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Archive for the ‘faith’ Category

I have to admit, I can get scared sometimes.

It is strange how fear works. I can travel around the world all by myself and hardly blink an eye, while I have friends who would find just getting on the airplane to be nerve-wracking. Forget spending months on end in a foreign country all alone.

Yet sometimes, if I am reading or discussing a scary topic, all my bravery goes right out the window and I am left wishing I had purchased more lamps for my bedroom. Like maybe 10 more.

This happened to me last night. Too many scary topics and too much thought.

The former Pope John Paul II was known to say, "do not be afraid!"

Then suddenly, I saw the former Pope John Paul II in my mind. I imagined him standing there saying “Do not be afraid!” as he did so many times during his pontificate. My creative version of his person seemed to show him looking up towards heaven, and I felt strongly the impression to just focus on the goal and never turn away. Just focus on Heaven.

Tunnel vision. Heavenly tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision can actually be an incredible help, and I have used it many times in other situations. For example, when I moved to London I went through a myriad of challenges that could have sent me packing back home if I had not been determined enough to stick them through. But I did, and it was largely due to my repeated focus on my goal. I forced myself into living life with nothing but tunnel vision for the future.

I was so completely into utilizing tunnel vision that I would stand on the underground platforms morning and evening, silently bopping to my iPod, and just focus on my dreams, as if I was looking through a tunnel and had to filter out everything but my goal. Much of why I succeeded was because of that.

So the thought of using tunnel vision in the spiritual life really caught my attention. Was this what the saints did? Did people like Pope John Paul II always have Heaven as their one goal, ever before their eyes?

And when thinking about Heaven as their goal, what did they think about? Did they think about the joy of meeting Christ in person? Of finally getting to know Mary, the Mother of God, face to face? Of wiping away every tear they had ever shed and every fear that had ever haunted them, and living eternally in peace and bliss? Of finally seeing all the scoffers gaping wide-eyed in awe at the truth they had denied?

St. Therese of Lisieux even used to say that as a young girl, she dreamed of Heaven. When she went through her dark night, and her mind was clouded by dark obsessions, it was the thought of Heaven that had once given her such great joy that she most seemed to miss. And not the Heaven of rewards – for her it was the Heaven of just loving and being loved that she dreamed of, without anything to stand in her way.

Heaven. Tunnel Vision. Heaven.

Yet tunnel vision is not always easy to maintain. Anyone who has read the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis knows that life has many plots and plans to divert our attention away from the meaningful to the trivial and the mundane. The TV, news, the internet, the radio – anything, said the little devil in the Screwtape Letters, to distract souls from their goal of Heaven.

So what can we do to fight back? How can we develop such tunnel vision for Heaven in our lives if we are so inclined?

One tactic that always helped me in the secular life was to make a list of my goals, with the most important at number one and then descending in their value to my life. Not only did I make this list once, but I re-wrote it over and over. Changing it, editing it, copying it – it did not matter what I did to it. I just wrote it time and time again.

I would be hanging out with friends and all of a sudden I would start making my list (I was not rude though – I only did it if the opportunity was right), or at night I would sit and re-write. I would pin it to the wall in my bathroom, and read it while I was brushing my teeth.

While I did not accomplish every goal that I made on that list, and there are places where I failed, I accomplished enough of them to feel good about it. Yet I also accomplished enough secular goals to know that they alone do not make a person truly happy.

This is why Heaven is my true goal. The Heaven of love, where all is love and no one can think a thought or lift a finger without love for God and others.

If more people had this goal ever in their sight, what would the world be like? If we all had little “Post-Its” on our TVs, computers, mirrors, notebooks, day planners, iPods, cell phones – everywhere – that said “Goal: Heaven! Is what you are doing right now going to help get you there?” I wonder how that would change our lives.

I for one am going to start making a new list, with Heaven at the top and my vision of why Heaven is so amazing underneath it. This is my new tunnel vision for my spiritual life, and I am liking it.

