Journey to the margins

When I travel I’m always curious who’s going to sit down next to me. I like having a travelling companion. Yet, the possibility of conversation is becoming increasingly rare. Some people sit down and open their computer, often so they can go on working; others watch movies to pass the time.

The habits of my travelling companions run the gamut. Some take advantage of the time to study. Others to put on their makeup. Some never raise their eyes from what I imagine must be a truly fascinating book. Most of the time we just exchange greetings when we sit down and when we get up to get off the train. I really like it when children sit next to me, because then the time goes quickly and we can chat and sometimes play together.

On the last train I took I had an encounter that was at once beautiful and heartbreaking. Beside me sat a young man in a short-sleeved T-shirt, his arms and legs covered with tattoos. I don’t think a square centimeter of skin wasn’t filled with them. I didn’t want to stare so intently at the designs—they were so strange, and I, at least, couldn’t make sense of them—but I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

At one point I felt this young man watching me, and I heard him ask, “You like the tattoos?” It was an embarrassing question, given that I was at that very moment thinking that I didn’t like them at all. Yet I surprised myself by answering, “They’re unusual, and interesting.”

At that moment a non-stop conversation began. He asked me if I was from the “Red Cross,” surely because I was wearing not-very-fashionable clothes. When I told him I was a Sister, a Little Sister of Jesus, a flood of questions poured out. What do sisters do? Why did you become a religious? What do you do, and where do you live? Why can’t Sisters get married?

I tried to answer his pointed questions, but the more I talked the more I realized I inhabited a completely different universe from him. I had the impression my speech was empty, incomprehensible, that my words couldn’t reach him. It was only when I told him I had lived many years on the margins of a couple of big cities that the word “margin” caused his face to light up. At that moment he took my hand and said, “Now I’m going to take you on a journey through my marginal places” and he began to explain the tattoos on his arms, one by one, making me touch each one with my index finger.

“My heart recoils within me, my compassion is stirred.” These words from the psalm kept coming to my mind during this sacred journey through hope and disappointment, through the search for meaning and the descent into meaninglessness, through love, desire, and disillusion, through drugs, prison, and the desire for redemption and for “a normal life” as he put it. Then he made me touch a tattoo of a cross, a tear, and a heart with a name on it that I couldn’t make out. That was the turning point, he told me, “the moment I began to climb out.”

Without realizing it, he arrived at the station at which he was supposed to get off. He rushed to collect his baggage and asked if he could give me a little goodbye kiss. “Of course,” I answered him. He started to leave, but turned back and said to me, “Personally, I can’t do it, but you who talk with Jesus—tell him about me and my story…Maybe he’ll understand.” And he got off running. The train moved on, and I entrusted him to the Lord of life, but…I realized at that moment that I didn’t know his name! Spontaneously, I called him Charles. Yes, Charles. One of History’s many, one of our own.

L.Sr. Anna-Serena