In the cavern of our faith, we ended our pilgrimage as changed people. The expectations, pivots, things we could not predict, became the experience of the Divine and each other. None of us could have imagined how it would end, even with all the planned details. We could not know that Rome and Assisi would change, but it did. New rules about where and when buses would pick us up, bathroom closures, and everyone rushing to beat some unknown demon. And the monster of the pandemic that haunted us along the way kept us moving forward.
At the Roman Forum, birthplace of democracy, groups like migrant birds, fluttered to the overlook, the guides speaking softly in languages I could not understand. The sense of awe transcended the lack of linguistics. This gull flew up, stood right in front of me, his beak damaged by scavenging, his feathered head grayed and eyes - red-rimmed, flecked with exhaustion perhaps tired of diving for morsels, fighting off pigeons. I felt a sense of communion with this beast, caught up in the world we left behind at home and looking for meaning in the footsteps of saints long gone.
Traipsing through the streets of Rome at dusk is its own brand of possibility. We landed at the Basilica di Giovanni in Laterno for Mass. The plan had been to discuss the gold statues above the main altar in an equally opulent cage. There, in a box between them, the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul.
We might have just marveled at all the facts, studied the statues of the apostles, snapped photos of St. Helen's tomb, (mother of Constantine who made Catholicism the official religion of Rome), but instead we hurried to a side chapel for Mass with only thirty minutes for a sacred celebration.
Two voices emerged to impact the tight time. The homilist, overcome by so many factors of our first days in Rome, stressors that haunted all of us, spoke about lost sheep. It would define our journey. The other voice, that of a returning pilgrim, filled our space with song. Her words, her melody supported by something greater than herself. Her voice, like a warm blanket on a cold night, covered us.
Communion can happen in many ways and it did within days of our arrival in Rome. From the frank and open discussion with Bob Mickens, to the members of our group who slipped into seats to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis, to the excavation below San Clemente, we walked in tandem with a history both familiar and strange. Our last night in Rome brought a deep sadness as we faced the fact that Covid knows no boundaries. Leaving pilgrims behind is something we'd never experienced and wished that we could change.
Addio amici miei, Goodbye my friends.
The Portziuncula is a small ancient chapel built on the site of the hermitage where Francis and his brothers gathered. As we gathered for Mass there, 24 pilgrims strong with enough space to include us all, I noticed a downy miniscule feather on the floor, laid there it seemed, as a sort of offering. Looking up to the ceiling, trying to understand how a feather might have landed there, the opening in the roof led me to think of Francis, prone on the floor where the feather laid his view skyward through that opening.
Faith is believing in the what ifs that guide us toward a deeper path to ourselves. As people ushered toward communion the feather laid still, reminding me that the tiniest of creatures guided the steps of Francis and Clare.
She climbed into an olive tree with a rake. A young man on the ground waiting for orders from the good sister. We disembarked from taxis, walked through the gates of San Rufino d'Arce to ponder the first use of this compound; a cadre of buildings, gardens, and a small olive grove. In this place, Francis visited time and time again to be with lepers, ghostly figures banished from their homes by a disease beyond their control.
Amid the blush of stone harvested centuries ago to build our pensione, we met with another member of our group who test positive for Covid, each of us mindful of the story of lepers who becamse the living dead. We gathered on one of the balconies as our sister shown in the sun on the stairs to her room, delighted by human contact. From a window opposite and above, another of the pilgrims appeared like an Italian woman at reposo. As our voices carried in conversation one more woman appeared on yet another balcony. We could not have staged this meeting any better if we were producing Madam Butterfly or La Boehme. As if on cue, a voice called down from the rooftop, one of our men in the group joined in from above.
When our team planned this trip I was cognizant of two things: my best friend, retired military, would be coming along. While we had planned to head to Florence when the pilgrimage ended we had to trim our trip to just the pilgrimage because of my husband's recent diagnosis of a recurring cancer and his next chemo treatment. In the planning, the other fact I realized was that we would celebrate American Veterans Day. This led us to an English speaking cemetery in recognition of the holiday.
As pilgrims, each on our own journeys, we touched the stones of soldiers and prayed for their souls in clear view of Assisi. The impact of war on Francis would give him the foresight to listen to a message beyond himself to "rebuild the church." It would bring him joy in the hermitages he sought at the Carceri, Greccio, and other areas of the Rieti Valley and beyond. Little did he know, in his pathway to listen to a stone-by-stone message that his plan would evolve into a new and clear vision of the Roman Catholic Church.
We could not have predicted the impact that visit would have on each of us in our search for meaning. But my journey with my friend through her military service cut deep into my own pain for those who, fueled by a sense of duty, committed to the unknown in service of others.
I will not lie, my favorite place to visit on the pilgrimages that I've been lucky enough to help lead, is the visit to San Damiano. It holds special meaning for women because each of us search for faith that Saint Clare had from an early age.
In our visit this time, I had a deep sense of the strength of women, in our church, and in place of patriarchal forces that have led us to this point in the history of the world. We gathered for Mass while the voices of children lit the air of the courtyard. We emerged into the dormitory where Clare slept with 49 other women, all seeking faith beyond the obedience committed to when they joined Clare in pursuit of Francis' mission to relinquish their worldly possessions and serve the poor.
Someone asked me about my journey. I am honest about the fact that I don't belong to a parish, don't regularly attend Mass, don't believe in the merging of church and state that has taken place in the American Catholic Church. Engagement in my faith comes when I walk this journey with pilgrims. It feeds me. I am firm in my beliefs, obedient to a higher power not constrained by a hierarchy of beliefs.
Saint Clare had the same struggle. She followed Francis, knowing that she was going against the beliefs of her family, her religion, and heading toward a more faith-filled life. Francis was ostracized from his religion and she took the chance to work with him in the belief that they could find a way to stay connected to their religion. As she attempted throughout her life to marry her beliefs with the confines of Catholicism, she argued with three popes until finally being granted a rule on her deathbed, one that she had fought for all of the time she stayed cloistered at San Damiano. I aspire to have such faith in an institution, but more faith in the Holy Spirit, something, I must believe, was part of Clare's journey.