Drama As An Everyday Art Form

Almost everything in Italy, even mundane daily transactions, falls into the category of drama. Overheard street conversations, people ordering coffee in a sidewalk cafe, overheard one-sided cell-phone conversations, that one seems inevitably exposed to everywhere these days, and all of this and more seem like something urgent, even a matter of life-and-death that hangs in the balance. Perhaps this should not be too surprising. After all, much dramatic opera finds its roots in the Italian culture. High drama.

I would certainly say that about the three days that are the culmination of the celebration of St. Nicholas in Bari. The official program lists four separate fireworks displays - two during the day. Go figure. There was an airshow by the Italian Air Force right before we had Evening Prayer one day. The way the heart of Old Town Bari is illuminated with millions of lights is stunning. There were several processions.

We attended the mass that is the pinnacle point of the entire celebration. Peter Sills was in that service and said there were at least fifty priests involved in the service. There was an orchestra, choir with soprano soloist, children's choir and more. Thousands of people were in the standing-room only crowd inside the cathedral. Plus, there was a huge screen outside where the proceedings going on inside were displayed to the huge overflow crowd standing in the courtyard in front of the Basilica. The elements were served to any who wished to go forward.

After one fireworks display we walked into the heart of the Old Town Bari where a shrine had been installed with the likeness of the statue of St. Nicholas. The crowd was as intense as anything I've experienced. I would liken this entire celebration to a combination of New Year's Eve in Time's Square and the big parade at Mardi Gras.

Most religions involve a lot of dramatic rituals. Certainly that is true of the Catholic/Orthodox side of Christianity. Worship services are high dramas. Art and ritual are frequently used. One of the sad side effects of the Reformation was that the Protestants felt the need to abandon, even destroy, much of the art and discontinue most of the rituals. This is why in many European churches, particularly those found in Great Britain, the faces of statues have been hacked away. Priceless art destroyed in the name of religious correctness.

An aside: I had anticipated more time on this pilgrimage to contribute to this blog. We now leave Bari and head back to Rome before returning to Houston. Perhaps these travels will offer me more time for reflections that I can share with you. Again, my HUGE "thanks" to Wayne Herbert for doing the work to put together text and photos to make this work.

Our lives are constructed of rituals. Many of them mindless, like frequently checking our devices for messages. Employing ritual into our lives to remind us of our true identity, why we are here and who our brothers and sisters are can only enrich our lives.

The Evolution of a Saint

I said in my last post that Coca Cola created the modern image we have of Santa Claus. Though that may be somewhat factually true, the image of Santa Claus developed over time. Perhaps Thomas Nast was the first, as far as we know, to illustrate what evolved into the image that most people carry today. (If you want to read the whole story enter "Did Coca Cola Invent Santa Claus" into your browser and read the Snopes article. It really is most interesting.)

We have completed the first full day, actually as I write this a bit more, of our time in Bari, which is the place where there is the most concentrated focus on St. Nicholas. This is where, in the Basilica of St. Nicolas, most of the bones of Nicolas are interred. The rest are in Venice.

Nicolas was one of the very early Christian leaders and by the time of his death he had gained quite a following. At the time of his death he was buried, as was the manner at the time, inside the church in Myra located in what is now Turkey. He was a major player in the controversy that would eventually divide the church, in the 11th century, between Orthodox and Catholic. The term "Roman Catholic" simply refers to the fact that the faction, among those who did not become Orthodox, in Rome had more wealth and power. So Rome became the seat of religious power.

By the 11th century the Muslims had overtaken Myra. The back-and-forth battle for territory between, mostly, Muslim and Christians had gone on since the rise of Islam. You can, if you are interested, read about this fascinating and disturbing history in Karen Armstrong's book, "The Battle for God." (This book is required for religious literacy.)

In the 11th century the bishop of Bari claimed to have had a vision in which Nicolas appeared to him and informed him that he wanted his shrine relocated in Bari. Whether one believes that God would, or one of God's "saints" would, actively encourage "grave robbing," or, whether this was a move that would financially enrich the the area of Bari, which it did, or, whether one believes, as is more likely, that the group of those who were devoted to the growing memory of St. Nicholas, resulted in the moving the bones of Nicholas to Bari, is a matter of personal choice. Regardless, there has continued over the ages an increasing population of those for whom St. Nicholas has become their primary and patron saint.

