For an author like J.R.R. Tolkien–who had served in the Great War and had experienced those unique bonds formed in adversity, along with the deep sense of loss brought about when those bonds were broken by farewells–the Parting of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings was especially poignant.
I had my first taste of this unique sort of grief when my dear friend and partner in this project left on Wednesday, and thus I knew that I ought to expect a tsunami as I bid farewell to the rest of the group on this, my last day before flying home early tomorrow morning. And yet, again, nothing could prepare me for these good byes.
Our day started with yet another fire drill of moving books, this time to the location of the reception that was scheduled to take place after today’s Mass at St. Peter’s. We accomplished this just in time to get to the Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction preceding the procession through the streets of Rome for which the Pilgrimage is famous.
Thanks to the zeal of my dear Brazilian friend, I was encouraged not to give up on the idea of distributing our books to the gaping bystanders in the wake of the procession. We filled our bags as full as we could without staggering and managed to dispose of every single copy before arriving at the doors of the Basilica.
The altar of the Chair of Peter is one of my favorite parts of St. Peter’s Basilica. The composition of the dove of the Holy Spirit with its rays amidst the clouds is one that has been often imitated throughout the world, but none reaches the heights of artistry and imposing scale as this one. From my seat, I could see all three of my remaining friends as the Pontifical Mass was celebrated at this magnificent altar. As I gave thanks for the myriad blessings of this moment, experiencing the truly grand Liturgy for which this Basilica was intended, I felt my heart expanding beyond its known boundaries, as though I were Christopher Columbus about to sail off the edge of the world…and instead finding an unimagined New World.
As before, I was overwhelmed by a powerful sense that I am being called to do more, on a scale so large as to make this project look like child’s play. The prospect is, quite frankly, terrifying. Only in that setting, immersed within the Mass which is the Source and Summit of our faith, and after the miracles of grace that have been extravagantly showered on us during these weeks, could I wrestle open my heart with a yes to this call, despite the enormous sacrifices that I see it will bring. And in that same moment, as I looked on my friends, I saw God asking more of them as well, more than they realize yet, and more than they know they are able to give. I saw the heart of an apostle, the heart of a father, and the heart of a priest.
How could I have failed to remember, after last night’s tears, to bring a handkerchief? Tears of joy, of fear, of pain, but mostly of overwhelming gratitude came upon me in the expected tsunami. And I hadn’t even said good bye yet.
But of course this was for the best, as I could give all of this to our Lord in thanksgiving, there in the setting best prepared for such an outpouring, and when I later needed to bid these dear, dear friends good bye, the torrent had already passed and I was able to contain myself in those moments.
However, as I now reflect, I see that the reaction was merely delayed…
I have never in my life experienced such powerful love for people who were total strangers a mere two weeks ago, and the only explanation is that this bond exists on a higher plane, one that is not of this world.
And I know that I will never feel the same again when I read Tolkien, of the Parting of the Fellowship. We may not have journeyed into a place so dread as Mordor, but our journey forced us to put our entire trust in God alone as our guide, and we found ourselves in a country that none of us knew existed before. Our roads back home may be on the same paths, but we are no longer the same people we were when we first set our feet upon the road.