Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The coming kingdom, here and now."

"No more waiting/Your love's exhaling"
My breathe came in clouds, mingling with the moisture in the air that fell as condensation on the tile beneath my feet, so damp I'd left a path. The chilly night smelled of charcoal, and light was dim in that corner of the convent's rooftop, a buttery reflection from the streetlights below and the one light near the doorway of the roof's entrance. The sound of people chatting on the sidewalk below and the alarum of a foreign ambulance siren racing to the hospital up the hill was all that broke the silence. My cousin Carrie had gone down to our room to fetch something, and I was alone for the first time in days. I'd been sitting at the solitary table we'd dragged into the light, journaling about my experiences thus far in the Eternal City, but I was restless and fidgety. It could have been from the cold; I really should have been wearing another sweater.

But it wasn't just the chill. That day alone, I'd been to a papal audience and been blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, visited the ancient Appian Way and toured catacombs where some of the earliest Christians were buried. In the days before, Mass celebrating the Feast of Christ the King and confession at St. Peter's Basilica, Mass at the grave of St. Peter, the Scavi tour of the necropolis far beneath it, so many churches, each more beautiful than the next; the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon. Rome, with it's smells and sounds, cobbles smoothed by thousands of years worth of feet crossing them, and history everywhere: seemingly mundane things like ancient water fountains and stairways even older than my entire nation, the food, the people -- and for that week, a community of Catholics, strangers for the most part thrown together, but with whom I felt so at home, and more myself than I had in a long time. There was, as yet, a day in Florence ahead of me and tours of the great basilicas also to come. The fact that I was even there was something of a miracle. It was most certainly the answer to a prayer.

"We're coming home/And all are one"
I'd never been out of the country before, you see, and sometimes despaired of ever being able to do much travel, especially on the salary I made. In July of 2009, I remember sitting on my couch, journaling about how frustrated I was with the sheer lack in my life. There was no church community where I lived, unless you happened to be a retiree, no such thing as a date to be had and I was tired, restless and whiny, so much so that I complained in my journal to God, telling him of my desire to roam, for an adventure. Less than three hours later, my phone rang. It was Carrie, my cousin and the closest thing to a sister I've ever had. Although we talked on the phone fairly often, what with one thing and another, we hadn't seen each other in four years. Her parish in Washington D.C. was organizing a trip to Rome, and would I be interested in going? she asked. All of her other close girlfriends weren't Catholic, and she didn't want to go by herself. I was ecstatic and thrilled, but also a bit reticent. I told her I would love to go, but couldn't promise I could raise the nearly $2,000 for the trip. But I gave her a tentative yes and asked for more information when she had it. It was only after we hung up that I recalled my journal entry from earlier in the afternoon. I picked up the notebook from the floor at the foot of my couch, reread the lines I'd written and just sat there, staring up at my ceiling, laughing. Rarely has the answer to a prayer come so quickly for me.

The first hurdle was getting the time off of work. The trip was over Thanksgiving, and my boss is typically loath to let anyone go on extended vacations over major holidays. But it was July, and a coworker said the earlier I asked, the higher the likelihood my boss would agree to it. I even prayed about the best way to approach her with it. So a few mornings later, I sat myself down at her desk, and told her about the trip, the papal audience, the places we were scheduled to visit. She said I had to go. "Really, it's ok?" I asked. "You thought I would say no?" she replied. Well, frankly, yes.

I almost immediately started saving. As a reporter with a community newspaper, I don't make that much money, and it is extremely hard to save anything. But I stopped buying snacks and sodas from the vending machine at work. I put Netflix on hold and cut off my cable and internet service. Addicted to reading, I stopped  buying books. I bought fewer treats at the grocery store. By scrimping, I managed to save enough to make the deposit. The only thing was, if I couldn't save the money for the entire trip, I'd lose the deposit entirely. I'm not someone who usually takes chances, so it was a gamble and a leap of faith.

And as I saved, I prayed a lot. I offered the trip up to God's will, invoked the prayers of the Blessed Mother, and petitioned several of my favorite saints, all while trying -- and failing miserably -- not to imagine myself there, say, lounging at a sidewalk cafe, sipping coffee. At the same time, I'd see clothes in stores and think, "I could wear that in Italy." Only occasionally would I buy something for myself, and then only if it was seriously on sale, like a shirt at Target marked down to a ridiculously low price. I made the deposit, seeing it as a sign almost that I was on the right track, and kept on saving. But then, the payment deadline loomed, and I was short. My best friend, Sarah, encouraged me to ask my parents for a loan for the remaining $700 I needed. But I'd wanted to do this on my own, I said, and feared a litany of objections, especially from my father, who tends to be frugal and isn't big on traveling. Wisely, Sarah told me, "If you ask and they say no, it's on them. But if you don't ask, it's on you, and you'll never know. And then you'll regret it for the rest of your life." She was right. So with much prayer that God's will be done ("Your will, not mine, Your will, not mine, Your will, not mine" had become almost a mantra for me) I finally drummed up the courage and called. I explained the situation to my mom, who said, while it would surely be amazing, they'd just had to put in an new air conditioner and didn't think they could afford it. I'd prepared myself for the no, and was at peace with that answer. Fifteen minutes later, my phone rang again, my mom calling back. I thought there was probably just something she'd forgotten to tell me. She opened with, "I've been discussing the idea with Dad..." and I braced myself for an entire list of objections he was likely making. But her next words shocked me: "...and he thinks it's fine." Oh, Lord! I couldn't stop smiling, and I must have asked "Really?!" and "Are you sure?" so many times, because my mom just started laughing at me.

"Blessed and broken/The floodgates open"
So there I was, standing on the roof of the convent we called home for the week, Casa Nostra di Fatima, on the Via del Gianicolo. I had  bees listening to Matt Maher on my my iPod as I wrote, and it was still in my pocket as I wandered over to the small Marian grotto set in the far, darkest corner of the roof. With only a small lantern hanging by a chain, Mary was hard to see in the dim, but her arms were spread in welcome. Maher's song "Here and Now" began playing, and suddenly I was in tears. I tend to be somewhat emotional -- honor, sacrifice and beauty regularly make me cry -- and I'd been surprised I hadn't cried much over any of the amazing things we'd experienced thus far. But in that moment, I found myself on my knees, sobbing uncontrollably -- over what, I still can't quite put into words. Perhaps it was the full weight and realization of where I was, a renewal and relief after nearly five years of waiting on something, reassurance that my time spent relying on God alone hadn't been for naught, an awakening, a letting go, sheer joy and thanksgiving. A recapturing of confidence I'd sometimes thought lost. Wonder and awe. Grace. As I cried, I also felt the need to jump up and down, fling my arms out and twirl in abandon. I may have done, actually. And while part of me wanted, at the time, to be discovered in the midst of my tears, I know now that time was not for others. It was entirely Gods and mine.
"Here and Now"
Try as I might, there are things I have forgotten about that week in Italy, despite trying to write down as much as I could at the time and taking a truly ridiculous number of pictures. I know we aren't supposed to live in the past, and I don't. But the memories still shine. While there have been moments in the year since that trip where I've felt that all I regained from it was fading, graces are still trickling through, small moments there resonate into the now, friendships have developed from one short week -- connections from which I like to think I have begun to see a pattern and a path. The renewed sense of myself and my faith linger, for which I am so thankful. I contemplate actions I might not have even considered before, because my restlessness is of a different sort, and there is more adventure waiting for me. I take baby steps toward taking a leap I know I will soon have to make, a bit anxious but more afraid now of standing still than anything else. And I know God will catch me.

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