Saturday, August 24, 2013

Évora, Portugal... and the Capela dos Ossos

And then how often we drove kilometers, hours out of our way all because we heard about something beautiful, magnificent, or peculiar.  It was the latter of those reasons that we drove north on the A2  then merged northeast onto the IP2, the narrow two-lane road lined with Oak Cork trees.  It was the end of May, 2011.

When we arrived in the quaint little town of Evora, we found beautiful and magnificent, too.  I could live there.  Its grand cathedrals, narrow streets framed with whitewashed buildings and paved with cobblestones.  Why does it seem ancient associates itself with meandering?

There was the town square with its locals buying and bartering for the day's meals, folks lingering near the fountain.  We tiptoed inside the nearby cathedral, trying to make ourselves invisible while congregants sat through midday Mass.  However, when little old ladies scrunched their noses while looking us over with a scrutinizing eye and leaned over to whisper in each other's ears, we realized we were committing a cultural faux pas -- my shoulders bared!! -- and quietly slipped out. 

Decorative wrought iron balconies and azulejo glazed tiles aren't just art, they're expressions of the culture.  We meandered toward one of many historical sites, passing stores selling cork... everything, from furniture to floors to pencils. Succulent aromas drifted from restaurants offering delicacies such as Frango Grelhado, a grilled chicken dish seasoned with piri piri, garlic, and olive oil.

We ambled into sunshine and what was once Evora's main square, (a Roman forum), 14 of the granite Corinthian columns of the Templo romano de Evora standing there as a document of first century architecture. 

We loitered long at the site, taking in magnificent views of the Roman aqueduct and surrounding countryside.  After all, siesta lasted two hours... our midday meal only took half of that, leaving us to adjust to the cultural antonym of hurry.

And that peculiar thing we went to see?  At 2:30 in the afternoon, siesta ended as shop owners turned  signs from fechado to abrir, propping doors open with stones or cork doorstoppers.  We traced our way back through alleyways toward the Royal Church of St. Francis.  There, at the back of a small courtyard, is the entrance to the Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Bones.  Though not unique -- there are other such chapels -- we paid our one euro admission to be sufficiently creeped out fascinated by this first-time exposure to entire walls built from skeletons and mortar.  Skulls lining ceilings and columns.

The skulls of 5,000 monks.  Moved to this place in the 1400's as a solution to free up real estate in the surrounding countryside.  The remains of lives. 

The monks who transferred the bones to this chapel wanted to make a statement, a declaration to the brevity of life... to the importance of stopping to reflect on how we decide to live our lives while we still have breath. 

On one of the pillars, there is a poem in Portuguese.  It reads:

Aonde vais, caminhante, acelerado?
Pára...não prossigas mais avante;
Negócio, não tens mais importante,
Do que este, à tua vista apresentado.
Recorda quantos desta vida têm passado,
Reflecte em que terás fim semelhante,
Que para meditar causa é bastante
Terem todos mais nisto parado.
Pondera, que influido d'essa sorte,
Entre negociações do mundo tantas,
Tão pouco consideras na morte;
Porém, se os olhos aqui levantas,
Pára...porque em negócio deste porte,
Quanto mais tu parares, mais adiantas.
por Padre António da Ascenção

Translated into English, it says,

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

by Father António da Ascenção (translation by Father Carlos A. Martins, CC)

The other night we were listening to John Piper's sermon titled, "Don't Waste Your Life."  Piper passionately preached the same message, stating it several different ways, you've got one shot at this life!  Don't waste it! 

I've recalled many times the eerie feeling of walking through that chapel.  I deliberately forced myself to stop and stare into the hollows that once contained eyes.  I wondered about the different personality traits, temperaments.  Wondered if this one excelled in gardening, if that one had a particularly funny sense of humor.  (Are monks required to be stoic, suppressing their gift of humor?  Just wondering.) 
The entrance to the Chapel has this across it, "Nos ossos que aqui estamos delos vossos esperamos."  (We bones that are here, we are waiting for your's.")  Well!

That first line in the poem, "Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?" 

May we take time to pause.  To consider the responsibility to live larger than ourselves... to make much of Christ... to call out the greatness in others... to shun the status quo and dare to do extraordinary things.

Is there a dream inside of you waiting to be lived out?  What would it take to move from the safe zone to that place of risk?  (Questions I'm asking myself these days.)

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