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Wisdom from the Holy Navel
Notes from a Pilgrimage to the Umbilicus of Italy
We packed light, mostly clothing, and not much of that. Of my toothbrush I took only the business end, and broke a soap bar in half.
My main luxury: a slim notebook half-filled with cuttings of maps—a sort of custom guidebook for a pilgrimage route that did not yet exist.
We may have packed light, but we let go of things along the way. A third and fourth pair of socks proved superfluous (the number is two: wear one pair, wash the other). We learned that any excess weight soon makes itself felt over the course of kilometers. A too-light pack, on the other hand, means ‘low on water.’
In between too much and too little, a middle ground, the sweet spot. That’s what we were seeking.
As I pored over maps and trail guides during the long winter months, scheming then brooding over the itinerary, two potential routes stood out. Both passed through Rieti, a town that proclaims itself the geographical center of Italy--the “umbilicus” where a map could, in theory, be balanced on a pin. Given that Italy lies near the center of the Mediterranean and “Mediterranean” itself means (in an admittedly Eurocentric conception) “center of the earth”, the Reatine valley had, I supposed, as fair a claim as any place to being the navel of the world itself. (Not “Nexus of the universe,” however, the title claimed by Seinfeld’s Kramer for the intersection of 1st Ave and 1st Street in Manhattan).
Whatever kind of center it was, it seemed we were headed there. That felt right, even before it made sense.
But there was still the matter of a route. Neither of the two options I’d zeroed in on was clicking. Overlapping routes, they forked right where I had Rieti circled on the map. I felt I was getting colder as I moved in my mind along either branch of the Y.
Finally it occurred to me to forego the linear, A-to-B model of standard camino routes. What if we let our path bend around the center, like a celestial body in thrall to an irresistible gravitational force? Orbiting was an ancient mode of pilgrimage, after all. Why not circumambulate the holy navel?
Our route was born.
A pilgrimage to the center, then, and also for the center. The necessity of such a thing came into uncomfortable focus in the months leading up to the trip.A picky eater since childhood, I’d struggled all my life with nourishment. All too often a meal wouldn’t sit right, instead throwing mood and energy off kilter. Hunger can come suddenly and savagely, or not at all. And with little meat on my bones, it can seem that I’m never more than a couple of missed meals from starving.
Like any wound worth its salt, these belly woes have yielded their share of blessings. They’ve motivated me to learn to cook, then to delve deep into the healing traditions that have that have become the basis of my work.
Yet and still: Healer, heal thyself.
In the months before the journey, my struggles with nourishment flared anew, despite the tools I’ve gained over the years. Things were coming to a head.
Digging into the meaning of this malady from every angle I could led me to an unexpected conclusion: underlying my struggle with nourishment is a struggle with embodiment. Feeling more of an affinity for the starry realms than for the rude confines of matter, I have resisted physical incarnation, I came to see. No wonder, then, that I should struggle with eating, i.e. the act of taking the material world into my body and using it to make more body.
We hear about spiritual crises; well, this crisis of mine was very much material. A crisis of matter--and also of mater, in the sense that I was in need of plugging back into the mother-that-is-earth. For the sake of nourishment, certainly. That was the first thing. But as the trip drew closer, it became clear there was something else as well.
Deep in my gut, I felt there was something I needed to remember, some missing key for why I had come to earth (damn messy place, I hear, and awfully dense). It was as if my soul had set an alarm clock for my 39th year, and now it was going off.
This was odd, because for a while I have assumed I had already found my calling. My work in the healing arts was (and is) rewarding, meaningful, the right kind of challenging. It makes a tangible difference in people’s lives. Most days, I love it. But a nagging sense began to grow that there was something else. An intuitive friend texted a couple of weeks before the trip: “service work = cobweb-clearing for your purpose.”
The kind-of, sort-of center of the world was as good a place as any to receive a cosmic memory-jog, or so I hoped. Perhaps plugging back into the terrestrial belly would bring insight. In any case, it was time to find out.
All that remained was to walk.
Of the many forms of pilgrimage, walking must be the oldest. There’s something elemental in traveling on foot, something profoundly simple and human—qualities I craved after two pandemic years and an eyeball-frying amount of screen time.
