A vine from Egypt you transplanted; / . . . It put forth its foliage to the Sea, / its shoots as far as the River. Psalm 80.
It’s good to get away. Jane and I decided, before the cold weather sets in, to return to Italy for a couple of weeks this past September. We chose the town of Spello, which is not far from Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis whose feast occurs on October 4th. Spello is a hillside town, not large, built within an ancient wall, narrow streets, tile roofs, a parish church with a threefold fresco of the Annunciation, Birth of Jesus and the boy Jesus instructing the doctors in the Temple – done by Pinturicchio around 1500 AD. I must say, surveying these magnificent paintings with all their detail, contemporary faces, garments, landscapes, angels, golden haloes, colors, with all the imagination and work that must have gone into them . . . (my apologies to devotees of modern art) but they make Picasso look like a scribbler.
And what I mean by its being good to get away to a place like Spello and surrounding medieval towns like Deruta and Montefalco is – it revives one’s appreciation of the beauty all around us here and now; it rinsed my own vision of the familiarity that beclouds my appreciation of our Sonoma Valley – makes it come alive, fresh again even as the Valley of Umbria seen from our Spello window appeared so fresh, so much a painting, a work of art in itself.
Which ties in with our readings about vineyards for today. Our biblical writers use the metaphor of a vineyard to describe the world as God made it, as God wants it to be, as we should cultivate it. But familiarity, the distractions of politics, of commerce, of gossip, of self-interest – all those things that blind us to the deeper meaning and beauty of creation – turn this vineyard world (and valley) into a blur as we speed down Highway 12 or Arnold Drive – turn it into something that (figuratively speaking) might as well be unpruned, overgrown with thorns and briers, parched, open to trespass by every passerby or “beast of the field” as far as our notice is concerned.
For you see, it is not God (as the biblical readings suggest) who lays our vineyard world waste, but we in so far as we live detached from God, each other, the landscape out of which we were born, of which we are meant to be not just spectators but participants – even as St. Francis saw in the Sun, Wind, Air and Fire brothers; in the Moon, Water and Death sisters, in the Earth itself a Mother – in the whole of the universe around us on and beyond the reach of this globe – a Family of which we are the Care-Takers (the people who should Care!).
Why I reaped the reward of our trip to Spello this very morning when, in walking around the Plaza at dawn, the eastern sky, the silent trees, flowers, the chill in the air, the shops, the lamplights – after having become somewhat strange from seeming outside me for so long - quietly greeted me personally – you might say as a quiet vineyard, an environment no longer laden with sour grapes.
And so may we not make our prayer that of the Psalm for today: Once again, O Lord of hosts, / look down from heaven, and see; / take care of this vine, / and protect what your right hand has planted. // . . . give us new life, . . . / O Lord, God of hosts, restore us; / if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.