In the queue

Migrants, refugees
and new itineraries

 Migranti,  profughi  e nuove itineranze  DCM-003
05 March 2022

A theologian’s reflections after living in a Roma camp


Whether it be black and treacherous waters, or of white and icy pebbles, the routes taken by refugees and migrants are the mirror of both Europe’s civilization and its spirituality. The image that returns to us is like the nightmares that materialize in fairy tales and myths. The gracefulness is torn to shreds and a disfigured and decrepit face gradually appears. The Europe of rights and the Churches of charity are falling apart is what the volunteers who work on the land and sea routes say. Pope Francis repeats this with increasing anguish and the statistical and geopolitical reports point this out too.

Why repeat it here then, and run the risk of cheap rhetoric; a sort of confession without any real intention of repentance? Well, because it is not possible to talk about pilgrimages as a form of old and new religiosity -the journey as a metaphor for life and initiation, the paths as a revival of the secular and the devout-, without placing at least a space between the words, a space represented by the injured feet of those who are forced to take the road by force majeure. It is first of all a question of honesty, of mental cleanliness, of semantic completeness, like when a dictionary entry gives back all the possible meanings of a word. However, there is also another reason, which may be less morally demanding but not irrelevant in a religious discourse, that is emulation, with certain shades of nostalgia and envy. I will try to dwell on this aspect, drawing from my own experience too, which has had the grace to be hosted in nomadic and migratory environments.

Having feet in more places and especially in certain places, in fact, makes one walk differently through the pages as well. At least this is the conviction that I have formed and that has accompanied me even in the reading of ancient Christian texts. I will try to explain it precisely through the themes of itinerancy and foreignness, if one can translate xeniteia in this way, pushing the Italian language just a little. There are times when the journey into the desert, such as the itinerary that makes up the Life of Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria, or the pilgrimage to biblical sites, as in the Diary of Egeria, or the visionary wandering, as in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry are lived experiences.

In many cases, however, the spiritual people who wrote them down and meditated on them are people who experienced them to a limited extent, but were able to grasp their significance in others and make it an interior dimension for themselves and for everyone else. This is true for someone who has moved very little, but it is also true in an exemplary way for those who have, as in the examples just given. Monks, writers and pilgrims of high standing have tried to move, certainly, but they have above all been able to see the extraordinary scope of the experience of those who to some extent the movement could not be avoided. They saw them, they drank in the weakness and strength of their journey, the disorientation that opens up vision and makes room for encounter. They were nostalgic for what they had sensed and a little envious, the kind that is not evil, that does not expropriate but rather seeks to imitate.

The experience of forced migration, of having no place, is too radical and often violent to the point of muteness.

Several years ago, the Algerian writer Assia Djebar spoke of this with respect to women immigrants in Europe:

Vivere sulla soglia dell’Europa da straniero, o piuttosto da «straniera assoluta»: a sperimentarlo oggi sono le donne emigrate in Europa, donne che provengono dal Sud e da tanto lontano, donne che vengono prese per analfabete. Un giorno, sono arrivate in queste grandi città che le hanno stupefatte e per loro si è aperto, allargato, l’infinito di un’effrazione, mentre, intorno a loro, si approfondiva una vertigine di silenzio (…) La parola, nel corso di questo dislocamento che è insieme spostamento del corpo e del cuore, necessita di una maturazione abbastanza lunga per emergere, per rinascere. (Queste voci che mi assediano. Scrivere nella lingua dell’Altro, Il Saggiatore

Living on the threshold of Europe as a foreigner, or rather as an “absolute foreigner” is what women who have emigrated to Europe are experiencing today. These are women who come from the South and from so far away, women who are considered illiterate. One day, they arrive in the big cities that astonish them and for them the infinity of a break-in opened, enlarged, while, around them, a vertigo of silence widened (...). The word, in the course of this displacement that is at the same time a displacement of a body and a heart, needs a long enough maturation to emerge, to be reborn. (Queste voci che mi assediano. Scrivere nella lingua dell’Altro [These Voices that Besiege me. Writing in the Language of the Other], Il Saggiatore).

In an essay by Emanuele Trevi, he traces “paths, pilgrimages, rites and books” in ethnographic writings, which is understood as initiatory journeys. He illustrates well how in certain cases a book loses its contours and becomes an experience:

This short-circuit transforms the work into a ghost, into a dissemination of traces that are not always coherent, and similar to the result of an explosion. Moreover, never as in this case, perhaps, literature and experience remain glued to each other.

Trevi goes on to suggest that it is not a matter of greater or lesser truth content, but of the ability to “mimic the workings of memory, with its contents that reappear to consciousness with ever unpredictable rhythms, its shadowy areas, its prodigious power of interpretation and deformation”. (Viaggi iniziatici. Percorsi, pellegrinaggi, riti e libri, Utet, edizione rivista del 2021 [Initiatic Journeys. Routes, Pilgrimages, Rituals and Books. Utet, 2021 revised edition])

All this cannot replace political action and an effective response to the humanitarian urgency, it is certain. It does, however, contribute to shedding light on the ways of the spiritual life, in that interweaving of history and words, of steps and interiority, of freedom and limitation that constitute it. By placing us on the side of those who learn and giving others the title of teachers. This, it seems to me, also explains why the relationship between itinerancy and depth, between walking and stopping, is illustrated in an exemplary way by people with a partial relationship to walking, such as Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) in the Life of Moses or Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kosk (1787-1859). I say this for the sake of brevity with the dimensions that for the latter characterize the Hebrews, “kneeling on their feet, shouting in silence and dancing motionless”.

by Cristina Simonelli
Theologian, professor of Christian Antiquities at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy (Milan) and Verona