Goal: Heaven! To one day live forever in a place where love is given and received endlessly, and without any selfishness or ugliness ever interfering. HEAVEN!”

I wonder if the great Pope John Paul II is smiling in Heaven and saying, “you go girl! Adjust the focus of your mental lens! And always remember, do not be afraid!”

High-five to you John Paul! The focusing is on!

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Right now, there is someone looking over your shoulder as you read this.

Turn around and you cannot see them. Flip on the lights and they appear to not be there. But they are, and always have been.

Educated and Illuminated

To the modern mind, the subject of angels can seem like an irrational, uneducated, new-age topic. Yet for all the stigma that has been placed upon such beings, the historical concept of angels is anything but childish, whimsical, or related to the new-age movement in any way (despite the claims made).

The grail knight Sir Galahad is guided by angels

Rewind through history and you will discover that angels were powerful forces with deeply theological natures that even the most educated of minds would ponder over in fascination. They were everywhere, and their unseen presence spilled over into visual reality in practically every European town, artistically blanketing the cultural landscape as a witness to common belief.

Take a stroll through any major European city and you will discover an angel somewhere, calling you to remember their presence. They decorate churches, shout from political monuments, and crown civic embellishments. It would be hard to imagine that they found such positions of religious and civic prominence through educated, wealthy, even secular patrons, if all they could offer was a disrespected, “airy-fairy” daydream on a lazy, misty morning.

Even a walk through New York City, the great unofficial capital of an increasingly atheistic world, will encounter an angel or two. (Try Columbus Circle on the south-west side of Central Park for one good example. Notice what the angel is doing; protecting the world. Hardly the activities of a “wishy-washy” being.)

Given the vast flourishing of angelic representations, and the historical documentation of cultural belief, it could be hard to deny that for centuries upon centuries, many people just knew that angels existed. There were angels for countries, cities, towns, rulers, endeavours, and even one for them.

The knight Galahad is warned by angels to turn back

Never Alone

Since the earliest Christian times it was believed that each individual human being had a guardian angel watching over them. This protector was chosen for them from the moment their existence was first conceived in the mind of God, and was the closest match to their personality, temperament, interests, likes and dislikes than any other angel. Their guardian was the angelic spirit that most “got” them, to use modern slang, and could relate to them better than any other member of the angelic realm.

Being their guardian also made them their guide, and this perfectly matched being was responsible for tending to their beloved charges at every moment. Their eyes were all always upon them – laughing when they laughed, crying when they cried, turning away when they were offensive, and praying for them when requested. They encouraged them to the right course of action, and lamented when their still, silent promptings were ignored or even unable to be heard anymore by a cold, hardened heart. Yet they remained to the end, ever the faithful friend.

Angels Everywhere

Such beliefs were not disrespected nor were they just for the “common” citizen. The most theologically advanced and structurally profound understanding of angels was developed within the Catholic faith by some of the greatest thinkers, particularly in regards to the spiritual life. People from every social status, all the way up to kings and queens, believed in them without hesitation.

The concept of angelic assistance even found its way into Catholic art and literature, where angels were often portrayed as guarding, protecting, or warning. The Holy Grail was watched over by angels, for example. Legendary saints encountered them and were comforted by them as portrayed in frescoes and statues. Even Christ Himself had an angel minister to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before His trial and death.

Angels guard the Holy Grail

Finally, Guardian Angels were noble warriors who were quick to descend from heaven wielding the sword of their faith against the enemy. They were direct participants in the unseen spiritual warfare of the earthy journey.

Angels were therefore everywhere, both spiritually and visually (with one for every human being alive, and then some, it would be hard for them not to be). From political monuments to educated scholars, wealthy benefactors to common peasants, literature to dazzling frescoes and church facades, angels were celebrated, studied, invoked, and represented.

The entire landscape of the old world was blanketed in angels and such a phenomenon was highly respected for the intelligent, powerful beings that they represented. The old world unabashedly reminded and encouraged people to call upon angels who were always amongst them.

