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I had expected an intimate gathering, and had carefully practiced a sentence or two in Latin about my doctoral dissertation as a sort of conversation starter with the pontiff. Unfortunately, ten thousand other people from all over the world also held passes to the 'audience' with his holiness.
We were ushered to the very rear of an enormous auditorium to sit with the other Americans. Do
they always stick the Americans in the back, we wondered? They wheeled the Pope out in a sort
of throne-mobile to the center of a stage where he deftly greeted the crowd in innumerable languages.
Then he received endless greetings from various groups of pilgrims. He would sort of raise one hand,
elbow remaining at rest, for a children's group cheer. For a rendition of a hymn from a throng of travelling
nuns, both hands might lift off in exceeding approval. We began to suspect, from our great distance,
that we beheld only a motorized cardboard cut-out and made for the door. The Swiss Guard made it
clear that nobody checks out early on the pope. We were promptly returned to our seats. There we
made further observational notes on what purgatory would be like for us. I never got to deliver
Despite the history, artistic and architectural marvels of Rome, we felt a bit of a spiritual vacuum
there, which wasn't filled until we arrived in Assisi, home to St. Francis, whose example I had so admired. I adored St. Francis, although I had grown to suspect something was "off" in his example the more I had developed my connection with my own body through Tai Chi, massage and Rolfing. Francis tormented
his body as if he were battling a plague. The rigors of fasting and his various ascetic practices left him
bedraggled, blind and on his deathbed at about forty years of age. In his parting words, he actually apologized to "Brother Ass," his "pet" name for his body, admitting that perhaps he had been a little too rough on him. In college, as I recounted, I found this type of "spiritual disposition" towards my
body attractive. Lucky for me, I decided to make friends with Brother Ass after all, rather than to kill him with all that holiness.
So I did Tai Chi on spots where I imagined Francis might have prayed. The chapel of the San
Daminiano cross, before which Francis heard Christ speak, was open for visiting. We sat within the
room for about a half an hour. When we left, we could barely speak, but both agreed to having felt an extraordinary movement within that place. It felt as if the Holy Spirit was literally blowing around the room. We must have left there with a healthy glow, as two spirited young Italian women began following us around the town. They practically begged us to let them join us in our accommodations, but all that praying had left us clueless to that sort of "opportunity," even as it knocked. Someone has to be home to open the door.
The Italians did seem to have an intense relationship with the body that left me wondering. There
is a certain robust quality of physical interaction which I as an American couldn't help but notice.
Every park bench seemed host to some young couple groping each other. Sculptures and paintings
were full of passion detailing agonies and ecstasies of bodily form. And church after church housed some saint or another's body, in whole or in part, on display for public veneration. In Sienna, we saw St. Catherine's holy head on display. The crowd was a bit much for me to get too close, so I settled to hang out with her thumb, which was hopefully displayed on a spike in a glass case off to the side of the "head annex," like some bizarre sort of partial hitchhiker. Holiness comes at a price to the body on this account, dead or alive. If there's anything left of it after the Saint is done with it, adoring fans will rip it to pieces for the local relic collection.
After Italy, we headed for the beach at Nice on the Mediterranean coast of France. Here women were topless and beyond. For a couple of church-hopping Americans, we barely new what to do with ourselves while sunning. In the U.S. of A., if a woman accidentally flashed a breast I had always assumed the polite thing would be to turn away till matters were undercover again. Here, nothing ever went undercover. I spent the day reading Milton's Paradise Lost on the stony beach, fishing for clues. Two rainy days later we popped down again to the now empty beach before catching our train. Two young woman (had they followed us from Italy?) nearby were eyeing the water and I teasingly goaded them to go in. To our utter astonishment, they stripped naked in a moment and made for the water squealing French exclamations all the way. I didn't have time to ponder the sheer joy and delight of their action. I dove straight for the chilled blue waters myself just to hide my embarrassment. In the days that followed in Paris I couldn't help but wonder if all of those nice French ladies with their poodles on the subway would just as soon be frolicking naked on the beach. The thought that shame for my own body could be outstripped by exhilaration and pleasure was a novel one for me. Viva la France!
Faced with the choice of train hopping our way to Hungary or Yugoslavia, we decided for pilgrimage over goulash. Medjugorje was a little town in Bosnia Herzagovina where there had been daily apparitions of the Virgin Mary reported for ten years running. We were determined to get some action, or at least see what the fuss was about. It took us two days on a very crowded train to get there. We were convinced half of the luggage racks on board were filled with guns and ammunition. We hadn't heard the travel advisories warning Americans to stay away. Our cabinmates smoked like chimneys, and the chain-smoking trainmen seemed unconcerned to enforce the no-smoking signs. We doled out unanticipated gratuities to armed fellows at the border in US cash. The signs were in the Cyrillic alphabet. This didn't look like Kansas anymore. Fortunately, by mastering about six words in Serbo-Croation, and making up the rest in French, we made friends fast. Soon our new pals were passing us little bottles of vodka at 8 o'clock in the morning. We were like chicks under mama's wings.
Nothing could have prepared me for my experience on that little pilgrimage. For four days we sat through three-hour long masses said by the local priests, who had turned the good fortune of the local apparition into an opportunity for some heavy-duty preaching. We hiked about the little town and visited the visionaries, who would come out of their homes at appointed times to greet the crowds and report on Mary's latest messages. Pray for peace was the main theme. It was more timely a message than we ever imagined, given that the borders closed, promptly followed by all-out war a week after we left. Fasting twice a week on bread and water was the encouraged discipline to accompany the prayers. Not a bad preparation for the ensuing shortages, come to think of it.
What with all of that praying and preaching and such, I inevitably succumbed to pangs of conscience. I had never much liked the concept or experience of "going to confession," but with fifteen little booths set up outside the church for the flocks of guilt-ridden pilgrims, I couldn't resist. I entered the little confessional and greeted a skinny, pointy, grey-bearded and brown robed old Franciscan priest who had clearly been at this for a while. As I began to make my "confession," I soon realized the little fellow wasn't quite following my train of thought. It seems we didn't see quite eye to eye on what was the crux of the problem. So, I sort of launched into a lecture, as graduate students do, on some historical and theoretical background to our "discussion," with a bit of commentary on the history of the Franciscan Order to boot. As I proceeded, I could see he didn't want to hear this. Holding his baggy brown sleeved hands over his ears, vigorously shaking his head and shouting "no! no! no!" were my main clues. Finally getting a word in edgewise, the priest dutifully looked me in the eye, pronounced me a "heretic," and informed me succinctly that he couldn't forgive me, the church couldn't forgive me, and God couldn't forgive me. I figured that pretty much summed things up from his side of the aisle, so I stuck my hand out, gave him a firm handshake, and thanked him sincerely for our little "visit."
I walked out of that booth feeling ten feet tall. It was the very first time in my twenty-eight years that I felt truly exhilarated after "confession." I couldn't wait to tell my cousin, and we skipped mass for a long hike to chat. In the course of a few minutes, I felt like I had finally become an adult in spiritual practice. Years of anxiety lifted. I had come to a place of true revelation, however back-asswards I had gotten to it. I understood with crystalline clarity that I alone was responsible for my own actions, whatever anyone thought of them. And in my willingness to take responsibility for myself, I found real freedom. I was not a victim: not of my own faults, nor my personal history, nor the church's teachings, nor my achy body. I did not need the kind of "forgiveness" withheld moments before. I did not need approval or disapproval from outside of my own responsible self. I marveled over how it took the little brown priest's admonishments to realize I could be so free...
(Excerpt from Reconceiving My Body, 2000, Gil Hedley)