Ground down by the pandemic and mid-life quotidiana, my wife and I were badly in need of the right kind of vacation, with the challenges of shared adventure and the spiritual recharge of pilgrimage. We were hungry for renewal, perspective, beauty, inspiration. And so we set out to commune with the holy earth in one of her most blessed reaches and in one of the oldest ways.
I first became aware of walking pilgrimages when, years ago, a girlfriend walked the Camino Frances or simply ‘El Camino,’ the old medieval route across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Huge in the Middle Ages, the route has undergone a recent revival, with pilgrims from all over the world flocking there for all kinds of reasons. But the Camino has become crowded and, I suspected, a victim of its own success. Besides, I’ve always been more interested in Italy--drawn not Venice or Florence or Rome or even idyllic Tuscany, but to the ridges and wild folds of the Appennine, the bony spine down the boot shin. Since college days I’ve been haunted by an image: a walker silhouetted on a bony spur, dry hills stretching out beneath in a haze of golden hour light. That walker was me. Somehow the trip would be a homecoming.
It took 15 years for this image to come fully in awareness, to crystallize out of a vague, half-dreamt notion into a clear desire. The development from desire to scheme happened more swiftly, and from scheme to plan quickest of all. In September 2021, on the heels of Covid’s Delta wave, I took a gamble and bought tickets for my wife and myself, for April 2022. Excluding transition days and some straight-up vacation at the end, we’d have about twelve days on the trail: not as many as I’d hoped (El Camino is a month-plus of walking), but it was a start. This mini camino would be a pilot program of sorts.
As for the word pilgrimage and all it can conjure, from the start it was the feminine divine who beckoned us: she whose body is the earth. A Madonna not overly concerned with dogma or doctrine, and one who predates Christianity by at least a few dozen millennia.
We put ourselves under Her protection, and in early April 2022 we set out. Italy had officially come out of its Covid state of emergency just days earlier.
After the flight, a regional train took us through the gritty Roman exurbs and, finally, out into the olive groves and hills of Sabina (in Lazio). I was glad not to be starting our walk in Rome proper; instead, we would start from Farfa abbey, whose 1,300 year history involves Charlemagne, any number of popes, several earthquakes, and an assassination by poison that inspired a plot twist in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I figured the abbey for a restful place to get oriented before we began to walk in earnest. After navigating a local bus mix-up (and suffering the first creaks of my rusty Italian coming back to life), we found ourselves there by our first afternoon: an almost too perfect little medieval village poised among silvery olive groves and suffused with deep silence.
Being a couple, we were ineligible to stay inside the monastery itself and found welcome with the Birgittine nuns next door. After being shown the clean but lonely-looking dining room, we declined the sisters’ offer of dinner our first night, thinking we’d prefer to go out. We reconsidered when our outside options turned out to consist of the potato chips served with our evening aperitivi. This was the first of the trip’s lessons: say yes to what’s offered, be thankful that there is plenty (and good, too)--and don’t be greedy.
In the end the smiling nuns, who hailed from all over Asia and Central America, served up an abundant dinner in good Italian fashion: three courses and a liter bottle of local red wine. More than plenty, and I did my best to eat it all. This was Italy, after all. Let the nourishment commence! I woke at 3am, not just from jet lag, with an all-too-familiar sensation of pounding in my belly. I knew I’d be up ‘til dawn, and turned by LED light to my little notebook.
I felt closed, constricted inside. The middle of the night is a good time for agonized reflection. Why couldn’t my body receive nourishment, that simplest of acts?
It was so easy to feel there was never enough: enough time, enough money. This mentality of scarcity had, I had to admit, penetrated my defenses and taken root even in our remote neck of the woods, in the sanctuary we were struggling to create back in North Carolina. Toxic capitalism’s subliminal messaging filtered in even there, on our tranquil acreage, stoking unquenchable fires--always more fuel needed. Never enough. The hamster wheel spinning ever faster in a vicious cycle.
That insidious ‘never-enough’ mentality felt utterly alien here amid the olive groves and medieval walls, here where shops closed for the better part of every afternoon so that people could eat, rest, be with family. This land, where fat grew in green globes on trees, held the promise of deep healing and great reset.
