By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 10/29/97 in The Madera Tribune
"If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh, teach my heart
To find the better way!"
— Alexander Pope, "Universal Prayer"
ROME, Italy — Just beyond the walls of the Vatican, this Maderan discovered himself in rough-and-tumble company at the restaurant Giardinaccio, a name which our guide Sylvia Puppio explained meant "ugly garden." In truth, the fine establishment didn’t live up to its name, and the hardy company I just referred to were really 11 westerners that the Catholic actor John Wayne would have been proud to call pilgrims.
We pilgrims had scarcely adjusted to the fact that all beverages, even water, cost in Italy, when the head waiter miscalculated our tabs. Mild chaos erupted among the pilgrims, one of whom quickly drew her trusty six-gun ... er ... six-digit calculator. I hid behind my beard as my tougher brethren worked out the correct totals.
While leaving I was touched, emotionally and literally, by an older Italian man who upon seeing my old-fashioned, silver crucifix said something to Sylvia and kissed the corpus on the cross. His symbolic gesture of love didn't move young Sylvia, who firmly refused to do the same despite the man’s urgings.
"A marble poem; an aesthetic dream
Of sculptured beauty, fit to be the theme
Of angel fancies; a Madonna-prayer
Uttered in stone. Round columns light as air..."
— Eleanor C. Donnelly, "Ladye Chapel at Eden Hall"
Enter the Vatican Museums and you’ll officiate at the marriage of beauty to history. A friendly coup d'etat by my fellow pilgrims had changed our afternoon itinerary from a tour of the Roman Forum and Colosseum to a more fitting tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica. Ever so grateful will I be for their action, which cost us little.
Never have I walked through such lovely museums where the very walls and ceiling, adorned with frescoes and such, were historic works of art. A witty, middle-aged woman was the captain on our three-hour tour of beauty.
The overwhelming pinnacle of our abridged museum tour was the Sistine Chapel, the groundplan of which measures 40.23 by 13.41 meters — the same dimensions as Solomon's Temple. Most of the chapel's famous frescoes had been cleaned with funding from Japan's Nippon Television Network Corporation.
In the bottom right corner of the "Last Judgment" fresco, the fiery mouth of hell could now be brightly seen where before only murk lay. Frowning there stands a white-haired man with donkey ears and a snake wrapped around him biting the man's own nether world. The man represents the mythological, damned King Minos, but the face belongs to a Vatican cardinal who had often criticized Michelangelo's fresco.
Upon seeing his likeness, the cardinal complained to the pope that Michelangelo had shown him in Hell. The pope responded that hell was out of his papal jurisdiction (Mat. 16:18-19; Isa. 22:19-22), so he couldn’t help the cardinal if he was there. The image remained.
Beyond the chapel stood the largest church in the world, St. Peter's Basilica, which dwarfs the imagination as well as the body with giant celestial statues and more.
Inside sits the Michelangelo's Pieta, a sculpture of Mary cradling the slain Jesus like a child. Admirers kept attributing the statue to other better known artists, so in anger young Michelangelo stole into the basilica by night with chisel and hammer to sign his name — the only time he signed one of his works.
I can't do justice to the basilica’s breathtaking beauty with my feeble words or borrowed eloquence ...
“Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.”
— Thomas Moore, “Oft in the Stilly Night”
Early that Wednesday evening we returned to the Hotel Sirenetta, and I rushed to the nearby church in hopes of ending the day with a mass. I caught only the tail end, and soon roamed the streets of Ostia in search of dinner.
I had exchanged some dollars for lira near the Vatican Museums, but my ignorance of Italian remained a dining obstacle. I resisted the urge to eat at a classy McDonald's restaurant, and I somewhat accidentally bought a sausage pita from a street vendor by a pier in the Tyrrhenian Sea. I learned not to ask what something is if the vendor doesn't speak much English.
All through that evening I kept running into young, amorous couples exchanging long embraces and kisses. The memories and frustration which a young man alone tends to struggle with in such times led me to retire to my hotel room, where I found peace in prayer and in writing postcards to friends and family.
"Dark Angel, with thine aching lust!
Of two defeats, of two despairs:
Less dread, a change to drifting dust,
Than thine eternity of cares.
Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
Dark Angel! triumph over me:
Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
Divine, to the Divinity."
— Lionel Johnson, "The Dark Angel"
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 10/27/97 in The Madera Tribune
"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage."
— Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales"
When asked, I only reluctantly shared the nature of my recent two-week trek around the Mediterranean. Even now, I hesitate to write about a personal journey which reflects so deeply my heart, mind, and soul.
Some thought they understood when I said I would be leaving Madera, California, to visit the Italian cities of Rome, Lanciano, and San Giovanni Rotondo. But visions of a European vacation fell flat when I mentioned I would be spending over half the "vacation" in the small land-locked Bosnian town of Medjugorje. Most would ask why, and usually I would eventually admit that my trip was in truth a religious pilgrimage. At that point, the conversations tended to ground to a halt.
I’m afraid being a "pilgrim" isn’t the only anachronism I am guilty of in this modern world, so intent on reinventing itself to death. To write of my pilgrimage I am forced to confess that although I'm a university educated journalist and a Bible-thumping, Spirit-filled Christian ... I am also a Roman Catholic.
Really this is no secret, but rarely has my creed boldly intruded into newsprint any more than my humanity, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. Yet truly all these characteristics make me what I am and surely must leave their impression on all I do.
However I lay bare my faith this week simply to more openly and honestly tell the tale of my pilgrimage. I hope to offer a brief insider's view of a unique experience. Read this rare entertainment with skepticism or faith, loathing or love, but please not with indifference.
"Fare not abroad, O Soul, to win
Man’s friendly smile or favoring nod;
Be still, be strong, and seek within
The Comradeship of God."
— Myles E. Connolly, "Quo Vadis?"
Why does a grown man venture to foreign lands, however holy they may be, when Heaven is as near as a prayer? Up until recently, similar thoughts contented me to remain in Madera, California, rather than roam vainly in search of signs or wonders. I had no need to search for God. He'd already found me.
What moved me to undertake my pilgrimage wasn't a change of heart or mind, but the simple conviction that I was being called to do this.
To test this calling I set seemingly insurmountable hurdles in the way, such as getting the time off from work. If a single obstacle remained I would not go. Yet surprisingly each hurdle was overcome with ease, and so I accepted this pilgrim’s call with a mixture of hope and excitement.
I wasn't sure why I was called, but I hoped for spiritual renewal away from my usual routine. I would have more time to pray and be challenged daily to reexamine and explore my faith and self.
I began the 29 hour journey from the Fresno airport at 1:10 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 6. At 5:10 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 7, a 757 jet carrying (among others) a small band of 11 pilgrims touched down in Rome to be quickly greeted by Sylvia Puppio, our young Roman tour guide.
To the chagrin of some fellow pilgrims, Sylvia bussed us to Hotel Sirenetta (Hotel Mermaid) in nearby Ostia outside of Rome. Some of the others had expected to be in walking distance of the Vatican City, but instead we were to stay across the street from the Tyrrhenian Sea, part of the Mediterranean.
With directions from Sylvia, I walked around the corner and down the street to a nearby church looking for confession. Once inside, I talked to an elder priest in my poor Spanish, since I knew no Italian.
When he figured out what I wanted he took me to a young dark-haired priest, who patiently heard my confession of my sins in Spanish. Only later did I discover he had only very recently been assigned to that church.
My timing, apparently, was impeccable. After confession, I found the custodian already locking up the little church.
On the way back to Hotel Sirenetta, I saw a shrine on an island in the middle of a side street. The shrine bore a mosaic of Mary holding the child Jesus. So I took the opportunity to stop and thank God for His mercy and kindness to me. I also offered up my skipped dinner, the result of neglecting to have my dollars converted to Italian "lira" at the airport.
Because there were 11 of us on this first leg of the pilgrimage, I ended up being the odd man out and had the "misfortune" of not having to share a hotel room during all my time in Italy. So I took advantage of this to go to sleep early that evening to combat my jet lag.
"The Shadow of the Rock!
Stay, Pilgrim! stay!
Night treads upon the heels of day;
There is no other resting-place this way.
The Rock is near.
The well is clear.
Rest in the Shadow of the Rock."
— Frederick W. Faber, "The Shadow of the Rock"