Easter had nothing to do with Jesus in my childhood. It was an honored holiday full of traditions for both of my houses, but Jesus just… never came up. The Easter Bunny reigned supreme, rivaling but never outdoing, Santa or Halloween – neither of which I thought of as religious holidays. I related Easter with baskets of overflowing neon-yellow marshmallow chicks, tinfoil wrapped chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and an occasional CD to add to my Opera collection… but never Jesus. In Rome, I believed, Easter is definitely about Jesus.
Two of the girls from the house and I took the train to Rome for Easter weekend; we were going to join some friends and see the Pope speak at the Vatican. I was curious about the Pope, but even more so about the Italian capital. I was hoping to get the chance to experience a highly potent version of the city, to witness what was important to modern Romans. Most of the main tourist attractions would be closed – preventing total mayhem as the city was overrun with tens of thousands of pious tourists. Because of this, the Rome that I was planning on seeing had more to do with the citizens that lived the legacy of their ruins everyday, how the people of Rome shouldered the weight of their city’s history and it’s fame.
When we arrived at the Vatican, it was nearly empty except for a couple dozen rows of forlorn folding chairs. The first several of which were occupied with people staring at an empty stage and the closed doors of St. Peters cathedral. Shocked, I had second thoughts… maybe the Easter bunny was gaining power. The other girls, undaunted by the apparent lack of local interest, chose a group of chairs as close to the front as was possible. After getting settled, one of the girls took out a book and began reading. It was instantly clear that at least for the other girls, this was not going to be about the Easter bunny. Over the next several hours the chairs behind us began to fill and when the Pope finally made his entrance onto the stage assisted by his motorized throne, the entire plaza was packed as were all of the adjacent streets. For most of the ceremony I studied the Pope’s face using binoculars, much as a wildlife researcher would observe the change in behavior of an exotic jungle bird. He fell asleep a lot and there were a number of moments during the ceremony where his hat was removed, this seemed to annoy him as it was quite chilly that afternoon. His face was gentle and passive and as he napped I wondered about his dreams.
After an especially enthusiastic vocalization given by a church authority, people around me began to stand up and make lines in the aisles. So in the spirit of participation, I also stood up and took my place in line moving slowly forward until I came face-to-face with a man in long robes. He lifted the small white cracker into the air, said a few words in Italian and as a random collage of pop culture, news footage, movie scenes and a handful of real life experiences merged together; I opened my mouth and ate the cracker. Unfortunately for me, my good intentions of “When in Rome…” were not appreciated by the group and upon returning to my chair I quickly understood that it was a good time for me to do my observing elsewhere.
After carefully weaving through the chaotic mass of people and umbrellas (it was now raining) I reached an open side street, obtained my own umbrella and began walking away from the Vatican. The rain was beginning to flood the gutters and a breeze made it’s way through my light jacket. Just as I was beginning to complain to myself, I saw her. She was elderly, probably in her late 80’s and the water from the street had already soaked the cardboard beneath her. Her legs had been amputated above the knee and her arms above the elbow. A bowl was stuck between layers of clothing in a way that kept it from falling from her lap and she was begging for coins. I stopped in front of her. It was the first time I truly regretted falling behind in my Italian classes and she could not speak English. The horrible hypocrisy of the situation overwhelmed me. Not a hundred feet away there were thousands of people begging the church to forgive their sins, hoping to live in a way that mirrored Jesus, celebrating his resurrection from suffering…eating crackers.
Even at this point in the story I understood that beggars were typically organized, the homeless children, the elderly, the mothers… there existed a kind of mafia that put them to work in the streets. As a direct result of this organization, or manipulation, the more money any one of them collected the more they would be “put to work”. Regardless of this understanding, the complete helplessness of the old woman juxtaposed against the majesty of the Catholic epicenter I had just left impacted me deeply, profoundly. I gave her money and began a tradition of my own, taking a deep breath and looking at her with my full awareness and presence, I dedicated that moment of my life to the liberation of her suffering. It’s small and it’s probably a trivial habit, but I stopped and really opened my eyes to where I was standing, appreciated whatever could arise and took it’s impact with me when I walked away. There was no way of knowing what would happen to the money I gave her, no way to rescue her with my guilt and lack of context of her life as a whole… but I could stop and really see her, let her change me. I doubt she remembered me, but more than ten years later I am thinking of her and sharing the story with you.