Learning to Breathe

In vain shall I attempt to properly describe the close of this past week, full of significance.
Wednessday was a full day spent in the south. We were hot and tired and thirsty after wandering around the ruined streets of Pompeii, but there is nothing quite like seeing and touching an ancient city so filled with history and calamity. Hemmed in by mountains, Mt. Vesuvius rising high above the rest, the rocks and the rubble shine in the noonday sun.

Time can be so overwhelming.

On Thursday I spent every waking hour inside the convent studying. A good reminder that we really are gong to school here, and are not merely adventuresome tourists 

I could tell you all about our trip to Sperlonga on Thursday. There were nine of us students who made this trip ourselves. I could tell you about the confusion of trains and ending up in the middle of nowhere. Or rather somewhere, but nowhere that we could quite map out. I could describe catching the bus to the coast and our first glimpse of the ocean. I could write about running wildly down the sandy beach as the wind whipped through our hair, down to the waters edge, where the blue grey water shone in the sun, sparkles of silver in the clear September air. I could describe how empty it was, how delightfully devoid of tourists. How the city of Sperlonga rose up on white cliffs at the end of the beach, white square house piled atop each other at the hills grew higher, and all the colours of laundry hanging outside the windows and over the narrow streets. I could chronicle the epic battle of the sandcastles, where the three boys lost pitifully the remaining girls. We waited till sunset. As the day came to a close, three of us ventured into town in search of supper. Stepping into a small market run by an unsmiling old man, we used our meager Italian and bought foccaccia, prosciutto, fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, grapes and red wine. He wrapped our items in brown paper and as we paid bequeathed us with a cloth filled with fresh basil.

“You eat the tomatoes, cheese, prosciutto, and basil together and ahhh!” He declared in Italian, still unsmiling and appearing very unhappy. But I saw a twinkle in his eye and he shooed us out of his shop before we’d finished paying. “Gratis.” He said. “Buonasera.”
It was a gift.

I could describe sitting on the beach, blankets spread out on the sand, close to the water’s edge. We ate and we drank and we toasted to how marvelous the meal was and thanked God for Sperlonga, this opportunity, and the little old man in the corner market. The sun drifted west, and dropped low in the sky. The lighting was perfect, the waves crashing out our feet in a steady rhythm, and I’ve never eaten such incredible food before in my life. Surrounded by friends, I stood at the waters edge and together we watched the sun slowly descend.

The sky was not on fire. It was not an epic explosion of gold and bright light. But the mellow horizon was softened by pale tones of pink and blue and the sea was lined in amber light glistening off the foam of the crested waves. I could describe to you how amazing that sunset was, and how it gave me chills to watch the sun meet the surface of the see. Suddenly it was dark, and the lights of Sperlonga lit up the nights; a thousand small lights reflect off the water. A city on a hill. I could describe to you how it felt to stand in the sea and close my eyes and let the wind grab at my skirt, how it felt to walk up and down the beach with new friends, sharing our hearts and feeling full of God. I could describe how we missed the last bus back to the station and had to cram 10 people in a small taxi. Our driver laughed all the way to the Fondi Station. I could describe waiting on the dark platform, salty, sunburned and shivering in the night air, waiting for our delayed train. We had a whole train car to ourselves and sang songs until some people fell asleep. Would it be cliché for me to genuinely call it the best day of my life? I don’t know. I won’t try to describe it anymore. I could tell you so much more, but I already know that this would be the same as telling you nothing. For even I cannot articulate to myself the glory of that sojourn…that day in Sperlonga.

On Saturday morning while the rest of the floor slept, four of us awoke early and once again waited at the bus stop. It was early and we were tired, because the two of us who had been away the day before had not returned to Rome till late. We crossed the Tiber River to the quieter part of town called Trastevere down a long cobblestone alley littered in the leaves the trees lining the way. We entered a church, climbed many marble stairs, and spent the morning helping some missionaries with one of their ministries. We cooked rice, cabbage and potatoes for three hours, and then served the food into tins, enough to feed 125 people. Down past the ancient wall of the city, by a place called Piramide (also called the gate of St. Paul) we served a meal to Afghani refugees living in the sewers and along the graffiti filled streets of the outskirts of Rome. We girls were told to keep our eyes down and not approach any of the men, for fear of being culturally offensive, and so we did. The boys who had come did most of the serving and talking as we females who had cooked, sat back and watched.
As I sat back in the hot sunlight and pondered the many things in my heart, I was reminded of an advertisement I saw several years ago in the London airport.

A man stands on a cliff. A high cliff. A cliff among many cliffs with sharp drops and a seemingly endless cavern below. He stands with arms outstretched and uplifted. With eyes closed, he reaches his hands high into the air. He is on top of the world...where the earth meets heaven and the clouds look like mountains in the sky Below the picture in clear bold print were there words:
You have never felt more alive.
You have never felt so insignificant.

I could tell you what this week has meant to me. How fulfilling and beautiful it has been. I could describe beginning this week on Sunday as Erin, Sarah and I attended mass at the Vatican. I shall never be Catholic or agree with Catholicism, but I shall always believe that there is something enchanting about the beauty of a Catholic mass. The light of the sun shining through the stained glass window behind the altar, caught the smoke from the incense as it hung in the air. The sounds of Latin singing rose high up the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. In the mass of people, we sat only two rows from the altar. We couldn't understand the Italian that was being read, or the Latin being sung. Yet we knelt and we prayed and we watched and we were struck by such a swell of emotion that I already know that to attempt such descriptions would be fruitless.
I have never felt more alive.
I have never felt so insignificant.


  1. Katie, what a beautiful post. I love reading your blog. -Emily (Griswold) Stevenson

  2. oh what a glorious time and place! i am studying the maps to follow you along.what type of classes do you do? hugs


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