Here, in Bari, the celebration honoring St. Nicholas begins, according to the official printed program, on Tuesday May 2nd and ends Friday May 26th. The most intense celebrations have been since we arrived here.

We saw on the first full day here, a reenactment of the Baria sailors going to Myra and taking the bones of St. Nicholas. This is something that actually happened. The sailors from Bari had to overcome what security there was at the site and in their rush to get away, left some of the remains. These, as I have indicated, ended up in Venice. This event was and has been an occasion for much joy and celebration in Bari. Those who lived in Myra experienced this as a major loss.

In the reenactment, the relics are brought back in a boat. As a part of this celebration, children reenact in dramatic fashion the event. When the box containing the relics is brought on shore, a huge procession goes from the harbor to a place on the edge of "old town" Bari. The cathedral that would eventually contain the relics took a hundred years to build. When it was finished, the relics were moved there.

The next day, there are masses said all day long. We thought we were attending one that was supposed to be in English but it wasn't. No matter. The service we attended was lively - lots of young people, a priest who gave the sermon walking about, the Eucharist open to all, the singing enthusiastic and the people around us warmly welcoming.

That night we went to see the HUGE parade that celebrates the icon of St. Nicholas coming into the city. This was the event "not-to-be-missed." We were lucky in that all we had to do was go from our hotel a half a block to the main parade route. The procession was to supposed to begin at 8:30. It was over forty minutes late.

As we were waiting Peter told a joke that, though I had heard before, I hadn't thought of in ages. It is:

In heaven the police are British, the chefs are Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and everything is organized by the Swiss.

In hell the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and everything is organized by the Italians.

I don't think I have ever seen a procession or parade quite like it. (The three photos posted are thanks to Sharon and Pam Rowe. On the third one, if you look carefully in the bottom right hand corner, you'll see Peter, Helen, Sherry and me.)

There were hundreds of people and "floats" in the parade - including magnificent preforming horses, two different assemblies of hundreds of helium balloons from which were suspended acrobats. Occasionally those holding the guide ropes would pull their cargo to the ground and then release them. There were two different huge brigades of drummers playing so loudly you could feel the vibration in your body. We had "front row seats." It was magnificent.

We attended more events the next day. I'll post about that later.

If I had to say what differentiates this pilgrimage from the two others we have been on with Peter, I would say that it has been the focus of the pilgrimage. The other two pilgrimages we have been on focused on places - churches, cathedrals, basilicas and other "sacred" sites. This one has focused on a person - Nicholas.

Once again, I am left feeling a complexity of emotions and thoughts about this person, Nicholas. I did not have more than a superficial knowledge of him before this pilgrimage. Likely, I have now only a smattering more. I feel outside the religious culture that nourishes the beliefs and behaviors we have been exposed to the last many days. I confess to a bit of envy about some of the genuine devotion I have seen. Of course, there are many people - the crowds here number into the thousands - who likely are here only for the holiday experiences. But beneath it all is a real person who evolved, however remembered, into St. Nicholas.

If it is the nature of Sacred Mystery to evolve, which I believe it is, I am on this pilgrimage invited to wonder if I too am consciously, deliberately participating in this "evolution." I invite you into that wonderment as well.

Destination Just Begun

We have reached Bari where the Feast of St. Nicholas begins tomorrow and goes on for three days. We will be here for seven days participating in the festivities and making several day trips out of Bari to explore other shrines and sites.

I thought I was fairly well acquainted with St. Nicholas. I had no idea. Comparatively speaking, none whatsoever!

St. Nicholas icons, statues, frescoes and churches of all sorts dedicated to his name are all over Italy. Especially Southern Italy and the places we have been visiting for the past week.

The tradition of Santa Claus was begun by French nuns who wanted to emulate the charitable behavior of St. Nicholas. Many stories exist extolling his good works. Perhaps they are legends or myths. However, such stories don't develop from nothing.

Just to complete part of this portrait: the Santa Claus we know in the red suit trimmed with white fur is an advertising by Coke Cola created in the 1930s.

I was glad to reach Bari not only because this is the site where St. Nicholas found his final resting place, at least his bones did, early in the 11th century and, so, this would be our destination; but also because we would be here for seven nights. Long enough not to be living out of a suitcase!

