As I write this tonight I can feel the first shudders of the ferry pulling away from the docks for an all night ride to Igoumenitsa, Greece. The last two days have been good for my mental health. Today, after a better than average breakfast at the hotel that didn’t force me to go foraging for more food, I picked a bench in the middle of a cobblestone square and just sat. For over two hours I didn’t budge. It was glorious! With the exception of trying to locate a small grocery store (another unsuccessful 90 minute excursion) I had no agenda but to sit, observe and let my thoughts catch up to my body and location.
I almost immediately began breathing more deeply. Tonight as the ferry slices its way toward Greece I am shifting my thoughts from what could go wrong (which is really foreign to the Rumi way) to what opportunities lie before me. I found myself beginning to worry about arriving in Igoumenitsa at 6:00 a.m., possibly with little sleep (we’ll see how that goes with fifty teenagers drinking on board!), and no knowledge of the city, how to get food, and whether it makes sense to immediately start cranking the pedals eastward.
But, I stopped myself! Being there at 6:00 a.m. may leave me vulnerable, but it also leaves me in a port city at sunrise! It is just as likely that I’ll be able to find a nice spot on the water with my stash of nuts and a juice and watch the sun peek over the mountains as it sends veils of light onto the sea. It is even possible that I might be able to tour the town before traffic starts and enjoy a rare treat that others would not experience. Maybe there will even be a Starbucks open! Okay, I am delirious.
While the barrage of logistical issues certainly attempted to knock me from my moorings, the real story is that I did survive each one of them and have worked out the most critical of them. The lesson? Maybe I can relax now with the knowledge that issues will likely persist to one degree or another, but that I will be able to handle them. In the end, I can believe that “all will be well.”
I spent much of the day working through the experience of being in Italy. Did you know that it is a thoroughly Catholic country? I wasn’t aware of how Italian everyone was. I am not sure why it surprised me so, but I think it probably exposes my utterly American experience of so much diversity and pluralism. Maybe at some level I expected an Italian version of America. You know, we have our hamburger joints that speak USA all over their menu, but there are also Thai, Chinese, Mexican, and a growing number of sushi restaurants to balance out our American cuisine. I didn’t see that here. Ristorante and Pizzeria seemed like synonymous terms.
I have just started to reflect on what the experience of Italy, the Vatican and the smaller Catholic parishes contribute to this Rome to Rumi theme. I wanted to start in Rome as I felt like it represented the very head of the institution of church as we know it in the West. What I didn’t expect was that I wouldn’t be able to separate out the Vatican and the Catholic Church from the rest of Italian culture.
It appears that the Catholic Church in Italy is suffering from some of the same challenges that the Church as a whole is in the West. With the exception of the two pilgrimage sites (Pietralcina and San Giovanni Rotondo) attendance was often dismal at Catholic masses. I arrived late to a Wednesday evening mass in Terracina and increased the attendance by 50%, making it three of us, plus the priest. In another small village the mass was attended by about fifteen people who appeared to be from about four separate families. All but two were women. Just around the corner about fifty, mostly older, men were in the town square drinking beer and enjoying village conversation.
But, unlike America where attendance is a good indication of the place of church in one’s life or community, that doesn’t seem to be true in Italy. Despite low activity in the daily rhythm of the Church one can feel that the Church and the community share a dependence on each other that is foreign to all but some of our most rural communities in America. Imagine Wisconsin without the Packers. They would fall apart!
This is where there seems to be a thread between what I experienced in Italy and the Rome to Rumi pilgrimage. In Italy the Catholic Church is more about identity than it is church participation or involvement. It feels more like a cultural identifier much like a person who is Jewish by birth rather than by choice or even belief.
Rome to Rumi is not on the radar of Italians. It’s not their story. They don’t seem to share the same angst with regard to wrestling with their spiritual identity. I think the Rome to Rumi, spiritual-but-not-religious phenomenon is largely a product of American sensibilities and, even deeper than that, a post-Protestant development. We need to remember that we Americans came from those who were called “protesters”. If Italians are rooted in the story of the Catholic Church, we Americans have our identity largely rooted in the story of those who continue to protest for the sake of our own individual, political, religious and spiritual autonomy. And remember who we protested against!
We Protest-ants (I know, you protest at even being called that. I get it!) change our religious affiliation and spiritual orientation (remember, I am now an “agnostic Christian mystic) every time our beliefs evolve. But, for Italian Catholics it doesn’t feel like it is about belief. It is about religious DNA and identity and no matter how many times you change your mind, you can’t change the “family genes” with which you are born.
What does all this mean? For now the experience in Italy has helped to contextualize this pilgrimage. I started out feeling like the Rome to Rumi theme (moving from institutional forms of religion to individualized spirituality) was largely a Western world phenomenon. I still think that is the case, but Italy has reminded me just how deep religious DNA can run in a culture and the spiritual, but not religious demographic isn’t easily apparent here.
In a few hours I will arrive in Greece with no friggin plan except a general direction, a need to find food, and a trust that it will all work out. If I can keep my present “All will be well” attitude I think this should start to get very fun. The mountains are coming and I just LOVE to climb mountains and scream down the other side. That’s my Rocky Mountain born and raised religious DNA showing through!