I wrote down my prayer for the journey ahead: “to open to abundance.”
But a pilgrimage is a prayer you make with your feet.
And so we began to walk.
We walked on disused gravel roads and single-track trails; we walked on asphalt; we walked in the morning and the afternoon and some days well into the evening.
We walked on flat ground but more often on hills: uphill, down, then up again, often ascending and descending to end the day at the same elevation at which we’d started.
We walked through fear and through pain: Julia’s feet, my eye after I scratched it on a twig. Julia’s glasses broke in half, leaving us with two good eyes between us. We walked our way deeper into companionship and trust, her leading me by the arm, me giving her trailside moxa treatments to get her through the day’s final kilometers.
We walked through small cities and tiny towns perched on hills; we walked to abbeys and countless churches. We walked without planning much ahead beyond the general outline of our route, often booking accommodations the same day. We walked to B&B’s, nunneries, church hostels, rental apartments, and one boutique hotel.
We walked through uncertainty, through crabbiness, through tedium and discomfort. After some number of kilometers, a different number each day, we would walk our way into a sense of wellbeing, before that faded, in turn, to fatigue.
We walked past hungry cats (stopping to feed them bits of pecorino cheese) and big white barking sheep dogs (one befriended us. He got cheese, too).
We walked to the four Franciscan sanctuaries perched in the hills around Rieti’s valley, and past many more roadside shrines to the Madonna, latest version of the great mother goddess.
We walked one day to a bus stop when the kilometers were too long; another day, we accepted a ride that meant we’d be able to finish our circumambulation, just when it was looking hopeless. There was enough time, after all. I suppose I walked through perfectionism and into pragmatism a ways.
We walked backwards for stretches, mostly downhill when our quads were tired of braking – this a tip from a hardy German pilgrim we crossed paths with one evening. Pleased with our new technique, we walked backward right past a turn in the trail, several kilometers downhill and off our route. The town we walked into that afternoon did not welcome pilgrims. Full of nice cars, but no accommodations, plenty of sideways looks. At the bar where stopped for water, the older men spoke in thick dialect with a hint of menace. On we walked.
In all we walked 100km over 8 walking days (plus rest days). I wouldn’t have wanted to walk less, Julia to walk more. We walked, in other words, right at the sweet spot. And to it: we walked to the umbilicus monument, adorning the holy navel with flowers, before sitting down to eat a restaurant paces from the singular spot. (It was the fanciest, but not the best meal of the trip.)
As we walked, again and again, in dozens of ways, the trail provided for us. It brought food and shelter when we needed them, always, though many restaurants were closed post pandemic and it was not yet high season. It brought kind hosts, helpful strangers, timely lessons and laughs. At least once it provided through us, giving an old straw hat of Julia’s to a sunburned fellow pilgrim: he walked by us wearing it, oblivious as to its provenance, moments after we noticed it missing.
Little by little, we walked our way into an understanding that there truly is enough: abbastanza. Enough food. Enough time. Enough money. As it turned out, a course we had run over the winter called The Way of the Wounded Healer paid for the pilgrimage exactly.
We walked into the paradox that there is more time the more we slow down; that in hurrying, time tightens and grows scarce. To slow down, on the other hand, is to make time. Indeed, the 18 days of the trip came to feel luxuriously long, singly and collectively.
We walked our way into hearty appetites, learning with each meal how to slow down still more, how to open to nourishment. And we walked on bellies full of good, local food.
Much of what we ate was simple, almost all of it good. In Italy, good food is almost a given. Free from the elitist tinge the gourmet has in the States, in Italy eating well is valued as a basic good by nearly everyone: something to make time for.
Most of what we ate was exceedingly local–chilometro zero (0 km) is the term. A B&B host made us a risotto with wild asparagus from her morning walk and saffron from, at furthest, the next province. Green-gold olive oil came from the silvery groves we walked through, fresh and aged pecorino from the flocks whose canine guardians we heard so much from. Local guanciale, cured hog jowl, flavored our most-commonly encountered pasta sauce, all’Amatriciana. The garlic and tomatoes were local; even the some of the salt was likely local, since part of our route was along the Via Salaria, the ancient Roman salt road.
