by Broderick Hooker
When I went to Italy, I never imagined all the terrible things that country would wreak upon my body. Being surrounded by so much beauty was almost desensitizing to me. In a short span of time, such things became normalized, which detracted from their significance. The Colosseum, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel. The height of human achievement all ran together as my small American mind tried to make sense of it all.
Perhaps this is why my body tried to shock me out of my complacency. I made a habit of going to daily Mass with my fellow students at the Carmelite Church, Santa Maria in Transpontina. An old beggar woman stood outside the church daily, asking for money from pious and presumably generous mass goers. Every day I looked at her, separated by the gulf of language, weighing my options between giving to her or not.
One morning I began to cough. It went away, and the day went by as smooth as any other day in the eternal city. Back at the hotel, I climbed the stairs, and my cough returned with ferocity. Such ferocity, in fact, that I had to spit up into the toilet. Looking into the porcelain bowl, my stomach tied itself into a knot. I was seeing red. While the rest of the class met a community dedicated to charity and peacemaking, I spent the evening in a Roman hospital with our tour guide, a vivacious and impressive Dutch woman named Monique.
Hours passed as I witnessed a belligerent drunk argue with security guards (emergency rooms are the same everywhere). I was scolded by an old anarchist nurse to put my mask back on. I made friends with an American woman and her mother, from Philadelphia. I was comforted by the fact that the hospital assigned me a green dot, of lowest priority, and friends suggested such innocuous causes like dehydration or altitude sickness. After six hours in the hospital, they made no conclusions, but prescribed me an antibiotic.
Later that day I met another beggar woman, who I gave a bag of chestnuts, several Euros and a sandwich. She kissed my hand in gratitude and kept ramping up her need. Needing money for more meals, I had to tear myself away from her hard sell and displays of desperation. Perhaps I had cursed myself again.
The next day I saw the Pope. Seeing the Servant of the Servants of God in person put my affliction in perspective. This one little man from Argentina gave so many people hope and invigorated new life into the Church. His address considered false hope in idols and real hope in God. After my ordeal, the Lord helped me not make my health an idol.
We drove to Siena the next day. It was my favorite city. Charming and medieval, the winding streets and brick buildings are perfect for getting lost. I saw St. Catherine of Siena’s head and childhood home. I was struck by the beauty of her life, and now I would consider her a new friend in heaven.
My first day in Florence was a waking nightmare. My stomach was not prepared to forgive me, and our tour stretched well into eternity, and by that I mean 4:30 p.m. The splendors of the Duomo and Michaelangelo’s David were dulled by desire to no longer exist.
The next day was bearable, and I had the privilege of seeing the greatest works of art in existence at the Uffizi gallery, while I was haunted by the thought struck with a third plague.
We returned to Rome. We saw the Great Synagogue, and learned about the Jewish people of Rome in their long, difficult and interesting history within the city. I was enlightened by my elder brothers in the faith, but more importantly, my appetite was back. If you are in Rome’s Jewish quarter, I recommend the fried artichoke.
In our final day, we went to Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, and climbed to the top of the Dome. The eternal city from above, I saw for myself that all roads lead to Rome. I sat on the Spanish steps. I saw St. John Lateran the Cathedral Church of Rome. I climbed the Scala Sancta, the Holy Stairs, on my knees, as is customary. These stairs are the very same from Pontius Pilates Palace, where Our Lord was condemned to death, brought to Rome by the Empress Helena. It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life.
I left Italy ready for the familiar things. I did not leave full, but empty. Empty of my pride, my own place in history diminished to a tiny blip of time. My name will likely be forgotten after I die, while Saints and Popes and Emperors from centuries past are still discussed. I took back a small bit of this place, so foreign and so central to my civilization. My favorite author, G.K. Chesterton, said “The whole object of travel is not to set foot in a foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” I returned to my home as a stranger. I hope that wherever I am, I learn from it like I learned from Italy.