My eyes are small, but they have seen the beauty of enormous things
Which leads me to believe, There’s light enough to see
That you make everything glorious —David Crowder
I just got back from a grand and life-changing adventure/pilgrimage/trip to Spain and Italy. I honestly don’t know where to begin, but this post will be a prayer and an attempt to make sense of it all.
The portion in Spain was with my Humanities Honors group from Point Loma, and after that group went home, my friend Hannah and I adventured on our own to Italy. Among many things, we learned the art of catching trains, staying in hostels, navigating cities, finding allergy-friendly food…but it was so rewarding and exciting even though it was scary at times.
The very first city we visited was Madrid. It’s beautiful, dirty, graffitied, smells like cigarettes, sounds like laughter and live music coming from every street corner. Beautiful old churches and museums and apartments line the labyrinth streets, each with their own flavor and personality, just like the people.
Art, music, literature, culture already in your face—already so a part of the mundane everydayness that you can’t help but become the art and music you hear because you encounter it just walking down the street.
The Salamanca cathedral carries within its stone walls 1000+ years of people’s prayers. It’s cold, slightly cracked and broken, the stained glass fading and warping–but I like it that way. It adds to the reality that this place has been lived in and is bound by time but God is not. My body is hurting a bit, my insides are churning after lunch, but there is no other time I’d rather be here than now, in this particular moment.
I’m in awe of the oldness, the ancientness, the deteriorated purity and un-whole holiness of the cathedral. Proof of 1000 years of stories and lives lived. Chipped paint, yellowed glass, Mary with no head… but if that doesn’t reflect the human condition I don’t know what does. Too much gold loses the reality, the truth of the sinfulness of our own selves. But rusty, dirty, dusty, faded gold? Humans. That’s what we are. That’s why I love the Salamanca cathedral. And why I love Madrid. Graffiti next to cathedrals next to classical buildings next to dumpsters next to restaurants next to train stations next to people eating outside smoking and drinking next to protesters next to beggars next to tourists next to vendors next to people going home from work next to me.
Spain’s history seeps and crumbles from its walls. I touched time, I became a tiny part of the history that Salamanca captures. The flying buttresses spearing the delicate blue sky. The green ancient trees extending their branches as if imitating the flying buttresses. The cobblestone, the marble, the brick so perfectly chiseled. And just outside the city, the Spanish countryside yawns in all of its soft, silky wilderness. The slower pace of Salamanca–quieter than Madrid by far–a small city with a past.
Granada: Granada was under Muslim rule from about 700-1492 (when Isabella and Ferdinand came in and began the Inquisition, killing off Muslims and Jews alike…not great models of Christianity, though their image is everywhere in Spain and associated with all things Catholic. It does leave a sour taste in my mouth, I’ll admit…) Anyways, the Muslim rulers lived in Alhambra, this grand and intricate and amazing palace that we got to tour. Isabella and Ferdinand set up court there for several years after they drove out the Muslims. Within Islam, iconography is forbidden in art, so their form of worship through art is seen in intricate patterns and designs, which the Alhambra is full of.
“Perhaps there never was a monument more characteristic of an age and people than the Alhambra; a rugged fortress without, a voluptuous palace within; war frowning from its battlements; poetry breathing throughout the fairy architecture of its halls.” —Washington Irving
This is the throne room. It’s also the very room that Isabella and Ferdinand sent Columbus off to explore… The walls are engraved with a repeating phrase “Allah is the victor,” and this particular section says “Nonstop thanking God everyday”
Everything is so intricate. Stone like lace, patterns upon patterns that fascinate my un-mathematical brain.
On our second day in Granada, Hannah and I walked to morning mass at the Granada Cathedral in the center of town. We went to the mass that has been celebrated every day since 1504 when Isabella requested that a mass be celebrated every day for all eternity in her name. We sat in small pews right next to Isabella and Ferdinand’s giant, elaborate tombs as the Spanish mass began and the priest came out dressed in his Jesuit garb.
In this Mediterranean city of flowing olive trees, I write, I think, I let myself feel. Jesus, you love me. You have never given up on me even when I give up on you. I lean on you now in Granada and everywhere I might go in this world. Like the fragrance of the orange trees, intoxicate my being, let love pour out of my pores and let the fragrance be pure.
Toledo: A town with a history of tolerance among Christians, Muslims and Jews during the middle ages until the Inquisition. They not only got along but worked together. Toledo is ancient and has a history dating back to 60s-50s BC.
My favorite part was getting to wander around the city and get lost with lovely friends. The narrow, cobbled streets, the blue sky and puffy clouds, the green landscape, the big grey rocks against the ancient churches, the wooden door I touched that had years of Sunday morning hands touching it—just being in a place so old and sacred—my heart so alive. Thank you Jesus for today—for adventure and laughing and just being.
Barcelona: Hannah and I on our own! Took the early train from Madrid to Barcelona, then walked to our adorable little hostel overlooking the daily happenings of the city street.
