Updated: Oct 18, 2020
When I was 20, I spent a semester in school with a nun.
For a girl who grew up in rural central Washington, everything about Perugia, Italy, was unfamiliar. The walled city on the hill, cobble streets, Etruscan architecture--it all looked so different than the apple, pear, and cherry orchards that bracketed my home valley. Fiats streaked through passageways so narrow that pedestrians flattened themselves against stone walls when they rattled through. Tiny shops sold single categories of food: bread here, cheese there, a vegetable stall down the street.
Our classes at Università per Stranieri di Perugia paused from 5-7pm while seemingly everyone in town strolled arm in arm, enjoying the passegiatta. Afterwards, those of us at the University for Foreigners streamed to the school cafeteria, where dispensers offered beverage choices: milk, water, and, to our delight, red wine.
Whether it was our clothing, our hair, our coloring, or our mannerisms, we foreigners stuck out, even if we hadn't uttered a word. And 30 years ago, American visitors--particularly females--enjoyed a certain elevated status that I suspect may not be present today. This meant that we couldn't walk down the street, sit on the steps of the Piazza IV Novembre, read a book in a park, or ride alone on a train without attracting attention, which, although flattering, soon grew tiresome. Try as we might, we couldn't blend in: our accents, our attire, our brash American habits.
But the lone nun in our class--well, she slipped into the tapestry of Perugian daily life as if she were simply an additional thread in the weave. I'm not sure that I'd ever seen nuns in real life before traveling to Italy, but in Perugia they were everywhere, gliding along the streets, en masse or alone.
Madre Agnese was enrolled in the Università per Stranieri because she had been reassinged. After receiving her calling and undertaking her postulancy and novitiate in various convents throughout the United States, Madre Agnese--at an age that I can't pinpoint but was certainly not a young one--was being sent to Sicily, to a rural village, quite likely never to again see those familiar to her. She told us about saying goodbye to her siblings and her tone was matter-of-fact, not regretful but resolute. God needed her elsewhere, and she would go--after a semester in Perugia to learn the only language the people in her new home would speak.
The rest of us in the school were young, 20-somethings, our lives undefined in front of us, more questions than answers about who we would become and what we would do (and our choice of Italian language and literature studies provided scant opportunity), whereas Madre Agnese had been on the same path since she was 16, and for her it was a journey of joy and fulfillment, of questions with answers, of purpose. This semester in Perugia that was for the rest of us a lark before we returned home to the cradles of everything we knew, little boomerangs on our studies abroad. An enduring concept of home anchored our perspectives and our identities. But for Madre Agnese, who had known nothing else since she was younger than we were then, Perugia represented not the end of an adventure but a step on her journey of faith; for Madre Agnese, home was not a place but a purpose.