The story posted below was a lost document written over a decade ago and one I assumed had been published, but no, aside from memory of its existing there was no presence of it in the blog archives or anywhere on Google. So I went into the archive box where I usually keep paper copies of work and there found some pages and notes on ‘The Brothers.’
It is a story of survival and love against all the odds. It’s a true story with some artistic license taken to punish the wicked. I hope posting it here will stand true to the logo on the blog header: ‘Graffiti on the Walls of Empire’.
Richard III, Act I, Scene IV
“…heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels, all scatter’d in the bottom of the sea.’”
Some stories drift in time, remarkable in their hidden beauty, unknown, gyring down as ‘unvalued jewels, all scatter’d in the bottom of the sea.’ This tale, known now by only a few individuals, unfolded decades ago. It is the history of the Little Brothers of Guadalupe. It is not so much about religion, although that is the Catholic armature which contained it, but rather it is about spirituality against all the odds, about suffering, the best instincts of human nature, death and freedom. The great turmoil of human history with its complexities of joy and grief bring us through art, literature, music and simple stories, the defining of great extremes and intricacies of passion of which we are able, and of the graceful courage with which even the most modest and ordinary of us are capable. This is one of those stories.
The Brothers were Mark, Martin, Bob, Joe, and James. They collected individually, unknown to each other at first, in the sanctuary of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in San Francisco in the early nineties. Most Holy Redeemer was also known as the Church of the Gay Nineties in the Castro, because as the wags opined, ‘all the men are gay and the women at least ninety’. It was Mark that they noticed in the early dawn hours at Mass. He was new. At first, nobody really paid much attention to him. Often the homeless would appear and disappear at early Mass for some relief of the street. It wasn’t unusual to hear snoring in the back pews.
It was the dozen or so old ladies and widows, who regularly attended the early Mass faithfully devoting the better part of their later lives to church affairs, that took an interest in him. Instinctively, they sensed something about him, rarely found in the usual attendees at offices, Masses and Novenas of the ordinary days. It wasn’t that he reminded them of sons or long-lost husbands. Something more intense, fiery, and mystic, a sensation they remembered at the death of a loved when a door opened to the void and all the religious beliefs of a lifetime fell through the matrix of extinction and faith either fled or provided the certainty of denial. That time, so acute with hearing, shock and the senses feeling weightless in the light of truth is often to the Catholic imagination, the essence of sanctity.
Mark often had that effect on people, but was the last one to be aware of it. After all, he considered himself a failed monk, having fled the embrace of hermit Benedictines living a dedicated and singular life in community high above the Pacific Ocean lapping at the cliffs of Big Sur. It was his eyes the women noticed first, because otherwise his modest drab clothing and withdrawn-self presented as quite ordinary. What they saw and what they all later recognized was something compelling, which called forth a fullness of heart, something recognized as that long ago burst of first love, which is the divine at play and forever tests the long years of questioning faith with extremes, disappointments and finally the tattered doubt that is built into Catholic conditioning as prima facie for the correct path.
The combination of good manners and a natural way with the profound created something of a foreign atmosphere about him in that worldly, rough and tumble urban hothouse of the Castro in those days, before the AIDS plague decimated population and opened a second wave of gentrification bringing in young white professional families and herds of mega-strollers with which even most hardened drag queen, twink, flanneled lumberjack or Harley leather daddy could compete. It was Mark, who had collected the solitaries scattered randomly throughout the church alone with their thoughts, withdrawn with hopes for renewal, spiritual safety, and a last-ditch effort for sanctuary. Mark invited them over to his apartment on 19th and Castro for coffee and doughnuts after Mass one morning and so it began, the cluster of them sat together from then on and the old ladies wondered with some excitement at the advent of something new.
It was sometime later that we knew the story of Mark’s life and then more clearly understood his radical spirituality seeded in the one of the most hostile and unforgiving of places for gay men, the Catholic Church. Mark had been a professor at an Eastern University and had returned to the City (San Francisco) after many years away. His reasons weren’t simple of course, he had surrendered a successful career, turning on a dime to go into all phases of the AIDS crises when it began to decimate, haunting as a mysterious plague taking in swift death his longtime companion and first love, various friends and colleagues. So, it began, it was the late seventies and he had been at ground zero.
