6. A WALK IN ITALY
When I arrived in Rome to carry the cross I went to the seaside to begin my walk there. It was probably 20 to 25 miles to Rome from the sea. Few people stopped to talk. Most of them seemed not to notice the cross at all as I arrived at the catacombs. Here deep inside these caves outside Rome the early believers lived and worshiped. Through their love, faith and fearless example they became an inspiration for generations to come.
The catacombs were very significant to me, for here those people faithfully, under the worst conditions, triumphed over an atheistic government. Many times we think if our government took away tax deductions, or if the government did this or that the church would fail in America. We think we must have these rights or we can’t exist. What foolishness! I mean, it is good to have liberty, but if it all went away, the gospel would go on. The church is not dependent upon government for survival. When a leader of the government claimed to be God and when it was illegal to even speak the name of Jesus, the church was triumphant. Our survival is not based upon democracy. If democracy fails, the church will still prevail. We are not threatened even by atheistic communism. I’ve been to enough communist countries to testify that it doesn’t destroy faith. I would choose democracy over communism, of course, but when you go to the roots of these places and look, even in Jerusalem, you see the survival of the gospel. We are serving a living Christ. He is alive!
I carried the cross on to the Arch of Constantine and then to the Roman Forum. Then I carried it into the huge historic Roman Coliseum. It still stands in its splendor. I stood looking at the place where believers were fed to the lions, where every effort was made to rid Rome of the followers of Jesus. Yet, in the spot where Nero the Emperor had stood, was a cross. It was mounted in the Coliseum, overlooking the arena. With the deepest of emotions I carried my cross to the place the big cross is erected and then I knelt to pray. My tears dripped to the ground. The blood of others had wet this place. Oh, thank you, Jesus, for the faithful, unwavering and committed, who died as a witness to that which they knew to be true. Hallelujah, Jesus is alive. The Son of the living God. And my pilgrimage today is to continue that witness. Thank you, Jesus, for calling me in the tradition of the past prophets. I am happy to live or to lay down my life in Thy will.
It was a cold, rainy and snowy morning as I arrived to get my cross and say goodbye to Father Maloney. He was a wonderful man. He had arranged my visit with the Pope and interpreted for me in the streets. We had eaten together, prayed together, and talked together for many hours. I had said each time I left him, “I love you,” but he had never replied or in any way acknowledged my expression, but he seemed to want me around all the time. I put the cross on my shoulder, said a prayer, and “Goodbye,” and “I love you,” then started off.
“Arthur,” I heard him say.
“Yes,” I stopped and looked back.
“I like you.” He walked slowly toward me as he spoke. “I am commanded by Christ to love everyone, but I don’t like everyone that I love. I don’t like the way some people curse, or rob or steal or hate or murder. I love them, but I don’t like what they do, but I like you. I like to eat with you, I like to talk with you, I like to interpret for you, I like to pray with you and you don’t even read your prayers. I like you and I love you”
We embraced. What a beautiful man, he has taught me so much. How many people say, “Oh, I love God, I love Jesus, but let me ask you, do you like Jesus? Do you like what Jesus says, ‘love your enemies, forsake all, seek ye first the kingdom of God. Do you like how Jesus lived? Do you like the life of Jesus? Do you like to live this life of Jesus? Do you like God? His words, His commandments… His ways? If you really like, it would be much easier for us to live for Him, if we like His life. Many people want Christ as Savior, but don’t like to live with Him. They don’t really like Christ.
“Oh, God. Oh, my Lord Jesus, I love you and I like you!”
Italy-December 1979-It was pouring rain and it was cold as I was carrying the cross. I was wet and had sought to live along the road to Assisi much in the spirit of St. Francis, so I didn’t take a raincoat. I had nothing with me except the clothes on my back. It was snowy, sleeting, rainy, windy… all at the same time. There was no place to sleep or even to get warm. I remember the words written in the book of James, the last two verses where it told how Elijah was a man of like passions as we are and he prayed and it rained not for seven years. That sounded exciting! I was wet and freezing as I looked up and prayed, “Lord, in the name of Jesus, stop the rain, stop the wind.”
I fully expected it to all stop. In a few moments there was a flash of lightning and a roll of thunder and the wind blew twice as hard and the rain came down twice as hard as before. I stood looking up, smiling, “I love You any way. It will take more than water to drown out my love for You!”
