Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall at sunset

Sunday, January 31, 2010


My 40th High School reunion is coming up this year so I have been thinking about Tonawanda, NY, the Polish-Italian suburb of Buffalo where I grew up.

I went to Catholic school for 12 years, first at St. Amelia's, then 4 years at Cardinal O'Hara. Nuns were a big part of my childhood.

When you're in 1st or 2nd grade, it seemed all the sisters looked like the sister below. I think this might be a Carmelite nun.

In reality, they looked like these sisters. Felician nuns. They had all been born in Poland. Their habits included that high starched white forehead piece with the veil draped over it. They all had names like Sister Amabilia, Sister Conceptia, Sister Anthonille and Sister Beatrice.

The nuns ruled. I mean they RULED. You did not talk back and every response had to have "Sister" added onto the end of it. "Yes, Sister." "No, Sister." "Right away, Sister."

I loved my 1st grade teacher, Sister Laurentine. She must have been close to 70 at the time she taught my class but she was very kind. I think it must have been Sister Laurentine that made me want to be a nun.

Both my sister Bernadine and myself wanted to join the religious life. At the time I thought you had to be a nun or a priest to be closer to God. Later on I learned that wasn't so. But the desire to become a nun stayed with me up until high school.

Bernadine wanted to be a Sister of Charity, founded by St. Catherine Laboure. They wore the big starched flying wimple sort of habit in the first photo at the top. Sometimes she wanted to be a Maryknoll nun because in our tiny school library there was a book called Bernie Becomes a Nun. We checked it out frequently and perused the many photographs that showed Bernie going into the convent and becoming a postulant, then a novice, and finally taking her permanent vows.

There was another book in our library that listed every order of nuns in the world. I think there were about 1000 different orders. The order that fascinated me the most was the Pink Nuns. No kidding. They even had a picture and their robes were a pale pink. I am not making this up!

Nuns have been popular subject in Hollywood, even up to the present time. When I thought about being a nun, I pictured myself something like the nun in the photos below. Contemplative and holy and beautiful all at the same time.

Like this nun.

Or this one.

When I was little I used to take all the white towels in the house and dress up like a nun. No lie. Thank goodness there aren't any photos of this, although I must say my parents sure missed a good photo op.

I begged my Dad to let me go into the convent after 8th grade. He was usually a pussycat but this time he put his foot down and said no. There was time enough to do that after I graduated from high school. Of course in the 9th grade I discovered boys and my "vocation" flew out the window.

I am grateful for my Catholic education. The nuns taught me about God while they taught me to read. We learned to respect them and to respect others.

And they taught me about Pagan Babies. But that's another post.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Ireland

Clonmacnoise was a monastery founded about 454 AD by St. Ciaran. He chose the site for its ideal location at the junction of river and road travel in Celtic Ireland.

Ciaran didn't live to see the growth of the monastery. He died of plague at the age of 33, only 4 years after founding it.

The remains of the stone chapels and buildings that stand there now date to the 10th century. The original structures would have been built of wood.

Clonmacnoise became a great center of learning, attracting scholars from Ieland and Europe. There was a Scriptorium here, where scribes labored long hours to master the skills of illumination that would result in the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow.

There are many fine examples of Celtic crosses here. You cannot take a bad photo!

That is the River Shannon behind the round tower in the photo above. Looks very peaceful, doesn't it? However, much violent history took place at Clonmacnoise. It was destroyed by fire at least 13 times. Imagine an evening 1500 years ago. You are coming in from a long day toiling in the fields.

How would you like to see this sailing up the Shannon toward you?

Or this?

Clonmacnoise was attacked at least 40 times from the 8th to the 12th century. 8 times by Vikings, 6 times by the Anglo-Normans, and 40 times by the Irish.

The monks rebuilt each time.

In 1522 it was destroyed by the English garrison at Athlone, and for the next three hundred years there were no monasteries in Ireland.

Today the National Heritage Service is still working to preserve Clonmacnoise for generations to come.

I have some ideas for a historical novel set in Clonmacnoise. Vikings are involved!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

St. Ninian's Cave, Scotland

In my second novel, Eleri's Tale, my character Eleri spends time at "Candida Casa", the "white house" on the hill at the very southwestern tip of Scotland.

The time period is 432 AD. Candida Casa was a monastery built by St. Ninian. St. Ninian's Cave is on the beach at the Irish Sea, a walk of about 4 miles. Tradition holds that Ninian retired to this cave to pray and meditate.

Pilgrims have made their way to visit the cave since those ancient times. Some very early Christian crosses are carved into the rock at the mouth of the cave and you can still see them today.

My sister Bernadine and I walked the path to the sea on a beautiful Scottish morning. The path meanders through the forest and then begins to slope slightly upward.

Through the screen of green leaves you can see the blue water.

The forest gives way to blackberry bushes that tower thickly above the path on both sides. And then you are on the beach, greeted by a spectacular vista of water and sky.

You can see the dark mouth of the cave in the cliff that rises to your right.

A cave with a view!

The cave is a sort of triangular shape, narrowing to a point at the back. The floor of the cave is covered with smooth rounded stones.

The day we visited and I took these photos, we were the only ones on the beach. It was amazing for me to stand in this place and think about Eleri coming here to pray as Ninian had done.

Absolutely gorgeous!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ancient Perfumes

Perfume has an ancient history.

Incense was the first perfume. The ancients burned many types of resins, woods, and herbs for their religious rituals. A few posts back I mentioned that red grains of incense were found in the recently discovered in the tomb of the Apostle Paul.

Fragrance is frequently mentioned in the Bible, from the frankincense and myrrh of the the three Kings, to the fragrance of the myrtle tree.

It is thought that Egypt was the first culture that incorporated fragrance and Cleopatra was said to be lavish in her use of perfumes.

In my historical novel, Eleri's Tale, I mention a precious perfume whose recipe came from Discorides, an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist. It contained cassia and cinnamon in a base of sweet flag root and olive oil with a touch of myrrh.

The alabaster perfume bottle in the photo is 2400 years old and was excavated from an ancient Greek shipwreck in Turkey in 1999. The photo was taken by Courtney Platt and appeared in the March 2002 National Geographic magazine.