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.
|St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican|
|The chapel at the mountain hermitage of St. Francis in Assisi|