Gamogna – The First Adventure

Life lessons are all about how you are willing to listen to them.

It was a Monday, one week and a day before my wedding day. I had been, for months contemplating the gifts and graces received by the Holy Spirit in the past few years and in particular the past ten or eleven months. When you are showered with gifts of this sort, you feel compelled to somehow replay them, to givve back. Perhaps that this leftover “Canadian-ness” in me that is the do-gooder, always saying “sorry” (for anything and everything) feel unworthy and undeserving and do your best at humility at all times.  This sentiment was driving me to take a trip to the Eremo at Gamogna which is connected to the Badia Fiorentina.

I had heard so much about this mysterious place and I had felt also the need to go somewhere to pray privately and personally to give thanks for the gifts I have received. From within me was bubbling up a desire to be atop a mountain with monastic nuns, praying and singing and giving thanks to the Lord. The weather wasn’t really co-operating though. It was cold and wet one week and warm and perfect the next and as the days approached for this inagural trip, one that was also to be the beginning of fulfilling the dream of writing this blog, making photographs and maybe the odd little film while describing the adventures in Italy on a motorbike.

Mother nature had some other plans in store.

That Monday I was ready to call the trip off completely. It was a combination of not feeling it and having that sense of “Ugh, Do I want to ride in the cold rain for hours on roads I have never been on, to a place I have never been too, that may not be too easy to access. I still was not sure if I would be able to get to the actual monastery as I still could not map a route to the actual place. I would get close, but not in a sense I could feel comfortable. On top of this, I had already cancelled one trip when the nuns were expecting me and I loathed having to pick up the phone to cancel another time.

This would also be my last chance as an unmarried man to retreat to an intimate setting to thank God for all he had done for me. Do you see the pattern of pressure one can put on oneself. Still, I did have the ill sense about the trip. I mentioned this to Rima and she was more on the side that I go for it and I decided I would decide in the morning. When 6AM rolled around and I looked at the weather, I was still wishy washy about going. Rima still encouraged me and reminded me that I had all the gear to handle the trip. I got one message from the convent letting me know that getting to the monastery by motorbike was easy and not a problem. I set off planning to be there at about 11 am in time for prayers at noon in their chapel.

Things got off to a very strange start. I hit about a half hour of traffic as I exited the garage and managed to get about 1 km in the first half hour of the journey, not off to the best start.  My plan was to get about a good hour or so of riding in, stop for some hot coffe from the Thermos and get on with the trip (another hour and a half). The first part of the ride was great and even overcast, the weather was holding out but the temperature was dropping as I headed North out of Florence. I stopped way past my first planned stopping point got off the bike, and seriously thought about turning back. It was starting to spit rain,

It was about 13 degrees and a very thick fog had set in at a tricky part of the journey. Twisty, wet winding roads, with plenty of switchbacks and up and downs, the road ahead looked ominous. I tried to slip on my rain paints but could not get my books through them, so I passed. In hindsight, if you even think about putting on the rain gear, just put it on. It wasn’t raining, but it was damp and the visibility was about 10-20 meters.

I headed out to my next stop North about 10-15 minutes ride from the Eremo. It was tricky and challenging riding. Fun, but also tense and requiring extra attention. Narrow roads, in some places without guardrails and experienced truck drivers who drove a lot faster than me in this weather who were both coming toward me and running close behind me at some points.

It was hard to take in any scenery as I was literally following the road by the line of road. These roads that cut through forests can also have fallen branches, pine cones and other sorts of debris and which can be problematic in tight turns. Still. the thought of dutifully praying with the sisters fuelled me and I looked to stay on point and on time after loosing so much time at the start of the journey.

Soon I was in the town above the Monastery and I was relieved because the damp was no fun and the temperature had dipped to about 11 degrees and very low visibility. It’s the kind of riding that makes you tired and hungry. I saw the road sign to the Eremo and the indication to turn right and thinking I was close I pressed on and headed out. One other thing I had decided was to take this trip using the road signs and laid out the journey as a series of towns I had to hit. To this point it was working really well without GPS and so I made the turn to the destination.

This road took me back up the mountain, into thick fog and switchbacks toward the final destination. My experience in Italy is that these places are really well marked and the Italians have wonderful way of indicating, with brown colored specific roadsigns, destinations. I road with confidence on this last leg of the trip and figured I would be about 11:30 a half hour late and in time for prayer and thanks I was so looking forward to.

A few KM past where I I thought the monastery was, I stopped to get my bearings and check the GPS. I discovered I was about 6M past the turnoff and would have to double back. I had my doubts that I was even on the correct road because there is a low road to the monastery, but from that road it is a 45 minute walk to the get to the place. It’s not a drivable road. As I road back to the turn off I was now on the road for about three hours and more than a little ready for a hot soup.

