By Alex Newman
When my husband suggested celebrating our upcoming milestone birthdays with a trip sans enfants, and to Rome, I had no idea we’d be accidental tourists at a religious world stage.
I’m still reeling.
Though we are travellers, I have never been anywhere like that. Talk about overwhelming visual stimulation. First there’s the size of everything – pictures cannot prepare you for the real thing, the mammoth proportions, first of Imperial Rome and its public spaces and then Western Christendom and its public spaces. My first impression of St Peter’s Square was that we had stumbled instead onto some Roman amphitheatre. But then that’s the point — Christendom built itself, at least materially, on the floor plan of Roman culture.
The city is rife with religiosity. At every church, belly-pierced youth joined cane-carrying seniors in genuflecting and crossing themselves. But in the midst of a papal election it was even more acute. Even the Muslim street vendor hawking souvenirs had an opinion of how long the papal election would take and what the outcome would be while regular people in the streets walked eyes squinting heavenward to glimpse the smoke signals from the Sistine chapel.
And how can one avoid the religious response when enveloped in a constant biblical narrative? There is religious art everywhere. Even the national museum carries huge tapestries depicting somewhat obscure Bible stories like the death of Ananias and Sephira or the passage where Jesus tells Peter to feed His lambs.
I could have gazed for hours at Michelangelo’s sublime Pieta, his visual analogy between all those Madonna and Childs we’ve seen, and the Pieta so subtle, and yet so obvious. Mary cradles the body of her dead son, as she did the baby, a pose that speaks volumes of her gift to the world — that she accepts giving her son up, just as she accepted having him. Ironically, there’s nothing resigned, just a twinge of sadness, as she says her continual fiat. Is it my imagination or does Mary seem to say that children are only ours to borrow.
I also fell in love — with a long dead painter named Caravaggio. Apparently he’s really “hot” these days. I can see why. There’s an irresistible blend of urgency and vulnerability in his realism. When writer Flannery O’Connor once said that grace often comes by violent means, she could have been referring to Caravaggio. His was a violent life and death and his paintings, especially the biblical ones, are rife with a naked psychological and physical reality that can only come from grace earned by pain.
While revelling in the art, I also experienced a visceral response to things Catholic. I’ve seen opulent cathedrals before but not so many or so big as in Rome. My poor Protestant heart, overwhelmed with the richness of gold, marble, jewels, priceless artwork, has a hard time reconciling all this with the simplicity of Jesus, and the fishermen. And yet my Protestant head understands that Western civilization is built on this, for better or worse, and that without it we would have less of a sense of Christ in our world, in terms of art and culture, but even politically and socially. A lot of contradictions to deal with.
What came as the biggest surprise, however, was my emotional response to walking where Peter and Paul once trod. Lying awake at night, I’d go over familiar Bible stories and match them to what I’d seen. It was like a revelation of some sort — they preached here, they walked, talked, and ate here, they were imprisoned and died here. It was concrete and real in places like the Mammertine prison where they were both held, with its column that once held their chains, the well where Paul baptised fellow prisoners. We walked to the San Sebastiano catacombs where the early Christians held services and buried their dead, and where the apostle’s remains had been held temporarily; we walked the road where Peter fled his captors only to meet Jesus who asked him where he was going. That resulted in his return to Rome to be crucified, upside down.
At the end of the week, my brain hurt, my eyes hurt, my heart hurt. When I got back, a secular friend and I compared notes about the city. She had found it hard to put herself in the shoes of people who’d lived 2000 years ago, whereas reading the Bible had given me the chance to meet with them already on an almost daily basis.
In that light, it seemed natural that Rome should remain the seat of the Catholic church especially on a week that began with burying one much loved pope, and electing a potentially controversial one. Having the world’s eyes focused on the city and the faith, makes it so clear that Christianity is far from being a marginalized religion.