Pilgrimage

Roman Reflections

By the grace of God, I just returned from three blessed months studying in Rome, Italy. It was an incredible experience, to say the least, and no doubt a single post could never encapsulate how amazing and life-changing this special semester was for me.  I walked through St. Peter’s Square everyday to go to class. I attended Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica multiple times; I saw the ins and outs of every major church, many minor churches, and the cramped, vendor-filled streets in Rome, got a taste of European culture, and made some incredible memories with my friends. (It wasn’t all fun and games by any means. We had a rigorous academic schedule to challenge us while we were there that sometimes felt a bit overwhelming, but ultimately made our European experience that much more amazing). 

What made it so special, though, was not that we were traveling about Italy and enjoying ourselves. Not at all. What made it special was that we were there with a purpose; and that made it a pilgrimage. Our first week was spent on pilgrimage together in Assisi and Siena, and our chaplain encouraged us to keep the spirit of pilgrims the whole semester, in our studies and in all the sightseeing and new experiences.

 It was a stirring challenge, directed not only to our time in Italy but to our attitude towards our whole lives on earth.  How does one be a pilgrim in a three-month long “semester” without a definite final destination? What makes it a pilgrimage? Christians often speak of this life as a pilgrimage, as our journey towards heaven. But often it can feel like we’re not “going” anywhere, but simply “living” day to day. What makes it a journey, if we’re simply gong about our daily business of working, praying, studying, buying groceries, riding the subway? How are we pilgrims?

Hilaire Belloc once wrote eloquently of the meaning and purpose of a pilgrimage. He said: “A man that goes on a pilgrimage does best of all if he starts out  . . . with the heart of a wanderer, eager for the world as it is, forgetful of maps or descriptions, but hungry for real colours and men and the seeming of things. This desire for reality and contact is a kind of humility, this pleasure in it a kind of charity.”

 Being on a pilgrimage, as Belloc explains, means moving toward your goal with eyes open to the path around you. And when a pilgrimage is a search for God, then that search that encompasses your vision of life and your attitude toward all you encounter: you seek for God everywhere and always.  That first week in Assisi, I came across a quote that helped me understand how the vision of a pilgrim could direct both my time in Rome and my time on earth; a quote from the earliest biographer of St. Francis, who wrote:  “In beautiful things, Francis saw Beauty Itself.”

In the beautiful things around us, we should see a glimpse of the beauty of God. That vision which seeks and sees God in all around us coincides exactly with Belloc’s notion of a pilgrim–who knows how to take joy in the journey by seeking his final end in all that he encounters along the way.   In every place we went this semester, we were seeking God, seeking to find him wherever we were; not only in every glorious church we entered (and there were many), but in every train station and crowded street, in the classroom and at the little Italian cafes. From the Baroque, golden glory of St. Peter’s Basilica, to the sweet simplicity of St. Francis’ hermitage chapel, we sought Him . . . and found Him, because we went with eyes and hearts open to His presence.

Thou has said, “Seek ye my face.” 
My heart says to thee, 
“Thy face, LORD, do I seek.”
–Psalm 27:8  

St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican

The chapel at the mountain hermitage of St. Francis in Assisi

Advertisements

A Daily Gift

I emphasize again that our pilgrimage to Italy was not a sight-seeing tour. It was, as I have said, a journey of faith; it was not about what we saw and did, but about the spiritual character of where we were and how we prayed there. Still, I have now seen things with my own eyes that I never thought I would, sacred places and things which we were incredibly privileged to be able to see–the most important, of course, being the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of Christ, which is seldom on display to the public. At each place we visited I had to pinch myself when I realized that by the grace of God I was seeing or touching or kneeling before something that had caused saints and kings to embark on pilgrimages–or even more frequently, something saints and kings of long ago had longed to see but could not.

