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.