Sunday, January 11, 2015

St. Francis’ Garden

It was probably the hottest day of the year yesterday – over 90 degrees and definitely hotter along the sizzling sidewalk of the Alameda, downtown Santiago’s main artery at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I had considered postponing my appointment, but, no, Franciscan Brother Jaime and I had each reconfirmed twice that we’d meet at this hour at the museum of the old seventeenth century San Francisco Church.
            It was dark and wonderfully cool inside the museum’s thick adobe walls, hung with large colonial religious paintings. Why did colonial artists paint their scenes in such lugubrious colors? A young guide directed me to Brother Jaime’s office in a corridor bordering a central garden, where he met me at the door with the traditional Chilean peck on the cheek, though we hadn’t met before. I had expected him to be clad in the brown Franciscan habit, but instead, was met by a young man in tee shirt, chinos and sandals. He led me to a table where he sat at his laptop. The walls around us were lined with bookshelves, paintings and a couple of Christmas stockings.
            “Are you satisfied with the contract?” he asked.
I said it was fine, pulling out my copy which conceded me the rights to quote in my upcoming memoir some words of Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s Nobel poetess. In her will, Gabriela left rights over her works and all her property to Chile’s Franciscan Congregation.
We each signed our copies. Just then a strident squawk sounded in garden.
“Was that a peacock?”
He smiled. “Yes, and the female is perched on some eggs. We also have exotic chickens and a pond with fish and a turtle. Down the hall is a small room dedicated to Gabriela and you can see her Nobel medal.”
I thanked him and said I thought I’d go enjoy the garden for a while.


I stepped out into the heat, although tall old trees provided welcome shade. A gnarled cork tree looked to have been planted there by the original monks. There was the peacock, an elegant queen on her ground-level nest. I peeked into Gabriela’s room, admired her Nobel medal and then headed to the wide, round fountain with water spilling in the center. I sat on a bench, where a small mud-colored cat joined me. I stroked its head and wondered how he was allowed to wander freely in this garden, populated by doves, chickens and peacocks. When he jumped up onto the edge of the fountain, I thought, Oh-oh. The fish! But all he wanted was to drink some water. That assortment of animals living in harmony seemed so appropriate for that church and monastery named in honor of St. Francis.

 I had a view across the garden to the opposite corridor and the second floor, the monastery corridors forming a square enclosing the garden. Above the roof, in the distance, rose a glass skyscraper, tapering into a needle tip. The roar of revving engines of busses passing on the Alameda carried over the adobe walls. I tried to imagine what life had been like for the monks who first planted these trees, which now, centuries later, provide me with a shady oasis of serenity.

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