Pasta was often homemade, otherwise dried in neighboring regions (Abruzzo, Campania). Without exception, the wine we were served was intensely local, even in a region less known for its viticulture; it ranged from rustic and a little rough (the liter bottles the Birgittine nuns set on our table each night in Farfa) to rich and memorable (a red made from the little-known Cesanese grape).
With the exception of one sorry round of tramezzini (American style sandwiches) from a bar, all the food was good, sometimes excellent. Occasionally, it was revelatory. A jar of pickles nearly brought me to tears; my wife, not normally a pickle eater, helped me polish it off in one sitting. We could have eaten twice as many of the perfectly ripe, perfectly brined mixed vegetables, each exploding with flavor. A plate of simple gnocchi with tomato ragu flavored with bits of lamb was exquisite; likewise a plate of unevenly shaped brown beans, simmered to silk with pieces of prosciutto skin, like something out of a fable. Often the best meals came at the most unexpected moments, in the humblest of settings. The best dessert of the trip? A coffee-flavored cake brought by those smiling nuns.
The biggest culinary revelation for me, though, was the water. One particular bottle of (volcanic Gaudianello from the southern region of Basilicata) was so full of minerals it was almost chewy. Even the water here was nourishing—to the nerves, the bones and teeth. I began to suspect the mineral content helped buffer the effects of abundant wine. Throughout the trip, neither of us ever felt at all the worse for wear from the free-flowing vino.
Slowly it sank in that, in Italy, the sweet spot is right where you already are. This explains why most of the restaurant recommendations we received (even in cities like Rieti with plenty of options) were for the place around the corner. There’s no need to look farther afield, not when practically everyone takes time to grow a garden, go foraging, make their own wine or get it from a neighbor. Everywhere, abundant nourishment.
Resistance, finally, was futile. We were going to be fed, and well. Brandishing her wooden spoon, Mamma Italia would see to that. What had we expected, heading right for her navel? She was aiming right for ours in turn. And we were going to slow down enough for that to happen.
Two hour lunches. Three hour dinners. Even our trailside snacks grew in proportion, as we set out not just bread and cheese but prosciutto or roast pork, homemade preserves, huge green olives from the last town. Slowly we slipped into the Italian rhythms, so dominated by meals and rituals surrounding them.
After two weeks, meals that would have seemed impossible to digest at the outset of the trip came to sit well. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I felt nourished right down to the roots.
And so, bit by bit, we walked our way into the contentment that comes with a happy belly. Into the gut-deep experience of abbastanza.
No longer preoccupied with the question of nourishment, my mind was free to wander back to the other question at the root of the trip. The question of purpose. It resurfaced as we neared a significant point on our path.
I’d read about the Beech of St Francis before departing. The story goes that the saint-to-be was caught in a thunderstorm high up on a hillside on the edge of the Holy Valley and took shelter under a beech (a good choice, beeches being among the least likely trees to be struck by lightning). After the storm passed, Francis blessed ‘brother tree,’ thanking him for his shelter. Still standing today at some 800-odd years old, the tree has a highly unusual form for a beech, appearing rather like a giant bonsai, with gloriously gnarled, zigzagging limbs.
Glancing at the map the day before we were to reach the fabled tree, it struck me that the route made an acute angle, the way it abruptly turned back on itself upon reaching the tree. That sharp turn marked in red ink stood out in my mind’s eye. A turning point, I thought, as I drifted off for a nap. This will be a turning point.
And something about the day we set out for the beech was different. The route was wilder and more remote, for one. Walking hours into increasingly wild country, we finally left the sphere of human habitation behind. I felt we were entering a new phase of the trip, one with more room for magic.
I’d written a line from Japanese walker and poet Basho into my little travel notebook: “walk not in the footsteps of the sages of old. Seek what they sought.” A noble motto, but so far we had been following in Francis’ footsteps, quite literally.
The holy man had sought communion; he had sought refuge in nature from the vanities of men. But the holy places he’d adopted have (if not as much as his hometown of Assisi) been enfolded to some degree into the establishment. At the sanctuary of Greccio, for instance, where Francis created the first nativity scene, you can now arrive by car to take in a film-set perfect piazza and a nativity museum.
