by John Dougherty
“He wants to stay.”
Friar Pietro winced. This news wasn’t unexpected, but it was certainly unwelcome. He had only just returned to Jerusalem from Bethlehem, traveling by night to avoid the punishing heat of the day. A short ride, but a painful one for a man his age, especially on an oddly lopsided donkey. He was weary from the ride and fear of bandits, and wanted nothing more than to eat dinner, join his brother friars for complines, and sleep before another day laid its troubles at his feet.
But he was the provincial of the Franciscans in the Holy Land, the men whom Rome had appointed custodians of that sacred place, responsible for the care of its holy sites and the pilgrims who came to pay them homage. Peace and quiet were luxuries he couldn’t afford.
“They often do,” he said, with a sigh. “What was the pilgrim’s disposition, Bernardino? Is he difficult?”
Bernardino was a big friar whose every movement was made with great deliberation. Now his brow settled gently into furrows, a look of vague confusion overtaking his face.
“No,” he said. “He was perfectly calm and reasonable. None of the usual screaming or oath-swearing.”
He paused, considered. “But very determined.”
“Of course.” Pietro squeezed the bridge of his nose. They were in the plaza outside of the convent on Mount Sion, the smell of spice and sugar on the warm evening breeze. The sky was the color of a bruised plum, the first stars peeking through the darkness. “You explained to him, I trust, that our convent is very poor and cannot take on permanent additions? That, indeed, we are sending several of our own friars back to Europe with the pilgrims because we can no longer sustain them?”
And that I will join them, as soon as Brother Angelo arrives to take my place. He didn’t say it, not wanting to appear eager.
“He insists that he would only need to come to the convent for confession,” Bernardino said. “Beyond that, he would make his own way.”
“Ah,” Pietro said. “And he’s not at all concerned about the dangers to a Christian living alone in this city? Did he somehow fail to notice all of the Turkish soldiers? Is he blind, perhaps?”
“No, Father Provincial,” Bernardino said. “But he claims our Lord has called him to dedicate his life in service here. He said he would happily embrace whatever risks that might bring. He was very…”
The big man cut off, embarrassed. He was clearly impressed by this pilgrim, which was rare enough. In spite of himself, Pietro was curious to meet him.
“I told him only the provincial has the authority to make that decision,” Bernardino said. “He hoped to speak with you once you returned.”
Pietro sighed. This time next year, he would be in Rome, overseeing the Franciscans there. After twenty years, he would finally leave Jerusalem, with its heat and hostile soldiers and daily threats of violence. There would still be impetuous pilgrims in Rome, but he couldn’t imagine they would give him the headaches that the ones in the Holy Land did.
“Very well. We’ll meet with him in the morning.” He gave Bernardino a wry smile. “And help him to see that Our Lord is calling him somewhere else.”
* * *
This pilgrim would not be the first Pietro dissuaded, or the last. Bernardino and the others were responsible for welcoming them and arranging their visits to the various shrines and holy sites around Jerusalem. They prayed with the pilgrims, heard their confessions, gently redirected their zeal towards acts of piety in their home countries. But sometimes a pilgrim would become overwhelmed with religious fervor and insist on remaining in the Holy Land once the pilgrimage was over. If they were particularly stubborn, that was when Pietro finally stepped in, as the heavy hand of authority.
It wasn’t a job he enjoyed. But it was a necessary one.
At morning Mass, he asked Bernardino to point out the pilgrim. He was a short, wiry Spaniard, his hair and beard dark with hints of red, an aquiline nose protruding from his narrow face. When he left the chapel, Pietro noticed that he walked with a pronounced limp. He tried to discern what sort he was: a would-be mystic who dreamed of living in a cave in the desert? A fiery prophet, intent on converting every non-Christian in the city? Or perhaps a crusader, convinced that God wanted him to chase the Turks from the Holy Land single-handed?
He met the pilgrim in the room where he wrote his letters, begging the good Christian nobles of Europe to dedicate some of their wealth to the Franciscan mission here – and where he read their often-disappointing replies. Bernardino joined him. In the hallway a Christian of the Girdle – one of the Syrian Christians who served the convent – waited, in case the pilgrim grew violent.