Never did I feel this point hit home more clearly than at Loreto, where we stopped on our way to Assisi, on the same day that we visited the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano. The town of Loreto was built up around one home–I could almost say the home, for it is certainly the most important household in history: the tiny house of Mary in Nazareth, miraculously transported to the safety of a quiet Italian village. Imagine, if you can, what it was like to kneel on the floor of that tiny house, to lay my hand upon its brick walls and think: Here, the heavenly messenger Gabriel cried out that one great ‘Hail, Mary!’ that echoes in the prayers of all the faithful through the ages. Mary and Joseph labored with love here as they took care of the Son of God. Jesus Christ slept, played, worked, and grew from childhood to manhood within these walls. Glory be to God, I can’t believe I’m really here…

Outside of the church of Loreto, I came across a sign where there were listed all the saints and blesseds that had ever visited Loreto. My eyes grew wider and wider as they went down the list: Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Don Bosco, Robert Bellarmine, Francis Xavier, Edmund Campion, Isaac Jogues. The list went on for pages and pages. Just think, I told myself, All these saints came here to Loreto, and you’ve been given the grace to come here too…to walk the ground their feet have trod in pilgrimage. I felt suddenly very small and insignificant, as if I were in the presence of all these heroic men and women. There were memorable stories, too, about saints visiting the places we visited; for instance, it is incredibly humbling to learn that, after traveling all the way to the Cave of St. Michael, St. Francis felt himself unworthy to enter and so only knelt down and kissed the stones and carved a tau cross there.

Then, of course, there were the amazing Eucharistic miracles at Lanciano and Siena; the basilicas and cathedrals we visited; the tombs and relics of many saints, including St. Paul, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare (beautiful and incorrupt), Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, Padre Pio, and countless popes in the Vatican, including John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II; the crib of Jesus from Bethlehem; the most moving and beautiful Pieta, the Sistine Chapel, and the incredible St. Peter’s Basilica; the catacombs of the early Christian martyrs; the Portiuncula where St. Francis began the Franciscans. I’ve touched my rosary to more sacred places and things than I can remember all at once. I’m simply blown away when I think of everything I encountered.
Some of these rare and precious things came crossing our path when we least expected them. There was the glove and crucifix of Padre Pio, for instance; those unexpected sacred objects were in the little parcel of the Franciscan priest with whom we spoke at Padre Pio’s shrine, and he took them out to bless us with them. Among the surprise blessings, the greatest crossed our path on the last day of our stay in Rome. Our tour guide, Antonello–who was quite a character, a proud and knowledgeable Roman who really deserves a post of his own–had taken us to see all the grandest churches of Rome outside the Vatican. In the last church, he mentioned the relics of Holy Cross in connection with something else; our group expressed regret that the relics themselves were not on our schedule. Antonello, after a few phone calls, made an exception and surprised our group by announcing, to our great joy, that he had been able to organize for us to visit the relics. Shortly afterward, in a small and quiet room paved with marble, we knelt before the reliquaries that contained the wood of the cross, the crown of thorns, nails, and the wooden tablet Pilate erected above Christ, which read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
For all these great blessings, for all these holy sights, privileges and experiences, I am most grateful. Taken in the context of a spiritual journey, they comprise the essence of our pilgrimage. It was an inestimable blessing, a strengthening of our faith. Yet, when I remember all these precious encounters, I must bear in mind that they were wonderful, but not necessary. Every single day, you see, God offers us a gift greater than all the churches and relics in Europe.
When the priest who accompanied us on our pilgrimage gently took the glove and crucifix of Padre Pio into his hands to allow us to kiss them, my brother commented on how lucky Father Joseph was to be able to hold them.
Father Joseph instantly replied: “I hold Jesus in my hands every day at Mass.”

