Postcard from a Pilgrim

Another reflection from the trip Craig and I took to Italy during his painting sabbatical. 

 

We visited churches every day in Italy – Renaissance basilicas, Romanesque abbeys, stone churches along country roads. We stood dwarfed by towering architecture, gazed upon masterpieces and followed narrow staircases to once-hidden rooms. We were halfway through our trip before I realized I was entering every church as a tourist. What would happen if I became a pilgrim instead? If I, a Roman Catholic turned evangelical turned Christ follower with lots of questions, changed my secular eyes to sacred?

I started lighting candles. I gave my offering. I let my prayers lift heavenward to be united with the chorus of saints praising Jesus.

Would St. Catherine of Siena notice me lighting a thin white taper at her altar at the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena? If so, it would be with her new body, as her earthly and quite shriveled head and finger were on display – a mighty popular one at that – in the church. I couldn’t decide if I should be horrified or fascinated at the gruesome relics and those of us praying before them. Catherine spent her short life in service to Christ and seeking peace and reform in the church. Were we guilty of idolatry, or were we humbly seeking connection with and inspiration from this 14th-century mystic? Could my identity with a fellow pilgrim who centuries ago walked these roads I was walking this week help to deepen my experience of her country, bring holiness to this adventure? I confess to being earthbound in my understanding of the communion of saints.

My insight ascended a bit heavenward as I wandered by myself through the coastal village of Vernazza. Entering the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, I recognized the cadence – if not the words – of the priest saying Mass and the female voices responding. I stopped midway up the staircase. To enter would be disruptive, so I stayed on the steps and recognized each new phase of the liturgy – the consecration, the priest’s prayers, the women’s responses. I stood for 10 minutes, my head visible to the two women in the front row. One gently beckoned me to join the worship celebration, so I climbed the remaining steps and slid into the third pew. Now there were six of us joining the priest to remember Christ in the breaking of the bread.

After Communion, the women and priest sang a cappella, and their hymn resonated in the 14th century stone church. Their voices were those of the angels, clear and strong and praising, these five elderly Italian women carrying on the traditions of their faith. I too praised God, not with my voice but with a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the heavenly chorus that surrounded me. When Mass ended, I lit a candle.

Comments

  1. I love these Italy posts. Frances Mayes could not have described the surroundings and emotions better, but your worshipful perspective in this last reflection added that extra layer, Lee. I loved imagining the six of you breaking bread together. Craig, your art also makes all the difference. This is a beautiful blog you two have established. Thank you for sharing with us.

  2. Mary Chandler says:

    Beautiful descriptions and beautiful questions.

  3. Beautiful.

  4. Ahh, Lee, memories came back to when Ann and I visited Vernazza. A couple of days there during grape picking season with the voices of the men singing from the hill sides as they worked. And…….the church. I loved the church! There are so many churches in Italy with so much fabulous old art. My favorite church was in Vernazza, sitting on the edge of the sea, small and quaint. And, each evening the wonderful ringing of bells to which few responded. The women, older local and two Dickinson from the other side of the world. Memories never to be forgotten.

    • Lee Lueck says:

      Did you visit the Pirate bakery at the top of town? I had a couple fun mornings talking with the Sicilian brothers who own it and eating amazing pastry.