpable witness to another time in the life of this city. There are sections with flower beds, with plants; there are seating areas so you can rest a while. There are a couple of food trucks selling sandwiches and gelato and coffee.

All the while, you feel sort of above it all, in a good way, walking along above the city traffic, with sometimes a view of the Hudson to the west, the sun sparkling on the waters, a distant sailboat against the New Jersey shore on the other side. The High Line ends right about where the Whitney Museum stands, and you can walk back down the steps, re-emerge into the life of the city at street-level, see what’s on view at the Whitney, and maybe walk back north along the Hudson. Cities like New York need this: a way of balancing a past and inviting a new way to be part of it. All there to be found!
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Final Account

May 25, 2021

To the movies yesterday, to see “Final Account” which is a documentary about men and women of the Hitler Youth, now in their elder years, remembering what it was like to be in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and the whole question of what did they know. What did they know? Some say they knew: smoke rising from camps, the disappearance of Jews. Some say they didn’t know. Most said there was a sense that you simply had to follow along, or else be shunned or worse.

It raises questions: what does one do in times like that? What does it mean to follow along, and what does it mean to take a stand? And, what does it mean to be human: signs that denigrate Jews, “Jews forbidden here,” “Do not buy from Jews,”, haunting stories of the Kristallnacht, the burning of a Jewish synagogue and Jewish homes as people simply watch, and strangely accept, what is happening.

What does it mean to be human? And not only in Nazi Germany, but in other times and other places, how easy is it to just say, that’s the way things are? How easy to go along with racial or ethnic superiority? In my “Give Us This Day” book which has all the daily readings for the month of May, a reflection on Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, who is described as a “conscientious objector and martyr” and who, during the war years in Germany, refused to take a military oath toward his country. For that, he was arrested, and eventually beheaded.

Such courage, such conviction, and that word “martyr” which means “witness”, and in this case, a witness toward a whole other way of being and way of life which refuses allegiance to whatever powers may be, and stands, often alone, for a witness to the gospel.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Chelsea Flea Market

May 24, 2021

Not far from here, just six blocks south between Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue, is the Chelsea Flea Market, which occupies a parking lot on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year. It opens early on Saturday morning, around 8:00am, and sometimes if I’m out walking I like to stop by and see what’s there.

And there’s a lot there: Africans selling colored textiles and wooden stools and tribal masks; tables set up with old jewelry, watches, baseball cards, old coins, postcards. There is always a table with bins of vinyl records and most of the time a soundtrack to it all, some classic rock from the 1970s, a little Led Zeppelin or David Bowie or The Rolling Stones. There is a mobile truck selling coffee for $2/cup. There are tables filled with all kinds of things that appear to have been salvaged from everyones’ attic and closet and tool shed and garage, and set out on tables for all to see.

And I love to wander and weave through all the tables set up in this parking lot, to look and see what’s there, to see if there are any hidden treasures to be found. Once, I found a wooden top, “handmade somewhere in New England” the man behind the table told me, and so I spun it on the table to test it out, and it spun well. And so I bought it and have it on my desk right now, and isn’t there something about spinning a wooden top that brings its own kind of joy?

What else have I found there: old brass bottle openers, sometimes with the name “Pepsi” or of some brand of beer, and I try to but cannot convince myself that I might need one of these. One time there was a table with an ancient sewing kit, said to be from the 14th century in Peru, and there it was, a wooden box that you could open and place things inside. Was it really that old? There was no way to tell, but maybe it was. On the same table, ancient stone tools: an axe head, a stone grinder, both of them said to be found in the ground somewhere in New England. I pick them up: they are smooth and cool to the touch. Wouldn’t they be nice to have? Maybe some day, but not now. I keep wandering around. On another table, ancient Roman coins for around $75 each. To hold an ancient coin like that, to imagine who must have used it, and what it paid for all those centuries ago.

Flea markets are fun, an open air way of seeing how what’s old can become what’s new, of looking for something shiny that you can take home with you. Last time there, I find an old paperback copy of “A Pilgrim in Assisi: Searching for Francis Today” by Susan Saint Sing, published in 1981, and I ask how much, and I’m told, three dollars. Three one-dollar bills later, it’s mine, and I’m on my contented way.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Stevedore

May 17, 2021

Sometimes it’s good to get out of the city, which I did a couple of weeks back, out to a Franciscan retreat house in western NY state, and on the way back a stop in Philadelphia, and while there last Monday, a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There was a gallery of portraits. Portraits offer a window into a human soul – who is or was this person in life? Among many there, one of a stevedore, which is a person whose job it is to unload trucks or other vehicles. It’s a painting from 1936, done by a Jewish immigrant named Julius Bloch. He paints the man with a sense of great dignity: in a chair, facing forward, both hands on his knees, wearing his work uniform of overalls and worn boots. The description of the painting tells us that it was rare for a portrait painter to paint the “common folk” – usually it was the wealthy or the high-born. But not here, here we have a man who unloads trucks, who is tired and worn down, who wears old clothes, and who in this painting has been given a great sense of dignity.