After a meal, compline, and a good night's sleep, we had breakfast and were met by our guide. She is one we had in Ostuni several days ago. We were glad to have her for today as she is extremely knowledgeable and engaging. Bari is where she was born and lives. She has a great love for this place.

We walked to the Cathedral of San Sabino. In this place our guide pointed to some frescoes saying, "They are not very old. Are are only from the 12th century." She takes us down into the crypt which she informs us is old. It was built on the remains of a sixth century church.

Many of the places we have been have well preserved archeological sites under the cathedrals.

After this we go to the Basilica of St. Nicholas. This is where the relics are kept. Scholars say there is little doubt that the relics here are the actual bones of St. Nicholas. They were quickly taken in a raid on the town of Myra in what is now Turkey. Those who took the bones did not get them all. The rest now reside in a church in Venice. (There is stiff competition between the two cities.) Not long ago the resting places both in Bari and Vince underwent renovation and scientists had an opportunity to take DNA samples from both sites. The bones are from the same person.

I must say that the site was impressive. One of the first things that caught my eye were two little boys kneeling in prayer before the altar. Another was of an Orthodox priest who kept quietly intoning prayers at one end of the altar space. Later I saw that the prayer book from which he was reading was on his device.

While we were in the crypt, Peter led us in a brief service as this was our destination. However, he was quick to point out that having arrived, we had just begun. Peter had written a Canticle of Praise, Helen wrote the music for it, that we sang together there. The first verse is:

"O Nicholas, man greatly beloved;

We rejoice with you in the presence of God."

After this, with many opportunities over the next few days to return here, four of us - Sherry, Pam, Sharon and I - went to lunch at a nearby restaurant. I had there perhaps the best pasta with "bacon" dish I have ever tasted!

I have longed several times on this pilgrimage to be able to have a conversation with a theologian or spiritual teacher with my same orientation but who was born here and has lived with the ethos of this culture for her or his entire life. How would this person understand spiritual, relational and psychological growth? My hunch is that this culture is something that facilitates growth in both non-dual mind and in mysticism.

More about this in the next post.

Saints and Relics

When Sister Dr. Ilia Delio spoke at St. Paul's last year, she ended her Saturday session with a question and answer session. She is a scientist as well as a theologian, specializing in the Jesuit priest, Teihard de Chardin.

She was asked, in light of her teaching that no energy is ever either gained or lost, whether after, death people would be able to recognize their loved ones who had also died. Her response was an immediate affirmative. I was surprised since we recognize each other using the ego and the ego does not survive physical death.

I asked a friend and colleague who is a Catholic nun about this and she said, "Oh yes. It is part of our tradition to pray to saints who have died but who are still with us."

On this St. Nicholas Pilgrimage I am coming to understand this truth better. I knew, of course, some of Jesus' disciples were referred to as "Saints" - St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Matthew, etc. Well before the fourth century, however, numerous men and women were referred to as "Saints."

Peter Sills, our leader on this pilgrimage has been reading to us as we have made our way from Lecce, Italy to Bari, some of the multitude of stories about the Bishop of Myra, who came to be known as St. Nicholas. Nicholas was an historical figure, much beloved by those who knew him.

After the death of someone like Nicholas, who had proven to be such a leader and protector of the people in his care, there grew up a desire to keep items around to remind those people of him. They had no photographs, of course. They did have icons that artists had made of such people, usually frescos on church walls. They also collected items associated with this person, including bones. We have been in two cities where the earliest churches had such frescoes, some of these frescoes you can still see. We have also seen, usually in bigger churches and cathedrals, containers in which items, including bones, are kept. These containers are known as reliquaries.

The most ancient churches we have seen are called cave churches, as they are not architecturally built up but, rather, are hewn out of the solid rock of a cliff.

Just as many of us keep photographs of deceased loved ones or special items that belonged to them, people from the era we are visiting - anywhere from the 2nd to 11th centuries - kept things that reminded them of their loved ones, especially those who had been vehicles for love and compassion, perhaps even healing.

People have asked if on these pilgrimages we walk. The answer is "no" and "yes." We usually stay in a town like Lecce, Castellana Grotte or Matera - the places where we have stayed so far on our way to Bari, where the festival of St. Nicholas will be held - and make day trips out from these places. We easily walk three or more miles a day in visiting the various sites and churches that are on our itinerary.