At that time, it was just beginning and the GLTB community had to organize quickly, starting from scratch, because absolutely nothing from governing authorities was forthcoming. Worse, America had a president and political party that simply ignored the horrors of the storm through hateful prejudice, indifference, or ignorance. Gay lives were expendable. Mark knew then that tens of thousands of ghosts would haunt the nation and millions more in the world at large. He knew instinctively, the power of the call to service and dived in full force.
Mark, like so many others in the communities of the stricken responded to AIDS as a humanitarian if not a spiritual call, more powerful than the lure of career or the conventional professional life path for which his family had so generously prepared him. For him it was the perfect confluence of liberation theology and liberal humanitarian social conditioning.
He was the only member in his family for generations that had chosen to go to a public school. He was thereafter known as a ‘public.’ In hindsight, Mark would tell the story of his loss of faith and desire to leave the strictures of parochial school. God, somehow in his boy’s mind was in there with the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause. Of course, he would tell the tale as an adult, forming from his childhood experience and ‘feelings’ the inevitable realization of irrational, illogical and institutional doctrine.
All this occurred around the age of ten, when Sister Five Wounds was deep in her expounding explanation of the miraculous Ascension of the Holy Mother into Heaven. It was about that time when the Soviets launched the first Sputnik into orbit. The young Mark considered it quite seriously, imagining a Holy Mother going into orbit, or worse being flung outward and perhaps being captured by the gravity of say, Pluto. The Sister was somewhat nonplussed by this observation, but rebounded as expected by exploiting the useful traditional canard for all Catholics questioning the basics : “It’s a sacred mystery.” That was that.
To better channel his energies Mark was assigned as student artistic director for the Holy Mother’s celebration altar of artificial flowers and triumphal arch, assuming she would hang out under the arch before taking off in ascension glory fulfilling her invisible ‘sacred mystery.’ Mark later thought that Five Wounds, being a practical woman and an experienced nun, had sussed out the gay and put his decorative instincts in service to the Lord. The Holy Mother in her plaster magnificence remained put, long after her dusty triumphal arch was buried in storage. Years later, on a surreptitious visit Mark noticed that she had been touched up and looked good as new after her odyssey in outer space, even though a painted tear rolling down her cheek seemed a bit melodramatic.
Mark’s tenth year on this planet was also marked by institutional crises of the confessional kind. He had confessed to the young, new priest that he had had impure, thoughts, words and exciting, but questionable deeds involving his music teacher. Years later after much pain and struggle he realized his grooming had been thorough. He never forgot the response he received, remembering the words verbatim, even though at that young age, he didn’t quite understand what they meant.
He certainly ‘felt’ what these weaponized words meant as they were hissed out with enough venom to make a certain talking snake in the Bible want to leave Catholic Eden forever. The priest said, “You have occasioned sin in another by being provocative and have offended God by mortal sin.” It was his fault, that was made perfectly clear. He was assigned the penance of five Hail Mary’s and a Novena. A Novena was a big deal, but hey, Mark had already figured out the Blessed Mother gig and got on with it. Soon after the music teacher disappeared, his name was never mentioned except in whispers and his fate remained unknown.
Mark’s decision to leave academe and devote himself to plague work disturbed his family. They considered it one of his ‘gypsy’ stunts, which peppered his life since childhood and offended the sensibilities of established family protocols. ‘He’s off the deep end again,’ they would say. ‘Just like those hippy commune days,’ they optioned. ‘He’s just like Uncle George,’ they whispered. ‘You know, that black Irish strain in the family.’
It was often the handed-down family joke that the first born inherited the family business, farm and livestock, the second married a rich widow or a lass with a substantial dowry and that third ‘sensitive’ son became a priest. The order was often switched around, except for that one son who HAD to become a priest because he often criticized the local church’s holiday decorations as too common and at every Mass so looked forward to the color coded rich embroidered vestments and large ring of the bishop. He did, however, thoroughly approve of the silver chalice with its three sapphires enhancing the fluted stem. Three beautiful jewels representing the Father, Son and Holy Ghost was perfectly right with him. Clearly, he had a calling.
