My husband and I don’t travel a lot, but we do keep an account for when a special anniversary arrives. So far we have been blessed to travel for our 10th, 20th, and now 25th anniversaries.
But, what made our current anniversary a bit extra special was a simple thing that an acquaintance commented to me about: a pilgrimage. The same individual had told us about a nearby shrine, Our Lady of Good Help, that although we have lived within 3 hours of visiting it, we had never been there. So, since we had committed ourselves to holy matrimony, why not be sure that God was added into the vacation mix?
Paul and I searched website after website, and even contacted a local travel agent. Nothing seemed to fit for our typical August celebration (nor our budgets). The only affordable option would be during an already busy June, during a summer college course in which I had already enrolled.
We met with some kind friends who also have been blessed with the ability to travel. They told us about their favorite place to go, lent us books and maps, and I was struck by a story they told about one location that may have the blood of Jesus inside of some steps in Rome. Only telling close family, we did what we rarely do, we impulsively booked a tour to Rome, Italy.
I was very nervous. After all, I speak Spanish, not Italian.
I was even more nervous in noisy, crowded Rome. We were quickly lost (even with a map), and there was no way to see all of the sites we wanted to see. Our vacation had choices for excursions, so together we chose mainly Christian-related tours, sometimes on purpose, and other times, purely by accident.
Of course I insisted that we visit the Vatican. I will never forget the moments I spent staring at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I was staggered by the high security for such a small country. I was disappointed to learn that St. Peter’s Square was closed since Pope Francis was celebrating a special mass. I was so jealous of all of them to be that close to the holy father. Their group even all had their yellow t-shirts coordinated to match and to commemorate their experience. I guess that’s what I got for failing to plan enough in advance.
And the churches, oh the churches! We visited small ones, large ones, and basilicas, which are special churches where a former pope has had a special connection. The major basilicas are all in Rome and our guide told us that only the pope is allowed to celebrate the eucharist in the main nave. So many, so beautiful, and so beyond my ability to describe adequately!
I felt entirely inadequate in most of them. For example, one church, a basilica, had a portion of the wood from Baby Jesus’s manger; this Holy Crib was a locale that I fell to my knees before, entirely speechless. The rest of the tour group had to wait for me at times since I honestly lost track of how long I knelt there.
Another time was when I was in another location, a small building (by Roman standards) that supposedly housed the steps that had a few drops of Jesus’s blood. Although the Scala Santa (Holy Steps) was very unassuming, I could do no more than kneel on the first first step. Our own priest, Father Chris had talked about how he had done the climb on his knees. I do not know if the wood covering these steps truly conceals the blood of Jesus, but I certainly felt the devotion and deep faith of those who were praying for forgiveness or for the forgiveness of others.
We spent a lot of chaotic time trying to negotiate railways, crowded streets, and subways, until our anniversary came to a close in Venice. Paul has always been interested in Venice from a builder’s viewpoint; he found out answers to all kinds of his construction-related questions. We had decided to tour some of the local islands as well, and to see as much of the area in the few short days we had.
Little did I know that again, churches would dominate our experience. There were churches everywhere! No, I mean really. According to this website, there are 137 churches in Venice and the surrounding islands! I have heard from friends and from websites that one must become lost in Venice. Paul and I were lost 15 minutes outside the hotel. We even saw young people with cell phones and hand held GPS instruments entirely lost! We were more lost in Venice than in any other locale on the trip, but whenever we would become discouraged, we would find a church and we would be able to use it to navigate using our paper map. The foundation for our navigation became Santa Maria Formosa Church.
The most moving experience I had was on the island of Torcello. At first, Paul and I had were rather disappointed with the final island we visited, after seeing the busy islands of Murano and Burano. The only high point our guide really referred to was that Ernest Hemingway had hung out at one of the local bars and that there were some churches on Torcello as well. At first, we were not even going to go inside Torcello’s cathedral since a portion of it is a museum. Paul and I had been trying to visit mainly churches that did not charge any fees because instead of being impressed by big money and big buildings, we wanted more of a personal experience. That, and we were simply trying to save some money.
Torcello’s Basilica, dedicated to Mary (Santa Maria Assunta) was overwhelming. The cathedral was originally started in 639, and was later added on to. The mosaic art showing a representation of Revelations, or the Last Judgement, held me absolutely transfixed. I have no idea how long I sat there. God bless Paul and his patience; he never once tried to rush me from one location to the next. The basilica was so incredibly holy. Although its outside is unassuming, it was one of my two favorites. It is not unusual in Rome to see remains of bodies in churches, but seeing a wrapped corpse with a burial mask never failed to give me pause. It was particularly so in Torcello when I was near the martyred remains of St. Fosca. Perhaps it was also that a crypt there may have housed the St. Mark? I am not sure, but we could have paid to go up into the bell tower or to tour the museum, but if I go back, it would be to be simply sit in the awesome presence of Torcello’s Basilica again.
Finally, our last full day in Venice was “off schedule,” and some friends had suggested we take the vaporetto (public water taxi) around to see sights. I had been admiring a building across from St. Mark’s Square for some time, and we decided to go and visit, yes, another church. It was so beautiful that I figured we would need to pay entry, as we did in Torcello. The vaporetto dropped us off on the back side of Dorsoduro, and we walked the sidewalk along the water until reaching the tip of the the peninsula.
There Paul and I met an unlikely couple. They were lounging at the very edge and the man claimed he was there every day for the view of San Marco (Piazza San Marco). He said, after all, it was the best view in Venice. He insisted that Paul take photos of the two of them. Paul ended up telling him that we were in Venice for our anniversary. I elbowed Paul for giving such personal information to a complete stranger. Then, abruptly, the young man asked if we had lit a candle for the virgin yet at the church of good health. Paul and I looked at one another, but promised, yes, we would do so. The man (who appeared to be a scruffy pirate, but was completely harmless) laughed and insisted on taking a photo of the two of us. The photograph turned out to be one of my favorite shots from our vacation!
We went up the long, wide steps to Santa Maria della Salute expecting to pay a large fee, but since this church was created to honor the Virgin Mary (credited with ending another plague), there was no charge. Yes, I lit a candle for the virgin and I prayed for all the sick people that I knew. I also prayed for the dead. I admired the gorgeous architecture.
God had surprised me again. Not just with a wonderful trip, not just with a wonderful husband, not just with a wonderful view, but also with a wonderful soul correction. Who am I to assume that churches like the Our Lady of Health (or people for that matter) are to be judged by their structure?
I know many of you readers may be disappointed to see that my blog is not filled with spectacular photos or images. Even my own father, an artist, seemed a bit miffed that we had not seen Michelangelo’s David in Florence or Pieta in Rome.
But, to me, the best parts of my experience cannot be photographed. In fact, in most churches, no photographs or photographs without flash (in a sometimes dark interior) are simply not permitted.
I think with limited photos or no flash is as it should be and should stay.
Thank you God for a journey that continues both outside and inside myself.