From the pretty Italian village of Orta on the lake of the same name, Isola San Guilio lies offshore, a jewelled forest of holy convent buildings lying it the shimmering blue cloak that reflects the heavenly blue above. Like most inhabited lake islands in Italy, buildings rise to lofty towers and villas to sweep down to cover every inch with the wealth of past times meeting the ebb and flow of the overheated tourist trade lapping at the wealth of visitors.
But San Guilio is different, the tourists here are subdued and hushed, and laughter is that of joy at finding yourself in a church building that fills inside and outside down to the wooden dock, its pillars drawing the eye to the infinity of the cross.
Our local guide leads us up steps past remains of medieval painting into the Romanesque Basilica. His wry humour at some of the antics and church legend is well researched and rehearsed, but when he speaks of the nuns who live and work on the island in isolation he speaks with deep respect and reverence of them and their catholic faith. He has been there when the nuns process into the chapel hidden from view to sing; he has heard their worship.
The nuns remain hidden from view as we walk the “way of silence and meditation” which leads around the island between the buildings; even access across the route is via overhead pathways hidden by vegetation from the eyes of visitors to the island. The lake is also hidden from view except for strips of blue vestments in narrow passages to the shore.
In the shade from the hot summer sun, along the way, are overhead signs to guide the meditation, a small pilgrimage of words in four languages. I linger to take photos of them and as the others drift ahead their voices are muted and I experience the depth of the words is a real way as faith leads the spirit within to that place of mind and heart.
“If you can be yourself, you can be everything.”
A strange reversal that is the upside-down Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus brought to earth. So often I wear the mask that strives to reach everything and everyone, but when I am truly myself then I do have everything I need; peace of mind, humanity and something beyond that reaches everything.
“In the silence you receive all.”
Another manifestation of silence and reversal of the kingdom of the world. Grace is a wonderful silent companion; she asks nothing of us but gives herself freely to those who are willing to receive value that is unearthly.
“Silence is the language of love.”
Silent companionship speaks a language without the need for words. It is a place where when words do come their meaning is deeper and wider than the love they reflect.
“Silence is the peace of oneself.”
Finding a place to experience silence in this world is becoming harder and harder and some even find it a place of distress and worry, preferring a constant presence of radio, TV or iTunes. It suggests that peace of oneself is not achieved by silence, but silence is a manifestation of finding peace for oneself. After the resurrection, Jesus told his disciples he was giving them his peace and he would leave it with them and us.
“Silence is truth and prayer.”
Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” as if there was a single answer besides the man who stood before him. How can silence be truth? Perhaps it is only in the spoken word that we find lies, when we try to convince ourselves or others of the things we already know to be lies. A silent truth echoes the godly, the holy and the absolute, instead of trying to reconcile all the multitude of truths we are asked to bear. Along the parallel of the silent truth comes a new idea that we can pray without words, a prayer in spirit and in truth. This is worship according to the apostle John. A whole life connected to God in relationship.
“In the silence you breath God.”
In Genesis the breath of God is what animates each of us as a human being, and Jesus breathed the Spirit on his disciples after the resurrection as a new birth, a new covenant. The act of breathing is by no means silent, but to still my own breath and listen for that inner breath of God reminded me of the inner lifeforce that is the Spirit of God.
I have never treated a holiday as a pilgrimage but looking back at this journey around Lake Orta and Lake Maggiore we found places that reminded us of the journey of life and the need for faithful companionship along the way. Italian food is a good way to savour the journey too!