The description goes on to say that the year 1936 is an important factor in this painting. What was happening in the world in 1936? The Spanish Civil War, the rise of Nazism, the inequalities of race in the United States (the stevedore portrayed is a Black man). And so in the midst of all that, all those dehumanizing “isms” that wear down the human person, that diminish what it means to be a human person, this painter lifts up this man and tells us who view it: see what it means to be a person, see what it means not to be defined by fascism or Nazism or racism, but to be defined as created in the image and likeness of God. There! And so for a moment in that quiet gallery last week in Philadelphia, I stand before this image and I am grateful for artists and the way art shows us things, the way things are and the way things ought to be. I linger a while and move on, grateful for the encounter.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

An Invitation Into 
A Spacious World

May 10, 2021

Walking in the city these days, and the crowds are up, especially on weekends, and especially in the neighborhoods in and around Greenwich Village, as people begin to crowd restaurants and there is a general sense of relief that these days of pandemic are finally coming to a close. Still many people masked, which is good, and I suspect that will last for a while, that there won’t be an “off-on” switch from pandemic to post-pandemic. This has been too deep and too life-altering. But on these days of warm weather and bright sunshine, a reflecting sun off the calm waters of the Hudson, off the tops of the Art Deco buildings lining midtown avenues, off the Flatiron Building with its scaffolding – in all this, it seems like some kind of grace is finally beginning to shine on everyday life, and in May especially with its emerging colors and light and sun.
And so walking in all this…breathing seems easier, the light seems lighter, and it all feels like an emergence from something we have not known in our lives. I read from Ellen Davis’s book “Opening Israel’s Scriptures” a reflection on the word “salvation”, as she writes that it means “to be capacious or make spacious. Thus the dynamic of salvation might be viewed as giving breadth for existence…the state of salvation is the opposite of being in straits…contrary to much popular religious wisdom, the God-fearing life is not a matter of walking the straight and narrow.

Rather, the scriptures invite us into a spacious world, the new world of the Bible…the main business of the Bible is to challenge our ordinary conception of ‘how things really are’ – to call into question the necessity and even the reality of the limits we impose upon ourselves and others, to show us that the cramped conditions of human existence are most of then the result of misplaced fear or desire.” (Davis, p. 6-7, p.s. she teaches at Duke). I could read that over and over, its hopeful and forward-looking image of salvation as capacious, as widening our worlds, as “giving breadth for existence.” Maybe that’s what these days feel like.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Grace of Encounter

May 1, 2021

One morning in the lower church and I have two chairs set up facing each other, and I am there with my New Testament and book of reflections on St. Francis of Assisi and waiting to see who might come in on this day for confession or, in many cases, just to talk. That’s what I like about the chair set-up.

It’s all in the listening, and a man comes out of the nearby chapel, scans the waiting area, sees me, and comes over and sits down. And this is where the grace of ministry comes in, especially in a city as busy as New York. So much anxiety and tension and pressure out there. And this lower church space becomes a kind of respite.

What does he tell me: he is from Nigeria, he just lost a cousin over there, he is worried about the terror group Boko Haram. He lives in Brooklyn. He lost his job and is looking for a new job. I listen. He just needs to talk it out. He says to me, I’ve seen you around here, and this tells me that maybe after eight months here people are beginning to know me.

It’s an encounter, and it’s not formal, not formally sacramental, but there is something I love about this kind of ministry, which is, just tell me some things, come into the quiet church and talk about your particular life. What gets revealed is humanity, and so much in our culture today seems to diminish our humanity. It’s two chairs. It’s old statues. It’s a quiet nearby chapel. It’s off a constantly moving 31st St, constantly looking out for pedestrians and bicyclists and skateboards and scooters and trucks backing up and the fire station across the street and a taxi driver leaning on a horn. Come inside for a rest from all that. Dim presence of faded candles and statues and this mysterious calmness that seems to exist in the quiet of an old church. We finish our conversation, we pray together, and off he goes to the life of the street, back outside. It’s the grace of encounter.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Beauty and Strangeness

April 20, 2021

There is a beauty and a strangeness to living in New York City, and the beauty can catch you as you walk along, say, the Hudson River on a cool and sunny Saturday morning, with only a few people out running or walking or bicycling by the river, and the sun reflecting off the calm waters, and in the distance, to the south, the Statue of Liberty rising in welcome to those new to the city. There is something about being near the water, stopping by a railing, the busy city for a moment behind me, the rush and noise subsided, a moment of fresh air.

