ITALY Dispatch #4 (San Luca)
Today was the token shopping experience of the mission trip: a weekly market opened in Bologna on this day. I accidentally overslept and woke to wander on my own and found myself gravitating towards the back of the market, where the Gypsies, Nigerians, and general hippies had set up shop. I plopped myself down at a stall that specialized in maintaining dreadlocks and had my roots worked on. This was the single biggest mistake of my trip.
It took four hours. And then I just told them to stop, they would have kept going. I also had hastened out of my room without a jacket and the mild 55 degree whether became gradually unbearable sitting motionless in the shade. Also, for those of you who have never had dreadlocks, consider that the incessant pulling and tearing that accompanied the work also became gradually more tender and unbearable. I'll admit I was rather stubborn and took it as a battle of pride as I sat listening to the multilingual conversation drifting between the barbers. This one badass looking lion of a man with meticulous Bob Marley congo dreads was taking it after all.
There is a significant immigration crisis in Italy; one that is much more real than our border issues in Texas and, unlike Texas, the immigrants in Italy often are just moving through and headed somewhere in Europe. The Nigerian stall workers were really fascinating; their perspective on the issue was real and they were continually surprised that I didn't want to share what they were smoking. I broke the mold of hippie/dreadhead/whiteboy/world-traveler, I suppose. There was no real religious discussion though broached, and it didn't feel appropriate to push. The experience was a good reminder not to generalize the identity of a varied country, which I have perhaps overdone in the last few posts.
Once I met up with the group, we headed towards the outskirts of town for an experience I had been eagerly awaiting all trip. San Luca is a former monastery on the edge of town, perched at a vantage from which most of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany were visible on a clear day. The three mile ascent to the monastery (which was very mild) was entirely covered by portcullis that were raised in honor of an occasion in far history when the city was flooding and people were dying. The monks, praying in the monastery, felt lead to carry an Icon of the Virgin down to city and the the flood ceased the moment it reached the town. In honor of this a yearly procession was held and the portcullis was raised in the brilliantly pragmatic plan that, upon future floods (or a rainy festival), the Icon could descend without being tarnished.
As we approached it became obvious that a heavy fog was going to make any view impossible. We proceeded nonetheless and witnessed the beautiful chapel wrapped in fog. A mass was occurring inside and there was a semi-full congregation. The group simply entered half-way through and sheepishly took seats and then, awkwardly, exited. Everyone else was unaware of the severity of this, I think. Mass is a very different affair than a sermon; entering and exiting signifies something with much more occasion. This was probably our greatest cultural faux-pas of the trip.
Afterwords we split up and I ended up hanging out alone with the STINT team. We went and had a drink and I purchased as much wine as seemed fiscally reasonable to gift to my parents. I asked a lot of questions about their time in Italy and what advice they would have for this sort of work. We passed the evening and, saying goodbyes, I realized I had come to be rather close to this team and would miss them. Ciao belle. And the guys too, of course.
Thus is the story of my trip to Italy concluded. There was a sense of closure. At the beginning of the trip, I was jaded, hardened, bitter, and rather unhappy. This, for me, is not actually an uncommon feeling. I'm not the happiest person, but the last few years have been rather hard and I haven't owned my circumstances in a healthy way. I have lived in a fog for quite some time. The imagery of vision and fog, is rather emotional for me and has been at the heart of my intellectual life for the last three years. I've often felt unable to see God in my suffering, as if He's veiling himself somehow and leaves me shouting at air. Because of this, things most people could cope with become bigger problems and drive wedges into every other aspect of my life. This last year has probably been the second season of rock bottom depression in my life, smothered in fog.
On this trip, however, I experienced something unnatural. For no reason comprehensible, each day was a new day. Perhaps it was the nature of travel, but I think it more likely that it was the nature of purpose. Of confused, but arms-open living each day intent upon what exactly God wanted from me. And the answer, it seemed, was that He wanted nothing other than my attention. And the result was a gradual defrosting of my heart and something I had not experienced in ages (unaware of the drought), dare I say it, joy.
I like to think I have been granted a unique perspective on some things in life unfortunately, through the lack of those things. Strength, when I have been a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter than any peer since second grade. Hope, when I have moved through seasons of darkness that pushed me so close to ending my life. Love, having been hard and unwilling to receive it when offered and vanquished in the few places I sought it out in vulnerability. A poor man knows well the weight of gold but this 'perspective' does not go beyond the intellect and I have always felt a beggar in these. Perhaps this is my own fault, but I am weak, hopeless, and joyless to the day. I don't know how to close the gap. This trip has softened something in me, but I'm cautious as the desert wandered afraid of drowning in the long longed for water.
I made one personal purchase in Italy. I bought a print of San Luca the day before we were going to ascend. I was so excited to see the land clearly from above; I wanted to revel in the vantage of the heights. But the fog felt fitting. It felt like a resounding 'wait' and I wonder for what. I guess I'll keep writing this Epic Poem I have been at work on for two years now; titled (of course) Among the Fog. I guess I'll keep moving day by day back towards the longed for light and chase that remnant joy.