It seems fitting, according to the overriding theme of my life’s pilgrim journey, that I should begin my personal weekend retreat to Assisi by waiting alone for two hours in an ugly train station. Particularly when I should be on my train now, but – due to my ever increasing forgetfulness these days – I forgot to validate my ticket, and as a result was politely asked to exit at the next station (it was, ironically, this increasing scatterbrainedness that motivated me – with the disconcertingly emphatic support of my boss – to take the day off in the first place). Having sought the conductor the moment I realized my mistake, I was, thankfully, spared both the patronizing lecture and the 50 euro fine. But booted from the train I was, nevertheless. I rather mourn the days when I could talk my way out of such messes, with big clueless American eyes and endearingly pathetic Italian. Unfortunately for me, my capacity for the language – while far from where it should be – has become good enough to make it clear to the authorities that I have been living in Italy quite long enough to know better.
With one more hour to wait, and nothing to stare at but, well, an ugly train station, I’m consoled by the fact that most of my truly rich spiritual pilgrimages have a habit of beginning in places that are as paradoxically filthy as they are sterile. It was last Holy Thursday (coincidentally April 1), for instance, that I went to the Questura for my Permesso di Soggiorno appointment. The entire day consisted of trains, metros, and the ugliest, most dilapidated neighborhoods of Rome that are so industrial, so barren, so far from its holy center that one could hardly believe them to be part of the Eternal City; the irony of the fact that April Fool’s Day corresponded with my spending one of the Church’s holiest days in an area of the city devoid of any symbol of faith did not escape me. After a long, dirty, spiritually barren day, I finally returned to the real Rome, now after dark, to catch whatever seven Churches I could find, in order to venerate the chapels where the Blessed Sacrament had been reposed in a beautifully decorated throne, per the ancient tradition. In spite of the loneliness of that day, nothing can compare to the profound poignancy of finding one Church after another, each gloriously and tenderly decking its Eucharistic alter in flowers and gold, in the knowledge that the following day would see the ignoble yet Salvific death of the One who was enthroned therein.
There is something about the barren darkness that makes one see the Source of the Light in its most deeply intimate beauty. It is of this, (if I may digress for a moment), that John of the Cross speaks in his poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” in which he compares the sense of God’s absence to a young maid secretly seeking her lover in the dead of night, with no light to guide her but the love she feels in her heart:
Oh night thou was my guide,
Oh night more loving than the rising sun!
Oh night that joined the lover to the beloved one,
Transforming each of them into the other.
(per the interpretation of Lorenna McKennit)
In His mysterious mercy, (if I may continue the digression) God has created an unexpected union between human sin and the loving tenderness of the dark night of the soul. When we fall in love with God, we do not become magically immune from sinning. Neither does love of God mean that, when we do sin, we love Him any less (we are, after all, still quite concupiscenced, and will remain so until the end). Rather, the only real difference between someone who has fallen in love with God and someone who has not is that the one in love feels their sins more keenly, for they recognize sin as an offence against their lover. “What puts the real twist into our hearts after our faults and small betrayals of grace” says the Poor Clare Sister Mary Francis, “but the aching knowledge that God loves us so tenderly and that we continue to disappoint and snub His love?” In this way, sin becomes, in an odd and unconventional way, a grace, for it sends us running back to Him for forgiveness, instead of laughing benignly at an indiscretion that, in our minds, harms only ourselves and offends no other. Within the heart of God, sin is transformed into a dark night of the soul, purifying and even strengthening the union between God and the one He loves.
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Happily (and legally!) on the train now. With my luck, today will be one of the days when the conductor decides to not check for passenger tickets. I has also occurred to me that my cell phone is about to run out of battery, necessitating me to keep it off in order to save it for emergencies. God is putting His own hand into forming the course of my retreat, it seems. It’s just as well that He does; I’m terrible when it comes to organizing such things.
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I finally landed in Assisi, a tad later than I had intended, but nonetheless happy. After settling into my room (in the “new” city, right next to basilica), I stepped out into the piazza and felt . . . freedom. There is nothing like taking a pilgrimage on your own, and Assisi holds a significance for me that no other city on earth can claim. The little house located inside the great basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where St. Francis first cut the golden hair of the exquisite St. Clare and exchanged her queenly silks for rags, marks the centuries-long chain of events that led to my own sister entering the cloister Poor Clare Monastery. This fact implies many things, one of which being I will only be allowed to hug my sister one more time before she dies: that will be on the 25th anniversary of her “simple” vows (I have fifteen years to go). Yet, in being part of this sacrifice I cannot help but feel bound to something ancient, for my sister’s decision to enclose herself forever into a monastery is a sacrifice that has been nearly 800 years in the making, beginning on that clandestine night when Assisi’s most noble and lovely girl escaped her father’s house to espouse herself to God. Through my sister, I cannot help but find myself indelibly bound to a vast Franciscan family that can, with aristocratic pride, claim the noble Francis and Clare as its parents.
Goodnight, my dearest Assisi. I will see you in the morning.
(P.S. And for the record, the conductor did check our tickets in the end. Don’t forget to validate, folks!)