So - did we find God in Italy?
So many ways to seek God…you can’t visit Italy without witnessing a variety of them and asking lots of questions.
In a land where people have been worshiping various gods since the 7th and 8th centuries B.C.E. there are all sorts of religious objects witnessing to men and women’s search for goodness and peace – and God. In Umbria’s hill town of Orvieto, we saw the small figures the Etruscans would carry to protect them from evil before and after death. In Rome, we were offered various religious aids in the shops around the Vatican – statues, crucifixes, breviaries, rosaries. We saw incense scattered and holy water sprinkled. We visited churches exhibiting the blood of Pope John Paul II, the arm of a female saint – I forget which one – and a splinter from Christ’s crown of thorns.
And then there were the larger religious monuments. St Peter’s and its surrounding Square, envelops all comers in a welcoming space to sit in the sun, people-watch and contemplate the nature of the attraction of following these pontifical men, the universal Papas or fathers. What sort of spirituality is this? When Pope Francis appeared on Sunday morning, delivering a homily from a tiny window with a red ‘altarcloth’ hung from its sill, we could hear his streams of Italian words but we understood nothing of what he said. We saw a fragment of white, hardly visible even on the huge screens set up to ‘show’ him to his followers. This remote encounter with a father of the faithful, though full of theatre, had no profound significance for us. To others in the crowd it was obviously a deeply meaningful time.
For me, the spiritual moment came elsewhere and, as such moments often do, unexpectedly. As it towers over the spectacular Umbrian countryside, the basilica erected to St Francis in Assisi is enormous and impressive. So are the queues of men and women from all corners of the earth, endless, even at 7.30. a.m. wait patiently to complete their pilgrimages to the shrine of the saint. The frescoes there and in other religious churches bespeak efforts to remind the illiterate faithful of the stories of God. There was a trace of the spirit of Francis in his letter to his Brother Leo kept in Spoleto Cathedral telling Leo to follow the Lord’s example in poverty. But, to me, these enormous edifices spoke little of the spirit of St Francis or of the crucified Christ whom his ‘tau’ represents.
At the end of the week, up in the Umbrian hills a few kilometres behind Assisi we spent Sabbath morning at Eremo delle Carceri. On the densely wooded hillside, in this place of isolation, St Francis retreated to pray, living in a cave and communing with nature and the men who came to follow his example. As in the basilica below, the monks who curate the holy places struggle unsuccessfully to maintain silence among the streams of pilgrims passing through the tiny rooms carved in the rock. But out in the quiet forest surrounding the monastery where Francis prayed are three statues – one of an astronomer seeking to find God in the stars, the second of a practical peasant seeking God in action and the third of a contemplative, lying on his back, his spirit reaching for God in space.
So many places, so many ways, so many seekers…but one God and one gospel. And, as Francis said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words!’