Driving around southern Italy and Sicily, my partner and I decided to make a sacred pilgrimage to volcanic sites such as Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. We drove to the top of smouldering Mount Etna, to see the steam coming out of the ground and look into the volcano’s famed Calderas.
I was reluctant to catch the chairlift to the peak of Etna given recent world eruptions and what we’d witnessed in Pompeii. But the minute I got up there I was unafraid. Staring at the jet-black mountain face, with its rippled lava stones, I felt overcome with a sense of awe, history and gratitude. Mother Nature at her most potent. Humans forget who’s the boss.
We decided to find a quiet spot away from the swarms of tourists, and pay our respects. We planted our bodies on a rock off the beaten track, buried our hands under warm lava stones, and shut our eyes.
Not for long. A few seconds into prayer, two young men with music blaring out of a mobile phone climbed around the same rocks we were hiding behind and stood next to us. I made a gesture to please go elsewhere, that I was meditating. But they shrugged and remained.
Insensitivity at spiritual sites is common. In the Amazon a few years ago, we went on a dawn trek into the rainforest. We were asked by our indigenous guide to remain quiet, in reverence to the magnificence around us, and to hear rare animal calls. Not one of the 20 people in the group could keep their mouths shut or stop snapping their mobiles at nothing.
Yesterday, we stood on a cliff above the Greek Island of Santorini, gobsmacked by the ancient city of Thira founded by the Spartans. Inside the ruins of an important 2000-year-old temple, a man’s mobile rang. He took the call. On top of the world, at a sacred site, he began clinching a business deal with a bellowing voice which shattered the peace.
“This is the world of God,” I said to my partner. “How can he do this?” “Because his mobile is his God darling. That’s the world today. People worship their Facebook, selfies, and themselves.”
It’s sadly true. Sacredness is fading from daily life. It’s not just organised religion that’s losing a grip. Spirituality has been replaced by technology.
I stared at the volcanic cliffs. Mother Nature has watched us come and go in this ancient spot: Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Christians who’ve breached the fortress walls, and now tourists with mobile phones. She just has to yawn and we’ll be shaken off her flank like flies on an elephant’s skin.
But wouldn’t that eruption make a wonderful selfie posted to Facebook at the final breath?