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.

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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