It was a warm autumn Sunday in Rome, sometime during the month of October in 1990. The sun is out after days and days of rain, and people are everywhere. I’m walking through a park, heading down a hill towards a road where about a gagillion, well maybe not that many, but where many tourist coaches are parked. You can tell they come from different countries by the words emblazoned on the side of each giant bus.
In front of me, heading down the same hill is an older lady. Even just looking at her back I can see her nice trench coat, and she is wearing hose and low heeled shoes. In her right hand is a bouquet of colorful flowers with the stems wrapped in foil. This sight made me think of my mother who would cut often flowers and wrap them in foil, sending me off to deliver them to some neighbor in need. This thought made me smile to myself.
In an instant everything changed, my reverie broken as the woman took a tumble and rolled down the hill, getting muddy along the way. Then she rolled into the street, ending up behind a bus… which was just about to back up. Believe it or not, those flowers were still in her hand, although crumpled looking at that point. I did not know what to do, she was clearly stunned, I was not even sure she was conscious. It did not seem like anyone else noticed, so I had no choice, or she would die. I screamed. Loudly. Really loudly. No – REALLY LOUDLY.
You’ve never heard me scream. I can really give it my all, and be extremely loud; it comes from somewhere deep within. This sort of scream of mine is infrequent, and this may hold the record for the loudest and most terrifying one ever. My wordless scream was followed by an equally high decibel cry of “Stop that bus! STOP! BUS!”
A young couple looked back at me, but because they were standing near the front of the bus, they had no clue. I screamed again as I watched the wheels slowly go into motion, “STOP!!!” Would anyone understand me? Why couldn’t I remember the Italian word for stop?
They reacted and through some miracle of God, got the driver’s attention, so he stopped. By this time I had run down the rest of the hill and was at the back of the bus. I was terrified to look, but I knew I had to do so. There she was, this older lady in her nice coat, collapsed perpendicular to the curb, stock still – and yes, with crumpled flowers in hand. The rear wheels of the bus were right next to her. In another nanosecond she would have been run over.
My emotions and endorphins and adrenaline and God knows what else were all churning. Tears fell from my eyes. The woman was not moving, so I reached out and touched her, thinking she might be unconscious. I think she was in shock, but my touch animated her, and she grabbed my hand very tightly, her eyes bulging with terror. Somehow I got her to roll out from under the bus, which she did after handing me her crumpled flowers, and I helped her up. She was a mess – mud all over her, stockings torn, and her shoes all scuffed up, and dirty to boot.
In that instance our eyes met, I was already bawling my head off and she started to do the same, so we hugged and hugged. All I could think of was that she was probably someone’s nonna, and for a moment I wished she were mine. We sure hugged as if she was!
By now the young couple, as well as a crowd of others gathered around the two unlikely huggers. We softened our embraced and she began to speak to me in rapid fire Italian. The only things I could make out were that she thanked me, and something about Gesù and Maria. I kept saying “Io, no parlo Italiano!” These words flew off into the breeze like petals from the crumpled flowers. She just kept looking me straight in the eye and talking. At that point I just decided to speak the English she could not understand, and I told her that I was so glad that I could help her that day. Somehow we understood one another in Spirit.
By now the bus driver has walked around to the back of the bus, and pushes through the crowd. Three things are immediately apparent, he is very young, he is very angry, and he is German. Upon seeing the woman, he begins to shout at her in German. Nonna, as I will call her, was having none of that! She let go of me and she begins to tell him off in Italian. Today it all has a comical air, that day everything was heightened. Those two went at it for awhile, with me standing there holding the flowers. Eventually I intercede and pull Nonna back. She looks upset and says a word that I do understand, she says he is “scortese.” That means rude. I shake my head, saying si, si. She adds that he is also “molto stupido” which makes me giggle as my nervous energy begins to dissipate. This makes her laugh, so now we are cackling like a couple of magpies. The driver stomps off to the bus, the crowd disperses, and it is just me and Nonna.
Our eyes meet once more, and her arms fly around me as she pulls me tight. I hear her whisper “Grazie, grazie.” Her tears finally flow, and mine resume. It takes more than a little time for us to each go our own ways, her with her torn stockings and bent flowers, me with my still elevated heart rate.
That’s a long story, but that story is Pentecost to me. This is the day when the promise of the Spirit is fulfilled. Just read these words from the Acts of the Apostles:
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven
staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.”
The mighty acts of God happen in many ways every single day of our lives. Sometimes these mighty acts are big ones, like that day in Jerusalem recorded in Acts. Sometimes they are like what happened to me in Rome. Sometimes they are so subtle that we might not notice, but they are there.
This leaves me wondering – how do we notice the Spirit, who often moves with such silent grace, weaving in and out of our lives? Maybe there are three ways to do this, that remind me of the childhood intonation to “Stop, look, and listen.”
- Pay attention. Sounds easy, but we all know how hard that is to do in the era of distracted driving and more. Multi-tasking may make it seem like we are “getting things done,” but what might we be missing. Can we find ways to stop, even just a little, to look around? Stopping may be the only way we can break through on this. It is hard to do, but many gifts await us. We might find ourselves stopping to pay attention and noticing God!
- Look carefully. How many times have most of us frantically searched for something, my keys, or a piece of paper that we need. Speaking for myself, I am often zooming around, looking over and over, and not finding what I seek. Then I take a breath and ask St. Anthony for help. St. Anthony helps by orienting me to the Spirit. In that pause my eyes will open – and there is the whatever I couldn’t find, right before me. That is what looking carefully looks like. Our eyes may fall upon the Lord, but we would have to be looking carefully to notice.
- Listen. Listening is a skill that must be learned, practiced, cultivated, developed. Can we make a more concerted effort to be listeners? In a world that demands answers, replies, likes, and so forth, listening can be harder than ever to do. When we ask someone how they are, maybe we can focus on not only their words, but their demeanor, their tone. It might be possible to hear them say one word, which we know might be a clue to something else going on. How can we listen to and hear God if we can’t hear ourselves, our friend, or our neighbor?
These are just a few short ideas after a long story. I wanted to share it though, I don’t think I have done so before. It is just a reminder of the mighty acts of God, seen and experienced through words in different languages, but understood through the translation of the heart. That is what Pentecost brings us to, may we find a little of it every day.
(Yes, I am back. Not the best blog post ever, but I have had the story on my mind and it struck me as very Pentecost-y. Anyway my project did not work out as planned, so I let it go. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do. You will have to endure my blogging all over again! I hope to be back with a book review later in the week, and more to follow about the Camino journey!)