A True Friend

For those of us embarking upon a spiritual journey of any kind, drawing close to our angelic guardians should not be something that is considered as superstitious, flaky, irrational, unnecessary, uneducated or even remotely related to the new age movement. Instead, we should not hesitate to consider that it would be uneducated and irrational to do otherwise than ask for the assistance of a being given to us by God himself for our own protection and assistance along the journey of life.

Angels are literally everywhere. The old world was simply more talented and prolific when it came to reminding and inspiring people to remember that they are never alone.

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Anne Catherine Emmerich, the great German mystic who died in 1824, once said that it was revealed to her in a vision that most medieval souls prepared for spiritual events with a devotion greater than what was present even in her own day. She explained that this fervor of deep religious spirituality which existed in the Middle Ages could not be comprehended by the people of her time, who had lost such a profound inclination.

Medieval pilgrims clothing

If this is so, then how much more must we, almost 200 years later, be unable to comprehend the inner world of the devout medieval pilgrim preparing for his spiritual adventure. Yet I cannot help but feel that it may be worth considering what these preparations were like and what this can say for my own daily pilgrimage here in Italy and throughout the greater pilgrimage of life.

The externals of the pilgrims spiritual preparation are historically documented and easy to come by. Encouraged to prepare for the well-being of their soul, there was an assortment of rituals or personal actions that they could take. These included:

  • attending a consecration ceremony where they would obtain the Church’s blessings on their souls and their journeys.
  • confessing their sins to the priest and being “shriven.”
  • being sprinkled with Holy Water.
  • given a staff to carry on their journey. This became a symbol announcing to the world that they were a pilgrim and not a traveller with less honorable motives. There was even a blessing for this staff which would be imparted.
  • fasting.
  • speaking with an elder who had experienced pilgrimage first hand, gaining wisdom and insight for the road.
  • making vows, such as not to speak unnecessarily or to abstain from sex, all in an effort to focus on their inner experience of the journey.

These are just some of the external actions that could be taken and can today be historically studied. What is more elusive  is the effect that these exterior actions had on the souls of the pilgrims and what other private devotions they may have added. In a nutshell, what was the spiritual life of a pilgrim preparing for such a journey like?

A pilgrim as pictured on the side of a medieval cathedral in England

This is where we enter into the undocumented realm of private devotions, prayers, meditations, and contemplations. If Anne Catherine Emmerich is right, and many medieval souls were far more devout in their preparations for great events, then we can only begin to imagine what intensity their prayer lives and personal devotions must have reached and the resulting richness they could have experienced.

It is likely that they prayed more and may have spent more time in meditation and contemplation. They may have asked for spiritual illumination and profound experiences that would change them in powerful ways. They may have asked for saints to intercede for them, guardian angels to look after them and they may have tried to approach each day as sacred while remaining open to signs and clues along their path.

Of course, this is just my speculation, but as a Catholic I am fortunate in that I possess one direct link back to this mindset, and that is my faith. What I believe today was believed 800 years ago, and thus while my external experience may never be the same my internal one has the potential to resonate strongly with that of the medieval pilgrim if only on the level of personal spirituality.

As I try to piece together what their secret preparations must have been like, I begin to see that it was a mental realm of intense faith unlike that of what we understand today.

For my own pilgrimage here in Italy and for the voyage of my life, I find in their example a need to cultivate this faith in the supernatural to levels that are the exact opposite of what our modern society expects from us. I see the importance of approaching each day as sacred and as a journey in itself. 

Only then will the richness of a soul seeking the divine be able to flourish and only then will I understand what it truly is to be a pilgrim here in Italy and throughout my life.

Perhaps I will also be able to understand something of what is was like centuries ago as well.

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Taking the step and journeying abroad can be challenging. My biggest fear in transitioning from a digital nomad in the states to a digital nomad abroad was the internet, or lack of it.