A city with a beautiful name and beautiful art—modern art, modern folk. The LIFE and rapture of soul and sight I felt at La Sagrada Familia–uncapturable, really. The way the light poured in out of every crevice and the way the music held me and just the love and passion poured into that basilica gave me such peace and pleasure and joy. Knowing that people were not exploited in the making of the building–knowing that it was meant to lift up souls and capture and soothe and clarify and honor both God and the smallness of human beings–this massive work of art that people come from all over the world to encounter–the Spirit waiting and longing for them there.
All the colors of the rainbow dancing and playing with my tired body–the ethereal light spilling onto the floor, color blanketing me. Just the simplicity of an artist with a vision–which became this beautiful basilica where hearts are continuously moved. I admire Gaudi and his architecture, and I can’t help but feel joyful knowing that the same Spirit that moved Gaudi to envision and create and dream up this marvelous place is the same Spirit that moves in me to create and dream as well. The same Spirit that inspires in us a love of color and life.
“Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that ‘breath’ with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power.” –Pope John Paul II in his letter to artists, 1999
TRAIN DAY: After Barcelona, Hannah and I took four different trains to get to Venice…a total of about 20 hours on trains. It was a miracle that we caught them all and that they were all on time…we had about a 15-20 minute gap between getting off of one train and onto the next. We basically sprinted off of our trains, through the crowds of people in the stations (with our giant backpacks, of course) and to whichever platform was ours, all in the nick of time. We got to see France from the window of trains…Barcelona to Nimes, Nimes to Lyon Part-Dieu, Lyon to Dijon-Ville, and Dijon-Ville to Venice via the night train. Picture army bunkers with beds in tiny cubbies stacked on top of each other—that was the night train. And around 2 a.m. the French police knocked on our room’s door and asked to see our passports for border control. I can easily say that being woken up by French police on a night train at 2 a.m. in the middle of Europe was one one those “is this a dream??” moments.
And finally, we woke up early on the train and arrived in Venice on a sunny Friday morning.
Venice: The first thing we realized about Venice was that there are no cars and no streets–only boats and canals. And so, from the train station, we took a bus boat to the stop closest to our hostel. Imagine the two of us: tired and disheveled from the night train episode, carrying our giant backpacks, very much in need of a shower…on a bus boat winding through the canals of Venice, just totally in awe of everything we were seeing. When we got off at the bus boat stop, we walked right through the liveliest and smelliest fish market I’ve seen. After the help of a very kind vendor at the market, we found our little hidden hostel and both sighed with relief.
A favorite moment was when we sat on the edge of a pier later that day, eating dirty, juicy, thick Italian grapes and giant wrinkly dates with sticky fingers, the smell of the fish market next to us, watching boats go by in the sun, making the water sparkle in all different directions. Walking through the windy streets and stumbling in upon an old church from the 1500s. For a moment, no tourists, a dark church, only the dim glow of the sacristy lamp and the royal red paint covered in velvet tapestries, Caravaggio-style paintings, cracks in the ceiling. Stopping to pray, a slow pace to the day. Leaving room for God to work in our hearts in this city of water and vacationers, gentle breezes and song.
Had a very real and moving experience in St. Mark’s Basilica. Staring at the image of the Virgin and Child, I prayed, I spoke to Jesus telling Him how unlike Him I am, how the woman asking me for money while in line to get into the church was more church than the basilica could ever be, and I totally neglected the opportunity to give. The most un-Christianlike I could have been while about to enter such a holy place. Lord, the person I want to be most and the thing I want to do most is what I’m the worst at. Fear of otherness still obviously grips me, even though I desperately want to enter into those spaces of otherness and love. Fear of what others think takes a strong hold when what I truly want—to love—is pushed aside. Whatever it means to travel the world means nothing if I can’t love everyone in the places I go. And so, staring at the Virgin and Child in a gold-pleated church where St. Mark’s bones are buried, I felt a challenge and a recognition that my duty—to love at all times—is also my biggest and greatest challenge. The Virgin and Child challenge me to love and respond to the call.
Florence: After a two-hour train ride from Venice to Florence, we found our little hostel, dropped off our stuff, and headed to the Uffizi. Sooooo much art–and such famous art. Luckily Hannah is an art nerd and knew a lot about the pieces we were looking at. I’m definitely more of a modern art fan and not crazy about medieval art (which Uffizi had a lot of) but it was still inspiring to be in the presence of such famous, influential pieces that have inspired souls for ages. The next day we walked around the Boboli Gardens in the morning and later got caught in an afternoon downpour of rain. We could hardly be mad though. It was beautiful.