The combination produced a lot of whispering down through the generations, creating in the family closet a veritable union of some interesting congregation over the generations. Only his father understood and loved him unconditionally. His mother also loved him and when hearing his ‘coming out’ story to her said, “Oh honey, we have always known and love you.” “You mean even when I used your apron as a cape and danced to Strauss waltzes, or when I used the living-room walls as a ground for collage?” “Oh yes even then.” “There’s a lot of ‘fey’ on both sides of the family you know.”
Her heavy heart about this matter was disguised by her elegant sophistication and motherly affection. As the years went by and her youngest son produced two grandchildren destined for Catholic schools and colleges, she drifted away from him into that world which gave her great comfort and a life conditioned to that which bathed her in peace of mind.
By default on her part and by design his brothers chose to set such irregularities outside the normal course of their highly defined conservative lives and instituted a passive aggressive banishment where he was concerned. In an earlier generation, they might have sent him off to Santa Fe and St. John’s College where he could get a classical education, albeit a non-Catholic one, and be among those bohemian rejects which old families exiled to New Mexico. St. John’s was a roadrunner, desert and cactus version of Phillips-Exeter in New Hampshire or Iona in Westchester. Mark did make it to Santa Fe, not as a classist son of orthodoxy, but as a buckskin clad hippy dropping Acid in the dessert, tuning in and dropping out.
Many years later, emerged in hours, days, nights, weeks, months and years of suffering horror, loss and death Mark had simply burned out. It happens to many care givers long before they realize it. The call to such service was always urgent, never ceasing and the usual pauses for reflection that relieve such high stress pursuits don’t often appear until one realizes that collapse is eminent.
Mark was no exception to the power of these dynamics. His early monastic life was centered in Japanese Zen Buddhism, where he spent several years living the life in a Kyoto monastery. He often described it as the happiest time of his life and so his second dance with Catholicism was a bit of a mystery. Why didn’t he become engaged with the San Francisco Zen Center? Probably because he always felt uncomfortable there. He knew with some previous experience that the American head priest, Dick Baker, was a fraud to his way of thinking and the ‘satoric’ beatific smiles of new acolytes at the Zen Center drove him crazy with irritation. Irreverently he likened the place in those early days to a staged costume play by Kurosawa and besides its founder, Suzuki Roshi and his assistant Kobori Sensei, sent him directly to Japan, sensing perhaps his discomfort with American new Buddhism and its simulacra of formality.
Mark’s light and fire was muted. Exhausted and deeply depressed he turned inward for renewal. Those of us who were Catholic then didn’t find it paradoxical that Mark would return to the Church, to the ingrained culture of his family and childhood to find his strength again. It proved to be a fortunate mistake with unintended consequences and the most extraordinary ending. Years later, those who knew him thought it nothing less than a somewhat strange vision quest.
He once said, as many Catholics do, that it was the Eucharist that kept him attached and it wasn’t even the theology of it that mattered, a theology he considered macabre and absurd on the face of it. He felt it was the last personal and devotional aspect of the faith left to him. How could he coalesce his mystic experiences, his wanderings in Asia, and Buddhist monasticism with Catholicism? He thought, ‘Is this the dark night of the soul?’ For a while the dark comfort of that church in the Castro and his brotherly band of spiritual misfits felt like the peaceful embrace of the catacombs. Therein lay the jewel of a mission slowly forming in its Jungian parameters of gnosis and practicality.
All that was unknown then. All we knew was that he had just fled a hermit monastery located on a remote California coast, leaving after several years of retreat and a short spell of ‘Observance’ as the ‘Novitiate’ called it. He simply disappeared in the middle of the night after the last office of Matins, driving down the winding curves of the monastery road, laughing hysterically, scattering possums, skunks and wild rabbits in haste to escape his epiphany of disaster. It was shortly after that he came to rest inside the quiet, dark interior of the Castro church and slowly began to notice the others, who seemed like him, men suspended in collapse and spiritual need.
