I still feel like I can hardly get my head around what I just experienced. Blessed, beyond blessed.
You know when you just need to be told that you are loved? Even if you know it already, you just need to be told it, to feel secure in it? Well Italy, the pilgrimage, the whole experience, was one long love letter to me.Undeserved, but needed.
I could go on and on about each day, the people we met, the food we ate, the wine we shared. I can’t think back on it without cracking a smile or two. It did not go on with out any hitches for sure, but it only added to the adventure of it. We literally had no idea how each day was going to turn out. We had planned as much as we could but there was so much we could plan ahead of time. What we did have planned out was booked rooms in towns leading up to Assisi, our final destination, the hometown of St. Francis. All we needed to do was make sure we made it to each of those towns along the way. Sometimes it was easier said than done.
The theme was, however, to focus of the life and teachings of St. Francis. If you don’t know, St. Francis is known for his service to the poor and disenfranchised as well as being very connected to and moved by nature. He grew up in a wealthy family uncompassionate to the plights of the poor or those outside of his class. But he then had a conversion experience where God put him in an encounter with a leper. His eyes were opened and the experience moved him to reject his worldly life and live in poverty. He began preaching on the streets and people began to follow him. Eventually he founded the Franciscan order which is still a major Catholic monastic order. The current pope, Pope Francis, chose Francis as his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. I felt honored to be learning more about the life of this prolific man. We visited the towns and the churches that he went to or had experiences at. We walked the same valleys and hill towns he went to. It was a beautiful experience communing with God in the spirit of St. Francis in some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen.
But although it was beyond amazing, we also had our fair share challenges (as we do in everyday life as well as walking pilgrimages). But whenever I would come up against a frustrating something or another, I found that this St. Francis prayer/song would come up in my head that I learned growing up that I didn’t even know I remembered. “Make me a channel of you peace…” I couldn’t remember all the words actually, but I could remember that one line. It would get me through that moment. One of the problems I think I kept running into this last season was not allowing myself to rest in God’s peace. I would remember God’s peace like an old friend I had lost track of. God’s “peace that transcends understanding” felt like something too far away from me somehow. If I’m honest, that kind of peace has been a bit elusive in my life outside of when I first came to know God. It was that peace that drew me to him initially, the letting go of all of my anxieties and insecurities, it was nothing short of magical. I couldn’t believe I ever tried to function without it. But as tends to happen, I kept losing sight, or the enemy was doing his job really well, because it is generally fairly difficult for me to stay in that sweet spot. But when you are there, when you are really there, tracking with God and trusting in his ways, even if the circumstances terrible, it feels so good.
There was one particular day on the pilgrimage that stands out from the rest. We had planned out our day as best we could. We were going to get up early and walk to a certain city about a 5 hour walk away, then we would take a bus to the next town we were booked to stay in for that night. We were fairly sure there was not enough daylight for us to walk all the way there, so this was a good solution, we thought.
So we strapped on our packs and began our trek. We walked through small farms, olive groves, vineyards, small towns, and stunning churches with their bells ringing as if they were singing out right to us. We took a break by a river, had good conversations, met fellow friendly pilgrims, and by early afternoon, we made it to the town that we thought we would catch the bus from to our next destination. We were right on track… until we found out that on Sundays in small town Catholic Italy, busses did not run…oops.
So we regrouped, we had no choice but to continue walking and HOPE that we could make it to the next town, even if it meant walking in the dark at some point. We had lunch and continued on our way. At some point we began singing songs, any song we could think of, to keep anxiety at bay. At the top of our lungs we sang as if the whole valley was our personal karaoke room. A couple of hours later we stopped to rest again, we were not making as much ground as we needed to. We looked out over the countryside, drank some wine, and pondered over what in the world we had gotten ourselves into. We had no clue what would happen, but we had to keep walking. We walked through more fields, mountain roads, even a construction site to stay off of a particularly dangerous looking stretch of road.
But here is the thing, this whole time I had this underling peace that it was all going to work out. Even if it was going to be difficult, it was going to be ok, we were going to make it. Sure enough, at some point (not long after I had just walked through a bush of stinging nettles) we come up to a few houses on the side of the road and see a man pulling out of a driveway turning to drive in the direction we need to go. And I get this idea out of nowhere, “This guy will take us.” Now, I wouldn’t really recommend hitchhiking if you are on your own, but there were five of us, safety in numbers and all that. Also, since there were 5 of us, finding someone to fit all of us seemed nearly impossible in the land of the smallest cars you have ever seen. But his car looked just big enough and he looked just friendly enough that I took a chance. Not knowing Italian, I just poked my head into his window and said the name of the town we were headed with a smile. He thought for just a second, then pointed to the back seat. We were in! We piled in and he zoomed us to the next town, even stopping at a waterfall he couldn’t wait to show off to us. Something we would not have seen had we tried to make it on our own. It was surreal, but more that that, it felt good. All along I knew we were going to make it, a certainty I rarely feel.
It felt good, trust feels good.
If only I could translate that back to everything else in life. I think I just keep forgetting that everything is going to be ok.
At the end of all this, this life that consumes us, at the end of it all, no matter what happens in-between, its all going to be ok, we are going to make it. And it will all be ok, better than ok even. We just have to keep looking to the prize: Eternity, forever in God’s perfect beauty. I am sure Italy has nothing this new heaven and new earth thing God has promised us. But how easy it is to lose that perspective, to get lost in the daily battles, the uncertantly of tomorrow.
I realize that I get caught up in things that in the larger perspective, are pretty insignificant. I want to be able to understand everything, and when I am not allowed to, I get angry. It’s a type of sin really. I turn inward, rather then turning to God and just trusting he’s got it worked out. And when I turn inward, it’s much harder to see clearly. In one of the books I was reading about St. Francis, the author refers to the thoughts of another theologian and saint, Bonaventure:
“Sin, in Bonaventure’s thought, is a turning away from God and a turning towards self in such a way that we become bent over, blinded in intellect, and entangled in an infinite number of questions. We wander about in the world looking for goodness (or love) because we are unable to recognize it in our midst.” – Compassion: Living in the Spirit of St. Francis, Ilia Delio
This is where I get sometimes, blinded, unable to see God’s goodness. But this trip, however cliche it sounds, helped me to further open my eyes to that goodness again. I suppose all you need sometimes is a good reminder. My hope is I won’t always need a trip to Italy to be reminded of God’s great goodness, but I am grateful for it. And it feels good to be back, not just back in my place of service, but back on a better path of intimacy with God, getting back into that sweet spot. There is still work to do, disciplines to get back into, but I feel new.
So I will close with that prayer of St. Francis I could not quite remember all of the words of before:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.