I went all the way to Rome to learn humility from a homeless man

My husband and I arrived for our six month winter stay in Rome on a rainy day in mid-November 2021. We had two large bags of clothes and one of books, iPads, cooking utensils and maps . I had been to Rome countless times over the past 40 years and recently spent two winters in the area called Testaccio. We liked it so much that we decided to go back.

After settling into our fifth-floor rental overlooking the Tiber, we wandered around our neighborhood to beat the jet lag and grab a quick bite to eat at a nearby bar. The rain had stopped briefly; the sidewalk was still damp and strewn with fallen sycamore leaves. In the square called Liberatrice, a homeless man was pacing in what appeared to be a precise 10-foot line reciting something rhythmic.

And tied around her neck with a cord was an old teal living room curtain.

His headgear was a white cloth helmet as one would expect on the head of a 3rd century desert father, and over his bony frame he wore a large loose shirt with tattered linen trousers but own. On the feet, a pair of navy blue crocs on white socks.

And tied around her neck with a cord was an old teal living room curtain. It had faded gold fringed tassels running across the bottom. It flowed down her back like a child playing king. His face, filled with white whiskers, looked down.

The square he lived in was at the center of our new neighborhood, itself a bit like a village inside Rome. It was disturbing to think that he lived so close. It would be unavoidable.

When I’m in the States, I live in a posh town in Maine where you don’t see homeless people on the streets; they are separated from everyday life. They live in the cities, in the homilies of priests and during donation campaigns. People like me don’t interact with them except to drop an occasional coin.

It was disturbing that he lived so close. It would be unavoidable.

The next morning, a Sunday, I left my snoring husband in search of coffee. The path to the cafe took me to the middle of Liberatrice in the dark. Each step brought me closer to the sound of more snoring until I passed the entrance to the local branch of Monte dei Paschi. In front of the bank’s entrance was a makeshift cardboard wall pasted with an image advertising Parmalat Pomodori. The snoring came from here.

Frightened, I crossed to the other side; the city was still empty. I had my coffee and went home, wondering what I could give the snorer. Leaving our apartment later that morning for mass, I brought a fresh clementine for my trip back to the square. Passing the makeshift shelter, I left the fruit on the porch just inside the box, avoiding any contact. Immediately, a cheerful voice: “Buon giorno. Startled, I looked over the barricade and saw the homeless man from before. He was flat on his back, stuck in space with a blue-and-green checkered blanket, listening to music on a battered phone. Looking at the clementine on the porch, he said, “Toss it to me.” Out of my element, I picked up the fruit and gently tossed it into hands near his neck. “Grazie,” he said.

That this homeless man said “pray for us” and not just “pray for me” persisted throughout the morning.

Never having spoken to a homeless person and not wanting to linger, I said, “I have to go. He started peeling the clementine and asked me where I was going. When I said at mass, he said “prega per noi”. Pray for us.

That this homeless man said “pray for us” and not just “pray for me” persisted throughout the morning.

A few days later, I was wearing an Irish cape that I had recently purchased, made from a blend of cashmere and merino wool. I had wanted a cape so badly that even though they were expensive, I bought two. One was red and the other forest green.

I had always admired well-dressed and tastefully dressed Italian ladies, and had waited for the day when I could join their ranks. That day, my red cape thrown over my shoulders, I felt like I had arrived. I was in Rome in fancy attire, strutting around in a piazza where I would have carried a backpack and patched Levi’s back in my student days, too poor to really enjoy the city. Now, feeling confident with my appearance, my haircut and my elegant handmade “Alcione” glasses, I was finally somebody in Rome; a well-dressed Signora who recently retired from a landscaping job on a famous coastal Maine estate.

My red cape thrown over my shoulders, I felt like I had arrived.

The sidewalk had dried in the square, and the cape moved with the breeze and my brisk walk. Children, dog walkers and old people filled the place – I had an audience. I was that someone for about a minute. Then a figure like Superman ran towards me. It was the homeless who were flying in my direction. He had removed the curtain he was wearing when I arrived and now had a red velvet drape over his back. It was tied at the neck and floated in the wind; the hue of its drape matched that of my cape. The movement of her garment in the breeze was the same as mine.

He jumped up next to me and held the fabric of his drape next to my cape. “Lo stesso, ci siamo lo stesso—davvero!”

(“The same, we’re the same – really!”)

He looked at me with piercing blue eyes, smiling knowingly. I asked for his name. He said Mooghi. I said I was Anna. When he ran away, I started laughing at the absurdity of being puffed up with pride by the new cape, then knocked over in a flash.

He held the fabric of his sheet next to my cape. “The same, we are the same – really!”

Over the next few hours, something began to seep into me. I began to see encounters with Mooghi on a deeper level, the level where insight begins to pierce the veil.

I have interacted with Mooghi since then. Once he pointed his hand like a conductor and sang each letter of my name (ANNA) on a musical scale, his mouth wide open showing mostly gum. I asked him if he was a musician, and jumping on one foot, holding his right ear, he said in Italian “listening is always important”.

Listening and seeing each other is always important. Because no one is really the other. Nothing separates us because we are the same.

Luz W. German