Dreaming of the streets of Rome is one thing, but as a digital nomad your dream depends on one source: the internet

Having lived in Italy before, I was very well aware that my expectations of the internet were not the same as an Italians, and that the reality of a bad connection could easily open the door to potentially disastrous results. If I could not work, I would risk upsetting my employers and loosing a significant portion of income only to end up back home at square one. It was a situational red flag that had “stop!” written all over it.

After months of mental debates and endless considerations, I found myself in Rome one beautiful Monday morning, riding the Leonardo da Vinci express into the city center. With the time difference, I knew I would be able to get to my apartment, unpack, shower and rest before “heading” to work (my long three-foot journey to my desk).

Before laying down to ease my jet lag, I popped open my laptop and briefly tested the connection. All seemed well on the digital front, and so I happily dozed off. I had no idea what was awaiting me.

Some hours later, I lazily rolled out of bed, shuffled over to the simple wooden desk, opened my laptop and waited for the magic of the internet to transfer me at the speed of light across the ocean, linking me to my company.

Nothing.

Taking a deep breath, I remained calm. Having travelled and used the internet from different locations in the past, I knew that it could sometimes take a few tries to establish a connection. But an hour later, still staring at a blank screen, I felt like my entire world was sinking around me.

With the clock ticking, I knew that I could no longer cross my fingers and hope for the best of the web, and so I crossed the hall to my landlord’s flat and rang the shrill buzzer. Explaining to her in broken Italian my life and death situation, she kindly took an interest and attempted to help. Unfortunately, nothing could be done. She suggested that I wait a few hours and perhaps her son could be of more assistance when he returned home.

A public phone in Rome much like the one I used that night

Grabbing my purse and coat, I headed out to find a “Tabacchi” (a little Italian shop where you can buy lottery tickets, cigarettes, etc.). For five euros I was handed an international calling card, which I promptly carried to the very first pay phone I could find. As my luck would have it, I ended up standing on the busy corner of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the road that leads to the Coliseum, engaged in a semi-tearful phone call to my family back home. (Standing on a street corner looking distraught while holding the glaring red receiver of a public phone to your head is probably not the most pleasant way to kickstart a journey.)

With the promise of prayers from the states, I said goodbye to the familiar voice, buried my hands deep in my coat pockets and wandered aimlessly through the darkening streets. Falling away from the beaten path, I came across the large, looming facade of a church, it’s doors still hanging wide open. Feeling like this was something of an invitation, I crossed the narrow street and wandered into the mysterious space.

It was dark, dimly lit and I was all alone, sheltered by the 500-year-old arms of a building that had seen many more souls desperate than mine. I stared forlornly at the flicking candles that whispered prayers to ancient saints, and gazed in sadness at the painted icon above the altar. Step by slow step I made my way down the aisle, passing rows of abandoned pews, until I could walk no more and simply sank down on one of the narrow wooden benches.

Santa Maria dei Monti in Rome, the church that welcomed me that first night

That was when I began to silently talk. To God. In the private corners of my mind I whispered my concerns, and the more I spoke the more distraught I became. Sheltered by the privacy of the semi-darkness, the only eyes to gaze upon me the centuries old statues and paintings of holy men and women, a need began to take over me. It was a need so deep I had not even realized how strong and powerful it was, for it had never emerged in such a way. When the container holding it finally cracked, I was overwhelmed at what poured out.

Sometimes we do not realize just how much we truly want something until the recognition that it could be lost is most tangibly felt. That is how it was for me, and in those moments the tears that poured forth were of an intensity that I had never known while sitting in a church. I even stopped caring if anyone saw me or what they would think. I simply could not and did not want to stop the force of longing from breaking through the suddenly frail container of my humanity.

I talked, prayed and cried until people filed in, lights went up, mass was said, people filed out, and the lights went down again. I sat until only the loving eyes of the ancient statues and paintings remained to gaze tenderly upon me. Only then did I leave.

