I love nuns. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I never went to Catholic school, or because I’m not even Catholic, or because it’s some weird transmogrification of my already weird obsession with The Sound of Music — especially the parts that took place in the abbey.
So I was super happy to be stuck in line yesterday afternoon behind six chatty American nuns waiting to get into the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. This is one of Rome’s great churches, and arguably the first dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Parts of it date to the fifth century, shortly after the Council of Ephesus, at which Mary was declared Θεοτόκος (“Theotokos”) — literally, “the one who gives birth to God,” but more frequently rendered as “Mother of God.” The building has been expanded, reimagined, gaudified, and renovated ever since — the current façade, for instance, dates from the 1740s.
Since the 1550s, Santa Maria Maggiore has been one of a circuit of seven Roman churches traditionally visited by pilgrims. Pilgrimage isn’t what it used to be, though, and before we could enter the church, we all had to pass through metal detectors. There were a couple hundred people ahead of us in line, and one of the nuns was not happy about it.
“How fast is the line moving?” Nun 1 asked.
“Not very,” Nun 2 said.
“It’s such a beautiful afternoon!” Nun 3 said. She was ignored.
Nun 1 sighed that she should have come to Santa Maria Maggiore earlier. Instead, she’d attended Mass at Santa Maria of Something Else.
“Mary? Or Mary?” she said, holding one hand out and then the other.
She looked up at the Madonna and Child on the basilica’s facade. “Sorry, Lady.”
Behind us, a dad angrily told his two toddlers, sitting in a double-wide stroller, to shut up. Then an elderly woman in a headscarf just calmly meandered past all of us, brazenly making her way to the front of the line. Nobody stopped her.
Appropriately, I suppose, Pope Francis has declared this year a Jubilee, and the theme for the year is mercy.
Yesterday was my first day in Rome—the start of a pilgrimage that, over the next week, will also take me to Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land. I’m traveling with a group of Jewish and Christian leaders — clergy and laypeople, artists and writers, musicians and entrepreneurs.
The trip is sponsored by the Museum of the Bible. They have an agenda. As I understand it, they hope the journey will rekindle our love for the Judeo-Christian scriptures. That, in turn, might help us back their sometimes-controversial multimillion-dollar effort to build a museum in Washington, D.C., honoring these texts.
Of course, every pilgrim has an agenda. Pilgrimage “is a big whiteboard,” says Dallen Timothy, a geographer at Arizona State University who studies the practice.
“Basically, it’s a journey. It doesn’t have to be a religious journey, but it often and usually is. It’s a journey where people self-discover.”
Put that way, pilgrimage could be an analogue to life itself. I like what he said about self-discovery — my temptation, not least because of my shyness and introversion, is to view this as a solitary pursuit. But as I stood in line at the basilica, I thought about how, even if I walk alone, pilgrimage is inevitably communal. I walk in the wake of many who have come this way before. I engage a tradition that millions before me have sought, lived, loved, hated, died for, cursed. I learn in large part because of others — how they see, what they testify to, why they move.
What, I wondered, were the stories of the pilgrims around me? What was the Nuns’ Tale? The Young Father’s — or the Toddlers’? Or the Rude, Queue-Jumping Old Lady’s?
We bring with us all our baggage, all our stories. Even as we set aside routine life, we carry with us the good and the bad of who we are, and what we’ve done, and what we hope for, and what we scares us. Perhaps that’s even the point. Because if we didn’t bring these things on pilgrimage, how could or would we surrender them to change, or offer them, and ourselves, up for transformation?
Here is what I packed with me for my pilgrimage, aside from too many clothes and shoes: Fear about spending the next week with a large group of strangers, some of which is my shyness and introversion and some of which is trepidation about being in a space where I’m the only non-white person and the only gay person (a diversity twofer!). Anger at what’s happening in the U.S. — which my passport, but not always the rhetoric, tells me is my country. Worry about the journey ahead. Longstanding doubts about God and faith and this thing we call church and whether any of it makes sense.
A few days before I left for Rome, I spoke to Dee Dyas, a University of York professor who leads its Centre for Pilgrimage Studies. She has been studying the sensory experience of pilgrimage.
“There is actually a process of learning, of revelation, through being in these holy places,” she told me.
“The images you see, what you get to touch, what you get to look at — these are all designed to bring doctrine into something which can be felt, both emotionally and physically.”
I was skeptical about this. But at Santa Maria Maggiore, I began to see — maybe even feel — what she was talking about. I found a side chapel occupied only by a nun staring up at a crucifix. I sat a respectful distance from her. Whatever. She paid me no attention, and why would she? I was no competition for the crucified Christ.
Though I’m terrible at praying, because my mind is as ridiculously busy and unfocused as the over-embellished interior of your stereotypical Roman church, I prayed for a bit.
Afterward, as I walked back to my hotel, a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the believers of this city leapt to mind. They are some of my favorite words in the New Testament, and I especially like the old-fashioned drama of the King James Version, with all its emphatic commas:
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Persuaded, it says. Convinced is how other versions have it. Honestly? I struggle with that kind of certainty. I want Paul’s words to be true. This pilgrim wants to believe. I want not to be disappointed. Which is why I’m so afraid to talk about the one other thing that I brought with me on this trip: Hope.