Summer Travel

Learning about Jesus in Italy

October 9, 2009
view of Garda Lake

An Italian monastery prompts discussion on Christian traditions

The same weekend as Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit to the Czech Republic, our family took a long-awaited road trip to Italy. Although our travels weren’t religious in intent, after a few days biking on the trails around Lago di Garda (Lake Garda), we decided to take a side trip to the Sanctuary of Montecastello.

Reputed to be one of the most visited sacred spots on the lake, we wound our way up a small road over 600 meters to the town of Tignale, nestled in the foothills of the Alps. Along the way, we stopped at an overlook for a breathtaking view of the lake. Almost as impressive as the steep descent was the multitude of grape vines and crops stitched into the terraced hillsides surrounding us on all sides which, along with ecotourism, provide the area’s main livelihood.

By the time we reached the parking lot from which a foot trail led to the sanctuary, I was in a contemplative mood and already felt like a pilgrim. Instead of driving, we got out to stretch our legs and take the rest of the way by foot.

Although the question of faith hasn’t come up a lot in our household, now that Anna Lee is nearly 5, she has begun to ask questions about how the world works in general and God, in particular. She’s familiar with Ježíšek (baby Jesus) as a magical entity who brings Christmas gifts to Czech children, but she hasn’t yet connected her Czech knowledge of Jesus as a gift-giver as the same baby and man that she’s heard about in stories from her holiday visits to church in America.

Growing up, I was raised Methodist, in a town where no one bothered to ask, “Do you go to church?” but rather, “Which church do you go to?” Bible school was offered through our local public school system, although parents could choose to have their children opt-out. It wasn’t until I went away to university that I met good friends of other non-Christian faiths such as Jewish, Muslim and Hindi. I remember being invited to my first Sedar dinner while living in California.

In contrast to my primarily Christian upbringing, Radek, along with the majority of his Czech contemporaries, was raised in an atheist environment under communism, although his grandparents’ generation still associates themselves with Catholicism. As an adult, the different faiths and their beliefs, rituals and traditions, hold historic, if not entirely religious, interest for Radek. It was out of historic interest that our family had initially chosen to visit the sanctuary.

As we started off up the path, Anna spotted what looked like a small road-side chapel. She ran to inspect it, and then came back to me telling me it had a picture on it and she wanted to know the story. It was a picture of Mary with an angel. I recounted to Anna the story of the angel visiting Mary to announce coming of Jesus’ birth. Pleased, Anna raced off to see the next picture. We realized later that the chapels formed the Stations of the Cross.

We went hand-in-hand from chapel to chapel, and she listened intently as I described each scene as best I could interpret. When we came to the picture of Jesus stretched on the cross, Anna stood for a long time. I wasn’t sure how to explain everything, but it occurred to me that Anna might be ready for a small children’s Bible that I’d bought earlier and had tucked away. Neither Radek nor I want to force either of our beliefs on the children and we had been uncertain exactly how to approach the subject. Apart from asking me if God was a man or a woman, Anna hadn’t previously voiced any curiosity, but now the timing seemed appropriate.

Reaching the top of the path, the sanctuary loomed magnificent before us, and we headed toward the front entrance. I had forgotten that as were planning on biking later that day, and my attire, a sleeve-less top and shorts, wasn’t appropriate clothing for entering a church in Italy. I encouraged the family to check out the interior and tell me everything afterward.

The small chapel dated back to 802 and housed a fresco from the 14th century, making the sanctuary indeed architecturally and historically interesting, in addition to being a holy place. According to a placard, a hermitage standing beside the sanctuary serves thousands of pilgrims year-round. We had even glimpsed a nun driving up ahead of us. I found it slightly ironic that my husband and children were able to visit the sanctuary while I had to wait outside, but in the end I enjoyed the views and peaceful atmosphere.

The following day, we stopped in a garden center to see if we could find some ceramic stepping stones for our garden. Radek called to me excitedly from the back of the store, saying that he hadn’t found stepping stones, but instead a Nativity scene with a stable and moveable figures. We chose a small set with all the important figures. Since the Nativity would be for decoration and storytelling only, and not for playing, Oliver chose some extra sheep to play with. When we arrived back at the hotel, the kids and Radek set up the Nativity and I retold the story of Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth.

We don’t belong to an organized church in Prague, but I have exposed Anna and now Oliver to rituals that I grew up with, such as saying, “grace” before meals and nighttime prayers as well as the traditional Christian rituals at Easter and Christmas. Our pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Montecastello was an unexpected extension to Anna’s religious knowledge. Later I overheard Anna tell my mother on Skype that the most beautiful picture was the one of Jesus on the cross, which made me cringe, but I could tell from her seriousness that she wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. She told my mom that Jesus was bleeding but that she thought it was a beautiful painting.

I’ve often wondered how or when I would introduce my children to the religious traditions and rituals that made up so much of my childhood. It was nice to have Anna’s natural curiosity pave the way and open a new topic of family discussion.

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