Bob was no doubt the most noticeable of the brothers. At 6’5” he was dashingly handsome, quiet, well-spoken in a mid-western masculine way that charmed the widows into silly flirtations against their better judgement. It was harmless and enjoyable to see him bring forth the girlish youth of those old ladies simply by being near. His family were solid middle class from a Catholic part of Ohio and he grew up with four brothers. Already in his teens he distinguished himself with a spiritual calling and entered a Franciscan seminary. Several years later he began to have doubts about his sexuality, even though in his experience at the monastery everyone was celibate. His troubles about being gay caused him anguish even though he had no doubts about his calling.
He confessed to his spiritual counselor, who rushed out of the confessional and began to furiously shake him, cursing anathemas. Bob literally ran out the front door with the angry priest shouting after him. He ended his run landing on the West Coast in San Francisco where he supported himself as a model to earn tuition for business courses at night school. Bob became a banker, starting as a teller and worked his way up as manager in a division of the Bank of America, which ironically, handled money for the Vatican. When he got diagnosed with HIV the bank forced him out and basically harassed him into an early grave by intermittently cancelling his health insurance whenever he had a long hospital stay.
His immediate boss was a rather bulbous woman known for her vicious homophobic slurs, office bullying, high hair, theatrical makeup, thick lensed rhinestone cat-glasses, and orthopedic shoes in colors matching her self-created tents. She was inordinately proud of these costumes which she, herself, had designed, sown and referred to as ‘tunics’. A rather large and macabre gold cross draped like a noose around her large folded neck dropped down into the canyon between her prominent bosoms, giving an air of sacred mystery to her presentation. Her one leg, out of sync with the other, was just short enough to give the impression that she was a drag version of Quasimodo.
In his early days at the office Ms. Quasimodo had made initial flirtatious gestures toward Bob in what today we would call sexual harassment. At some point one of the gossips informed her that Bob was gay and henceforth filled with embarrassment and humiliation she made working life a living hell for him. She was sure the office was laughing behind her back. They were. Eventually Bob lost his home, life savings, and job. His faith apparently remained intact. He met Mark in those early morning dawn Masses. The two became close friends and a vortex of spiritual healing had begun.
Martin was also quite distinctive, tall, thin and well-bred. He sounded a bit like a British actor on PBS. Unlike Mark or Bob, Martin’s childhood was painful, lonely, and empty with absent parents. His great grandfather had invented something quintessential to American culture like the bobby-pin, rubber-band or pencil eraser that made every generation secure forever except in matters of the heart.
His mother, a fourth wife, was a musical prodigy in her mind and destined for a career in opera until, as he was often reminded, his ‘accidental’ birth put an end to it. In her mind, Martin was responsible for destroying her ambitious career. Apparently, no one was there to observe and inform that her talents were rather modest, if not negligible, and that prodigies in New York are as common as Ruben sandwiches.
As soon as Martin graduated from the diaper/nanny stage he was farmed out to a boarding school in Massachusetts and finally, after misbehaving, was stored for much of his unhappy youth in a Swiss boarding school, where he discovered a talent for languages. At school, his best friend was a sturdy, blond, Polish lad to whom he wrote secret love poems.
Martin’s mother did manage to establish herself as an opera star of sorts out on Long Island where the little town abutting the family estate held musicals during the summers. Her starring role in Gilbert and Sullivan productions was duly noted in the society pages just below who-met-who at the Farmer’s Market and you-know-who came incognito to play polo. She had never lessened her resentment of Martin in a passionately frustrated self-esteem that sacrificed her son to the wolves as she perfected her glory as Princess Aida. In the end, she took great pains to write him out of her will, leaving him totally vulnerable during his greatest hour of need.
Somewhere along the line Martin left the Episcopal Church and became an evangelical missionary in the South Pacific, which became an even greater flamboyant embarrassment and outrage to his society family in New York. Eventually, Martin became ill with AIDS, quitting his former life, moved to San Francisco and took catechism to become a Catholic. In fact, he had his first communion while he was one of the Brothers. Martin, an accomplished linguist was also a talented poet and left behind a bound collection for Mark after he died.
