Why do I love Italy so much?
Until yesterday I couldn't answer that question coherently. I would have said things like, "It's so beautiful. The art is amazing. The architecture is breathtaking. The men and women are gorgeous. The shopping..." Silly stuff like that. But today I understand and can articulate it better.
Why do I understand today what I did not understand yesterday? Not because I'm in Italy, although I would certainly love to be.
Not because I've done a thorough study of the art and history of Italy, although I would love to do that as well.
Today I understand my passion for that country better because I have just finished reading one of the BEST BOOKS I've ever read. Ever. It is entitled Chasing Francis, and it was written by a friend, Ian Cron. Bravo, Ian!
Why this book?
It presents a man's crisis of faith. A valley of doubt. A trail of tears. A break from the church. A rebirth into something entirely new.
It tells the tale of one man's journey, a pilgrimage from despair to hope, from emptiness to fulness, from sorrow to joy. But when the book ends, the journey is only just getting fully underway.
I love that this book doesn't give easy and pat answers to the deepest questions of the soul. I love that there aren't three easy explanations for the trials we face in life and two simple ways to overcome doubt and be as solid as a rock in our faith. I love the fact that the book includes a list of other books to consult and consider. I love the questions at the end of the book that provoke thought and discussion and more serious pondering.
And most of all, I love the fact that this book takes place - in part - in Italy. In Rome, in Florence, in Assisi, and beyond. The churches, the cathedrals, the museums, the back streets, the fancy hotels, the orchestra halls, and the hilltops of Tuscany serve as the backdrop for the story of Chase Falson's faith and my faith. The walks he takes, the questions he asks, the journal entry he pens resonate so deeply with me.
I am reminded of conversations I have had with others who have tasted the beauty of Italy and felt its depth to the core. I am reminded of my own solo journeys there, of tears I left to bathe its streets, its church pews, and its museum halls. I am reminded of the many pages of my travel journals that are peppered with questions and pocked with still more salty tears. I think of the postcards and letters I sent from there and how the words I wrote revealed the depth of my emotion in such small and shallow ways.
Back in October of 2001, just a few weeks after the tragedy of September 11th, I set out on my first trip to Italy. Concerned about the decision to leave my family in order to travel alone in a country I'd never visited at a time of national and international fear, a few days before my scheduled departure I went to see Ian to ask his advice and to speak to him about a personal crisis that I was experiencing at the time. He listened quietly and then asked to pray for me. In his prayer, he spoke words that touched my soul more deeply than nearly anything I'd heard before or have heard every since. He prayed that I would know peace and safety and experience what it was to be "alone with The Alone." I wrote those words in my journal that day. When I packed my things for the trip, I took my Walkman and a copy of Ian's first CD entitled, Sacred Hunger.
While on the train from Rome to Orvieto on my last full day of that trip, I listened to the CD and one of the songs pulled out the plug that had been holding the waters of my own internal Niagara Falls inside. I wept openly; so numerous were my tears and so obvious my sorrow, that a woman got up from her and came to ask if I was okay. I smiled and nodded through my tears and assured her that all was well.
After pulling myself together, and only marginally, I spent most of that day wandering through the winding streets of that small hilltown, into and out of the Etruscan Museum, marveling at the ceramics for sale, and ate a magnificently delicious bowl of gelato from the gelateria next to the duomo. Then I entered Orvieto's grand cathedral and made my way into the side chapel with the frescoes of the dead coming to life, of flesh being put onto the bones of lives gone by. At the moment, I cannot recall the name of the artist. Anyway, I walked around in that chapel. I stood still. I gazed. I marveled. I oohed and aahed. And again, I cried as I felt new energy, new blood surge my own dried and carefully preserved heart. I felt myself coming back to life on that day in that church in that enthralling little town.
The words to Ian's song, I Want To Go Home, came back to me then and again today.
This Irish coast is breaking my heart tonight
A mystical yearning, an ache in my soul
Each crashing wave reminds me - I am living in exile.
Chorus: I want to go home
I want to be with My Father
Run right by his side through all his fields of grace
Yes, I love my life, but isn't it right to want to go home?
Is it so wrong to want the invisible?
A time and a place where you finally belong
I could go on in this world with just one glimpse of eternity.
This 'now but not yet' leaves me divided
Walking on earth when my soul wants to fly
But I know this journey I'm on is built on this sacred hunger.
I want to go home...
Italy is the place where I have felt most like my soul, my heart, my spirit was flying. Most like my soul had found a place of rest, of repose, of being at home. Where the sacred hunger in my heart has been temporarily sated. And oddly enough, that's exactly why I don't go there as often as I go to Spain. It's almost too much. The feeling of connection with beauty, with history, with silent awe, with art, with food, with nature, with other people, with ancient love and grace and soulfulness. During each of my three trips there, I have had moments of such depth, richness, and fullness that I have not wanted to come back home. In fact, I have never felt more at home than when I have sat on quiet pews in quiet churches in Italy. Or on benches in its museums. At the huge square table in the front room of LPQ on the Via Tomacelli in Roma. In the cloister at the church of Santa Croce (the Holy Cross) in Firenze. Standing in front of Bernini's statues of Jonah and Daniel, and Caravaggio's paintings from the life of Paul in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Roma. Eating pizza and writing a letter at a tiny plaza in Orvieto. Crying. Laughing. Journaling. Alone with The Alone.
Words don't do it justice.
In Italian it is, "Senza parole."
But Ian's book, Ian's words come mighty close.
Buy the book and CD at Amazon.com.