Not long ago, my team had a crazy idea. As if seminary life in Rome wasn’t crazy enough, we decided to throw in a little more adventure and pull an all-nighter, making a pilgrimage through the streets of Rome from midnight until five in the morning. That night I had one of those experiences where Heaven seemed so close and yet remained just beyond my fingertips, out of reach. I was forced to ask myself, “Why couldn’t it last just a little longer? Why couldn’t I get just a little closer?”
Eternal. Transcendent. These words always resonate and vibrate within us. As human beings, we want to touch the heavens, even for just a second. It’s built into us; part of who we are. There are times in our lives (in one degree or another) when the veil between the spiritual and physical world is pulled away for a moment. We feel that mixture of peace and fear in the face of the mysterious power of God. We feel like we can breathe God’s presence in and out of our souls. We rest in him for a minute, and then, just when we feel like something big might happen, the veil falls back down. We’re left alone. Why? Why does the veil fall? We were almost there…
So here’s the story:
As all the other brothers stumbled to their rooms for the night, nine of us quietly prepared for the adventure. We entered the kitchen, stuffed our backpacks with snacks and then went outside, heading for the stazione to catch the 10:47 train. Our mission was to reach Circus Maximus by midnight.
On arrival, we expected to find around forty people for the procession, so we were shocked when we came upon a crowd of hundreds of Italian pilgrims, each face glowing in red and yellow candlelight. Soon we found ourselves walking and praying with them, part of the swarm, the flock. It was a five-hour trek from Circus Maximus to the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love, a good 12-mile hike.
The initial excitement at staying up late with a group of friends kept me awake at first, but after a few hours of walking in the dark, getting rained on, and doing nothing but praying the Rosary in Italian, my eyelids started getting heavy, and to be honest, I was kind of getting tired of the whole ordeal. Thanks be to God I had my team of brothers to shake me awake before I tipped over, and the occasional eruption of “Ave mamma tutta bella sei” (my team’s new favorite Marian hymn) boosted our spirits as the midnight-run continued.
Often our spiritual journey follows the same pattern. We start off strong, but little by little we return to our former, selfish way of seeing life. We think only of our tiredness, the darkness or the monotony of life, becoming dependent on occasional bursts of excitement or novelty to keep us going. We don’t see the realm behind the veil.
Around four o’clock in the morning, we decided to start our hour of mental prayer. I began trying to ignore the rosaries, litanies and hymns, wondering whether it was really possible to enter into deep mental prayer in those conditions. I was tired and surrounded by people. Speakers blared Italian prayers and songs at full volume. Despite all this, I felt the veil begin to lift away slowly. I guess it just goes to prove once again that real prayer doesn’t depend on us or on external circumstances. Real prayer is always God’s initiative.
I began to see all the people around me in a new way. Their red and yellow candles cast shadows and warm beams of light across their faces, coats, hoods and backpacks. As I walked, life seemed to move in slow motion. Dark red and yellow figures glided alongside me. Like souls on a journey. Like saints accompanying me. Like souls I would be called to lead as an apostle. The veil was lifted and I felt like I was standing in the middle of something profound and meaningful. The cold, moist morning air was electric with power and life.
Looking forward, I saw a person in front of me who reminded me of someone I had once known. Someone who had passed away years ago. Her red candle flickered in front of her, just past her black coat and dark hair. As we moved along, the form of the young woman drifted back to my right. Soon she walked next to me, almost shoulder to shoulder. I didn’t dare look over. I was content to walk with my eyes forward, entertaining the sentiment in my heart that my friend was really walking with me, at least spiritually. I still think she was.
Right when it started to feel real, the explosive sound of our new favorite hymn shattered the contemplation. “Ave mamma tutta bella sei!” I was shaken out of my trance and glanced involuntarily at the mysterious person to my right. Turns out she was a little old Italian lady, still a beautiful soul, I’m sure, but not what I expected.
The veil had fallen. I was jolted back to the dark, cold, and wet reality of the night pilgrimage. One of the brothers turned to me, gripping me by the shoulder. “Everything alright?” he asked in Spanish. “You look pretty dead.” I blinked a few times. “Yeah. Fine,” I finally told him. He laughed softly and we kept going, arriving soon to the Shrine where we would have mass.
We got back to the college at seven in the morning and crashed until noon. Nothing special happened for the rest of the day. I was back in the status quo. The veil was as impenetrable as ever. I asked myself why God would let us feel his presence and touch those we have missed for so long just to have them taken away again. Why did the veil have to fall? Why is there a veil at all?
I found an answer in the writings of Saint Augustine. In his Tractates on the First Letter of St. John, he presents the analogy that our hearts are like a burlap sack or a wineskin. If we want to fit more in our sack than does right now, what do we have to do? We have to stretch it. When you pull it, stretch it or break it in, it becomes capable of receiving more. As we wait for union with God and those who have gone before us, we stretch and become better disposed to receive them. God shows his face one moment so that we might have a glimpse of what to long for. Then he turns away the next moment so that we can be stretched, so we can practice this longing. And learning to long for the things of God is called Hope.
The falling veil teaches us to long, to yearn, to pine. It teaches us how God and the Saints long for us to join them. It makes the reunion all the more meaningful when we finally finish this pilgrimage and arrive to our ultimate destination, or final home.
So for now we hope, we stretch, we long, until one day… we’re invited beyond the veil.