Today we spent the entire day walking the ancient city of Matera. What is called "the old city" is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world - we were told. People have been living here continually for 7,000 years. Consequently we have seen some places where Christians worshipped as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries. That there are any frescoes left on the walls of these ancient places of worship is amazing. One of these ancient sites was, in addition to being a church, also a winery. That would be a way to build church attendance!

As these days have passed, and we have a week to go, friendships have developed among those on the pilgrimage. It is impossible to eat two meals a day and worship at least once a day with the same people without bonds of affection and appreciation developing.

Late today in Matera, we entered a 14th century church, the Church of St. John the Baptist, and had Evening Prayer. Peter is very careful and intentional about keeping us mindful that this religious pilgrimage is a metaphor for our spiritual walk. Tonight after dinner we all said Compline together.

I think of the people who have shaped my life, many of whom are now deceased. They are still alive in my memory and in their influence. This is a personification, not a literalization. St. Nicholas will have a dramatically different meaning to and for me after this pilgrimage. Indeed, he already has.

Realizing Sacredness

The first pilgrimages of the modern era, that is to say around the 9th or 10th century, were undertaken in an effort to seek some sort of healing - physical or spiritual. Sacred destinations, like Mecca or Jerusalem, and sacred personages, like St. James, Buddha or, in the case of this pilgrimage, St. Nicholas, were thought to possess miraculous powers.

Regardless of the tradition one was immersed in there were "special" places and "special" people that attracted the faithful. In earlier eras, undertaking a pilgrimage was a significant undertaking indeed. Not like today, with the relative ease of transportation that we have.

I remember hearing one of my favorite poets, Wendall Berry, say in an interview, "All the earth is sacred, it is just that we humans have desecrated some of it."

Much of that desecration has been, sadly, done in the name of religion and by people who thought themselves to be doing the utmost "religious" good. No one religion has a franchise on violence. It is just sad that the history of religion and the history of violence are more often than not the same history.

Life is a journey and the deliberately chosen pilgrimage, or any spiritual intention we consciously choose and attempt to follow, is a metaphor for this life journey. On the journey of life there is inevitable difficulty. Somehow we often seem to make our journey more difficult than it need be. In Buddhism the word for "suffering" comes from a word that means "having a bad axle on a cart." In other words, was your journey a rough or a smooth one?

All of these thoughts about sacredness, violence, suffering - and more! - fell into place when I was standing in a huge side altar in the church of St. Pietro. We had come to the fishing village of Otranto. As we walked up from the harbor toward the town, we saw a boat on display. It was one that had been used by Albanian "boat people" in their effort to escape their country. The plaque honoring those who died in trying to cross the sea into Italy referred to this as a modern day "holocaust." It should be noted that those fleeing from Albania at this time - the late 80's and early 90's - were seeking survival from severe economic deprivation.

In earlier times, Muslims invaded this area, one of the reasons that Nicholas' relics now reside in Italy rather than Turkey, and offered the Christians they encountered the same choice the Spanish Inquisition offered to Jews and Muslims - convert, leave or die. In Spain the death toll was, according to Karen Armstrong, into the millions. Here much less. In this town, over 850 in one day.

After time had passed and the natives had defended this place, the church decided to do a unique thing - at least I've never seen this before. They put the skulls and bones of the victims into the walls of a chapel in one of the transepts for all to see. It is a sobering sight.

People intent on following a disciplined path of peace, love and joy don't kill their brothers and sisters. Though there is a destination on the physical journey we are all on - to be reduced to dust and ashes - the spiritual journey is a complex contradiction, a puzzling paradox: we are already where we seek to be. The task is to realize this.

We don't achieve sacredness. We realize it - in ourselves and in others.

Traveling With Intention

The St. Nicholas Pilgrimage formally began Wednesday, April 26. All of 37 of us on this journey had gathered at the hotel where we are staying in Lecce, Italy. We had a welcome reception and it was good to see again others we had travelled with before. Peter Sills thinks he has led at least 27 such pilgrimages, he's lost count of the actual number - each to a different place. Two people have travelled on 11 of these pilgrimages. Four of our group have done three with Peter.

