By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 10/30/97 in The Madera Tribune
"Come, forsake your city street!
Come to God’s own fields and meet October.
Not the lean, unkempt and brown
Counterfeit that haunts the town..."
— T.A. Daly, “October”
OSTIA, Italy — Not long after 7 a.m. on Oct. 9, this Maderan and the other pilgrims bade farewell to the mermaids of Hotel Sirenetta beside the Tyrrhenian Sea, and set an easterly course to the opposite coast.
Beyond Rome, the autumn morning paraded before us Italy’s rolling vineyards, castles, homes and villas. Walled towns tightly crowned their chosen hill as though a flood, or attack, were imminent.
Upon the passing fields I could almost see the beggar form of St. Francis of Assisi, a man like Jesus in spirit and in flesh. Surely he glimpsed heaven’s shadow when, as I, he looked down upon a twisting valley filled with a river of clouds.
Warning beeps sounded in the bus after 9 a.m. The driver stopped and found that the compressor belt had snapped, so we went on to the next “restoration” area to await a mechanic summoned by our cellular-phone-toting guide, Sylvia Puppio.
The convenience store there offered fine cheeses, sausages, liquor and more, but I satisfied myself with a bit of packaged toast from the hotel. I would fast on bread and water this day as a sacrifice on behalf of the petitions I brought to the cave of St. Michael in Monte San Angelo.
The store also sold “Papa Dolce” in a white, cardboard box bearing the pope’s photo. Does the pope endorse cookies? If only I read Italian.
“What hast thou felt to-day?
The pinions of the Angel-guide
That standeth at thy side
In rapturous ardours beat,
Glowing, from head to feet,
In ecstasy divine? Nay,
This only have I felt,
Christ’s hand in mine.”
— Robert Hugh Benson, “After a Retreat”
The mechanic arrived within half an hour, and the pilgrims traveled on for two more hours to the Rosary hotel-restaurant for lunch in the little fishing town of Termoli. As I entered, I noticed the familiar “Voice of Padre Pio” magazine, except in Italian, laying on a table by the front door.
The travel since the rest stop had been an unexpected trial for me as memories and temptations plagued me, as they had the night before, making prayer difficult. At the restaurant, I stood alone upon the balcony overlooking the Adriatic Sea and struggled with myself not to choose sin in my heart. Then, in light of my gentle surroundings, sin suddenly seemed alien and senseless. I refused anew to compromise, and slowly peace returned.
Most of the menu featured delicate dishes of fishes, but to the kindly waiters’ dismay I would only eat bread. At first they concluded this poor American couldn’t get enough of the good Italian bread. So they brought out olive oil for my bread, after explaining that “burro” (butter) would make me fat. But despite my repeated attempts to explain I was fasting, they innocently continued to serve me each course of the lovely meal.
My abstinence disturbed them, but they hit upon a solution. At the end of the meal, the beaming waiters sweetly presented me with a large, round loaf of Italian bread. I’d never been so pleasantly embarrassed in my life. Their solicitude didn’t extend only to me, and I think all of the pilgrims left the Rosary smiling.
Our unexpected breakdown rearranged our itinerary. Skipping Lanciano for now, we journeyed south past San Giovanni Rotondo to arrive at Monte San Angelo, the Gargano Mountains’ highest peak, in the late afternoon. From a distance, the peak’s tight clusters of houses resembled a monastery or fortification.
Up the narrow, winding road our bus climbed until we reached the top. The bus wasn’t allowed on the narrower roads, and St. Michael’s Basilica wasn’t far by foot.
“Not woman-faced and sweet, as look
The angels in the picture-book;
But terrible in majesty,
More than an army passing by.”
— Katherine Tynan, “Michael the Archangel”