The GPS took me to the correct spot but I was promptly greeted by a chain gate. No access. I had to double back all the way to the town, about another 8 KM and figure out how to access the Monastery from the other route. I was able to stop for coffee to warm up, set my plan, and I stopped in a local church, San Lorenzo and said a little prayer before heading out. The GPS route told me I was 16 minutes away. This is one of those moments when you understand that the map is not the territory.

Soon after the first turnoff I was on a series of pretty much single lane cart paths that I was following to a small town. At the town I needed to follow the river to the road where I would see the sign to the Eremo. That is when it started to rain. Real rain now and me on this narrow road looking for a small brown sign to turn off.

I passed the green fields and two horses and donkey by the side of the road. The donkey was staring at me. I had a thought toward the donkey that carried Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday before passover and I thought of how sturdy, selfless and stubborn an animal the donkey can be.

After a while I really thought I had missed the turnoff and doubled back. I passed the donkey and this time he had shifted his position to be facing me and he stared at me with a look like, “who is the ass?” The turnoff was was not the way. I flagged down and oncoming car and asked them where the turnoff was.

“Go to the end of this road, when the pavement ends turn right.” I followed and passed the donkey again in this theater of the obsurd I was riding though in the rain.

It was easily past noon now, I was wet, cold tired and very close. I got to the turn off and started up the last 4 km to the Eremo. This was dangerous riding. The dirt road was thick with silty mud and I was slipping and sliding, enduro style up the mountain, alternating between some paved parts and some very messy steep parts that were allowing the water to flow downhill.

I revved and twisted and sprayed and turned and finally got to a flat part of the road, a switchback that gave me three possible directions of travel.

I stopped the bike, tried to call the Monastery but there was no answer and also, little reception. Here, I was really alone, I started to walk up the path  to see if I could spot the place and qucikly my boots got heavy with mud and I could see that direction was a mess. GPS was not an option at this point because there was a lack of connectivity. I was still in the fog.

Now, I was also afraid. I had made some mistakes, I was wet, tired, had not eaten, out of contact, and also lost. I literally did not know if I was within 100 meters of 100 miles of the monastery. I did manage to speak to Rima and she couldn’t give me any advice. I tried the monastary again. no luck.

Then I heard the voice, clear as a bell.

“Have you understood your limits yet?”

So much came for me in that moment. I had been praying for months on the words of the Our Father, “Thy will be done” and I realised that this whole day had been about MY WILL. Here I was thinking that MY WILL would get me there, ignoring all the signs (literally) and putting myself in danger. My will, my ego had told me that I had to pray in this way to somehow prove to God that I was good and that I do things the right way.

Still, I needed a sign, I drank the rest of my hot coffee and pulled a couple of bars out of my backpack. I began breathing at a relaxed pace and rather than think my way out of this, I just prayed for what to do next. I pulled out the phone to call my future wife and there was a message from her. It read:

“Just come home.”

Home was a few hours away and in that moment seemed so much closer than any of the other options. I asked God to be with me on the jounrey home and put my faith completely in him that he would get me there. A hot shower and my own bed motivated me as I turned the bike back down a treacherous wet, sloppy hill, standing on the pegs with my right foot and right hand on the brakes, “one step at a time, easy, easy.” Just get to the bottom of the hill and then back down the river road.

The other thought that came was, don’t go home the same way. I knew there was a slightly easier path home from my research. The other thought was, use the GPS, no more wrong turns. I had a twisty 89 km ahead and it was after 1 pm.  About five minutes after I set the route and set off the rain stopped and the roads were bone dry. I knew I was headed in the right direction. I asked God to be with me on the way home and a few minutes later the sky opened and the first bit of sun poked through. Just below me in a green field a deer was running along side of me and as I approached the switchback, I slowed to let the stag cross in front of me and he quickly disappeared into the next field and patch of woods.

78, 68, 58, 48 the KM countdown began as I made my way think about my limits and what it means to surrender to God. I had prayed for signs and they were clear now. As clear as the words I heard on the muddy mountain. “Have you understood your limits yet?”

Still cold and tired, wet, but happy I pulled into the garage at about 4:30 PM. Eight hours in the saddle and one of the most important life lessons learned. As I turned off the ignition, the phone rang and it was the sister from the Monastery. She asked where I was and what had happened and I told her about all of the great gifts that God had granted me on this day and that I would have to try to visit at another time.

After a hot shower and some soup, I reflected on the journey and gave thanks. With a solid internet connection I was able to retrace my steps and see where I had been and where I had seen the donkey and the deer. In the end I was a short 2 KM away from the the monastery. On a fine weather day three or four minutes on the bike and maybe 15 minutes walk. Someday soon, I will visit, with Rima at my side this time.

I have never been so moved by a place I’ve never been too. I have no buring desire to go back because everything I learned on that late April day is inside my heart. And I will never forget the question God, put to me, “Have you understood your limits?” because they have helped me understand that going it alone may have you believe you are getting somewhere, when the reality is not MY will be done, but THY will be done. I am am so thankful to have understood that so palpably on that day.