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Archive for the ‘Middle Ages’ Category

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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The concept of pilgrimage reaches back across millenia to times so distant and remote that they can evoke shadows of mystery and wonder. As early as the 7th century BC, members of Israel and Judah embarked upon treks to holy sites, eventually settling on the temple in Jerusalem as their religious focus. In ancient Greece, individuals sought the shrines of oracles and cults. But in no other time was the idea of pilgrimage so vigorously undertaken than in the Middle Ages, and in no other era has the deep meaning and potential for transformation that pilgrimage offers been forgotten than in ours. 

A group of medieval pilgrims appear to be offered hospitality at the castle of a rich lord

By the Middle Ages, Europe had become a wonderland of holy sites that sparkled and enticed people from all walks of life to make long and perilous journeys, fraught with bandits, sickness and even the possibility of death. Yet these hardships could not deter the throngs of souls who wore down the roads with their ever advancing steps. There was scarcely a town or city in Europe that did not have some relic or holy reason to at least pause for a visit, however brief. The pilgrim’s wonder stretched all the way across the continent to Jerusalem, which was the final destination of many.

Medieval pilgrims said farewell to home and hearth with special blessings and many would don clothing and badges that distinguished them along the road.  Some even carried bells that they jingled and sang to as they passed through towns. For them, the journey was enhanced by what they thought and felt inside, and what they utilized without.

Sadly, the protestant reformation tore away at the centuries of devotion until pilgrimage came to a grinding halt, never to be restored. The glistening jewels of medieval Europe that had sprung up all across the continent, from cathedrals to holy sites of rich meaning, began to fade in significance as the modern world built its own new ideas and concepts over the increasingly forgotten and neglected graves of the past.  Much was lost, but perhaps the most poignantly sad loss of all was the mindset of those who had once traced across Europe in search of transformation as pilgrims.

This loss can be seen in our modern era, when a tourist needs a guide to explain the symbolism and significance that literally drips off the walls and shouts from the rooftops of a gothic church or an intricate fresco. Yet over 500 years ago, a simple peasant without any education could have easily translated and been edified by what highly educated doctors and lawyers fumble over today.

This loss could be considered the equivalent of walking into a fully stocked library yet being unable to read one word without serious effort and labor. The work of so many authors would be lost and only enjoyable as a laborious academic pursuit of analyzation until the texts’ meaning was discovered, rather than just letting the words work their magic moment by moment in full fluency.

The richness of medieval European civilization is likewise lost on the modern mind that can no longer understand the intricate spiritual language of the past. With a cultural mindset radically shifted to one of entertainment and the “here-and-now,” deep spiritual and religious nuances have become an agonizing labor to comprehend.

Many, frustrated with their modern mental conditioning and longing for an encounter with the divine, escape to cultures that are still emerging out of a simpler time. Still breaking free from such a basic cocoon, these places lack the sterile decor of McDonald’s and commercial advertisements, and easily help the visitor to escape the mental zoo of modernity.

Yet it could be argued that Europe holds a treasure ground far richer than these. While it has become a land overrun with the harsh reality of the present, this can makes its history all the more captivating. Europe has become the land of the treasure hunt, and all great treasure hunters know the unique joy of discovering that one lost but precious find.

A pilgrim undertakes his journey

Such a treasure hunt may also require much bravery and courage. When something becomes so lost that its meaning is forgotten, twisted, and even condemned by the current world view, it is easier to escape to places that do not challenge the mind both historically and personally. Yet if we take the time to explore, and to really look, we may either become those who will witness the final glimpses of a lost Atlantis before it sinks beneath the symbolic ocean tides of modernity, or we may be those who can carefully salvage it, pull it from the torrents that seek to wash it away, and bring it to light again in small yet meaningful ways.

Like the pilgrims of old, we will need all the courage we can gain. Our robbers and bandits are no longer the same as the ones that medieval pilgrims faced. Instead, they are those who would distract us from tapping into the old ways, by covering them with modern versions that no longer can be defined as truth for they interpret incorrectly and therefore fail in doing their subjects justice. Our possible sicknesses and death are those of an entertainment culture, quick to numb our minds with neon signs, loud sirens, bustling clubs, and a multitude of deterrents.

But perhaps there is no greater voyage than this; the voyage of a contemporary pilgrim trying to unravel the mysteries of the European past, while the modern world fights so aggressively to swallow it completely. Perhaps there is no greater challenge for a pilgrim than to resurrect the dead and to find that they were still alive all along. Perhaps there is no greater epic story than the voices of the past finding their way through the mental walls of time and unveiling their beauty on their own grounds.

Europe is still a fertile ground for pilgrimage and transformation. If we are brave enough to find our way through the layers of the present and courageously search for the lost treasures of the past, we never know what riches we may journey home with.

 

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While it may seem unusual, I can literally pinpoint my obsession with Europe to one single day in the fall of my 21st year.

At 21, all I wanted to do was sail off into the sunset.

From the summer after I had graduated high school just over three years prior, there had been a constant tug of war between both my mother and myself. I had dreamed of heading off to the islands and gaining my “education” through adventurous experiences, crewing on a boat around the world. However, this free “diploma” was not the one my mother had intended to hang on her wall. Being the coercive leo that she is, she did everything she could to literally stuff me in the car and drive me off to college right on time with everyone else, at the young age of 18 (while I played Jimmy Buffett tunes and sang about how “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go…”).