Brother Joe was amazing, everyone in the parish knew Joe. He was small, Sicilian, very vocal, demonstrative and anti-authoritarian. Sometimes he would light up a doobie in the back of the church before Mass. Everyone ignored it, except the homeless clustered around him, because they loved him. Next to Martin, Joe was the oldest of the group, in his fifties when he died. Joe had been a Salesian brother for nearly twenty years. He, like Bob, had confessed doubts about his sexuality and two days later was shown the door, handed twenty bucks and a tatty suitcase with an old thread bare suit in it.
There he was, standing at the closed front door of the monastery and flung into a wide and alien secular world. Like Bob, he made his way to the West Coast, worked odd jobs in the fields and temp gopher gigs for offices. Eventually he managed to get a paralegal degree at a junior college and ended up as a clerk for a California Superior Court Judge. When he became ill, he experienced what so many had, an institutional discrimination disguised as an ordinary business decision. Joe scraped by on his savings for a while, growing increasingly ill in those days before the ‘cocktail’ and found himself ruined and without any health insurance. He ended up living on Market Street a few blocks from the Castro and within walking distance from Most Holy Redeemer Church, where he would daily attend the early morning Mass.
James was the youngest of the brothers and probably the most vital and pure of heart, although in no way naïve. His deep intelligence was a profound compassion. His job was as a companion to a group of physically and mentally disabled adults, some as old and older than he. In James’ company, even those most bitter and sad felt that goodness was not only possible but real. James’ gang, as they were called, were tiny people lined up following him like ducklings through the Castro where they spent their day money on cool things at Cliff’s Variety and candy at Walgreen’s on the corner. Afterwards they would trek to Most Holy Redeemer where they would ‘work’ polishing pews or more commonly nap. The choice was theirs. Seeing one of them curled up, her head on a Disney Princess knapsack leaned against the alter was an exquisite vision of the true sacred.
The Castro was a raw and gritty place then, caught in the vortex of a terrible plague, illness, suffering and dying, but when James and his gang passed through a path of joy and light appeared. The gang lightened the hearts of even the most grieving and angry heart. Unlike hope which is often proffered as a dazzling con-game, what James had inside his heart and mind was a light irrepressible. Perfect by his unawareness of it James embodied what Catholics always elevate among the ordinary of us and that is saintliness. Although he probably wouldn’t have thought of it James was the most truly spiritual and independent of the Brothers.
How did they come to call themselves the ‘Little Brothers of Guadeloupe’? It was odd that they even conceived of forming a Franciscan Brother’s Minor, given the inhuman and abysmal treatment by the church into whose frigid arms they returned for love before dying. It was Mark’s idea and his persuasive conjuring delivered with what he called his best teacher’s voice that brought them together as a group in spiritual union. It was Martin’s devotion to the Guadalupe, a mother who never deserted him, which became the focus of the Brother’s identity and thus their group name.
It was their idea to be a presence for compassion and service in a church community whose Vatican despised them. It was a formal and respectful act of rebellion. Because for most of them Catholic culture was second nature, they felt coming home was their last act of completion, because they had the tools to undermine prejudice in its own language by applying the gospels to a perfectly natural unfolding of reality and truth. Mark was the only one who did not have HIV or AIDS and in that he knew a mission was formed; an expression of archetypal salvation in which he would help the others find peace and that he would no doubt survive them. In the end for Mark, it was nothing to do with God or institutional Catholicism, but everything to do with humanity, love, and the path of simple compassion. To his Buddhist mind it was a form of karma yoga.
Even though they took informal vows under the auspices of a visiting radical priest at Most Holy Redeemer, there was never any official recognition of the Brothers. Still, they quickly became assimilated into the community life of the church and ultimately out into the City itself. They first went out as a group to a Taize retreat held In Burlingame at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy. Taize was founded in the 1940’s by Brother Robert in France to create an ecumenical center of spiritual gathering. It has gained a large international youth following over the decades. Its simple service with an emphasis on song and a devotional period centered on the Franciscan Damiano cross appealed to the Brothers.