The Word Became Flesh

The city in which we ended our pilgrimage was almost the opposite of the city in which we began it, in more ways than one. From Roma in the South, we had traveled to Torino in the North; and if Rome was a city of faith and art, of beauty and history, then Turin was, quite literally, the reverse of the Eternal City. Turin was a place of business, of industry, and of politics, all things that shift and change and pass like all the other works of man. I suppose it had its share of history, as any city must that has been around a few centuries; but Turin’s history seemed oddly unimportant. There were government buildings where meetings had been held, where statues are erected to famous statesmen and soldiers. One building seemed to be a conglomeration of all Italian history; the foundation was Roman, and at each age some level, wing, or tower had been added in a new style. All eras were pieced together in that one awkward building; individually, each part might be interesting for a particular feature or design, but taken as a whole it lacked any meaning or continuity.

All of the city was like that. It was a typical city: buildings that looked big and important, such as government offices and museums, industries and pricey stores, crowded streets and a public transit system. But no one thinks Turin is important for having those things.
In the center of this very secular city is the one thing that makes Turin really remarkable, and it is not the work of man. Just outside of Turin there is a church on a mountaintop, high and lofty and beautiful even from a distance: but the famous Shroud of Turin is not kept there. It is kept in the heart of the city. The church that houses the Shroud is just to the side of a great secular square, where even the smaller church in which we held Mass seemed to blend into the monotonous facade of official buildings. (On our way to try and locate the entrance to the room where we could have Mass, we passed some of the darker stores one finds in city alleyways, and I shuddered to be reminded that Turin, like all cities, probably has its uglier side in addition to its dull modern side.) The Shroud of Turin has been kept in that city for hundreds of years; tradition indicates–and faith confirms–that it is the Shroud of Christ Himself. I believe it; and, more importantly, so did the millions of faithful who flocked to Torino this past May to venerate what has been described as the nigh-photographic image of the body of Jesus Christ.

No photograph or detailed high-definition image I had studied previously had really shown me what I saw that day with my own eyes. Stretched out in the dim light of the church was the full sixteen-foot strip of cloth with the unmistakable figure of a man upon it–a tortured and murdered man. Gazing at it, one gets a very strong impression of the physicality of the Man on the Shroud; it is almost as if one could see the very weight of his body. You get a very real sense of his height, his strong build, his hands and feet, his bleeding wounds–his bleeding face.

His sorrowful, gentle, bruised face explains the painful truth of it far better than words. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and this is what we did to Him. Jesus Christ became man and entered a world full of all the problems man faces: political turmoil, religious conflict, Pharisees and Pontius Pilates wielding earthly power, God’s house being turned into a marketplace. He came into the heart of the human race, right in the middle of our suffering, and took it for His own. And that is why, as strange as it may seem, it is right for the Shroud to be in so secular and mundane a city as Turin; in the heart of the city, in the heart of humanity. Jesus is here with us, dwelling among us, saying to us, with the silent witness of His Passion recorded on the Shroud: I suffer with you, I suffer for you, because I love you.

There is one, final note to be made about the Shroud. It is not just a testimony to Jesus’ Passion and Death. It is a testimony to His Resurrection. The image on the Shroud is the image of a man in the repose of death, but His body is not decayed and did not decay; it only left this luminous image behind, because He conquered the grave and rose from the dead.

Assisi


When I contemplate our pilgrimage, my memory is filled with many bustling days: long hours on the bus or walking back and forth through busy cities and small villages, amazing churches and holy sites, and returning wearily at the end of the day to collapse in our hotel room. I think of sacred spots where I felt almost as though I ought to remove my shoes, since where I was standing was holy ground; prayerful places, and so many other beautiful things, artwork and sculpture and countryside.

