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He was someone I could not forget.

He stood alone in front of his make-shift, temporary home, which would be gone by the time morning arrived. In the niche of a locked doorway to a shop selling religious goods he had laid out his bed, which consisted only of cardboard and tattered blankets.

The softly illuminated St. Peters in Vatican City was his personal painting on the transparent walls of his life. The street light shone harshly down upon him as life most likely had for some time now.

A solitary nun was walking towards St. Peters square, as I was walking away. He was in the middle, and for some reason he approached me.

His Italian was terrible, for I could hardly understand it, but I knew he was asking for money. I pieced together the words “for a drink…in the morning…please…” and could not help but reach into my purse and hand him a Euro and some change.

He thanked me and I walked away, moving on with our separate lives.

Life-sized Stations of the Cross in Rome

As I approached the life-sized Stations of the Cross that had been set up for the Lenten season along the Via della Conciliazione, I heard someone speaking to me and felt a gentle touch on my arm. I turned, and it was him.

In the shadows of the night I somehow could see his face more clearly. He was attractive. Maybe in his early 30s. He had kind eyes, despite his otherwise ragged appearance.

In his confused Italian he began speaking to me, but I could not understand him again. He clarified that he was Polish; Italian was not his mother tongue. Finally I was able to gather; “a drink…together…”

I did not want to let him down. He seemed so sweet as he gazed at me through wide, imploring eyes. His uncanny gentleness took me off guard, which is unusual for one used to major cities and many homeless approaching her.

I politely declined. He politely persisted.

“…tomorrow….morning…a drink….together…”

Again I declined. Again he persisted.

“…walk with you…now…together…”

For some reason I felt terrible saying no, but explained I had to return home.

He smiled and asked my name. I told him, and he offered me his hand as a farewell gesture. I accepted, and he took mine in the proper old world fashion – ladies palm down, as if he would offer a respectful kiss.

What was my surprise when he looked me in the eye and said “may I?”.

I smiled at the unusual request, one so little offered by the most wealthy and dignified of the world, and said “yes.”

He gently raised my hand and graced it with a perfectly honorable kiss. Truth be told, any well-bred English gentleman would be ashamed to know that their variation would pale in comparison to a simple homeless man on the side of a street on a Saturday evening in Rome.

As I left, I made my way along the Stations of the Cross, and then through Rome. Yet somehow I could not forget him. His presence lingered with me so much so that I could not help but turn around several times, wondering if he had followed me. He had not.

I eventually arrived home, made dinner, showered, relaxed with a movie, and finally fell asleep. But as I lay there in the dark something about that man could not leave me. Although our interchange was so very brief, there was a goodness about his soul that spoke volumes in a way that all the educated, well-bred men in suits could not buy (and I do love a man in a good suit).

Two worlds briefly collided for one moment on the streets of Rome, in front of the living Stations of the Cross on one side and Saint Peters on the other.

The framework was undeniable. Perhaps his world was more like Christ’s than I knew. The Christ of poverty, neglect, and a forsaken life memorialized on the Stations of the Cross on the Via della Conciliazione leading to the Vatican was the noblest soul the world had ever seen, yet never recognized. His worth was a true worth that delights not in masks but in the soul, come what may if others cannot seek or truly find it.

That homeless man taught me something small yet deeply meaningful, about finding beauty in the forsaken, and I do not think I will ever forget him. And I cannot help but wonder how many souls will fall asleep tonight, lonely and forgotten by the world, but greater than us in their deeply humbling, suffering poverty that we know so little of.

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Today was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and I was able to welcome the forty day season here in Rome!

Lent is traditionally the time when Catholics prepare, by fasting, prayer and penance, to remember the passion and death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection from the dead on Easter. Many will renounce something important to them for forty days as is customary, or intensify their religious/spiritual life. As for me, I usually stumble through it pretty poorly, and today started off as no grand exception.

Nestled warmly in my bed, I was none too delighted when my alarm called me to the new day. Fumbling to turn that call off, I pulled the covers over my weary head for just a little more sleep. Strange how in those moments we do not rationally remember how that decision always goes! When I finally re-opened my eyes, it was far too late to attend Mass at my favorite parish. To make matters worse, I had not researched Ash Wednesday Mass times for any other church in town! The day was not headed in the best of directions.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to remember that this is Rome! With a church on every corner, all I needed to do was scurry from parish to parish and I should eventually hit a mass. The blessings of the Eternal City to the rescue.

Soon dressed and out the door, I stopped by the nearest church. I paused in the back for a moment, but it looked far too dark for a Mass to be commencing anytime soon, and I did not see any of the tell-tale “Mass is about to be said” signs to look for (candles being lit, alter wine being set out, etc.). That was when I thought of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the largest churches in Rome. It is only about a ten minute walk from my place if I hurry and take the narrow, winding back roads, and being as important as it is, I figured there had to be a Mass there!

