An earthquake woke the cat and me up in the earliest hours of Sunday morning. It was a long, rolling one, and on the attic floor of an old building that shakes when a truck passes in the street four floors below us, it felt bigger than it actually was. We felt a few more in the dark, quiet hours of night, and throughout the following day. I always find it unsettling when the ground shakes and there is nothing to hold on to, an exquisite reminder of how tenuous my hold on everything actually is.
Saturday morning, the boys and I had been up in the mountains for an annual, day-long trek through the woods and fields surrounding their father’s home town, the town where we lived when Seven was born. For hundreds of years, in the days before the Ascension, the caravan of people leave the main town square early in the morning and walk all day in the name of Divine protection, peace, penitence and, because it takes place each Spring, for God’s favor in the farming of the fields.
I am not religious but I love traditions like this, and add to it the rituals on the stops along the way, like the exchange of eggs in the clearing after morning Mass. The men and boys walk through the crowd with their hats out, and the girls fill them with painted eggs from their baskets. (Seven and Three came home with more than we could eat.)
Then everyone carefully puts their eggs away for safekeeping and packs up their picnics, and the caravan continues, through the woods and on to the dandelion-dotted fields.
This was my first time participating. For over a decade, I had wanted to go, but there was always an excuse not to, and so I never did. I took Seven for the late morning stretch, and was going to leave Three with his Nonno after the Mass and picnic, but when the time came to separate, Three insisted on staying with me, and so he walked (and rode on my shoulders) for almost two hours. He was a good sport.
As you go along, people sing traditional chants and prayers, and it is very moving.
I had always thought it had only to do with a plague, but the idea behind it began in 474 when terrible earthquakes struck Vienna and the surrounding towns, causing destruction and setting off fires, which caused only more. The Bishop of Vienna asked the faithful to show their penitence by walking for the three days before Ascension. The idea spread, and in 801, when a severe earthquake shook Rome, the Pope called for a similar trek to take place there as well.
In the sixteen hundreds, after the plague came to this little mountain town, a chapel was built in the clearing in the woods where the sick had been taken, and every year a Mass is held there to remember all those who died from plague. That is the first stop on the trek, and the reason for all the rest.
Next year, when Seven will be eight, I will see if he is up for getting up at dawn to walk the early morning portion too. How beautiful it must be to come through the damp mountain woods still filled with mist as the birds are waking up for the day? Amidst the trembling uncertainty of the world, a tradition like this is one thing to hold on to.