Our pilgrimage vacation took us to one of my favorite places on earth: the ancient Abbey Church of San Antimo in Tuscany (illustrating this post) above the church is the little hilltop village of Castlenuovo dell Abate where there is a simple guest house where you can book a room. The church is right on the ancient Via Francigena–the pilgrimage route that goes from Canterbury to Rome.
We stayed there overnight and the boys hiked the Via Francigena to Montalcino–a perfect Tuscan town perched on a hillside overlooking the venerable countryside. I drove to meet them there and had a peaceful morning watching the world go by. We then went North and stopped at Siena. The palio is this week and the place was heaving. We saw crowds of the Sienese marching through the streets chanting for their team and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t plan ahead further and take the boys to see the race.
We left Siena and headed to Capitignano–a wonderful retreat in Northern Tuscany near Borgo San Lorenzo. I tweeted earlier in the week that in Italy you get the feeling that “everything has been here for a long time.” That is the great benefit of traveling here. For example, up above our present location there is an old monastery built on the site of the martyrdom of St Cresci--a healer and evangelist to this area in the third century. Seeing the famous cities, cathedrals and artwork is part of the experience, but the sense of history and rootedness is the real thing.
This affects me more and more in our fast changing, ever shifting modern world. The sense of imminent chaos reigns. As the poets have said, “The center cannot hold.” and “This world is all a leak and life preservers there are none.”
So this morning I walked up over the hill to the church of San Cresci. It was early so the church was locked, but as I walked it seemed again to me that not only is the modern world adrift with everything changing ever more rapidly, but also there seemed to me that combined with this fast-paced change is how totally illusory is the modern world. Everything is artificial, processed and packaged. We all have our noses stuck into a screen. The media drives false narratives constantly. We lie to ourselves and to others constantly. We expend huge amounts of time and effort to create artificial realities for ourselves.
We lack authenticity.
Then I think of how we use religion to do the same. We create for ourselves little religious enclaves–theological and ecclesiological enclaves where we indulge in religious fantasy games. We create a fake little religious community where we all go around being hyper pious or we attempt to create some sort of liturgical Baroque fantasyland where we repeat the mantra lex credendi lex orandi to ourselves all the time believing that a certain antique liturgical style will, of itself, cure all the world’s problems. Or we create for ourselves a religious ideology where activism and advocacy replace religion as our own self created fantasy bubble.
Then in this analysis the cruel and kind Holy Spirit showed me how much of my own life is similarly a retreat from reality. I saw how much I too have been a fugitive from reality for humankind cannot bear very much reality.
Where, then is the reality to be found? The problem is, the reality is greater, more expansive, more overwhelmingly huge than we can properly comprehend. The reality is God himself and his whole cosmos, his whole eternal plan, his whole overarching will for the whole of his creation. It is everything, and the more we begin to comprehend the magnitude and scale of this reality the more illusory, shifting and deceptive seems all the mundane matters of the world–but this too is wrong for it is in the mundane that the eternal is worked out.
So how does one wrestle with this reality? By concentrating on the points in the day when the reality comes into focus. What are they? Where do we connect? Where do we abide in the things that last forever rather than the passing things of this world?
First, in our worship. Lex credendi, Lex orandi is actually true. In our worship we enter the timeless zone. We come to the foot of the cross which is reality itself. Then in the Divine Office we have a connecting point. There we have connection with . reality.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we connect with eternity in other people. What is the only thing in your life that will live eternally? Other people. In our care, compassion, family and friendships we connect with reality.
What I am referring to is a kind of practical mysticism. We view this passing world with the honor that is its due. We view the fleeting illusions of the fast paced life with unconcern. They are passing. But we view the eternal through the fixed points of prayer, worship and love of our family and friends.
These things abide. These are the focii of reality. These are the points of light. These are the connecting points with eternity.