The pilgrim called himself Iñigo. He offered no family name, but his bearing and speech betrayed him as nobility. They often received nobles, sometimes even royalty, traveling in disguise, hoping to do their pilgrimage in humble anonymity. Usually they didn’t look quite so hungry, though, and their simple clothes weren’t quite so threadbare. If nothing else, Iñigo was certainly dedicated.
“Thank you for meeting with me,” Pietro said. Nobles expected you to be overly gracious, even when you outranked them. “I hope your visit has been fruitful so far.”
“Incredibly,” Iñigo said. “What a blessing it must be to live here, to spend your days among the streets and hills where Our Savior walked. I can hardly imagine the joy, the consolation it must bring you!”
Pietro felt a pang of shame. That was how it had felt, when he first arrived. But two decades of responsibility and hard work had dulled his initial wonder. It had been a long time since he looked at this place with anything approaching awe.
“The Father Guardian told me of your intentions,” Pietro said, with a nod towards Bernardino. “I have considered it seriously and brought it to Our Lord in prayer. I confess that I find myself deeply moved by your piety, and believe your request comes from a place of good will. But I’m sorry to say that it simply won’t be possible.”
The pilgrim didn’t look surprised. Perhaps that was a good sign.
“The good father told me of your financial situation,” Iñigo said. “I travelled here relying only on Providence and the kindness of certain benefactors. Remaining here, I would support myself the same way. I assure you, I wouldn’t put any financial burden on your order.”
“Not intentionally, perhaps,” Pietro said. “But these are dangerous times. In the past, when we allowed others to stay, some were kidnapped and we were obliged to pay their ransom from our meager funds. Funds we need to care for other pilgrims, and the poor who come to our doorstep.” He paused and then added, almost casually: “Others, of course, were murdered.”
Iñigo nodded, looking grave.
“I would be a poor shepherd if I allowed you to come to harm, even with the best intentions,” Pietro said. “For that reason, I must insist that you depart with your fellow pilgrims tomorrow evening.”
Usually, this was the point where the pilgrims began to bluster or plead. They would detail for Pietro the signs that had received from God, how his objections may have been true of other pilgrims but not them, if he would only see. But when Iñigo answered, his voice was calm.
“I respect your wisdom and your concern,” he said. “However, my decision to stay is quite fixed and I cannot be swayed from it.”
Pietro glanced at Bernardino, who wore an expression of pained sympathy.
“Perhaps I was not clear enough in describing the risks,” Pietro said.
“No, I fully understand.” There was no bravado in Iñigo’s voice, no defensiveness. He sounded perfectly reasonable. Pietro understood why Bernardino had been so impressed by him. “But I will not be dissuaded out of fear. In the past I faced dangers just as great, and for a far less worthy cause. My only cause now is Our Lord’s. I would like to dedicate myself to it, humbly and wholly, regardless of the risk.”
Iñigo must have seen the skepticism in Pietro’s face, because he smiled. “I’m sure you hear that often. But I am no spur-of-the-moment zealot. I spent many months in prayer and fasting, quieting myself until the Lord taught me how to listen for His voice. He has called me to serve Him, and His people. And after seeing the wonders of this place, I believe that He means for me to do it here. When I make a decision my only fear is that I do so under the power of sin, mistaking it for good. But that is not the case here, and I will not let fear of harm turn me away.”
Pietro had spoken to enough pilgrims to tell true conviction from passing desire. This was the real thing. He searched his heart, wondering if perhaps he was making a mistake, but found only calm certainty. God had placed him in this position because he could make these decisions, even when they disappointed others.
“The Holy See has entrusted me with the decision of who stays, and who must go,” he said, with the firm kindness of a father. “I am empowered to impose sanctions on any who will not honor these decisions, up to and including excommunication. I have copies of the bulls here, if you’d like to see them.”
Iñigo stared at him, confused, and then lowered his head.
Now, Pietro thought, comes the storm.
