There are profound lessons we learn from ascending mountain tops ... and going deep underground.
“It’s hot, mommy!” Thus began our trip to Monte Sant’Angelo: after a wonderful week at the seashore, we scaled the mountains to visit the place in Gargano, Italy, where St. Michael the Archangel reportedly appeared four times. It would be great to be able to say that this was a pilgrimage lived prayerfully and with full awareness, but in reality, it was an unintentional one. We were hot, distracted, and not even particularly quiet, but God, fortunately, held the reins of the situation and guided our uncertain steps.
Going up to go down
We left the sea behind and drove up a steep road full of hairpin turns. In the car, my children were showing signs of impatience. “Wouldn’t it have been better to stay half a day longer at the beach?” they moaned, and I was hoping that, after yet another hairpin turn, a huge basilica would appear, worthy of the power of an archangel like Michael. I said to them, “Did you know, kids, that Michael was believed by the pagans to be similar to the pagan god Odin?” I outdid myself telling them the marvels of the archangel. In the meantime, no church appeared.
When we finally reached our destination, there was still nothing particularly spectacular to see. Superficially, the church we saw before us was plain, small, and humble. Over the door, there was a plaque with words in Latin, in reference to Genesis 28:17, seemingly out of place with the appearance of the building:
“Terribilis est locus iste. Hic domus Dei est et Porta Coeli” – “This is a terrifying place. It is the house of God and the gateway to heaven.”
The children were in a rush to go inside, to get into the shade. I saw them disappear, almost as if they had been swallowed up, because apparently, the Gate of Heaven goes downwards, and to enter the church, we had to descend. We had driven all the way up a mountain; we were at the top, where there was a breathtaking panoramic view over a precipice down to the sea, and we had come to visit a place where no one less than the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts had appeared … Yet here we were, going down 86 steps to enter the holy cave.
As I would later come to understand, at that point we’d already done most of our pilgrimage, and it consisted in meditating on this paradox: we human beings strive to ascend to the mystery of God, which is actually deep in the depths. We seek the divine on high and in splendor, and what we see, when we discern truly, is the path leading to a dark cave where God became a tiny newborn baby.
Terrifying and heavenly
The devotion to St. Michael in Gargano dates back to the 5th century, the time of the first apparition of the archangel to the local bishop, St. Lorenzo Maiorano. The bishop asked the archangel for the grace of being able to convert the pagans who lived in the area. St. Michael replied:
I am the Archangel Michael and I am always in the presence of God. This cave is sacred to me. And because I have decided to protect this place on earth and its inhabitants, I have decided to attest in this way that I am the patron and guardian of this place and of everything that happens here. At the opening in the rocks, people’s sins can be forgiven. Whatever is requested here in prayer, will be heard.”
I prayed in that cave, and I confessed my sins. Even though I wasn’t perfectly focused, because my youngest daughter was running all over the place, I thought about the dialogue between Bishop Lorenzo and the archangel. “This is a terrifying place,” says the inscription, worthy of such great awe that it leaves us prostrate. An angel must also be truly awesome in its splendor and power, far beyond the capability of merely human comprehension. The bishop asked for a relatively small grace (converting the pagans in the region), but St. Michael ups the ante (forgiveness of the sins of all men). Heaven is ready to grant us things much greater than what we dare to ask for. It’s the overabundance of Divine Mercy of which so many Christian witnesses have spoken.
The shrine of Monte Sant’Angelo is a heavenly basilica, that is to say, one not consecrated by men, but directly by the Archangel Michael and, interestingly, it’s bigger underground than it is above ground. While human beings strive to reach heaven, heaven itself has the face of a Father who loves to remind us through his messengers that he came down into the depths among us.
Going up and out
As we left the Basilica, something began to stir in my head. Going down 86 steps had been easy, but leaving and walking back up those steps was slower and left me out of breath. Entering had immersed us in subterranean coolness, whereas leaving meant catapulting ourselves into the midday heat. It’s difficult to leave such a blessed place, in which we feel protected as if in a mother’s womb. It made me think of how hard it is to be outside, that is, in a world where it seems like there is something on every street corner plotting to distract us and to take us somewhere other than God’s house. My children went up the stairs at my side, and their steps were more agile and carefree, but they too are destined to walk outside, beyond the reach of their parents’ arms, outside of their home, outside of the safety of our boundaries. The door of our house will always be open for them, but I would like them to know, or at least to trust, that the door we went through to visit the shrine of St. Michael is the one that matters most, because it is a miraculous door that is always wide open to welcome us. What is buried below points to what is above.