Shortly after, Mark had simple habits made for them based on his Zen monk days: simple black cotton pants and a hooded tunic with the Franciscan ‘tau’ embroidered in red on the front. They only wore it when acting as a group, because the church invited them to create a Taize service for the Castro community. They helped with other parish concerns like in-home hospice, AIDS outreach, food and hot meals for seniors or the sick and helping with holy days decorating, which delighted the widows, who themselves were becoming frail as the years passed.
As time went by and they became fully integrated into the life of the community. The Arch Bishop assigned a priest with AIDS to counsel them, and they began having private devotions and Masses in Mark’s Living-room where a monstrance containing a consecrated host was kept on a simple altar atop an old Japanese tansu. The Brothers ventured into some of the most dangerous and notorious parts of the City in their outreach efforts. Their outreach was not centered on dogma proselytizing or religion, but on simple acts of kindness and aid. They often handed out soap, razors, condoms, Tampax, combs, potato chips and candy bars. Sometimes they just listened to the stories of the streets.
They visited many sick gay men existing in sad, tiny rooms, who lived in fear, pain and loneliness. Bob was particularly welcome because he looked like an angel hunk. The Bishop approved them as Eucharistic ministers to the homeless and others. There was already a strong Franciscan presence in the Tenderloin run by a remarkable old priest, Father Louie Vitale. Father Louie was a force of nature and a most beloved peace activist, dissident and often admitted to his 400 arrests. He opened St. Boniface in the Tenderloin at night so the homeless, many of whom were vets, could sleep in safety. Pets were welcome.
The Little Brothers operated even under his radar, because they dealt with the most abandoned of the lot—-gay men with AIDS. The street people knew them, especially Joe, and where ever they went, no matter the time of night or the wee hours of the morning, they watched out for them, silently from a distance protecting them from danger. Often drunk or stoned individuals would come to them for communion on those gritty streets, because something, something sweet and safe reminded them of happier times in childhood. Often, they just came for some magic associated with angels and Jesus. Nobody was turned away, although the condition of the petitioners was kept strictly antre nous. They didn’t want to compromise the Bishop’s secret benevolence by outraged formalists.
Soon enough time came to collect the Brothers in its spoils. Joe was the first to go. He failed to appear at several morning Masses. None of us had ever visited him at his room on Market Street, but knew the building well. It turned out that Joe had moved, left no forwarding address or phone number. It took some doing but a week later they found him in one of those dingy Tenderloin singles, sick, feverish and soiled. He was wrapped up in blankets that they had brought and Brother Bob picked him up like a child, carried him down two flights of stairs to Mark’s waiting Jeep. They brought him to Mark’s place on 19th Street and put him in a hospital bed that had been arranged in his front room flat. In home hospice nurses came on a regular schedule to tend him and finally, when room became available at Coming Home Hospice across from Most Holy Redeemer Joe found his last comfort.
He died within a week and the Brother’s had no clue what the hospice did with his body. The hospice refused to divulge any information because they were not directly related relatives. The hospice people knew who were the Brothers, but steadfastly refused to budge. They never knew where Joe had been sent. This kind of institutional insult was so common in those days because liability was more important than compassion and mercy.
Joe’s death was a turning point for the Brothers. Mark and James were going strong, but Bob and Martin were failing. Bob, who only months ago had picked Joe up like a bundle of puppies, was becoming weaker by the day and suffering from bouts of pneumocystis. Martin too was becoming weaker and subject to intermittent hospitalizations at San Francisco’s famous Ward 86. Mark decided to act and make possible Martin’s idea and desire that they all should visit the home of Saint Francis in Assisi Italy.
A retreat was planned. They got their passports in order and Mark arranged a connection with a Marin travel group, which planned such retreats. James, who was still employed with the gang couldn’t get the time off, but Bob and Martin were excited about this adventure, which seemed so magical and delightful in the midst of the dying grounds of San Francisco. They were to leave that upcoming Spring.