Feeling defiantly boxed into a corner, I made good on my outspoken promise to be seen but not participate. I went through the motions of heading to class, but engaged all of my effort into my fraternity boyfriend, throwing the biggest parties in the dorm, and living the “coolest” new-found life of freedom that I could.

While my shallow existence could have easily continued on for a lifetime of trivial pursuits, a series of unexpected events that would quickly unravel over the next few years taught me first-hand the meaninglessness of the path that I was on. It was as though someone grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and made a very sharp, dramatic turn, setting the car that was my life onto an unknown road I had never seen before.

Once I was on this unexpected road, however, I never had any interest in turning back. The road began to hurriedly climb a steep mountain which I now knew had always been near at hand, but had never noticed. As I sat helplessly in the passenger seat, I turned my head to gaze out the window where I could see everyone I had left behind, all so far below. They seemed to be congealed together in a great mass, all struggling and writhing for the little bits of happiness that they could find here and there. It looked miserable, almost shocking really, and I wondered why I had never viewed it that way before.

And then, suddenly, the car stopped someplace far up the deserted mountain, surrounded by a dense, misty grey fog. Like a magic trick it disappeared and I was left standing alone never to know who the driver was or why I had literally been abandoned there. All I knew was that I now only desired to continue journeying upwards.

Symbolic metaphors aside, daily life continued on and my mother, still desperate to hang on to her dream of seeing me through college, found a school she thought I would like and suggested their program to me. A little more open to the idea of education at this point, which stemmed from a burgeoning intellectual curiosity about life, I wandered through the catalog until something caught my eye. At first it was religious studies, but then it was humanities. Before long, I was registered in courses for both European history as well as European art history.

And that leads me to the day that I mentioned earlier. The one day where it all definitively began.

My mind filled with so many fascinating subjects, I now felt a deeper calling to be in a place with so much history and culture.

Completely alone, I had locked myself in my bedroom to study. Sitting on the small round carpet on my floor, I leaned against the wall, tilted my head to the right and gazed out the window next to me. The textbook I had been reading lay idle in my lap, its pages open to an image of medieval Europe and the great universities that had once paved the way for the educational system that we know now. My mind seemed to bob gently up and down in a sea of art and history, the middle ages and the Roman times, culture and legendary figures. I gazed at the blue sky so far above, dotted with gently drifting clouds and thought to myself both dreamily and yet with a deeply profound determination that I did not recognize yet, “I am going to live in Europe some day. One day, I am going to be at one of those universities. One day.”

It was as simple as that. A seed was planted in fertile soil and I never could forgot that moment and the call to Europe that I had first felt. That one, single thought lingered in my life, like an anchor that I somehow knew I needed, and continued to grow. It was a part of me in a deep, hidden way that was unexplainable, and still is.

I hung on to it through many trials. Such a radical turn in an individual’s life as the one I was experiencing was hard to prove stable to others, but I began to work seriously at my studies and eventually was accepted to a solid American university where I graduated Magna cum Laude.

But I was not done there. I continued to hang on to it even when others told me that it never could be. My boyfriend used to laugh good-naturedly at my insistence that I would go to school in Europe some day. Acquaintances thought I was full of smoke and enjoyed gossiping about how it was all a pipe dream. Maybe a study abroad program for a semester would be nice, but to get a full degree somehow seemed unreasonable to them. Yet the more that small seed grew, the more I hungered for what was trying to manifest itself into my reality.

I hung on to it as I made my applications to graduate school abroad, hand shaking from a fiance who had tried to tear all hope out of me. I continued to hang onto it on the airplane the day that I finally left, as the engines revved and the aircraft began to slowly pull away. I hung on to it as sitting there in my window seat the realization that this was it brought a sledge-hammer down on my life, tearing it apart and dividing it in two.

I hung onto it that first night in Ireland, when all I could do was lay on the unmade bed in my dorm room and stare at the ceiling, too overwhelmed to understand where I was or what I was doing. Through homesickness, culture shock and a multitude of challenges to complex to describe here, I refused to let it go. I hung on to it because it was the one thing I knew I could not let go of without loosing apart of myself. It was truly apart of me. It was my dream. The anchor of my life.

In the end, I walked down not one but two aisles to receive two European degrees. And when everyone had thought it was over, and it was time for me to stop living in a dream and to take up reality, I still hung on to it. I ran with my gut and listened to what it was telling me, and went in that direction only. And today, I write this from my flat in Rome.

I will always hang onto it. It is apart of who I am. You know you were destined for something when it comes true despite what everyone else is telling you. Promises are like that. They only whisper to the promised and no one else can hear them but the one they are speaking to.

It can be hard to listen and let yourself be led. But a call will lead, if you allow it, as mine is still leading, up that misty, mysterious mountain, to a destiny shaped only for you.

As I fall asleep tonight, I cannot help but wonder what it is that I am journeying to. What awaits me at the highest peak of the mountain? It is a question whose answer continues to elude me, in the most tantalizing way, and so I am thankful for the still unknown journey that lays ahead.

And, for mom.

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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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