I was received warmly by the nuns in a place called La Storta, which seems only to be a cluster of apartment buildings, bars, and shops around an extremely traffic-choked thoroughfare called Via Cassia. Then, in the morning, I followed the grime and the garbage and the on-again-off-again sidewalk into the heart of Rome. The last day of any pilgrimage to Rome is notoriously one of the worst days as far as walking goes. I suspect it’s always been like this, not only because of the density of traffic, but because the 19 kilometres or so from La Storta to the Vatican are the jagged transition from one “life” into another. The significance of this (if there is one) is not totally clear: but clearly the walls that I built around myself as a pilgrim (including the facade of having an intention, or the faith in a rare something at the end of the road) are gone. So it’s being with others again. I can feel the absence of something; without skin before a mirror; the human-sized sadness rubbing against you again.
I’ve heard stories of people crying when they climb the pass into Switzerland, and then I’ve heard stories of people weeping and shouting when they finally arrive in the tourist smog in St.Peter’s square. I didn’t do either of these things, and actually the whole day felt over before it had begun.
Like with many wonderful things, the faint glow before it actually appears is where all the intensity is. Sunrises are beautiful, while the sun at noon makes you dizzy and tired.
I received my Testimonium from a woman working in an office by the basilica, a polite and unmemorable moment, and then I folded it up and walked out into the city with nowhere in particular place to go.
There is a convent here that accept pilgrims – as far as I know it is the only religious institution in Rome that will accept pilgrims unconditionally and asking only a donation. There is a lovely garden, a walled cloister that nearly muffles the noise of the enormous city, and the women here provide an excellent dinner with three courses and three kinds of wine. I think it’s the perfect ending, fitting, to be received by such generous arms.
And they washed our feet. They told us it was recommended regardless of your beliefs and persuasions. One of the nuns poured warm water from a jug and then dried the right foot with a rag and kissed it, before wishing us blessedness and courage for the remainder of our journeys in life. And then we all walked off.
There were a surprising number of people here, actually. Aside from the handful of people I met days ago in another town, and some people who have become friends, there is a large group of people I’ve never seen who arrived on bikes and will leave by bike as soon as they’re all awake.
Still, amongst it all – the anonymity of the cyclists, the friends who although I like I always felt separate from, and the great city that I have very little desire to explore – I am very alone, just as alone as I was for a couple days in London when I flew there however long ago.
I suppose it is time to take stock of it all, or what I can. Last night in La Storta some young pilgrims had a kind of discussion about the nature of happiness. It seems a natural way to end a walk after there was so much time to reflect on things. Later someone asked me about things I’ve learned from all the walking. But in either case – the nature of happiness, life lessons – I’m drawing a blank. I don’t think I learned anything new as much as I felt more intensely things that I already knew. Anyway, they are always worth repeating: when in dire straights, something or someone always, always came by to help me and the fellow pilgrims. And in easy moments, a brief smile or a gesture can change everything.
Otherwise, it’s not really the case that my faith in humanity is renewed or that I will return home (or wherever) with a revolutionized mind or that I am more optimistic.
And maybe it is sad to read this? But no – I remember it was all a joy. Not fun, but a joy in the sense that I was and am alive and happy to be alive, not in spite of but because of the complexity of the world, the labour, and the pain in my feet now that they have time to remember their real shape. It was often a challenge. Sometimes an extreme challenge, physically and later mentally.
I expected (or am expecting) a kind of release, or a kind of snap. Maybe this will come later – but for now it’s all just a heavy blanket that fell on me and will probably be there for awhile. I must be more alone than ever, in Rome. A loud part of me says to go home, but a reasonable part of me reminds me that I really have no real reason to. And there is a minuscule kind of courage that means everything, and it’s simply the will to hold your head coolly in the world when it all looks like an desert.
A short minute in quiet would be nice, but the convent makes people leave during the day, and from tomorrow on we all have to leave for good and then I’m just a regular person again – that to me is scary, although if you read the rest of the blog it is probably clear why.
I have a ticket to Pavia in a couple days to recollect my camping gear, and then I’ll have to find away back into the French Alps. That’s the short-term plan. In the long-term, who knows.
For now, maybe I’ll make myself look proper, find a fountain, and go people-watching, all those lives moving by.
I may make another post later on, when I’ve had more time to reflect on the walk. For now it felt right to write what feels fresh. But if another post doesn’t come, then I’ll say I’m extremely honoured to have had so many great people reading this and sending me supportive messages along the way. At times I feel I may have laid my mind bare, but writing is a kind of song and dance in its own way. But it was a pleasure to sing and dance for you all.