At this reception Peter said something about each person. Six are from the States, four from Australia and the rest from Britain. After the reception, we shared a meal together. We are encouraged to eat with a different person(s) at each meal. Likely when the custom of pilgrimages began, people did share food together. Then, more likely out of survival needs. Now more out of community building.

When we think of things that are old, from the perspective of living in the States, somewhere between two and three hundred years seems old. Nicholas, a bishop in the church in what we now know as Turkey, was one of the people who signed the Nicene Creed early in the Fourth Century.

Lecce is a city that traces its roots back to early in the Roman era - if not before. Rather than write that information here, I am putting four pictures - one of the ancient Roman Coliseum-like ruin that stands exposed in the central plaza of the city, one showing the coat of arms of the city, and two explaining the origin and significance of this coat of arms.

Lecce, like the other ancient cities we will visit, is full of narrow winding streets that were laid out centuries ago. It is said that the first bishop of Lecce was appointed by St. Paul in the year 57. The city if full of churches, several of which we visited.

As I wrote in an earlier post, there is a difference between traveling as a tourist and traveling as a pilgrim. To travel as a pilgrim is, among other, things, to use a figure from the history of one's religion and travel a route he or she might have traveled to a destination that currently and historically has honored this person.

St. Nicholas is the person from ancient history we are focusing on, thanks to the research and writings of Peter Sills. Daily, he reads- as part of one of our worship rituals or as we travel historical aspects of St. Nicholas's life - stories about him, historical records and Peter's own story.

Peter helps us focus our intention by carefully crafted religious rituals - Evening Prayer, Morning Prayer, the Eucharist celebration and Compline.

At the end of our first full day in Lecce we had Evening Prayer in one of the most beautiful Romanesque Churches I have ever seen. The chancel and transepts were painted, in a two year period, by one man. This church is connected to the Franciscan order, hence one of the transepts is completed devoted to St. Francis. Just being in this space was moving on its own. Peter's leadership in the service and his reading made it more so. I'm hoping you can appreciate a smidgen of it from the photographs. The church is known as Chiesa Sant' Antonio a Fulgenzo.

I also saw in this church one of the most unusual crucifixes I've seen. Can you guess what sets it apart?

One just doesn't wander into or onto a pilgrimage route. Intention is required. This is true of doing any work consciously to grow in peace, love, joy and power. At some point we have to decide whether or not to live and die smaller, as Kathleen Singh puts it, "if we are willing to leave this unimaginably precious gift of a human life unopened?"

As far as I can find out, every tradition has what the Buddhist call "the noble path." We do not awaken simply because we wish to. We maintain and strengthen our intention in making a commitment to a path and joining others in following it. A pilgrimage like the one we are on is symbolic of this intention. About which I will have more to say as we continue the journey.

When in Rome...

I am composing this on one of those really fast "bullet trains" you have likely read about. We are on our way from Rome to Lecce where the St. Nicholas Pilgrimage formally begins this evening. If you look at a map of Italy (click here for google map), you'll see Lecce nearly at the bottom of the country on the Adriatic Ocean. It is quite a hike from Rome. Over the next two and a half weeks we will be making our way North, ending in Bari where the actual Feast Day of St. Nicholas will be celebrated.

Since we were coming to Italy we decided to add four days to the beginning of the trip and spend the time in Rome, "the Eternal City." Two of our group had been here before but that was decades ago and they commented on how much things had changed - the density of the crowds, for one thing.

On Saturday, the day of our arrival, we mostly just wandered about our funky neighborhood taking in the sights. Everywhere one goes here is ancient, I mean really ancient; history abounds. One church we visited claims to be the oldest church in Christendom. Not the oldest building but a congregation that claims its origins go back to a house church in the early 300's. Our hotel is a converted convent and dates from the early 1800's.

On Sunday we went to the plaza in front of St. Peter's to attend the Angelus. This is the public mass and blessing that the pope gives. We got there two hours ahead of time. The wait passed quickly as Sharon Rowe read to us interesting information about St. Peter's - its history and statuary. St. Peter's is built, so the guidebooks say, on the spot where St. Peter was crucified and is buried. The crowd swelled to a size that "guesstimated" to be at least 60,000. People were both incredibly enthusiastic and reverent. The pope is clearly loved and revered.