A painting of Santa Maria Maggiore as it looked before cars and vespas went zipping by

Before long I was making my way down tiny cobbled streets, dashing across larger busy ones, and almost out as breath as I neared the church. Flying through the doors, I blessed myself, dodged tourists and felt relief as I heard the sounds of a priest delivering his Italian homily. I was able to slide into one of the large gated side chapels just in time. Safe!

The large side chapel where I attended Lenten Mass in Santa Maria Maggiore

After the homily was finished, Italians proceeded to converge upon the priest in a rapid cluster to receive their ashes (in Italy there is no formal sense of ‘waiting your turn’). For a Catholic, this means standing in line to have the priest dip his thumb into a small dish of black ashes and trace a cross on your forehead, while inviting you to remember that life is temporary and that we will all one day return to dust. It is part of the custom to leave the black ashes on your forehead until preparing for bed that night, as a witness to both yourself and the world of who you belong to, what you profess, and the deeper thoughts of life and death that you are contemplating.

Completely prepared to spend a day wandering around Rome with a gigantic cross on my forehead, I blended into the queue. When I finally had a clear view of the priest, I stepped forward, closed my eyes and waited to feel the ashes traced across my forehead as I do every year.

And I waited…

The seconds ticked by and I quickly realized nothing was happening! My eyes fluttered open in self-conscious bewilderment and instantly fell on the dish of ashes. Instead of black suit, all I saw was an off-white powdery substance. Confused, I looked up at the priest, who just stared blankly back at me. Realizing nothing more was about to happen, and that if I stood there any longer I would risk looking more foolish than I probably already did, I quickly stepped aside.

As I crossed through the chapel on my way back to my standing room only spot, I looked at every forehead that I could but did not see a single dark cross. In fact, I saw nothing. What had happened?

When I reached the back of the chapel, I turned around and silently studied the priest. He followed all the procedures, dipping his thumb in the ashes, blessing the foreheads, but he did not seem to be actually touching anyone and if he did, it was leaving absolutely no mark!

Having been raised a cradle Catholic, this sight was absolutely surprising to me. I was even a little let down that I did not get to spend my customary day of minor embarrassment with people gawking at the strange girl with the unusual mark on her forehead. (Many priests are not good at forming a cross, so often you just get a big black smudge. It can actually make for an interesting day, if you have a good sense of humor!)

By the time Mass was over, I gave up my contemplation of dashing to the American parish in Rome with the hopes of finding a “real” Ash Wednesday blessing, and decided to settle for my invisible cross. Besides, I figured Santa Maria Maggiore was a good enough place to commence the Lenten season because it contains a relic of the manger that Christ was first placed in when He was born. The correlation between the beginning of Lent and birth (new life, new beginnings) seemed like a fair enough match, and so I stayed put.

The reliquary shaped like a crib that holds relics of the real crib Jesus was placed in when he was born

To reach this reliquary, one must journey down a set of marble stairs into a small little alcove tucked away under the altar. It is here in this holy alcove that I went to pray.

Under the main altar of Santa Maria Maggiore can be seen the Crypt of the Nativity and the reliquary

Given my Lenten track record, I wanted to do contribute something meaningful to my spiritual life, but I could not figure out what. The customary “just give up chocolate!” came to mind, but that seemed to trivial. After praying a little longer, I eventually wandered away, still pondering this thought. As I was about to leave the church, a small voice deep in my mind suggested that I go back to the crib and pray once more. I hesitated, but then figured “why not?”

The central nave of the church as viewed from near the entrance/exit

I made my way back over to the altar, where I stood in prayer at a heavy marble railing that overlooks the little alcove. I considered the correlation between birth and the new Lenten season once more, and that was when it hit me. I had something to give up, and it was better than chocolate!

Understanding that the baby Jesus had been born into this world for the sole purpose of one day dying to save souls, I reflected on how this was His entire obsession, and what He thirsted for more than anything. So what could be more delightful to Him than to have someone present themselves as a gift during the season that prepares us for His own great gift of His life.

I decided to “give up” my laziness towards my morning offerings, and offer myself each morning as a gift to the baby Jesus who, in 40 days as a grown man would give His life for me. Coupling this with the intention to give up any negative thoughts (this could get complicated!), I decided that I had settled on my Lenten offerings.

What really touched me though was that as I was leaving the church, I had the most strong sense of tender innocence wrap itself around me, and for the rest of the day I dwelt in an unusually tangible peace.

A painting of Mary and the baby Jesus by the famous William Bouguereau

Maybe I will botch up the entire season, who knows. Hopefully I won’t! But today turned out to be a good start to Lent after all, and Rome once again proved itself to be a rich spiritual resource if one is willing to step beyond the photos and sightseeing to simply look deeper. And thank heavens for a church on every corner!

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