The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic podcast episode.
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Today is episode 136: Full Circle
Hi friends. Today is the conclusion of my Rome series – in total, there are ten full episodes in this series which are all taken from inspiration and experiences from just one week spent in Rome. Now, before I ever left for this trip, God had told me pretty directly that He had something there just for me, so I was on the lookout for epiphanies as I do tend to be, but there was one lynchpin of a spiritual experience – honestly the most clear, most overwhelmingly emotional, most holy experience maybe of my whole life, and this experience illuminated and gave color to all the rest, and so of course, I have saved the best for last. When I walked out of the Vatican that day, I remember there were storm clouds brewing overhead. As we walked down the steps, I told my husband, Tim, that something had just happened in there, and that God had given me a great gift, but I couldn’t put words to the experience, and still, I find it challenging. Making the nine episodes before this one has helped for sure, and I’m drawing today’s episode from the many capital-lettered notes that I typed into my phone the evening of that event later in the hotel, but to be honest, I feel a bit like Trappist monk Thomas Merton when he had his great epiphany, the site of which is marked by a plaque at the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. This is the only historical marker of a mystical experience in the United States, and though it’s right there in black and white, a mystical experience is just a hard thing to communicate.
Merton was doing errands downtown when, as he describes in his memoir, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he had an experience that would change his whole life.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
Earlier in this series, I talked about how our lives are woven together in a huge tapestry in time, and about the global nature of our church. I spoke of the gift and the necessity of putting ourselves in a position to see things from a different point of view, and of the musicality of our faith. I talked about the importance of digging into the past in order to build something better, of not being afraid of reconsidering a belief or a practice, and how God calls us to adventure and to the joy of experiencing the world and each other. I wrote about the light that God gives us and all the saints at every stage of growth, and about the beauty of the rising generation to meet the many challenges that the Church and the world are facing. If taken in a capsule, these episodes represent the heart and clarity of my own belief system at this point in time. They are what I would most want my kids to listen to when I’m gone (or you know, earlier, whatever, that’d be great, too). But it is this experience that I hesitate to even try to put a frame around, it was so holy and mystical and true that I hope to communicate it well, though I know words won’t do it justice.
If you listened to episode 132: Be Not Afraid: Rome Edition, you’ll know that a little group of five of us had left St. Peter’s Square to get something to eat before returning back to the Vatican for an afternoon mass where our college choir had the privilege of singing. If you haven’t listened to that episode or others in the series, I’ll link them for you in the show notes, but on our little adventure, we had the privilege of sharing a bit of each other’s stories, and three of us bonded a bit over the death of our dear mothers. Now, this is a club that no one wants to join, but the loss of a mother is something you kind of have to move through to understand. Well, I promised Marianne and Diane that I would pray for their mothers and for their intentions, along with mine in that afternoon’s mass.
My own mother was very much on my mind that whole week. By the measure of the world, my Mom, Anne, lived a small life. She was born in Boston and was raised by a single mother. She had a twin brother named John and a much older brother named George. My Mom married and had four daughters, all of whom got Irish names. She was active in the church, started and ran her parish food pantry, and worked a few different jobs along the way. My mother liked gambling, DIY home projects, going out for dinner for a steak and a baked badada, and she thought her grandchildren were “really cool.” My Mom met five out of six of those grandkids before she passed from ovarian cancer in November of 2012 at the age of 66, and her body was buried in her parish cemetery six tenths of a mile from her home. A small life, I guess you could say.
My Mom took a total of four flights in her lifetime, if you count the connections, and she was so very fearful each time. Providence to Atlanta to Phoenix to meet her first grandchild and then back again, I’m not sure she ever would have agreed to fly for any other reason. So, when I traveled to Rome more than ten years after her passing, I brought my faithful Catholic mother’s floral-patterned scarf along with me, and I wore it to Pentecost Sunday mass at the Vatican with Pope Francis. It was my way of bringing my Mom to a place that she would not have even dreamed of getting to visit while she was alive, and I wrapped that scarf around me along with her memory as the light came pouring in.
A couple of days later at this afternoon daily mass, the crowd was much, much smaller, and we got a literal front row seat. The choir was seated to our left and we non-choir members joined the few assembled there for the rosary before mass. As I mentioned in episode 131: Musical Faith, one of the best things about our faith is that it has a kind of rhythm to it. Even in Italian, we Americans could pick out the words of the rosary and participate in our own language, and I did just that, carrying the prayers of my Mom and Marianne and Diane’s mothers as well. A real ‘Communion of the Saints’ moment, and if you listen to this podcast, you will know how much I love those.
But at a certain point, while praying and looking up and around the enormous sanctuary from my front row seat, I remember thinking how amazed my Mom and the other Moms would be to have the chance to sit in the front row at the Vatican and how much I wished we could all be sitting there together. Suddenly, I felt the BIGNESS of my mother’s spirit. That’s the only way I can really describe it. Because, as it turns out, I didn’t have to ‘bring’ her anywhere by wearing her scarf or praying for her or any other action that I could undertake as a little, well-meaning human.