Santa Maria dei Monti, much brighter when pictured on a sunny day

Hoping that somehow the echoes of my being splitting in two by the force of desire had been heard, I stepped out into the cool night air and made my way back along the busy road. Turning down the little quiet medieval street, I hurried to my flat where with my landlord and her son we tried every option we could think of until we were all exhausted from so much effort and so few results. Perhaps the force of desire had not split loudly enough as I had hoped.

Pinned to a wall and with no other options, the next evening I found myself at a local internet cafe. Wired in and uncomfortably seated in a hard metal chair, flourescent green walls screaming at me from every angle, I logged on and went to work. Later that night, I sleepily wandered down the little medieval street to my flat, climbed the 7 flights, and lay across my bed staring at the darkened ceiling. I talked to God a lot during that time.

Some friends back home had suggested that the problem was just temporary, and that perhaps the internet would resume functioning again. I put a little hope into this suggestion, but it did not take me long to recognize the true source of the problem.

Staying in the flat next to mine, and renting from the same landlord, was a group of young girls who were studying abroad. As the days passed, I quickly began to notice that when they went out in the morning, the internet suddenly came alive. I could surf for hours and utilize all my programs without a glitch. But the moment I heard their door unlock and the sounds of furniture moving on the other side of the wall, I came to recognize that within 10 minutes or less the internet would disappear for the entire night. All night. Into the early hours of the morning. My problem was not the internet, but bandwith-sapping neighbors who were using the internet for some unknown but clearly intense purposes.

To my dismay, I learned that they were scheduled to remain there for many months and so I finally knew I had no choice. The internet would never be reliable as long as they were “sharing” (hogging?) it. I had to either find another flat in Rome, or quickly purchase a plane ticket back home.

Deciding that after all my trials option B was the most desirable choice, I began contacting prospective apartment owners zealously. I parked myself on my sofa for days (during the hours the girls were away), sending e-mail replies to every internet add, signing up with every apartment finder service, and clogging my account with reply after reply in the negative. “Sorry, we do not have internet.” “We have internet – want to go in debt to live here?” “We are connected, but nothing is available for another 3 months. Your request is too last-minute.” “We have a nice place with a great connection and it is available – if you take a train for 45 minutes outside of Rome and walk another twenty you can come see it.” It seemed hopeless, and time was ticking.

In those questionable hours of my life, I kept returning in my mind to the church I had sat in on the first night. In the little chapel of my thoughts, I spoke at length with God about everything I felt and feared. I threw all of my trust into His hands, telling Him time and time again that I was certain He would not abandon me. I threw my faith into overdrive and dwelt on one thought alone; that I trusted in Him.

But time was growing too long, and I had to make a radical decision. Either move somewhere far on the outskirts, go broke living in a place beyond my means (but stay in Rome, where I truly longed to be), or purchase a ticket home. Spun into a world of uncertainty, I was amazed when I came home Sunday evening and found a little blue paper that my landlord had slid under my door.

Picking it up, my eyes widened as I read the letters inked upon the unlined page, “the girls are moving out.”

I stood there, still weighed down by my bags and coat, half out of breath from the seven flight climb, and just starred in what could only be understood as joy and shock all rolled into one. In my hand I was holding a little piece of paper with words that would literally save my Roman dreams. My gratitude was enormous, and all that echoed inside my head were the two words “thank you” over and over. The force of desire and longing that had split my heart so powerfully that first night, and all the prayers after it, had somehow been heard.

A few days later, the girls did indeed relocate to another flat in Rome. And that evening I happily shuffled to work in pink flip-flops, turned on my computer, and peacefully went to work. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

Yet something had happened. I had not only discovered the force of my desire to be in Rome, which I had never truly known until the moment I realized it cold be taken away from me, but I had also been given a glimpse into the power of faith. While I will never know what would have happened if I had not poured out my heart to God in those moments, and turned to him in my little trust, I do know what happened when I did.

