There are two rather steep ladders. The wood of the banister is worn out in many places where, over the years, so many hands have held it and the rungs are dented from the many steps that have been trod. One ladder is for going up and the other for coming down. Arriving at the top, we find ourselves behind, or rather, inside the main altar of the church, among the wooden figures of saints looking down from above. Following a long tradition, pilgrims can go up to “whisper” their prayers in the Madonna’s ear. Who knows what Jacek, Istvan and Andrea will whisper? Yes, even these three sick, homeless men, who come to our house every Wednesday for lunch, climbed up to whisper something in the ear of the Madonna.
It was during one of these lunches that the idea of spending a few days of vacation with them was born. We found a beautiful wooden villa on a lake and said “Let’s go!”. Various people had gathered around these three homeless men: families with young children, colleagues from school, friends that I hadn’t seen in ages, believers and atheists, the healthy and the sick. Among them, there was also Marie, a young mother who had suggested the theme of these days to us. It came from her curiosity for the biblical character of Nicodemus, specifically through her encounter with Michelangelo’s sculpture The Deposition. In this work, the already-elderly sculptor identifies himself with Nicodemus during the deposition of Jesus from the cross. Michelangelo both gives the figure his own physical aspects and even facial features, and also seems to take up for himself the famous question that Nicodemus posed to Jesus at night, so a to not be seen with him: How can a man be reborn once he is old?
Old habits die hard, like my worries at the outset of this vacation: “Let’s hope the homeless don’t drink”; “Let’s hope they don’t run away”; “Let’s hope they behave themselves, that they take their medicine…”. But instead, it was precisely they who made these days new. They were grateful for the beauty of the place, happy to be able to sit at the table and chat with other people, sharing some stories from their lives, open to participating in everything that we did, even down to the short pilgrimage to the shrine in Annaberg. Jacek had to have surgery soon after for his heart, Istvan for his legs, and Andrea for his stomach, but they still wanted to walk with us, slowly, up to the church to then climb up the ladder and say something to the Madonna.
When I arrived at the top of the ladder, intending to entrust some worries to the Madonna, I was surprised that from up there, you can look into the nave of the church and see things and people in a new way. This newness transformed my desire to ask into a desire to give thanks: being close to the saints gives a new perspective on the things and people that normally surround us. In the same way, the closeness of our homeless friends gave me a new perspective on these days and, consequently, a new lightness even to my worries.
Giovanni Micco is the pastor of Annunciation of the Virgin Mary in Vienna, Austria. He is pictured celebrating the mass during the pilgrimage to the shrine of Annaberg