It was a bright sunny morning as our plane circled above Rome before beginning its final descent into Fiumicino Airport. Excitement bubbled over as we strained to catch a glimpse of the Eternal City and relished the anticipation of what lay ahead. We knew it was going to be a unique trip because we’d impulsively opted to a stay in a modest convent, knowing little about it, other than it offered a more authentic experience of Rome. Religious conviction played no part in our decision and we eagerly disembarked on landing, brimming with curiosity and expectation.
After clearing customs we gathered at the meeting point of the tour operator and exchanged greetings with other tourists, as we tried not to wilt in the heat. Shortly afterwards, a tour guide led us to an air-conditioned bus and we gladly took refuge in the back row. We giggled at the fact that we were the youngest in the group and wondered aloud if anyone else would join us at the convent. Just as we’d settled in our seats and the bus began to navigate its passage through the airport traffic, I felt a sudden rush of panic.
Although it had been a joint decision to stay at the convent, arrangements for the trip had been left to me. My sister had entrusted me with the responsibility of ensuring our basic requirements were met and although neither of us expected luxury, we wanted an en-suite room so we wouldn’t have to share a bathroom with strangers. Suddenly, I realised that not only had I forgotten to ask about the en-suite, but I’d also forgotten to check whether the convent had air-conditioning. This sobering discovery quickly dampened my spirits and I became subdued, as I reflected on my sister’s reaction when she discovered my oversight. However, I said nothing and quietly whispered a prayer to God.
A short while later, whilst still on the outskirts of the city, the bus turned into a side street and shuddered to a halt. The tour guide picked up her microphone and asked “the girls staying at the convent” to come to the front to disembark. Instantly, heads swivelled in our direction and we quickly collected our bags and left the bus, to the good-natured cheers of the group. As we stepped onto the pavement, we were confronted with imposing iron gates, flanked by magnificent pillars and high walls. It was an impressive sight and we exchanged excited looks as we waited for the gates to yield, but nothing happened. Just as disquiet threatened, a small side-door clicked open, as if guided by an invisible hand and we stepped across the threshold.
As we entered the convent enclosure, the stillness struck us immediately and there was a palpable sense of leaving the earthly world behind. We were greeted by a mature landscaped garden with flowerbeds and shrubs sheltering under a canopy of majestic stone pines. Up ahead was a gently sloping incline and we caught sight of the convent, discreetly nestled on a hilltop. We spoke in hushed tones as we made our climb, marvelling at the choice we’d made and the splendour unfolding before us. Suddenly, I stopped mid-sentence and gasped in astonishment as St Peter’s Basilica loomed into view, dominating the skyline. Even though it must have been a few kilometres away, it appeared tantalisingly close and we stood open-mouthed in wonder until a kindly nun rushed out to greet us. She welcomed us into the convent and showed us to our room, which as expected was spartan with twin beds, a wardrobe and a crucifix on the wall. However, to my delight, I heard the welcome whirring of an air-conditioning unit and noted with relief there was a small en-suite tucked away in the corner. I smiled to myself. God had answered my prayers.
As we settled in our room, we were bewildered by the serendipity which had led us to such a hidden gem. Having expected a dark, brooding building tucked away in a corner of the city, we were staggered by the magnificent location, stunning garden and majestic views. The peace and tranquillity had an immediate impact and we quickly unpacked, leaving the stresses of travel behind.
Although we were determined to experience every Roman landmark, we also recognised what a tragedy it would be if we didn’t make the most of the convent. So, we plotted a flexible itinerary, which left sufficient time for both sightseeing and relaxation. However, as time wore on, the appeal of Rome’s colossal attractions proved no match for the lure of the convent. A combination of burgeoning crowds, incessant noise and the baking heat, left us exhausted and ill tempered and we began to retreat to our hilltop sanctuary with greater regularity. The cooler temperature, peace and tranquillity was too powerful a draw and we washed away the stresses of the city by spending afternoons luxuriating in the rose garden terrace or reading in the spacious light-filled library
By spending so much time at the convent, we began to see a great deal more of the nuns and watched in fascination as they quietly went about their work. Initial curiosity quickly developed into a fully-fledged obsession and I began to take every opportunity to waylay them and engage them in conversation about their vocation. As the nuns originated from different parts of the world, their stories were as varied as they were enthralling and I lapped them up, eager to understand what had led them to leave their homes and all that was safe and familiar, to devote their lives to God. The nuns patiently indulged my questions and generously shared their stories, as I tried desperately to remember every detail, so I could recite it later to my sister.
As the days progressed, we began to keep our trips to the city short and brief, impatient to return to the convent. With few other guests, the convent felt like a private villa and we moved around freely, knowing we were unlikely to encounter anyone but the nuns. If we grew restless, we’d take walks in the garden, but mostly we fell into the gentle rhythm of the convent, observing its rituals from a respectful distance. The highlight of each day was undeniably Vespers, when the angelic singing of the nuns drifted from the chapel and spilled onto the terrace, consummating our heavenly experience.
As the holiday came to a close, we acknowledged it wasn’t luck which had brought us to the convent. We’d both noticed a gentle loving presence, which had accompanied us throughout our stay and knew it was God who had led us here. We reflected on the quiet bliss we’d experienced and how deeply it had touched our souls. Even though we had arrived at the convent as tourists, we knew we would be leaving as pilgrims.
When the time for departure arrived, we left with a heavy heart. We had been swathed in love and it was difficult to say goodbye. As we bade farewell to the delightful nuns, we took one final wistful look at the convent before slipping through the gates for the last time. It was only on boarding the bus, that our celestial spell was abruptly broken by a barrage of questions from the group we’d met on arrival, all eager to hear about our experience at the convent.
Still glowing from what was undeniably a deeply spiritual experience, we shared our stories with undisguised reverence. There was no need to embellish the details and we spoke from the heart. Gradually, the boisterous curiosity of our audience dissipated and their attention waned as they slumped in their seats in disappointment. It transpired their holiday hadn’t been quite so satisfying. The heat had debilitated them by day and the noise of the city hotel had kept them awake at night, leaving them longing to return home.
As the bus fell silent and hurtled towards the airport, I reflected on our experience and how special and unexpected it had been. Lost in my thoughts, I gazed at the sky and wondered why God had led us to what must surely be a jewel in the crown of Rome (as well as the Kingdom of God). I sighed deeply as the bus pulled into the airport terminal and as I did so, I heard God whisper, “Every thought, longing and desire you have, is close to My heart. Keep being Who You Are. You are deeply loved”.
Our trip to Rome left an abiding memory. After that holiday, I began to actively seek out churches, hoping to replicate my experience at the convent. Living and working in London meant there was a plethora of choice and churches became my sacred holy place, where I communed with God. Either at the beginning of each working day or during a lunchtime sojourn, I began to use my daily visits to build a relationship with God. Whether it was strength, comfort or guidance I needed or just an opportunity to express my joy and gratitude at whatever wonder had arrived in my life, my time with God became sacrosanct. Irrespective of the motivation, God was always delighted to see me and I never left His presence without a lightness in my step. It was akin to visiting a beloved family elder, whose mere presence had the unfailing power to soothe all sorrow and who in a gentle loving smile, exuded the wisdom of the world and an unequivocal sense, that all was well.
Over the years, many milestones have been reached and passed, but it is this relationship above all others, which has helped me find the richest meaning and fulfilment in my life. And to think it began all those years ago, on a hilltop in Rome.