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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.

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.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Today is the day when beers magically turn green, foreigners temporarily become Irish while pleading for a kiss, and the gift of the gab runs freely across the lips of those celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day. Cheers!

On such an occasion, I thought it fitting to share some of my most memorable experiences when I lived abroad in, that’s right, you guessed it, Ireland!

The very first foreign country that I ever temporarily called home was the land of the leprechaun’s, and the city that I chose for my own was ol’Dublin town as I attended Trinity College. (My former Irish roommate would probably be yelling at me right about now for all the clichés!)

Although Dublin has its charm, I have to admit that three of my most favorite places in all of Ireland were far from the hustle and bustle of the city.

1) The Cliffs of Moher

I journeyed far along the cliffs into the distance

I made several trips to these dramatic cliffs overlooking the wild Atlantic, and every single one of them was worth it. But my favorite was the one time I went all alone, instead of with a group of friends, and got up the nerve to enter the portion of the cliffs that tourists are dissuaded from visiting.

 

I wandered far along a narrow dirt path that clung close to the edge until I had distanced myself so completely that every tourist was just a tiny spec in the distance. My only companions were a field of cows grazing to one side, lazily staring at me at they chewed on their herbal meal, and the thundering ocean below.

Feeling brave, I laid down on the grass, carefully inched closer, and hung out over the sheer edge as much as I dared. (I do not recommend this. It is very dangerous and should not be done.)

The wind caught my hair as I gazed breathlessly out over the sea, a thrilling energy tingling through me. I loved the birds-eye view of the steep drop and the dangerous rocks below. I felt as though I was a seagull soaring high above, and simply laid there for some time in glowing appreciation of such a moment.

When I finally (and very carefully) drew myself back, I rested for the longest time in the grass and just listened. The cliffs seemed to speak to me in a language all their own, and had so much to tell. What they shared I can never repeat, for they spoke without words. It was rather the essence of a rocky, lonely place that had stood for millions of years whispering gently of its secrets to my own soul.

2) The Rock of Cashel

On my very first road trip through Ireland, I rented a little red car from the Dublin airport and worked up the nerve to drive (all by myself) – on the wrong side of the road!

Leaving the airport, I had to almost immediately tackle a roundabout that lead to a busy freeway, which was as nerve-wracking as could be. Cars were flying at me in circles from every direction, and they all seemed to be from the wrong direction. I could not remember which way was right and which way was left…everything seemed a frightful mess!

By the time I made my way to the little country roads, I was almost in tears. I felt like a schoolgirl learning how to drive all over again, but this time no one was with me to help me feel safe!

The view is one of those rare ones that does not let you down in person

Shaken and wishing I could run straight back to Dublin and hide under the covers of a warm cozy bed, I turned a corner and saw the most spectacular view in front of me. For a moment everything seemed to stand still as I just gazed in awe at the Rock of Cashel which revealed itself to me in a grandeur I had little expected. Still on edge, I managed to make my way to the parking lot, safely park my car (whew!) and then hiked up to the famous ruins above.

I could have spent all day there, and must have at least spent an hour or two just lingering and wandering about. I sat inside the crumbling cathedral, on the bare earth, and just stared at the sky above me. The cool breezes passed through the doorways and windows that were now just gaping passageways in the walls. The grass rustled, the birds soared high above, and history gently echoed around me.

Gothic churches are meant to point to the heavens, but a Gothic church lacking a roof really completes its mission of guiding your heart to the skies.

By the time I got back to my little red nerve-mobile, I was so calm and relaxed that I was amazed at how effortless driving suddenly seemed! The rest of the trip was a breeze, and it was as if I had been driving on the opposite side of the road all my life. (Except for my pit stop at the country gas station, where two old Irish men hung out their windows in good-natured humor as they laughed at me trying to get into the passenger side!)

3) Skellig Michael

A lone tourist enjoys the view on a beautiful sunny day

I saved Skellig Michael until almost the end of my time in Ireland, when I made another road trip across the country (this time less afraid of the roads!).

 

Boarding a rickety boat at a small dock, I was soon whisked away into the ocean and the sight of Skellig Michael slowly growing closer was everything that I had hoped it would be, and more. What was not what I had hoped it would be was the death-defying climb to the top!

After we docked, many travelers only ventured so far up the steps and then refused to continue the journey, but I was determined. Step by nervous step I made my way up the steepest, most ancient stairs I may have ever climbed, all without a handrail! Chipped and even loose in some areas, I had to force myself not to look down.