It’s a common dynamic in religious history: an inspired holy figure is first ostracized, then embraced, his insights gradually co-opted and ossified into a dogma alien to the spirit of the original. At this point in the cycle, of course, things are ripe for the emergence of a new holy figure to once again stir the pot.
In order to really seek what Francis sought, I now saw, we had to go further from established structures, even blessed ones. Ironically, the beech tree he loved would, I felt, be a more powerful testament to the saint than any of his four official sanctuaries.
So it was with a tangible sense of anticipation that we finally approached the mythic beech early in a warm mid-April afternoon. We’d been walking through thin pine, juniper, scrubby oak; finally we reached a band of some few beeches high on the mountainside. A wooden sign, first evidence of human hands in an hour or more, pointed us down a side path.
There was no mistaking the beech tree. Even from a distance it had a numinous quality connected to its extraordinary beauty and strangeness. It seemed to embody opposites: gnarled base and delicate top, ancient trunk and tender spring leaves. All around, the other beeches were normal, straight-trunked specimens.
We approached the grandpa tree slowly, reverently; we had the place to ourselves and sat in silence, each with our private meditations.
I was moved by its beauty, its wordless testament to the resilience and majesty which life can, in time, attain. I felt on the edge of a revelation, and yet there was nothing I could put my finger on, beyond the suchness of the tree.
What, after all, had I expected? Trees rarely speak on command, and this one was holding its peace. Part of me was disappointed, but then it was hard to be too disappointed in the presence of such a spectacular being. I sat and marveled a while longer. While Julia did her best to capture the majestic tree on film, it struck me how incredible it would be to propagate a seedling from such a tree. I’d been re-reading Tolkien, and the idea was reminiscent of the trees tended by the kings of Numenor in that saga, trees descended from the White Tree in Valinor, abode of the gods. Something began stirring in this fantasy geek at that thought. If I could just find a seed…
The leaf litter was full of acorns from scrubby oaks, but beech nuts were much harder to come by. Focusing in on the duff under the layer of fallen leaves, I began to find the outer husks of the nuts, nearly all of which had already opened to release their seeds; the few that were still closed had begun to decompose. This was April, after all, and the last crop of beech nuts might have been from the two or three autumns ago. (Beech trees tend not to produce a crop only every few years.) Finally, I found a seed, smooth and three-ridged. But it was dried, hollow, and crumbled between the fingers. Over the course of half an hour I found a dozen more seeds under the duff, none of them viable.
It wasn’t the right season. I wouldn’t be sprouting any seeds from the miraculous tree.
I sat back, saddened, and that’s when something clicked. I couldn’t collect literal seeds, but I had been given something just as precious: the seed of an idea that was at once the idea of a seed.
Collecting seeds was the signal, the message I’d been missing.
Far from a novel idea, it felt deeply familiar, congruent--less a new bit of instruction than a reminder and at the same time a re-framing of my work in the world.
It fit. The sanctuary my wife and I had started was fertile ground, a perfect place to preserve and propagate practices and traditions from far and wide, with a focus on deep, soul-level healing. In this context, seed-collector was a role I could joyfully and wholeheartedly embrace.
Tucking the seed of an idea into the soil of my belly, I began the long walk back down the mountain.
In the days and weeks since returning from pilgrimage—content, full of nourishment and inspiration—I’ve returned over and over to the gift I received, this image of a sacred seed from a miraculous tree.
I don’t rightly know what saving seeds will entail, nor what will grow from the ones I may plant. That’s the nature of life, which we live backwards, able to clearly see only that part of the trail we’ve already traversed. But I invite you to join me here in the process of scouting, collecting, sprouting and tending.
For my intent for Seeds from the World Tree is to serve as a seed bank of sorts, or a nursery: a place for the germs of good ideas and best practices. I figure that, as with physical seeds, the best way to ensure their survival is to share them and let them multiply.
I hope Francis would approve. It was he who said “it is in giving that we receive.” I have received so much, on this trip and in my life, and I wish to share what I can that will be of use through the turbulent times to come.
I hope you’ll join me in seeing what unfolds.