Accidental Pilgrims II: Additional travel reflections from the editors
In the January 24-31 issue of America, four editors recount spiritual encounters they experienced while traveling. Here we offer additional reflections from Maurice Timothy Reidy, Fr. Raymond Schroth and Kerry Weber.
With a one-year-old daughter at home, my wife and I do not travel as much as we once did. Even on weekends, we do not wander too far afield, choosing to stay close to home rather than brave the subway ride to lower Manhattan. Yet on Tuesday nights I try to make time for a short trip, north from our apartment to Fort Tryon Park, a jewel of the New York City park system.
Bundled in my fleece, I jog slowly up Cabrini Boulevard, past the shrine to Mother Cabrini that gives the street its name, to the grand entrance of the park. After making my way through the park’s gardens, I climb a short hill and catch the first glimpse of my destination: the Cloisters, the northern branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Built to look like a classic monastery, the Cloisters incorporates parts of five abbeys that were transported brick by brick from France and made into one monastery structure.
With its lone stone tower and arched windows, the building is a welcome interruption of the cityscape. Though I have not visited its collection in years, I know the outer layout of the museum well: the sloping lawn bordering its southern wall, the almost hidden path that leads to its entrance.
During my run, I sometimes think of Thomas Merton, who made frequents trips to the Cloisters when he was studying at Columbia University. Merton once wrote to his friend Robert Lax that he would gladly take a job as a night watchman at the museum. Later, when he was a monk at Gethsemani, Merton was sent a book of photographs of the Cloisters. Somehow they seemed foreign to him: “Just as if I had not been saved in those cloisters,” he wrote.
In the Cloisters Merton found both a connection to France, the country where he was born, and to the life he would eventually embrace. I am sure he was also comforted by the stillness of the park, which retains its air of peace even on busy summer weekends. I prefer to visit at dusk, when the sun has just set over the Palisades to the west. Sometimes, I slow down to take in the view, but I do not linger long. My wife and daughter are waiting for me at home.
Before they were shipped to Manhattan, the Cloister’s abbeys sat in ruins in France, remnants of the French Revolution. That they are no longer a formal place of prayer does not trouble me too much. It is enough that their stones are standing, a reminder of my ancient faith and of a monk who found salvation in their walls.
Maurice Timothy Reidy
At lunch the other day, a young woman graduate from Saint Peter’s College, just back from Latin America and on her way to Thailand, told me she had been to 21 countries. I felt threatened; at her age I had been to only nine. My current total, however, is 31.
What has been the religious impact of those trips? For me, there is a difference between the learning experience and the impact, or emotional result, of a visit. Impact means my heart jumped when it happened, and that flutter returns when I remember it. Here are three examples, moving backward in my memory.
A few years ago in Rome at a meeting of the editors of Jesuit journals, a small group toured the archives of the Society of Jesus. The archivist brought out a journal in the actual handwriting of Saint Ignatius Loyola. He let me hold it. There in my hands were pages where the ink flowed from the pen of our founder over 450 years ago. Had these lines not been written by this man I would not be standing there that day. Depending on other decisions, I might not be standing anywhere.
In 1983 I drove north to Galilee, properly impressed by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Jerusalem’s ancient wall, but anxious to get the feel of the turf where Jesus walked and talked. Archeologically, Capernuam was the highlight. Diggers had unearthed the walls of that first-century town where Jesus went to live and teach when he left Nazareth. There, with the Sea of Galilee a few yards away, a few feet from me were the black stones outlining what was most likely Peter’s home; it is where Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law. The spiritual highpoint came later, when I drove to Tiberias and stayed overnight on the lakeside. This, I told myself, was not only where Jesus and his disciples fished, it was where they swam—the same water Jesus swam in. I stripped down to my swimsuit, waded into the sea, then swam out farther. This water that enveloped the body of Jesus now enveloped mine. Or so it seemed to me.
A student for a year in Paris, I was invited to spend Christmas vacation in 1953 as the guest of the generous Bernard Thibaudet family in Tunis. During the day we had picnics and took field trips to Roman ruins. I was even their guest on a jackal hunt. On Christmas Eve we made our way to Carthage, to the St. Louis Cathedral, built in 1890 on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean. There in 1270, King Louis IX, on his way to a second crusade, died on Christmas day. The cathedral choir sang “O Holy Night” as I had never heard it before and have never heard it since.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
Last summer, my sister and I spent three days in Rome with a prioritized to-do list to make the best use of our time. The day of our arrival, jet-lagged, we made the first stop on our list—the Gesu, the Jesuit church that is home to the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola.
The building was gorgeous, massive and ornate. We walked slowly through its cool interior, stopping to kneel by Ignatius’ tomb and waving to the hand of St. Francis Xavier, preserved behind glass. After taking time to pray, we stepped back into the sunlight, turned left and entered an unassuming doorway in the adjacent structure.
Compared to the Gesu, this building was nearly empty, but friends had said it was well worth a visit: on the second floor were the rooms of St. Ignatius Loyola. There he’d written the constitution of the order of the Society of Jesus; there he’d penned letters, prayed and slept. A newly minted editor for America, I couldn’t wait to see where the founder of the Jesuits had done some of his own writing.
My sister and I stepped up to a tall desk behind which sat two men. Before we could say a word, the angrier looking man spoke in broken English.
“Sorry, there is Mass. No visitors to rooms.”
“What if we’re very quiet?” I asked. “We won’t say a word.”
“You come back,” he said.
But given the limited hours and our packed schedule we couldn’t return, which I told the man. He suggested we console ourselves by looking at some drawings of historic Italian events along the hallways leading to the rooms instead. I gave one last sad look at the men. The first stared back unsympathetically. The other looked away. My sister and I walked down the hallway, a poor substitute. But after a few minutes, we heard footsteps. I saw the quieter man from the desk running toward us.
“Come, he is on break. I will take you.” Behind him we rushed up a set of stairs and entered an exquisitely painted hallway. Up another few steps were two wooden doors and in front of them a stooped, round man stood like a guard. He had a wide nose and salt-and-pepper hair slicked back from his forehead. The two men spoke in Italian for a few moments. Then the man from the desk smiled and gestured to us to follow the little guard, Jesuit brother Salvatore Angelo, into the rooms.
The rooms were plain but powerful. Low beams of dark wood hung overhead. There, my sister and I looked at pages of Ignatius’s own handwriting and quietly studied the walls. Brother Salvatore’s deep soft voice suddenly filled the room, “Italiano?” We shook our heads.
“Inglese,” we replied apologetically. He sighed. Then, as though he hadn’t heard us, he launched into an in-depth description of our surroundings in Italian. He pointed to various objects, beckoned for us to follow him to a mural outside the rooms and showed us how the painting changed when one stood at various angles within the room. At first overwhelmed, we drew on our knowledge of Spanish and picked up on some cognates, nodding. We didn’t understand everything, but were surprised by how much we could grasp when we made the effort to closely listen and Brother Salvatore made the effort to speak slowly and do a bit of pantomime. Listening and standing in those rooms established a connection not just to the Jesuit founder, but also to this little old brother who grinned as he pointed to painted angels and pushed postcards into our hands.
Now, when I find it hard to pray, I sometimes think back to that day and Brother Salvatore’s patient, persistent message, which we made such effort to understand. I try to maintain that same willingness to listen as I try to discern God’s will for me, even when it seems to make little sense. More often than not, I find, it just takes a little while for the message to sink in, for me to pick out a phrase or two that I can understand. Then I find that moment when it all seems to connect.