I kept wondering how it could be possible that they let tourists make such a climb so freely without worrying about the implications. But nevermind, I was glad that they did, as it gave me a chance to experience the authenticity of the historic island.

Reaching the top, I was able to revel in spectacular views of the sparkling sea, climb through monastic ruins, and huddle into tiny chapels. At one point, a gentleman who was on the voyage with me came over to share his amazement that monks had once lived in such a perilous, rocky place, and I could not help but exclaim “I could stay here forever!”

To imagine the religious men who had lived in such lonely surroundings, daily climbing the steep steps, was a romantic epic for the mind. The blue skies, the cool yet strong breezes, the seagulls, and the absolute solitary nature of this forgotten monastic community is perhaps my favorite memory of all.

While I did make several other road trips with different groups of friends, none of them stand out the way my solitary adventures do. Ireland is a modern land but still retains many wild, untamed places. The security of a group simply never allowed my soul the freedom to really listen to the heartbeat of the past, and for that I am forever grateful that I took the chance, overcame my nerves, and explored this country on my own as well.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

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.

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.

 

Joan of Arc is the quintessential figure whose brief life became both a physical quest and a spiritual journey rolled into one. While her time on earth may seem too extraordinary to relate to our lives, it can nevertheless be discovered that she offers a guide for all who seek to embark upon a spiritual journey.

Born around 1412 in Domremy, France, she started life as the simple daughter of Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee. Yet her life would slowly begin to change when, at the young age of 12, she saw three figures whom she identified as Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret in a field near her home.

At the age of 16 she implored a relative to take her to the nearby town of Vaucoulurs, where she petitioned to visit the French royal court at Chinon. Undaunted by the sarcastic comments she received, she persisted until she was finally able to meet Charles VII.

Eventually she gained the trust of enough individuals in important positions that she was sent onto the battlefield to encourage and inspire the French troops. She performed her duty so well that she was instrumental in leading the way to several important victories and the crowning of Charles VII as King of France.

Eventually captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English, she was tried at court and finally burnt at the stake as a heretic. She is today one of the patron saints of France.

Joan of Arc as a young girl heard the voices of three saints urging her on to fulfill a greater destiny than she had dreamed

Her brief yet legendary life, which ended at 19, marked out several basic patterns of a heroic spiritual quest.

To begin with, she felt an inner call to fulfill a role that was unique to her alone. In her situation, this call was made exceptional by the voices of saints speaking to her and urging her on. Yet regardless of the extraordinary nature of her calling, she still had to listen and follow what she believed to be an unquestionable call from God.

Second, she experienced opposition and hardships. There were many obstacles that were placed in her path that could have easily led to her turning back and deciding not to advance any further. But despite the difficulties of war, wearing mens clothing in a time when this was considered scandalous, and being seen as somewhat mad, she pushed forward with her thoughts focused on accomplishing what she believed to be her mission in life.

Finally, she had great faith and a rich inner life. Even amidst the persecutions that intensified until they ended in her death, she refused to lay down the sword of her faith but continued seeking for God in every event that surrounded her.

While Joan of Arc will always remain unique in the history of the world for the spectacular way that her mission was laid out, her journey in its essence is no different from anyone else. We all have a vocation that is particular to us in this life, which lingers on our heart and whispers to us if we only listen. If we hear it and set out to follow the path that it creates, we will certainly encounter obstacles, yet it is imperative that we continue to push forward. And ultimately, it is our faith that will sustain us. Even if we do not see our calling realized in out lifetime, it is our faith that has to hold us until the end and emblazon our lives as true warriors.

The life of Joan of Arc offers a beautiful roadmap for anyone who sets on a spiritual adventure, wether it be of the heart or a combination of both the physical and spiritual. While it is a roadmap that warns of an unusual life and a difficult one, it also speaks of a life with rewards beyond the ordinary. It speaks of a life made extraordinary.

Today I went for a walk in Trastevere, one of my favorite areas of Rome. Just across the Tiber, it contains no major sites to lure many tourists and therefore still retains much of the authentic Roman charm from the past. Here one can still find little narrow, winding cobbled streets and when the day begins to fade the colors of burnt Siena and passionate orange that decorate the buildings come alive under the final glorious moments of the sun. This is my little escape.

