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Story

By Eric A. Clayton

Pienza is a quiet town tucked into the Tuscan countryside among vineyards and cypress trees in the Italian province of Siena.

The town was the birthplace of Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, perhaps better known as the eventual Pope Pius II. It was he who quite literally put the place on the map. Wanting to bring renown to his childhood home, Pius rebuilt the town from the ground up, changing its name from Corsignano to Pienza in the process. He spared no expense and spent his summers under that same Tuscan sun.

Today, you can visit Pienza. You can walk within the cathedral on the main square and explore the frightening maze of underground passages that comprise its crypt. You can study the pope’s summer residence, wandering through its many rooms and admiring its many works of art. And of course, you can sit at any number of cafes sipping cappuccinos until the hour strikes 11 and local custom demands you instead order a macchiato.

My wife and I did all these things. And as it so happened, not far from where we sipped our cappuccinos was another church. A humbler church. An older church. A church that predates the name Pienza and holds insight into the spirit of a town called Corsignano.

The church, we discovered, is called San Francesco. It is a holy place; we felt it as soon as we stepped inside. It was quiet, dark. The altar is little more than three huge slabs of stone. Much of the art in that place follows in that same vein: sparse, unassuming, evocative of natural elements.

I often remark on how Catholic churches hold stories within their walls. Stained glass, statues, reliquaries and paintings — these things reveal to us pilgrims some glimmer of our shared tradition, of the stories upon which we stand, the ones we continue to write.

But in this place, in San Francesco of Pienza, whatever stories its walls once held have been in large part lost to the slow meanderings of time. The frescoes remain in pieces, fractured glimpses into tales both known and otherwise.

I wonder if that wasn’t part of the appeal of the place. The stories are here, but they stand outside of the time we inhabit. There’s more here; this temple points us beyond ourselves, beyond what we can see. But we couldn’t quite reach whatever that was.

We had to accept the fact that we’d have to leave guessing at what those stories might be. We couldn’t repair the frescoes. We couldn’t experience the fullness of the story. And yet, the place was no less holy.

These past two weeks, I’ve reflected with you on storytelling: on what it means to seek out God in story; and, what our obligation is to share story as Ignatian storytellers. And so, this week, I’d like to complete the arc (at least, for now). Because it’s no secret that there are stories we simply cannot know. We don’t have the time; we aren’t in the right place. We’re left with fragments. We’re left guessing.

But I think that’s okay. I think that’s a holy disposition in which to find ourselves. We are left curious, wondering, awed by all that is — by all that is still beyond us.

We’re left grasping at Mystery.

And here’s what I’ve been reflecting on having left San Francesco: We don’t have to stand in an old church in Tuscany to experience this depth of mystery. We have only to look at one another, at our neighbors and our friends. At family and at strangers. Because each of us contains a depth of mystery that is ever-expanding.

Why? Because each of us contains Mystery; God is here within us, creating, dreaming up stories that have yet to unfold, stories we may never fully understand.

There’s a quote from the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that comes to mind, and I invite you to pray with it this week:

“The deeper I descend into myself, the more I find God at the heart of my being; the more I multiply the links that attach me to things, the more closely does he hold me — the God who pursues in me the task, as endless as the whole sum of centuries, of the incarnation of his Son.”

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith and My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality (Loyola Press). He is the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine, Air and Nothingness Press and more.  Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.