The threat of excommunication was enough to convince some pilgrims, but for others it simply turned him into the enemy, an obstacle between them and God. The rich ones were the worst. If Iñigo was like them he would now turn to threats and bribes. He would finally reveal his family and all of the influence they held back in Europe, the vengeances he could wreak.
Eventually he would wear himself out and leave, defeated. If he lunged at Pietro, the Christian of the Girdle outside would restrain him, and he would be confined to his room in the hospice until his group departed tomorrow. Pietro hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he had been disappointed before.
Finally, Iñigo looked up with a sad smile.
“There’s no need to show me,” he said. “I will do as you say.”
Pietro couldn’t hide his surprise. “You… will?”
“If the Holy Father has entrusted you with this authority, I must trust your judgment. God speaks through you, Father Provincial.” His brow furrowed slightly. “Though if He doesn’t want me to remain here, I don’t know what He does want me to do.”
Pietro wished he had the answer. He’d once known exactly why the Lord wanted him here. Over the years, he’d only become less and less certain.
“The Lord leads us in ways we may not understand, but always for our good,” he said, as much to himself as to the pilgrim. “We simply have to trust.”
* * *
Later that afternoon, as Pietro reviewed the costs for the long-planned repairs to the convent stable, Bernardino rushed in.
“He’s gone,” he said. “Gone.”
Pietro didn’t need to ask who. Iñigo had left the hospice several hours ago, Bernardino said, telling no one and bringing no guide. He had not been seen since.
They began a desperate search. Pietro couldn’t get around as well as he once had, but the younger friars and the Christians of the Girdle were sent to all of the nearby holy sites. With any luck, he had simply slipped away for a last minute’s devotion. But Pietro could imagine worse scenarios: Iñigo striding into the nearby Jewish market and preaching conversion, or storming into a Turkish garrison attempting to fight a one-man crusade.
I should have been firmer, he thought, as he knelt in the chapel. This is why I need to leave: I’ve become too sentimental. And now we’ll pay in blood for it, as we always do.
Finally Bernardino returned, his round face red and streaked with sweat. “Youssef found him. Coming down from the Mount of Olives. They’ve just now returned.”
Pietro rose too quickly, his knees crackling painfully. “He was on the Mount of Olives? Without a guide?”
“The guards said he paid them to get through.” Bernardino frowned. “He visited twice today, apparently.”
The pilgrims stayed in the hospice of the Hospital of St. John, an imposing stone structure near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When Pietro arrived, he found Youssef standing outside of Iñigo’s room, presumably to prevent any further unsupervised departures. He was a hulking man, wearing the dark blue turban and cotton belt that identified him as a Christian of the Girdle.
“This man is stupid or crazy,” he growled. “When he sees me coming up the road he greets me cheerfully, as if we’re old friends. I dragged him by the arm the entire way back, and the whole time he was smiling. Smiling, Father! What do we do with fools like this?”
“Prevent them from getting themselves killed,” Pietro said. “We have you to thank for that. I’m sorry for the trouble.”
Youssef shook his head. “I had half a mind to club him with my staff, knock some sense into him.”
“I appreciate your restraint,” he said. “But I may ask you to lend me that staff.”
Youssef chuckled, and stepped aside to let him through. Iñigo sat at the tiny desk by the window, writing a letter in a precise, careful hand. He set his quill aside when Pietro entered.
“Forgive me, Father Provincial,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ve become quite the headache.”
“Perhaps I’m at fault,” Pietro said. “Tell me, did I mistakenly make the prospect of kidnapping and murder sound enticing?”
“I truly meant no harm,” Iñigo said. “And I did not forget my promise to you from this morning. My call lies elsewhere, and I know I may never see this city again.” He smiled, slightly. “I thought a little holy foolishness was warranted.”
“We’d quarrel on the definition of ‘a little,’” Pietro grumbled. “So you don’t plan to evade your departure tomorrow? You’ll leave?”
“I will. And I promise I will not leave this area without your permission.”
