Nov 10, 2014

The Accidental Pilgrim

When I visited my friends in Murfreesboro this September, Fr. John graciously invited me to ‎speak to his parishioners after Vespers on the topic of pilgrimage. Several of the stories I related had to do with what I called "accidental pilgrimage," by which I meant suddenly realising that I was in the presence of the Holy, without setting out to get there. 

Reading the chapter on "Interruptions and Surprises" in The Road to Emmaus reminded me of this. Jim Forest writes:

"‎Far from avoiding the unplanned, the pilgrim has chosen a temporary way of life that provides a continuous parade of unexpected moments and events—a life in which interruptions, or surprises, are the main events. But which is it: interruption or surprise? You decide. When someone looks back on a pilgrim journey, more often than not the unplanned events along the way prove to have the greatest significance."

So it has proven with my afflicted foot.‎ My original plan for this stage of my pilgrimage was to head directly to Rome on the Via Francigena. Instead, I have spent the past two weeks in a small town in northern Italy waiting for my foot to heal. On Friday, I went to the local hospital for a check up. The doctor was pleased with what he saw, and so was I, particularly when the new dressing proved small enough for me to ease my foot into my trail shoes for the first time in a fortnight.

To celebrate, I decided to make a day trip to Turin. It's only about an hour from Santhià by train, and one way train fare is €5.25‎. Turin was the first capital of modern Italy, and before that it was the seat of power for the Royal House of Savoy for 500 years. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Savoy) Palaces abound, as do churches, museums, and art galleries.

Given the condition of my foot (vastly improved but still tender) and the time limitations, I knew I had to be very selective. I left for Turin with two goals: to visit the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, and to walk up the Monte dei Cappucini. The first of these destinations is where the Shroud of Turin is housed, the latter is the resting place of Ignazio da Santhià about whom I wrote earlier.

One of the surprises of my visit was witnessing a performance artist standing impassively on a large block of ice in a narrow hall running off the street. A looped recording‎ played back the words, "La nostra conscienza non è assolutamente tranquillo." (Our conscience is absolutely not clear.) A sign near the entrance gave information about the piece in s‎everal languages including, oddly enough, Hebrew. Valter Luca Signorile chose to call his five hour long performance I AM LIKE GLASS.

The highlight of my visit was the time I spent at the chapel in which is laid the Shroud. It is displayed ‎on very rare occasions, at the discretion of the Pope. The last time the public could view it was in 2010; the next scheduled exhibition is for 2015. 

The rest of the time it is housed in a side chapel of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in a specially constructed casket (for lack of a better word). The aluminium casing is 5 m long and 1.6 m wide, and stands about a metre high. This long low table is then covered with what is essentially an altar cloth, and the public is kept out with sturdy looking locked glass doors. There is an enlarged negative print of the image of the face suspended over the Shroud.

Along the aisle, there are several video displays playing a looped video explaining the history of the Shroud and the various markings on it. There's no sound, of course, but it's subtitled in Italian and Polish. Approaching the area at the front of the church, there are signs in multiple languages requesting people to remain silent, turn off their phones, and refrain from taking pictures. 

I was quite content to sit on one of the benches facing the chapel and use my prayer rope for a bit. Eventually I just sat quietly for a good long time, letting the people coming and going float through my field of vision. Some crossed themselves and genuflected, others maintained the "museum pose" with hands clasped securely behind the back and an air of detached inspection. 

The cathedral is a triple aisled basilica, with the side chapels opening from the outer aisles and seating for the faithful only found in the main centre aisle. In addition to the benches facing the Shroud chapel placed between the pillars, there is a kneeling bench across the glassed-off entrance to the chapel. It's wide enough for six or seven people, and at elbow height on top of this pew there was a short prayer ‎printed in as many languages. 

Eventually I made my way forward and located the English translation. I didn't scribble it down in my journal, and my normal method of recording text was precluded by the ban on photos. Here's the gist of it as far as I can remember. "I have sought Your face, O Lord. Grant me to see it again at the resurrection when You return in glory at Your second coming." (There was a bit more to it than that, and if I were really motivated I could probably find the text online. Then again, so could you, my dear reader.) 

This is only the second Catholic church‎ I've visited in Italy in which people can actually light a candle. (The other one was the cathedral in Ivrea. Naturally, the Orthodox parishes I've visited have beeswax tapers.) Everywhere else, they have banks of electric light bulbs mounted on fake candle sticks. After dropping a coin in the slot and pushing a button, a light goes on. I assume it stays "lit" longer for €1 than for €0.50. (Is it just me, or does this seem like a form of liturgical docetism? But I digress.) I lit a few candles next to the Shroud chapel as I left.

When I finally emerged from the church into the warm sunshine and bustle of the square outside, I had to sit and readjust to the outside world.‎ Eventually I was ready to move on, and started towards the Santuario della Consolata. Although the Cathedral is adjacent to the royal palace and the rulers had their own private entrance directly from their quarters (rather like the arrangement in Constantinople), this other church was the one favoured by the House of Savoy. It was sumptuously furnished, but it was all a little too baroque for my liking.

By late afternoon I began walking towards the River Po. On the other side of the river there is a range of hills which overlook the main sprawl of the city which seems to fill the river valley right up to the foothills of the Alps. After walking across the bridge, I began to ascend what is now known as Monte dei Cappucini (Capuchin Mountain). As the name suggests, there is a monastery on the summit. It was here that Ignatius of Santhià entered the monastic life, and where he finally reposed in 1770. (See the Vatican site for a brief account of his life here: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2002/documents/ns_lit_doc_20020519_ignazio_en.html)

I noticed that there was a small group of men gathered at the entrance to the monastery. It turns out that the Capuchins distribute bread every day to anyone who comes to their door between 4:00 and 5:00 pm. Each of the men had a small shopping bag filled with large rolls.

While the church was nice, what really made the walk up the hill worthwhile was the view. I'd seen it described as a balcony overlooking the city, and that's an apt description. There were many more people leaning against the wall overlooking the city than were inside the church. 

I had arrived late afternoon, and lingered to watch the sunset. We were high enough above the city for the traffic to be inaudible, the Po was just visible through the trees, and the snowcapped Alps on the opposite horizon glowed in the setting sun. Friday night I had stayed up extremely late reading, and as a result I'd only had four hours of sleep. Perhaps my mood of calm joy was the result of exhaustion (I do get that way), but others around me also seemed happily contemplative as they gazed out over the city.

I wound up walking seven or eight kilometres during my eight hours in Turin. I visited four churches, bought chocolate from a fifth generation chocolatier, had lunch in an historic café, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. ‎ If my blisters had not become infected, or if I'd been stranded a week earlier or later, I would have missed out on all of this. Yes, I've deliberately set out on a pilgrimage to Rome and ultimately Jerusalem, but the circumstances which led me to the Shroud and then up a small mountain in Torino fit my own arbitrary criteria of an accidental pilgrimage.‎

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