During the rainstorm, we sat in the basilica of San Lorenzo (consecrated in 393), contemplating the depth and antiquity that such a place holds and becoming a small part of its grand story. History that for 1,600 years Christians have come and worshiped in—they now gone, like one day I will be, but still connected to through our worship in this space. Talking to Hannah about how we think it would have taken more faith to have been a Christian only 300 years after the death of Christ…with something so new and questionable and easily misunderstood. I admire those Christians so much for truly believing in the reality of Christ and creating these beautiful spaces to uplift the soul and for forming vibrant communities that literally changed their towns and cities with a strong force of love. They risked so much, and probably struggled a lot with their faith just like I do, but they embraced and accepted the glorious mystery and experienced the reality of God and were gripped by the Spirit—so how could they not spread and live out their faith? They were brave and bold like I am called to be but am not all the time.
Assisi: My favorite place of our whole trip, even though we were only here a few sweet hours. A quiet, medieval, soulful town. From the little train station, we walked, with all of our belongings, along a country road up to the church of St. Francis of Assisi.
Here I sit, on a pew in the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, behind a sister, my body glistening with a film of sweat, my blouse stained, my hair tangled. I just wrote a prayer offering to St. Francis for our friend (who, I’ll quickly mention, had a family tragedy happen and had to go home early from the trip, which, though absolutely tragic, displayed her immense strength and faith. We offered up many many prayers for our friend and her family in the various churches we visited. I am still inspired and blown away by her resilience and love in the face of deep tragedy) and then personally for the strength to love my neighbors better and to have some sense of direction in life. Tears come to my weary eyes as I recall the words of St. Francis: “Make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon….Let me not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love…For it is in giving that we receive, and in dying that we are born to eternal life.” I pray this with all my being in this place. Jesus, I am not whole. Sometimes my wounds are all I see, even though you are constantly healing them and making me new, I can only see the old. I am wounded through and through, yet you allow me to see and experience such profound events as this that open my soul and call me into deeper being and further becoming—into true healing. Help me Jesus, help me to live out St. Francis’ prayer in my life. St. Francis, pray for me.
The Italian countryside has a soul, and its soul is green, sad, life-filled and longing. Hidden in that countryside is something that captures the human soul and draws us out of ourselves. There is a deep oneness and connection to history that I’ve not known until this trip. To be a young woman in this world is to be full of longing—the same longing that the Italian countryside captures in a single blade of grass, piece of golden wheat, little red poppy. A longing for what is true, what is beyond myself. A longing I have never been able to name, but that I feel here under the grey clouds and striking green hills. The grace poured out on Hannah and I during our trip is no coincidence—the fact that we caught all our trains, that everyone has been so incredibly gracious—this is a blessing that we cannot fully understand but that we are grateful recipients of. Maybe it’s the grey clouds, crumbling castles, or Philip Glass music playing through my headphones, but here I am: looking for answers, finding questions, a little wiser but still with much to learn. A seeking, a constant unfolding of learning from everyone, everywhere I go. Oh sad, yearning countryside, I am too. We were written by the same hand.
Rome: When we got to Rome, we quickly dropped off our things at the hostel and rushed to the U.S. Bishop’s Office to pick up our Vatican tickets. Since it was at a seminary, we were helped by the kindest young sisters and priests. The priests were offering confession, so after we got our tickets Hannah and I took advantage of that. During my confession, the priest told me to let grace guide my life and define my life, which was profound because this entire trip was an exercise in doing that. After confession, one of the sisters came up to me and asked my name, then gave me two special seating tickets for the Papal Audience (why she did that, I still don’t know…more grace) so Hannah and I sat up on the stage-level and got to see Pope Francis up close. Such a moving and humbling day that was.
Pope Francis spoke about the gift of Confirmation and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives: “without the Holy Spirit we are nothing: it is the Spirit that gives us the strength to move forward.”
It has struck me just how much the prayers of our friends and family and the prayers of the Saints who have walked this path before us have held us up on this trip. How incredible to have the Saints and angels on our side and to be recipients of their prayers without us knowing or asking for it. The unseen is the most real. The Catholic faith is so impossible to understand, yet that’s what makes it beautiful. The unknowing, the mystery, the miracles that the faith rests upon call us into a contemplative way of life and to accept the uncertain.
How do I now begin to fully embody and live out grace—or let my daily life be guided by it? Maybe it starts with beginning to actually recognize it and realize it. Grace is grace and is always in every particular moment, but I am so unaware of it. This trip has shown me the reality of grace. It’s not just a concept or a cute idea, no–it literally carries me and keeps me from dying and allows me to be changed and moved and inspired. It is laced into the fabric of my days. It is growing with me and in me. The prayers of the Saints and those we love weave grace deeper into my heart and being. Grace is also who I am, what defines me and leads me on. It is what allows me to love, to sing praises, to travel, to write, to pray, to heal, to breathe, to be.
“Grace is not a strange, magic substance which is subtly filtered into our souls to act as a kind of spiritual penicillin. Grace is unity, oneness within ourselves, oneness with God.” —Thomas Merton
Let us never stop longing for wonder. Life is calling us by name.
The feeling remains that God is on the journey, too. —St. Teresa of Avila