When the time came, Bob was too ill to travel and Martin, though very weak, was determined to go. Mark and Martin traveled separately, because Martin wanted to visit for the last time some of his old school buddies in Europe before the Italy adventure. They regrouped again in Rome, staying in one of those charming, tiny Italian hotels clustered below the Spanish Steps. Mark hired a car and driver to travel to Assisi sparing Martin the stress of buses and dragging luggage.
The Assisi retreat was a dream and so uplifting for the two. Assisi is a unique and special place. The atmosphere is nearly indescribable. It’s pink and yellow stone walls, spectacular views, winding cobble streets and alleys create one of the most beautiful atmospheres imaginable. Window boxes were newly filled with spring Geraniums and everyone seemed joyful. Even the stray dogs seemed friendly and happy.
One morning Mark joined a fellow retreatant, an American from Sunnyvale, who he learned lived in Berlin and was a member of the Berlin State Opera Company. They were walking up from the plaza, through one of those winding cobblestone streets leading to the chapel where they were heading for morning meditation, when Sunnyvale suddenly burst out in operatic tenor magnificence singing ‘O Sole Mio’. A flurry of window shutters opened and shouts of ‘Bravo’, ‘Bravo’ rained down upon them from the upper stories. There is always some kind of magic happening in Assisi on any given day and for singers the acoustics are perfection.
In between meditation hours in the 13th century chapel the retreat had rented they visited the famous pilgrimage sites in Assisi, most particularly the Basilica di Santa Chiara, which now holds the original San Damiano cross that they had used in their Taize services back home. The morning Mass was particularly sweet to them because the cloistered nuns secreted behind a pierced-work screen sang the liturgy in the most exquisite voices imaginable.
Later they revisited the chapel where the Damiano cross was on display high above them. The room was crammed with Catholic youth groups from Eastern Europe. One boy in particular was overcome in thrall, threw himself to the floor in weeping prostration. The grumpy old Franciscan friar guarding the entry door collecting tickets hobbled over to the boy and angrily poked him with his cane and shouted in a creaky voice, something to the effect, “non c’e bisogno di questo!’ which came across as ‘There’s no need for that.”. “Move along!” The real goal of their retreat was to visit the Damiano Chapel, which Francis and his raggedy band of monks had rebuilt on a site halfway down the mountain on which was perched the ancient city of Assisi.
The way to San Damiano took one along a trail leading to the old Roman gate at the edge of the city, across a parking lot and then down, down, through olive groves to the chapel. I think that for them, it was the heart of their charism. The humble simplicity of the place, it’s shabby stone interior and one of those wheezing ancient organs that only Italy seems to use for liturgical purposes delighted them. The priests, however, were a crabby lot, often refusing to give communion to tourists in shorts or displays of cleavage.
The apex of the journey was no doubt the day spent traveling to all the Franciscan pilgrimage sites. They visited Gubbio and were relieved that no stuffed or plastic wolf of yore was standing as a simulacrum of Francis’s taming of the legendary animal. Greccio was a special place because it was the first time that the Nativity was enacted as a Passion play. It’s still going on after all these centuries. Again, the simplicity and humbleness of the sites was heart stirring.
For Martin however, the most memorable visit was to La Foresta in Rieti. When the bus pulled into the parking lot. They noticed a cascade of stone steps leading up and up the side of a cliff-like precipice. Martin’s heart began to sink, but he remained quiet. They began their ascent and Martin just sat down half way up and burst into tears. “I can’t make it.’ “I don’t think I can make it.” Mark lifted him up, put his arm around his shoulder and the two of them went up together, slowly and surely. They made it.
At the top was a lovely meadow surrounded by Chestnut trees. A fire pit had been made to roast the nuts and provide a bit of fun. Off to the side was a small stone hut, which attracted Mark and Martin. The sign informed that this was where Francis recouped during his bout with trachoma, an eye infection which eventually blinded him by the time he died in 1226.