She was already there.
She got there before I did.
She was the one who called me there, and her spirit was filling the vast sanctuary of the Vatican.
Along with these Moms, I felt the presence and testimony of Mary and many souls present from every time and place. They were so big, filling that grand space and somehow communicating to us that WE ARE ALSO THIS BIG. All of the statues all around Vatican City, of Peter, Paul, the Apostles, Popes, Saints, Martyrs – all of it that fills St. Peter’s Square and the city of Rome – this art was built to help us to know their humanity – all of them fallible, all of them making mistakes, misunderstanding each other, and battling for power and living real human lives. They are ‘big’ now not because they were ‘better’ than us, but they are testimony of how God works in and through a human person, how He grows us in time to capacities we cannot even imagine. My mother, who was by no means perfect and who by the world’s standards lived a small life, standing a bit over five feet tall, whose life was relatively small and apparently local in its impact, was positively filling the altar and the space at the Vatican because it is now her nature to do and to be just that.
The testimony of those who went before us, whether in a statue or a scripture reading or a memoir or in our own families, exists to help us to find what God has placed uniquely within us and to use it the best we can while we’re here. Part of what I experienced that day in the Vatican was an encouragement to keep going in doing my bit to rebuild this church as our friend Francis did by making this space for us. And if you’re thinking about something you feel God calling you to do, I guess what I would say is that they see us, friend. They are cheering us on.
There was a Vatican photographer who captured my reaction to all of this, and I’ll share the weepy pictures for you in the transcript of this episode. He zeroed right in on me for a close-up at the end of mass as though he had been watching me the whole time. Maybe it wasn’t the first time he’d witnessed a reaction like that in that holy place. I wouldn’t be at all surprised. There is so much happening that we can’t see.
Every night before I go to bed, I pass a picture of me and my Mom, and I touch her face with a little kiss and I pray that God will “fill her with light and love as much as she can hold and more in Jesus’ name, amen,” and what I experienced there in the Vatican that afternoon is the reality that God answers that prayer. My Mom was so BIG, I just can’t explain how BIG and filled with love and light she was, now that she is illuminated and limitless and has no need for a thing like an airplane to get her wherever she wants to be. Also, I just felt her with me in a way I can’t explain, encouraging and rooting for me and knowing the end to all of our stories that are up in the air. I could feel her smiling and telling me, oh honey, it is going to be so, so good, you have no idea.
The story that God is writing of our lives in and through time, this weaving of the tapestry of all of us in history, is so much bigger than we think. We are so much bigger than we think. It matters what we do and how we journey. It matters for us personally, and our interactions and crossed paths with each other matter so deeply too. As at St. Claire’s Basilica, our stories can be painted over, or as in Pompei or under the floors at St. Peter’s, our stories can be buried over time, even centuries of time, but they’re there, friend, foundational, and so very important. Our stories matter. I got a little window into all of that mattering, and I hope I’ve been able to communicate it well to you, but more importantly, I hope for you to experience that big mattering one day for yourself. Oh friend, you are so, so loved.
Thanks so much for being with me today. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my website at kerrycampbell.org. Thanks so much for rating, reviewing, subscribing and most importantly, sharing this podcast with a friend. That really makes a difference in growing our community, so thanks. If you’d like to support this podcast financially, there’s a way for you to do that in the show notes, along with some resources related to today’s episode, so do check all of that out, but before we go, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Thank you, Lord, for how you call us, how you lead us, how you walk with us and speak to us. Help us and our dear ones to hear you and walk with you and follow you in the abundant life you offer. In the name of Jesus and wrapped in the mantle of our mother, Mary, along with all of the saints who are cheering us on today, we pray, amen.
Well, thank you so much for listening today to this very emotional and heartfelt episode. I really appreciate that, friend, and I’ll see you next time.
This week concludes my summer series on a bunch of spiritual takeaways and epiphanies I experienced while on pilgrimage in Rome. I hope this series has been a meaningful one for you.
If you’d like to connect with me, find me on Instagram or at my website. If you’d like to help support this podcast financially, there’s now a way to do just that, and thank you – visit me on my page at buymeacoffee.com! Thanks as always for sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing, as this helps our community to grow!
Thanks as always to my friend, Peter Vaughan-Vail, for providing the beautiful harp music you hear in this and every episode.
Here are some resources I hope will help you to engage with this week’s topic in a deeper way for yourself:
1. Thomas Merton quote on his epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut, from his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
2. Historical marker of Merton’s mystical experience in downtown Louisville, from Spiritual Travels
3. Rome series links – thanks for sharing this series with a friend:
ep. 126 – Rome Sweet Rome
ep. 127 – The Great Tapestry of God
ep. 128 – Our Global Church
ep. 129 – Point of View
ep. 131 – Musical Faith
ep. 132 – Be Not Afraid – Rome Edition
ep. 134 – Light at Every Stage (St. Clare)
ep. 135 – The Kids are Alright