Almost to Rome
(This post is from the evening of November 24th)
As was true of my pilgrimage to Assisi, the last stretches of walking on the Via Francigena to Rome became more difficult than previous days on the trail had been. Today’s hike of 24 km should not have been particularly onerous, yet the last few hours of walking were difficult to bear. Maybe it’s something about knowing that the end of the journey is near; subconsciously, you realize that there’s not much more walking to do, and somehow this is reflected by the pain in your shoulders and feet. Your body knows that it doesn’t have to endure much more, so all the pain it’s been suppressing begins to well up and make itself known. At least today I didn’t have to deal with getting lost at any point.
Today’s path as indicated by the Via Francigena signs differed a bit from what was in my guidebook. My book instructs walkers to pass through the outskirts of the small town of Formello, about one third of the way through the day’s itinerary. The signs that I was following instead direct you right through the center of the hilltop town, and onto what seems like a newly created VF footpath on the other side. Not only are the signs generally easier to follow than the sometimes-vague instructions in the book, but the paths in takes you on are much more pleasant than the roads that the book suggests. In this case, I’m fairly certain that the path I took was new, and probably opened after the book was published. I’m glad that I followed it, though, because it gave me the chance to walk through the pleasant town of Formello—yet another medieval hilltop settlement—before walking on nice, wooded paths until La Storta.
Throughout the day’s journey, as I was reflecting upon my time in Italy and the impending completion of my pilgrimage, I thought back to something the nun at the convent in Vetralla said to me the morning of my departure—“When you get to Rome, remember us.” At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but recalling her request now, in light of my nearly-completed journey, gave me pause to consider the privileges associated with pilgrimage. When you’re walking for days on end, getting lost and putting your body and sometimes your sanity to the test, it is often difficult to think of your time on pilgrimage as a blessing rather than a curse. Upon close reflection, however, you realize that undertaking a pilgrimage of any sort really constitutes a tremendous privilege, and one that not everyone has the opportunity to experience for himself.
First of all, the technical aspects of participation in a pilgrimage must be considered. The physical requirements necessitated by each journey immediately rule out the old and infirm who are literally unable to walk or carry packs long distances. Beyond that, very few people are able to uproot themselves from their lives—homes, families, jobs—for the amount of time most pilgrimages require. Once begun, complete and immediate separation from the world as we know it can be difficult initially, but, after time, it affords the opportunity to reflect on what is important, and on where we want to focus—or refocus—our attentions. Beyond the obvious religious significance of pilgrimage—which I believe the nun was referring to when she asked me to remember the members of her convent upon my arrival in Rome—pilgrimage allows for a great deal of spiritual reflection that may not be present ordinarily in our lives. Whether that guiding, “still, small voice” comes from God, yourself, or somewhere else, it is difficult to deny that the long silences of pilgrimage help to discern, distinguish, and distill its message. Being stuck, alone, in the middle of nowhere in a strange land, is the best place for this sort of contemplation. For big parts of each day on pilgrimage, there is nature, there is you, and, if you believe in such, there is a spirit—nothing more.
As I arrived in La Storta, sore and tired, I began to get the same sort of empty feeling I had upon the completion of my pilgrimage to Assisi. As I remembered the nun’s words, however, I realized that I would be taking thoughts of her and her convent, and of all of my other hosts, to Rome. I’m sure these people must have been to Rome before, so it’s not as if they really needed me to inform the Holy City of their existence. Nevertheless, as a pilgrim who traveled through Italy on foot to reach Rome—and as someone who benefitted from their help and hospitality along the way—I would serve as evidence of their good works and deeds.