Usually these little adjacent buildings were chained shut, particularly this one, because Francis was said to have recuperated here before traveling to Font Columbo for eye surgery, such as it was in those days. The chain was in a heap to the side of the door. It was open! Entering from the blazing Italian sun into the dusty dim interior, golden dust motes stirred and the two could see an old, crudely carved wooden bed with its slats missing. ‘Could it possibly be?’ ‘Could it be THE bed?’ they thought. Martin just sank down his arms around one of the posts and wept. There they stayed for nearly an hour before joining the group roasting chestnuts. Martin died two weeks later after arriving back home in San Francisco.
Mark concerned about Bob’s increasingly precipitous decline decided to move from his flat on 19th Street to an apartment just below Twin Peaks and down the hall from Bob’s. Bob’s partner was absent most of the time traveling for business and Mark was worried that Bob needed more care in between hospice visits. One morning Bob told Mark I can’t do this anymore. I want to go to the roof. Mark understood perfectly what that request meant, so, he took Bob’s arm and walked him down the hall and up the stairs to the roof, where he knew the access door was locked. Bob was too exhausted to continue and so back they went. “We’ll try again tomorrow when you feel better,” said Mark. They tried again the next day. This time Mark took Bob down another circuitous path, down long halls and then to the roof-top stairs, He knew that this entry was also locked. Bob had to sit in the hallway in his disheveled bathrobe to recover before making it back to the apartment and the comfort of his deep, goose down comforter. Bob gave up on his quest.
A few days later Bob mentioned he had to go to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley across the Bay. What he didn’t say was that it was to remove a tumor in his head. When he later learned of this Mark was flabbergasted. Why in the hell operate on a man in his condition? Then it dawned on him. Bob was dying. The brain surgery was an opportunity to try an experimental procedure. Such was the cynicism and lucrative exploitation of AIDS patients in those days by opportunists. These tales widely known in the community are seldom ever mentioned in the hagiographies of those times.
Mark and James could not get a hold of Bob. Alta Bates would not connect them and then finally said that Bob was not a patient there. ‘Sorry’. Mark hired an expert HIV attorney, who threatened Alta Bates into revealing Bob’s whereabouts. The Bank of America had cancelled his insurance again and Alta Bates wanting the bed dumped him in a hell hole nursing home called Hill Haven in Oakland.
When Mark and Bob’s partner drove to Hill Haven the first thing they noticed tacked to the front door was a California State ‘condemned’ notice. They swept by the front desk and discovered Bob stashed in a six-man room filled with elderly Latino men in various stages of neglect. Bob was lying in his own waste and a swarm of ants covered the wall near his bed. They got a wheelchair, scooped him up and took him out of there. No one stopped them. A nurse in the lobby whispered, “Thank God.” “Go!”
Bob died several weeks later in his own bed at three in the morning in Mark’s arms and in the presence of a hospice nurse. Bob had wanted a formal requiem Mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church in the Castro. It was well attended. Later that fall Mark and James, who had quit his job, traveled back to Assisi to spread some of Martin’s and Bob’s ashes as they had wished near San Damiano.
That was the last retreat for Mark. Needing discretion for his task with the ashes he only told a few of the retreatants of his plan. He had known these women, an Austrian and her adult daughter, becoming close during the last retreat with Martin. One morning just before dawn he left his hostel near the central plaza in his Brother’s habit with a shoulder bag containing Bob’s and Martin’s ashes and joined with James to begin the descent down the mountain and into the olive groves of San Damiano.
They had taken only a few steps when they looked up to see a dozen or so women in long skirts and shawls waiting to accompany him to the final consecration. Apparently, word got out in the Assisi retreatant community and so the women came. It looked like something out of an ancient Biblical illustration as Mark and James carried their brother’s ashes to the olive grove. They walked in silence down the mountain and the women surrounded the Brothers in a semi-circle as they scattered the ashes. Then, slowly in little groups they headed back up the climb in the dawn and as always in Assisi murmuring swarms of birds lifted to the rising sun.
Postscript: James and Mark left Assisi separately. James flew from Rome to India where he wanted to explore an ashram founded by the Yogi Benedictine Bede Griffiths. Mark returned to the City briefly, but then seemed to disappear. Years later someone said that he had fallen in love and moved to Vermont. Neither of these surviving Brothers ever attended Mass at Most Holy Redeemer again.