Travel showed me a side of my own heart that I had not known and the kindness of God to my simple human desires. And chapter one of my life as a digital nomad abroad ended with a challenge presented, and a priceless lesson learned.

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A few weekends back, I made a Saturday trip to the somewhat small town of Spoleto. (I say “somewhat” as the historic medieval/Renaissance/Baroque portion is still fairly small, but outside its walls the urban landscape has grown.) It looked like a great place to go for someone obsessed with picturesque, medieval hill-top towns surrounded by beautiful views. So off I went!

I took an early train from Rome and at the train station in Spoleto I caught a city bus to the historic center (recommended for arriving. Leaving it is ok to walk – all downhill! Although the environs that surround the hill town are more modern and less ‘viewer friendly.’)

Exploring the city, I caught some great footage and put together a short travel video. You can check it out here:

 

Some things that I did not include were the castle (worth taking a hike up to for the views, which I added at the end of the video. However, the castle itself has been altered by its past as a prison. It has some nice frescoes and a few interesting artifacts though.) and my hair-raising journey trying to find one of the monasteries pictured in my video. (Somehow I ended up walking on the side of a high-speed road, and then even tried to climb through a small path that was too overgrown to be of much help! I bet the Italians driving by had a field day with that! Even I was laughing at myself for such temporary insanity. What can I say? I am obsessed with medieval monasteries!)

When I did finally find the monastery though, an older man who was volunteering on the grounds to do maintenance work unlocked the deserted church for me and then motioned for me to follow him to the lower level. Feeling a bit hesitant as a solo female traveller to follow strange men into dark basements, I carefully trailed along at a significant distance. There, beneath the more “modern” Baroque church, he warmly showed me an ancient, hidden medieval one, with beautiful medieval frescoes that he took the time to explain to me in Italian. It was one of those moments you cannot easily forget, and somehow amidst the fascination of a personal tour by a man who made this place his life, I never thought to take a picture. I think I was too engrossed in his art historical perspectives and insights…and the feeling of stepping back into another forgotten time.

Upon leaving the lower church, and then the upper church, he locked the door and offered to drive me to another church which was even older and more ancient! Well, getting in cars with strangers (even nice ones with a good eye for art) is one thing I retained from childhood as a big “no” (I guess no one warned me about going into basements) so I walked the short 5 minute walk where I came across some surprise scenes for my video above. (Do check it out – they are a surprise and very interesting!)

Afterwards, I managed to make it back to town without gallivanting on the side of free-ways or tumbling through thistles and other dense foliage. There I shot a few more scenes for my video and then headed back to the train station.

Along the way, I stopped to ask directions from a young man who was so sweet. He went to speak but his voice could barely emerge from his throat. I could tell he had some sort of problem speaking which he was very shy and conscientious about, but he was so nice. I wanted to do something for him to show him some kindness, but those encounters between two strangers are so brief and I never know what to say. But the reality of suffering humanity touched me.

This brief interaction reminds me somewhat of the frescoes I had seen in the basement of that dimly lit medieval church. Standing there together, the Italian had gently taken my arm and lead me over to a fresco of the Madonna and Child. He explained that in Spoleto there were many of these, because during that time many children had fallen sick with the plague and it was a constant lingering threat to the people. So the “cittadini” of Spoleto were very devout in interceding to Mary for their young ones.

It was a touching window to the past, and into the concerns and fears of a people from long ago. Humanity still continues to suffer, but there must have been something very consoling to the people of that era to know that watching over them was a woman who, with her son, had also known great pain yet overcome it.

I will always be fascinated with the medieval mind. A cultural mentality so long-lost yet able to be reached through traces of the past.

Have you ever been interested in unlocking the mindset of another time and place?

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Here is your ticket to a day in Orvieto, Italy with me – Alexandra!

You can also watch here, on my You Tube home page:

http://www.youtube.com/jcilt1

This is my very first video, and with practice things will get even better! I hope you enjoy 🙂

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