The Cross Stolen-Christmas Day 1979-Another Christmas on the road, and this one like many others, away from my family. My mind was filled with the thoughts of the birth of Christ and my own children half a world away. But I was also remembering that on this day, ten years before, I put the cross on my shoulder to begin this pilgrimage around the world. So much had happened and today’s adventure was ahead.
Mike and I had slept in a small hotel, rising early to begin our journey. The streets were empty with only a little traffic throughout the day. Every shop was closed, so there was no food. I could just taste the good Christmas dinners that I had shared around my mother’s table as a child, and pictured my dad saying the prayer before we ate, then the table piled with food became ours to experience. The big turkey, potato salad, green beans, hot cornbread, cranberry sauce, hot sweet potatoes. Then the beautiful cakes, an assortment of pies, like apple, peach, pumpkin and pecan. My mouth watered as I continued along the highway with beautiful mountains in the distance.
Ahead was the city of Assisi, a breathtaking view, like a pearl set atop a mountain. This was the city of St. Francis, where, in the Thirteenth Century, he had dared to live out the words of Jesus in simplicity. Leaving all earthly their possessions, and with a passion for Christ. The world ever since has thrilled and been changed by his life, words and example.
I thrilled to the beauty of arriving in Assisi on Christmas Day. I thought surely the people here will accept, understand and love this modern-day pilgrim.
Along the roadside was an old typical Italian cafe-bar with a crowd of about 75 men standing outside talking. The December weather was sunny and comfortably warm. I leaned the cross against a roadside post, nodded to the men as they stood gazing, offering a Jesus sticker to several without any response. I walked into the smoke filled cafe. The only food available was a small bag of peanuts. I also got a cold drink. And I sat resting for about five minutes, and then walked outside. I stood in the doorway in shock. My cross was gone!
My companion of years around the world had vanished! We rushed to the roadside… nothing! It was gone. My cross was gone!
I had carried the cross into the Vatican, met with the Pope, who had asked me to pray for him on the way to Assisi, and here I was at Assisi, which is really one of the more holy and sacred cities of the world. Fabulously beautiful. It was Christmas Day, and my cross was stolen. I stood in disbelief, the hurt penetrating my whole being, not from fear or depression, just hurt, spiritual hurt, like Jesus must have felt at Gethsemane as He looked out at the crowd. How could anyone take my cross on Christmas Day in front of all these people?
I looked around on the road and in the ditch, and then I walked over to the crowd as they stood laughing and asked them if they had seen anyone take my cross. No one would say a thing.
I went into the Chapel. It was really beautiful with candles burning. As I went up to the altar I knelt down and then lay down on the floor to pray. I said, “Lord, now, you know I’ve been carrying the cross for years and someone has stolen your cross today.” I was crying. “How can anybody do this on Christmas Day?” “Lord,” I said. “You know where it is. You saw them take it, so now will You lead me to where it is and protect the cross?”
I decided to go inside the cafe-bar and tell the people what had happened. I explained that my cross had been stolen to the men. One big man jumped up and charged out the door speaking in Italian and started waving both hands at the men outside. He was screaming at the crowd then, he grabbed one man by the shirt, and drew back his fist like he was going to punch him, then the man started talking. The big man let go of the fellow, deep hurt in his eyes, and he told me, “Some fellows have stolen your cross. There were a bunch of motorcycles here and they laid the cross on the motorcycles and took it down the highway over the hill.” He pointed, “That way.”
I started running for the cross. Under the very shadow of Assisi I was running and praying, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Finally I came to the top of the hill and looked down. I could see the cross lying right in the middle of the highway with cars driving around it. When I finally got to the cross I knelt down, kissing it and crying and thanking Jesus. The cross had fallen at this spot as there were some wood chips on the pavement around the cross. I picked up all the chips and put them in my pocket as the traffic was going around me. Some people came to me, fear filling them. They didn’t want me to put a curse on them. They said they didn’t have anything to do with stealing the cross. They told me they saw a group of men on motorcycles coming with the cross. All of a sudden, the motorcycles just turned over and the men fell off. Some of them were pretty bloody and badly hurt. They left the cross where it fell and rode off.
The group of people that had gathered around didn’t want me to leave until I had prayed with them and blessed them. I got down on my knees and prayed and blessed them. At last they were comforted and happy.
Joy filled my heart as I felt the rough, worn wood of my cross. My Jesus had given me back His cross. What a Christmas gift! The cross, an open road, a pilgrim and the world. I began to sing and praise God as I began the steep climb up the mountain to Assisi.
Christmas Day, 1979, a day I’ll never forget!