After this we went in search of the McDonalds that caused such a stir when it was opened last year. It is not the only McDonalds in Rome, just, in the opinion of some church officials and observers, sacrilegiously close to St. Peter's. I had vowed to eat there and offered to buy lunch for my traveling companions. I had no takers.

Instead we went to a nearby sidewalk cafe where we had one of our most interesting experiences so far on this trip. When we sat down we were given menus. When the woman, whom we took owned the place, came to take our orders, she let us know that not only did they not have almost anything actually printed on the menu but also she told us what to order - rather, what she would bring us - and either assured us or commanded us to enjoy it. Pam Rowe said it was restaurant service under bombardment. It was a hoot. The food was fabulous.

We liked this experience so much that the next day, after our tour of the Vatican Museum, the Cistine Chapel and St. Peter's, we decided to go back there again. Same experience.

I am so grateful to and for Pam Rowe. She put together an itinerary for our time in Rome that included prepaid guided tours of both the Vatican tour I mentioned and one the next day of the Coliseum. Both of these tours lasted for hours. Our guides were enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable.

I'm grateful to have been able to see such ancient and and beautiful pieces of art in all its forms. Michelangelo, responsible for much of it, was clearly a genius. Our guide explained to us what to pay attention to in the Cistine Chapel. She had to do this before we even went inside the museum. Once inside the crowd was as dense as I have ever experienced. Anyone with a smidgen of claustrophobia couldn't have made it. And, once inside the Cistine Chapel there could be no talking. The Chapel itself was smaller than I anticipated. I did manage to find a space along one of the walls to sit while I took in the famous ceiling. We are used to seeing individual, and isolated, pieces of this art and not all of it all at once. In spite of the density of the crowd, like the proverbial packed in together like sardines, it was a moving experience. The woman sitting next to me was texting the entire time.

If the Cistine Chapel is small, St. Peter's is humongous. It is as long as two football fields. They were getting ready to have a funeral mass that afternoon for some important person, so it was not possible to get too close to the chancel. The Pieta is here. It is the only piece of art of any kind that Michelangelo signed. 

Afterwards we went back to the same restaurant only to be given menus and then told what we would have and enjoy. I asked to take the owner's picture. She seemed pleased. Like the day before, we spend the rest of the afternoon walking to famous plazas and fountains.

The next day we took a long expertly guided tour of the Coliseum. Because we were on a prepaid guided tour, we got to go into areas that many other tourists were not allowed. The Coliseum was built in 80 A.D. It took only eight years to build using, of course, slave labor. Our guide told us that not nearly as many gladiators died as the impression is given through the various movies we've seen over the years. This tour lasted the better part of a day.

We were in Rome at the beginning of what is called "high season" and our last day was Italy's "Fourth of July." Perhaps this explains the crowd density.

Street vendors are everywhere pushing items at you to purchase. The vendors are aggressive and insistent. The most ubiquitous item offered for sale and used by tourists were selfie sticks. I wonder what that says about us?

Another item we saw for sale in souvenir shops were calendars with "glamor shots" for every month. The pictures were of "good looking" priests in their collars and vestments. One of our group referred to them as "hunky monks."

By the way, the phrase "when in Rome, do as the Romans do was first attested to in Medieval Latin and the original was, "If you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there." The way we know the proverb is attributed to St. Ambrose and its original meaning was: Respect the beliefs, customs and practices of the local culture.

Being a Pilgrim Versus Being a Tourist

The photograph you see here is of The Rev. Peter Sills and was taken on the second pilgrimage we made with him. This one began in Lyon, France and ended, for us, in Santiago, Spain. This photo was taken in a cathedral that is not only a thousand years old but also is the place where the very first pilgrimage to Santiago began.

The Rev. Peter Sills in Lyon, France   

The Rev. Peter Sills in Lyon, France


At that time pilgrimages, the custom drawn from Judaism and other religions, were significant religious and spiritual undertakings. The late Middle Ages was the “golden age” for pilgrimages. This is attested to by the fact that there are numerous pilgrimage routes to Santiago.

The St. Nicholas pilgrimage began around 1087. In the early days St. Nicholas was known primarily for his powers as a healer. As I mentioned in the earlier post, he is now known as the forerunner of our Santa Claus.

I want to quote (and paraphrase) from the handbook Peter has sent to us prior to our departure for Italy.