And the strangeness of something like this: a group of people in red jackets walking in unison down 31st St. on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, carrying signs with them, and on their jackets the words “I hope you don’t go to hell.” They are on their way, it seems, to some kind of evangelization, some kind of street corner preaching, and I am sort of curious to see what this might be, but not curious enough to make a detour on my way to Union Square.

The strangeness of so much religion and preaching in these days, the casualness of a statement of ultimate destination, the uniform red color of the jackets, the steady walk toward some place to preach, the strange mixture in a crowd of this group of red-jacketed religionists and of everyone else on their normal way about things.
Beauty and strangeness and everything in between, and it’s another day on the city streets among the towers and alleys and trash and crowds and bright sunshine glinting off the river, and on this day at least NYC is a great place to be.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Late Afternoon In The Lower Church

April 16, 2021

What it’s like in the lower church….the lower church has a lower ceiling, the entrance is not as obvious or easy to find as the upper church. The upper church is the grand church with all the mosaics and statues, and all the space, and you just walk up the steps from the street and you’re in.

What is it about this lower church on a late weekday afternoon? Dim, not many people. An old faded carpet that probably needs to be replaced. A tacked up paper with mass and confession times. Old confessionals: how many voices have these heard over the years? A wooden sculpture of a mourning Mary holding her crucified Son. Candles flickering in the dimness. A hush to things, it’s less busy than upstairs.

Old wooden pews in the chapel facing an altar, and here, late in the afternoon of a cold and rainy day in New York City, there are maybe four people who have come for….what? They sit quietly in the dark wooden pews, some dozing, some leaning back and resting, bags by their side, a moment amid the chaos and noise of the city.

Absolute quiet, and the kind of peace and calm that everyone always seems to be looking for, four people quietly resting and being found by a searching and loving and compassionate God on this dark and rainy day in New York. It seems to be the center of the world, at least for now.

By the altar, flickering candles. Old dark wood. The feel of prayers that have been prayed by how many, and have risen and continue to rise, part of the air of this lower church. Silence. On the way out the door, above the exit sign, the words “Love one another.”
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Another Postcard 
 From The MoMA

March 24, 2021

Another postcard from my recent trek to the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street here in Manhattan, and it’s another postcard of a Dorothea Lange photograph. This one is called “Oakland, California” and it’s from 1942. It’s a black and white close-up image of the side of a house: an angled vertical on the left side of the photograph, horizontal siding, and a sign over the siding that reads “Furnished Rooms & Light Housekeeping Rooms.” We have here a close-up image of a boarding house, of a sign advertising available rooms. And just below the posted sign, a made-up sign tacked to the siding which reads “No Rooms, No Rooms.” It’s stark in its opposition to the sign above it and to what it means to tell us: times are hard, space is tight, there is no room at the inn. It’s stark and harsh in what it advertises: in this place, in this time, there is not enough for everyone. I am drawn to the photographs of Dorothea Lange, the way she brings her camera into the tough places of America and reveals the hard truths that life, that the American dream, may not be so easy for many in this land. Her photographs tell stories, bring us places and let us know that for many life may not be so well. And yet by framing her photographs the way she does, by showing us characters and images and highways and road signs, she gives a dignity to these same characters and places, lets us see, lets us learn about a side of America that may otherwise go unseen.
I am taken also by this made-up sign with its words “No Rooms, No Rooms” added almost with a sense of desperation: we have no room. And how it reads almost like a modern day Nativity story, the Holy Family on the move from Nazareth looking for a place to stay and they find “no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7). As if to say, it still happens now, this searching for a place to put down roots, to find some sense of home. And isn’t this why we go to look at art, why we walk around a city like this with our eyes open? To draw closer to the human experience, to the presence of the Holy in our midst.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

"Francesco"

April 11, 2021

A virtual movie recommendation….the Carolina Theatre in Durham NC is offering a virtual screening of “Francesco” which is a documentary about Pope Francis. I watched it last night on my iPad. It offers a beautiful portrayal of our beloved and bold pope. You can find the link on the the theatre’s website http://www.carolinatheatre.org and I believe it’s good through Thursday. Highly recommended!
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Postcards At MoMA

Postcards From The MoMA

April 5, 2021

One day last week at the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art, and how I love to look around museum gift shops just to see creativity and imagination at play – books and cards and prints and objects all there, and you can take them home with you! There is a table marked “Sale” and on the table are oversized postcards from a recent exhibition of the photography of Dorothea Lange. She is perhaps best known for her photograph of what has come to be known as “Migrant Mother,” taken during the years of the Great Depression.