“Then I suppose I can dispense with the usual threats. I’m sure you can imagine them.” He paused. “The Father Guardian told me that you’d been to the Mount of Olives twice today. Why was that?”
“I wanted to see the footprints Christ left at His Ascension one last time.” The pilgrim glanced away, looking abashed for the first time. “But after I left, I realized I could not remember which way each foot pointed, so I returned.”
In the hall, Youssef scoffed under his breath. Pietro ignored him, but frowned. “His feet?”
“It helps me, I find, to picture the stories of Our Savior’s life in vivid detail,” Iñigo said. “Being here was even better: I could finally see the sheep fields of Bethlehem, felt the bark of the tree where He was tied outside of the House of Annas, breathed the cool air of the Cenacle. My own prayer has been much enriched by this experience. Since it is not the Lord’s will that I remain, I hope to bring as much of the experience back with me as possible, so that it might enrich others.”
Pietro blinked, disarmed by Iñigo’s earnest piety. He had felt that way once – what had changed? Part of it, certainly, were the harsh realities of living in a city divided and occupied. But, it was also natural for a place to lose its mystery and luster once it became familiar. As a boy he’d thought the tiny town square in Montella was the busiest, liveliest place in the world; by the time he left, it had seemed impossibly small and mundane.
But perhaps some things should never become commonplace, he thought. Perhaps, the things of God should always surprise us.
The thought rattled about his head the entire way back to the convent. It was a distinctly impractical thought. He wondered if foolishness could be passed from man to man, like a plague.
“How was he?” Bernardino asked when he returned. “Will we have to tie him to his saddle tomorrow?”
“No, I don’t believe so.” Pietro thought for a moment. “Brother, do you recall which way Our Savior’s feet point on the Mount of Olives?”
Bernardino frowned. “I… can’t say I’ve ever noticed, Father Provincial.”
“Nor have I,” Pietro said. “It never even occurred to me, in all of my years here. I wonder why that is.”
Bernardino stared at him, his expression caught between confusion and concern. Pietro sighed.
Holy foolishness. Perhaps it was contagious.
* * *
The pilgrims left the following evening. Pietro joined the other friars in saying farewell to them. He thought Iñigo might avoid him, but the pilgrim came to him directly and kissed his hand.
“Thank you for your kindness and your patience,” he said. “You’ve given me a gift greater than you could ever know.”
“To be honest,” Pietro said, “I thought you might bear me some ill will, for making you leave.”
“Not at all, Father,” Iñigo said. “I was listening to my own desires, not God’s. Your wisdom helped me to truly pay attention. Know that I will remember you and your brothers in my prayers.”
Pietro assured him of the same, and watched him ride away.
He felt a sudden pang of guilt as Iñigo’s donkey drew further from the city. Maybe he was meant to stay. Perhaps he would have spent every day in awe and ecstasy, never falling to the weariness that had eventually claimed Pietro. Perhaps he should remain, and I should go.
But, no. That was the voice of his own vanity speaking, not God. The Lord wanted Iñigo elsewhere.
And He wants me here, for the time being. Pietro had only now realized what a gift that was. He wished he’d thought to thank Iñigo, in turn.
Iñigo’s caravan departed just as another arrived, a friar leading them with a tall cross raised aloft like a battle standard. The sun was setting over the city, the songs of the muezzins rising from the mosques, the smell of roast lamb riding the breeze from the markets, amber light kissing the domes and minarets and crosses above the holy sites. Pietro took a deep breath and realized he would miss nights like this. It had been so long since he allowed himself to savor them, to recognize God’s presence all around.
Bernardino appeared beside him. “The hospice is prepared. I can greet the pilgrims, Father, if you would like to rest.”
Pietro smiled. “There will be plenty of time to rest in Rome. But for now, I’m precisely where the Lord wants me to be. What else can I do but serve?”
The new group of pilgrims came up the road, looking around with fresh reverence. Pietro rose, and went down to greet them.
John Dougherty is a Catholic writer and campus minister with over a decade of experience in Jesuit education. His work has appeared in America Magazine and Millennial Journal. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children.