“This pilgrimage has something of that medieval character. As we make our way from Lecce to Bari, we shall reflect on the life of St. Nicholas, and on our own purpose in making this journey; and we shall also enjoy the riches and sights of the places along the say, some of them now regarded as part of the cultural heritage of the world.”

I learned from the very first pilgrimage we made with Peter - from Mont-Saint Michel to Bordeaux - that there is a significant difference between being a tourist and being a pilgrim. Tourism tends to put the desires and needs of the tourist first. The tourist is the subject of the journey. The places and the people along the way are the object.

The pilgrim seeks to reverse this, allowing the places and people to be the subject and the traveller to be the object.

To quote from Peter: “Pilgrims seek to enter into the life of those they visit, using their experiences of God and his saints to illuminate their own experience, seeking parallels between the life of the saint and their own life, and opening themselves to the spiritual experience of the local people, particularly as expressed in their art, architecture and devotion.”

Peter has planned some sort of worship ritual for us every day and there will be a time of shared reflection on the day’s experiences each evening followed by Compline. Eucharist will be celebrated numerous times along the way.

One of the things that draws so many people to St. Paul in Houston is the Gothic architecture of the cathedral. The cathedrals of Europe inspired this “sacred space.” I’m looking forward to the many cathedrals of Italy and hope to share some sense of our shared experience with you.

Introduction to the St. Nicholas Pilgrimage

People at St. Paul’s have a long and involved history with the Rev. Peter Sills and his wife Helen. Twice the St. Paul’s choir has been the choir in residence at the cathedral in Ely, England, where Peter served. Twice Peter has been to St. Paul’s to lecture. In fact, he was the first speaker in the Kerley Endowment series.

In addition, some of us have travelled with Peter on the pilgrimages he organizes. We have been with him on two parts of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. Some of us have shared other trips with them - Costa Rica and, more recently, Scotland. Peter is an outstanding pilgrimage leader.

When we were recently in Scotland we heard of a pilgrimage he is leading - The St. Nicholas Pilgrimage. You can learn a lot about it by putting this search term into a Google search - St Nicholas Centre Bari.

The six persons from St. Paul’s who will be going are Sherry Beeman, Bill Kerley, Bob Rainwater, Merlene McAlevy, Pam Rowe and Sharon Rowe. (Actually Sharon is from Minnesota but we’re claiming her to be from St. Paul’s.)

The six of us will start this journey by spending four days in Rome and then going on to Lecce where the pilgrimage formally begins.

Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in south western Turkey, and although he was one of the most venerated saints his life is virtually unknown. There are numerous stories told about him. One of these stories leads to his morphing into, in the Western world, becoming “Santa Claus” or, “Jolly Saint Nicholas.”

In 1087 his relics were moved - the religious word here is “translated” - to Bari and a basilica built to house them.

The shrine of St. Nicholas in Bari has been a pilgrimage destination ever since the translation of his relics. In the late Middle Ages, journeys to the shrine of the local saint were the most popular type of pilgrimage. The pilgrimage that people are the most familiar with is the one known as “The Santiago de Compostela” made popular by the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen.


Venice also wanted the relics of St. Nicholas and recent DNA evidence shows that the relics in Bari and Venice are both from the same source.

In the beginning people made pilgrimages for a variety of reasons - an act of devotion, to fulfill a vow, seeking forgiveness or healing. A saint’s Feast Day, (usually the anniversary of his or her death) would be an occasion of great celebration which is still the case in Bari today.

There is a difference between being a tourist and being a pilgrim and we’ll talk about these along the way.

Making pilgrimage has been a part of every religion from the religion’s beginning. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the Four Pillars of Islam. The Jews made an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Some believe that Christians appropriated the ancient labyrinth to be used by people who were physically or otherwise unable to make an actual pilgrimage. You’ll find an exact replica of the labyrinth that is in Chartres Cathedral in France on the St. Paul’s campus.

As I’ve indicated the six of us from the St. Paul’s community are going to start this pilgrimage by spending four days in Rome.

This will be the fourth blog I’ve written about a pilgrimage we have been on with Peter. I’m writing this installment from Houston - and hope to do another before we leave. When actually in Italy the blog has to be created in parts - text and photographs - and assembled on arrival. I am so grateful to Wayne Herbert for being willing to do this and thank him publicly.