There is that postcard for sale, only 50 cents, and there are others too, and among them is another by her which has the title “On the Road to Los Angeles, California” from March 1937. I buy 10 of these, and one of them I keep in a frame on my desk. It’s a black and white photograph of two men walking along the dirt shoulder of a highway, their backs turned to us, one carrying a suitcase, the other with a bag slung over his shoulder. The road stretches on in front of them.

On the right side of the photograph, outlined against a gray and cloudy sky, is a billboard by the side of the road, and on the billboard is an image of a man reclining comfortably in a chair. Above the man in the chair are the words “Next Time Try The Train,” and next to the recliner the word “Relax.”
It’s a brilliant photograph, stark in its portrayal of these two men during the Depression years, on the road like so many in those years to some kind of better life, and the blithely indifferent image from a billboard of a man reclining in a comfortable seat on a Southern Pacific train. This is photography as art, as social art, as measuring the distances between what our advertising culture tells us, and the realities of the human lives around us.

It could be a modern day gospel story. It holds these two unnamed and unknown men in a dignified sympathy as we imagine where this road might take them, and the photograph framed on my desk holds as a kind of icon of the human experience of searching and hoping, and being known. It’s a gift of my visit to MoMA on this day, a gift of this great and compassionate photographer Dorothea Lange.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Roadtrip To Philly

March 24, 2021

These days of sameness, of one day running into another, of asking again the question, what day is today, is it Tuesday or is it Wednesday? It seems that way all the time. Yesterday morning, feeling better after some after-effects of the second vaccine, I decided to take a road trip to Philadelphia, which is about 90 miles down the road from NYC. Out of the city, onto the NJ Turnpike, and 90 or so minutes later, I parked the car by the St. Francis Inn, walked to the nearby subway, and was on my way.

It was freeing, my first time out of the city since October, which was also a one-day road trip to Philadelphia. The weather was sunny and warm, and that helps. I got off the subway at 30th Street Station, got a Jersey Mike’s sub, and walked along the Schuylkill River up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which stands like a temple at the end of the Ben Franklin Parkway. I sat on a bench by the water and had my sub, the calmness of the water amid the busyness of the city.

The museum is only open a few days a week during this time of pandemic. I still have my membership. I always approach a visit to a museum with an open-ended “what will I see today?” On the second floor, in a darkly paneled room, a painting by Rembrandt of the head of Christ. He looks thoughtful, considering, human: a man living a life, a man who has seen life, who seems to know that life is a combination of all kinds of things, and perhaps an insight of what fate awaits him. This painting: it’s just there, and I am alone with it for a time, the life of the city just beyond the walls outside, and this quiet moment like a gift on this day.

On the other side of the main staircase, also on the second floor: an enormous archway, from a 12th century church in France. Its sense of harmony, scale, aligned to the human. The way the stone is cut, all the details. It was somehow transported to Philadelphia in the early 20th century and reconstructed here, and there is a drawing of the church of which it was once a part, falling into ruin, in the French countryside. Scale and harmony and beauty, and its effect on our sense of space and of being in the world.

And, from 1285, a small painting, once part of a diptych, of St. Francis of Assisi and a donor. The background is all in black, with a luminous Francis and the small figure of the donor, from more than 700 years ago. And here it is in Philadelphia.

Later, outside in the sunshine, after nearly two hours in the museum, it’s good to be outside in the fresh air and sunlight, walking in the city. It’s good to be in another city besides New York: Philadelphia is less intense, has more of a neighborhood feel, seems a little less crazy in some ways. I stop in a used bookstore on 2nd Street, and there is a cat in the store, resting on some books, keeping an eye out I am sure for mice or any other prowlers. I take the subway back to the Inn, say hello to the friars and staff there, and am back on the road and back in NYC by 8:00pm, an easy ride back. In this time of confinement, such a freeing trip, and I’m grateful for the time to do it.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM
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