But when I come to Assisi, I must pause, and call to mind again the whole of my experiences there. No other place affected me so deeply, for there our pilgrimage reached its most intense moment. It felt like the climax of a story. All that came before led up to it, and all that followed afterward was a crowning glory, a resolution; but at Assisi we came, quite literally, to the crux of the matter.
Before anyone can understand how this came to be, it is necessary to paint in a little of the background of our Assisi visit. The glorious sunset we witnessed on the evening of our arrival, the panoramic hills, and the ancient little town were not the only backdrop to what we did there; even that first sunset was tinged with a darker color for us, as if we felt as though the sun might not rise again. This was because we were, in fact, walking the medieval streets with only half a heart; the other half was preoccupied, back at home. My brother, back in the U.S., had been very ill when we left; we were told, however, that it was merely an unknown virus from which he would recover–with time. Yet, time had dragged on, and on, and by the day we reached Assisi his condition had suddenly grown so much worse that a new evaluation was absolutely necessary. There, in a rather remote town in the Italian foothills, far from any airport and only a few days from the end of our pilgrimage, we waited anxiously for news from the other side of the world. Each day the news was worse, and the doctors, speculating about his illness, began to suggest that it might be fatal. We were in beautiful Assisi; but it felt like Gethsemane.
Yet, perhaps because of what was going on inside of me, what was going on outside of me took on a stronger and stranger significance. Assisi was as unique as St. Francis himself. Indeed, it was St. Francis that made Assisi unique; his spirit of peace imbued the town. It was quiet; it was ancient; it was utterly peaceful. I couldn’t look out the window of our room, and view the little church, the hundred swallows flitting about the sky, and the descent into the green plains below, without thinking how very Franciscan everything felt. The upper and lower churches of the basilica are both beautiful, and even in looking at the many gorgeous frescoes there you can see something of the way men were inspired by this one man who always pointed to God with intense fidelity and love. Visiting Assisi, by the way, dispels the cloud of nature-loving myth that surrounds St. Francis in the modern mind; it is clear that he respected Creation only because he revered the Creator. You meet the man there; not merely a person who spoke to the birds and tamed the wolf, but a man who was a soldier, a romantic, a saint; someone who thirsted for God so deeply that he embraced total poverty and suffered intensely if only to come closer to Christ on the cross.
No place gives better evidence of this than in the dim crypt of the double basilica, where there rests a humble altar upon which tall white candles perpetually burn; and in the rocky enclosure behind the altar is a rough, severely simple stone coffin, and one dark lamp hung above it. This is the tomb of St. Francis, and merely a glance at it imparts something of the character of the man himself: the man who went singing a hymn of joy while walking the road of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and who was the first to receive the stigmata.
At his tomb, my mother–too distraught to do anything but pray–spent almost the whole of our time in Assisi, praying intensely for the healing of my brother. Everywhere I went, I prayed, too; in the Basilica, in the monastery, at the Church of St. Clare, in the home of St. Francis. Everyone in our group was so wonderful, gently reminding us that they were praying too, offering kind words and support. Later, I discovered that almost every person in our group had put in a petition for my brother at the Poor Clare monastery–petitions which would be placed in the altar and kept in the prayers of the Sisters for a month.
I don’t know how else to describe the experience of these few days in Assisi, except to say that they were the most intense of my life, because every single moment was a prayer. I had heard of living like this, when every act and every thought become a prayer, but out of necessity now I experienced it. I was helpless to do anything else; I could not cure him, I could not even go to him; I could only pray, pray pray. Our rosaries slipped through our fingers hour by hour. One prayer was on my heart day and night. When I returned to the tomb to join my mother, I felt as though I had gone full circle and come to my last desperate stretch of faith. “Lord,” I begged, “So far, I haven’t asked you for a miracle; so far, I’ve just asked that you cure him, in your time and way…but I’m asking for a miracle now.”
Through the intercession of St. Francis and many other saints, through the prayers of countless faithful who had joined us in besieging heaven, and by Divine Mercy, God granted our request. Late that same night, news reached us that the doctors had suddenly–and almost accidentally–uncovered the source of his illness and had removed it entirely. He would recover slowly, but he would recover totally.

