I hadn’t consciously intended our whirlwind family vacation to become a spiritual pilgrimage. The pilgrimage idea has always seemed a bit forced to me. On our three-city tour of Rome, Cairo and Athens, one would expect ancient archaeological wonders so staggering they’d surely be infused with the spirits of long-dead emperors, popes, pharaohs, martyrs, artists, warriors and poets. I have visited old places before and sensed the history, the energy, the lives that went before. Usually it’s when I least expect it; a wave of perception and emotion crashes into me when I’m silently studying something. It’s palpable and unmistakable. Some attribute this to a spiritual experience, a vibe, an energy force, but possibly it’s jet lag. So the weight of expectation attached to the places we were visiting had me skeptical–what if I got inside the Great Pyramid and felt only mild claustrophobia and a need to swig my water bottle? What if St. Peter’s Basilica stirred up nothing inside of me? What if the Parthenon blurred into a tangle of columns, scaffolds and Greek subtext?
Rome, our first stop, included a three-hour ‘skip-the-line’ tour of the Vatican and our guide, Katrina, knew her stuff. She filled in the massive chunks of my missing history education in a way that felt neither plodding or didactic. She punctuated insider info on Michelangelo with factoids about Rome’s 13 obelisks that were pilfered from Egypt in Roman times then Christianized with crosses atop their peaks by one of the early popes. They stand today throughout the city’s piazas as magnificent kitsch, evidence of ego, imagination, the conquering warrior and his greedy zeal for what would be his, no matter what. I experienced ‘the vibe’ throughout the Vatican, marveled at the frescoes, the gold, the sheer enormity of artistry and brilliance; I imagined myself before audacious and highly flawed generations of leaders who were motivated by forces both good and evil. But I couldn’t hear God. It wasn’t that kind of vibe. Maybe the noise of the crowds was drowning out His voice.
Pilgrims were there, to be sure. I saw people drop to their knees and close their eyes in prayer. I also saw a German couple groping and mugging by the confessional until a Vatican policeman hissed them away. The reverent tourists lighted candles and I could almost feel the pleas and words of gratitude floating above the Pieta and making their way towards heaven. But where were my prayers?
The concept of going on a geographical hunt for God without a decent historical background makes no sense to me. Without context, you’re just as likely to encounter God at the park three blocks from your house as you are at the Vatican. I will never have a respectable understanding of history, place and culture. It’s possible I might one day win the lottery and be relieved of that pesky need to make money. If so, I could potentially cram years of pent-up reading into my brain and become one of those weird old people who dispenses historical nuggets at parties. Failing that, I am largely part of the unwashed masses and will likely stay that way. I am the person who feels God’s presence at the park and then doesn’t when I really wish I would. And I am the person in the Vatican who was thinking more about where I might find some version of an iced-coffee than where I might find God.
The day before we left for Egypt, I flipped to a page in our Rome guide book and read about the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem). It wasn’t on our check-list (a serious bucket-list created by my husband and son), but the more I read, the more I was compelled to visit the church. Though the guide book used the term “overlooked” to describe the destination, it was nearby the better-known San Giovanni, which was on our list. And so I hiked my family to the “overlooked” basilica after we’d paid our respects to St. Peter and St. Paul at the San Giovanni.
The church is said to contain the most extraordinary relics from the Holy Land: a fragment of the Good Thief’s cross, a reliquary containing small pieces of the scourging pillar, Christ’s tomb and the crib of Jesus, two thorns from the crown of thorns forced upon Jesus’ head, one nail used in the crucifixion, three shards of wood from the true cross, a bone from the index finger of the doubting Thomas, and finally, the Title of the Cross, discovered in the church in 1492, which has the word “Nazarene” written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.
As we arrived at the basilica, we had to weave past a wedding party that had just arrived. We went through the church into the adjacent Chapel of St. Helen and then finally, upstairs to the Chapel of the Holy Relics. For a few minutes we were alone and I walked carefully, reverently, not thinking of iced-coffee, to the glass case that held the relics, the physical evidence of Jesus’ most defining act in the life of Christians. I got up close to the glass, but not as close as I wanted, as there were two stanchions hinged together by a thick, red velvet rope that kept me about three-feet away. Because some of the relics were small, I couldn’t get the up-close-and-personal look I suddenly craved. I leaned forward and just then a woman came in behind me. She looked at the glass case and softly gasped. Without hesitation, she lifted up the velvet rope, ducked beneath it and fell to her knees. She held her hand flat on the glass and looked back at me, wide-eyed with awe; for a second I thought she might cry.
And then I heard Him: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” It’s impossible to know for sure about the authenticity of the relics at Santa Croce, although history supports the possibility that several are the real thing. But in the most important way, it doesn’t matter because people who come there, come seeking Jesus and they find him. They find him, not bound by glass or held behind a velvet rope, but alive in their hearts.