I happened to come across one of the earliest titular churches in the Eternal City, which means that over the centuries the parish grew up over the site that had once been a home of secret worship for the early persecuted Christians. Strolling through the vast church, I passed the remains of a blessed woman displayed in a glass coffin and my eyes finally fell upon a door with an arrow pointing to it.

Assuming that this meant I could enter, I carefully crossed over the threshold and into the sacristy. An elderly Italian lady who had been lingering in the side chapel outside the door entered behind me. In my simple Italian i asked her if I could enter. “Posso entrare?” “Si, tre euro,” was her reply.

Not very sure if my three Euro would be well spent, I decided it was worth a try. Fumbling through my wallet, the precise amount emerged and I placed it gently on her thin, open hand. She paused to count the coins, and then motioned to a little door to my left.

As I gently pushed open the door, my eyes fell upon a long, narrow shaft of metal stairs that descended into a deep basement. Carefully taking step after step down the rickety stairs closely protected by a narrow tunnel, I turned a corner and my eyes gazed upon the ruins of the first Christian church to have been built on the site.

There was only one small group of about three people curiously exploring, and when my feet touched the earthen ground heavily packed over the original marble and tile flooring, I headed in the opposite direction. Before long it was just me and the dimly lit world of another time and place.

Passing through the different corridors and halls, my eyes drifted over a medieval fresco long worn and crumbling to pieces. All that was left to be appreciated was that of a holy man curing what looked to be a leper, for he was covered in sores. Pieces of tile and marble peeked out from ground so densely packed it had become a pavement of its own. The place was silent and mysterious, completely in ruins.

I passed old fireplaces that were now littered with rubble and stones, and deep within this basement structure that had once stood on the main level of the Roman terrain I came upon a very simple white sarcophagus. Lacking in any particularly poignant artistic embellishment, it stood alone, pressed against a brick wall like a forlorn figure that had been forgotten and abandoned. I wandered closer, sensing an eerie realization that the sarcophagus was not covered. It lay open, revealing a haphazard pile of dusty human bones.

A pile of bones similar to those I encountered

At first I could only stare. They were clearly abandoned and uncared for, as if they had simply been piled there for lack of a better place. But soon I wanted to see them up close, to touch them and grasp their reality before me. Leaning over, I reached inside and picked up one of the thick bones. An upper arm, a thigh? I was not sure. All I knew was that it was real and I was holding what had once given structure to a true human life.

I turned it over and around many times, and then placed it respectfully back within its neglected space. I chose another one, smaller and thinner, and examined it as well. I rummaged through quite a collection and the more I touched and felt their reality, the more I felt the mysterious abandonment of the early church I was standing within.

I looked up at the wall behind the sarcophagus and could see brick after thin brick, carefully held together by mortar laid close to 2000 years ago. The thought that human hands had once created it, hands that contained bones just like the ones I was holding, caused a deep sense of stillness to fall over me. Now it was all gone; the lives, the life of the church, everything. All that was left of the humanity that had once known this place was dusty bones, broken and decaying. All that was left of the church was a dark, lonely skeletal structure buried beneath the centuries that had layered themselves upon it, until it had been forgotten.

Tiny narrow windows at the very top of the arched ceiling revealed feet passing by, and I could hear their sounds echoing as if they were within the basement with me, but when I turned to look I realized they were not. They were rushing past in a modern blur on the other side, and I was all alone with my thoughts.

As I walked away, I looked back at the sad little sarcophagus dwelling alone in the faded light and felt a true sorrow seep into my heart. So much lost to time and unable to be recovered ever again seemed a tragedy uncomprehended.

Stepping out of the church and into the busy, sun-lit day, I made my way down the sidewalk lost in thought. I gazed upon the people headed towards me, filled with life, and recalled the stark reality of the bones I had just held moments before. Everything passes, everything changes, lives are quickly lived and soon fade. Where they are I will one day be, and who knows where my remains will dwell.

I considered how In the end, life is far more than what we can see and touch. If we put our faith in what is physical too strongly, it will leave us holding empty remains and centuries of dust. We are the sum total of who we are within. We are truly alive not because we have cells and atoms that work together to keep us moving, but because we have the capacity to feel, think, and will. Hopefully we will choose to will, think, and feel what is most good, true, and beautiful, and then no amount of centuries can erase who we are. If our secret worlds within are truly alive in this way, then while the container that holds them may perish and be forgotten, what matters most will live on.

We will live in an Eternal City of our own creation.

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