“It’s a miracle he’s alive,” we were told.
Deo Gratias, I whispered; and when the sun rose the next morning, for me every inch of Assisi was glowing in the light of a new spiritual dawn. As every breath had been a petition, so now every breath became an inward shout of gratitude. I never saw anything so beautiful as that medieval little town in the morning light that day, because I saw it in the light of faith.
I’ll end by saying, simply, that for me the greatest lesson learned from Assisi–indeed from our whole pilgrimage–is this: never, ever doubt the tender Providence of God, and the mighty power of prayer.

Miracles

In Willa Cather’s western novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, there is a compelling scene in which two missionary priests discuss a miracle. They are contemplating the effect of miracles on faith:

“Doctrine is well enough for the wise, Jean,” says one priest, “but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love.”
“Where there is great love, there are miracles,” replies the other priest after a pause. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”
These words came to my mind as I was contemplating one of the miraculous places we visited on our Italian pilgrimage: Lanciano. It was a small town, with the same crooked Italian streets and lovely balcony windows that we had come across in almost every small Italian town we had visited that far; but Lanciano was not an ordinary town. It was not even an ordinary Italian town, because while almost every locality in Italy can claim at least one saint or famous building as their own, Lanciano can claim something far more marvelous than the shrine of saint or a magnificent cathedral.
In the heart of Lanciano, there is one, small church–which is beautiful but ordinary as Italian churches go. In this church, there is a tiny back-room where there took place, 1300 years ago, what may be the most earth-shaking miracle in all of Christendom; and this miracle continues to happen, every day, in sacred display behind the altar for all the faithful to see.
The story goes that in the 700’s A.D., a Basilian monk and priest was suffering a serious crisis of faith about the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He was going through the motions of the Mass but had painful doubts that Christ really came into the wafers of bread he consecrated–that the hosts truly ceased to exist and that he held, instead, God Himself in his hands. One day, when he said the words of consecration with these turbulent doubts weighing upon him, the bread and wine he consecrated turned visibly into flesh and blood. That thin section of heart flesh, and few dark drops of blood, are still venerated in the church Lanciano–miraculously preserved through the centuries without human aid.
It is called the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano; but the miracle is not that the host turned into flesh and blood in the hands of the priest. That is what happens at every Mass, as astounding as it is. The miracle, in this case, is that we can see it. Just as the priest says in Cather’s novel, our human vision is corrected by divine love, and we can suddenly perceive see what is around us always! At Lanciano, by God’s mercy we can physically see the spiritual reality that is within every tabernacle and at every daily Mass: the Flesh and Blood of God.

Lanciano, however, was not the only Eucharistic Miracle we were privileged to see. In Siena, hundreds of years ago, two thieves broke into the cathedral and stole everything of value they could lay their hands on–including a silver pyx containing several hundred consecrated hosts which had been laid aside in preparation for a special feast day. When the loss was discovered, the whole town was full of anxiety, terrified that the Eucharist would be desecrated or discarded by the thieves. A three day fast was declared and the people of Siena prayed fervently that the hosts would be returned. Then, shortly afterward, a priest found the hosts dumped in the dust at the bottom of a collection box. Since the priest believed they could not be used because they had touched dirt, he put them aside in a small box in the tabernacle where they remained for years. Later, when the box was reopened, the hosts were found to be fresh, white, and sweet–and still are, four hundred years later, now kept in a special glass vessel in the cathedral. It was a little miracle; God crying out in the Eucharist, See that I AM present here, and that I AM eternal.
As at Lanciano, the miracle in Siena is that we suddenly can see a truth, a reality, that is with us always. It strengthens our faith, gives us something to “hold in our hands and love,” as the priest said. In no instance, perhaps, is this perception of miracles more true than in the case of Eucharistic miracles, when our vision is “corrected by Divine love.” In the Eucharist, there is always more present than meets our flawed human vision. True God and True Man is there in double disguise within the appearances of bread; God makes Himself totally vulnerable there for us. How often we pass Him by or stare at Him blankly without recognizing the miracle before us, while our angels tremble and bow low before Him: Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, hidden in the little white host.