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(A ridiculous attempt to describe the sublime...)

I wish, like I've rarely wished anything, that I could

  do justice to the experience of being in Rome.  I can

  already tell you that I am inadequate to the task. 

  Trying to describe Rome is like trying to describe

  God, I think.  It can only be done in bits and pieces,

  with words and  phrases that might come close to describing some small fraction of it. 


Travelogue is inadequate to the point of ridiculousness, and I'll do

another page to enlighten you as to where the best gellato can be

found, and the best fettuccine with white truffle sauce.  Right now, I just want to try to give you a few glimpses of what I saw and experienced.  It's the most I can hope to do.

I bought a wonderful book at a little gazebo on the Via Veneto, called "A Journey to Rome" and subtitled "With Dickens, Shelley, Ruskin, Goethe, Stendahl."  (I wish I could tell you where to buy it, but after combing the internet, the answer seems to be 'at a little gazebo on the Via Veneto.' )  This book, with beautiful watercolor illustrations and simple excerpts, does a better job of describing the experience of Rome than you'll find in a million travel books.  I am going to include some of my favorite quotes here.  Like this one:

     "And here I am at last in Rome, calm and, from what I can

      understand, appeased for the rest of my life... I finally see all

      the dreams of my youth materialize... wherever I go I find an

      ancient knowledge of a new world.  Everything is like I had

      imagined it, yet all is new."                      

                                                                  -- Wolfgang Goethe



And this one, also by Goethe:

      "Wherever one goes, wherever one stops, landscapes of all 

      varieties are disclosed: palaces and ruins, gardens and

      wastelands, distant or cluttered horizons, small houses, stables,

      triumphal arches and columns, most in such close proximity

      that they could be set  down in a single sheet.  One would need

      to etch with a thousand  gravers, what could a single pen hope

      to accomplish here?"


Amen again.


My life will always divide now, between the time before Rome and the time after.  I learned a million things in tiny moments of epiphany -- the breathtaking experience of my first glimpse of the Pieta; the humbling experience of looking up at the dome of St. Peter's Basilica; the stupifying experience of gazing at St. Peter's actual tomb...  and a million things of equal life-altering weight.  


Crossing the threshold of the Holy Door sealed my fate for life.  I have often joked (and sometimes stated seriously) that I would probably end up having an Episcopalian funeral.  I figured "they" would either get sick of my complaining and kick me out, or I would get sick of their intransigence and leave.  I still can't prevent the former, but I will never again be anything other than deeply proud to call myself a Catholic.  It will take death or excommunication to get rid of me now.


I have always been enthralled by the through-line of Christianity, which is a major part of what drew me to Catholicism in the first place.  But I've never felt any direct link to it, and I'd assumed I never would.  Before the trip, it never really occurred to me that I was about to take a very concrete step back in time.  Now I have walked the same streets that were walked by Peter and Paul.  I've stared at the silhouette of the Coliseum against an impossibly blue sky -- what a tragic paradox that must have been to the Christians who were about to meet a hideous death there.  I have touched the very shutters that St. Ignatius opened every morning.  I've crossed the same river.  In more ways than one.


I am completely humbled by what has gone before me.  The splendor doesn't lie in the mosaics or the marble, but in the feeling of transcendence and love -- inadequate words, and possibly trite, but any substitutes would fall just as short.  It's the simple wonder of what humans are capable of doing, with God's guidance and inspiration.  Gazing in amazement at the knave of St. Peter's, I could only wonder "If humans could do this, what must God be like?"


Charles Dickens describes it better than I can:


     "Immediately on going out the next day, we hurried off to St.

       Peter's... The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its

       clusters of exquisite columns and its gushing fountains -- so

       fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful -- nothing can

      exaggerate.  The first burst of the interior in all its expansive

      majesty and glory; and, most of all, the looking up into the

      dome, is a sensation never to be forgotten."


Stendahl describes it like this:


      "From the table I am writing I can see three quarters of

      Rome; and before me on the other side of the city the Dome of

      St. Peter's soars majestically.  In the evening, when the sun

      sets, I can glimps it through the windows of St. Peter's and

      half an hour later, this admirable dome is outlined against a

      pure orange-hued sunset, surmounted high in the sky by a few

     stars which begin to appear.  Nothing on earth can compare to

     this.  One's soul is heedful and uplifted, a quiet bliss penetrates

      it entirely."


I now understand why we spend massive amounts of money on Cathedrals while people in third world countries starve.  It isn't just "the poor you will have with you always ."  It's that there are a lot of different ways to starve.  The transcendent splendor that I felt in Rome was the closest I've ever come to understanding what God is like, and my spirit was giddy at the proximity.  I felt I could survive anything on this planet, if I could start and end every day inside St. Peter's.  Or St. John Lateran's.  Or the Chiesa del Gesu.  Or St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls.   Or  the hundreds of "small" churches that I would need a year to go into.  



Photo copyright 1995 Rob Dixon. All rights reserved


That's what I loved most about Rome. The constant presence of magnificent reminders of the real order of the universe.  The comfort of being constantly reminded that my soul is not in the care of the people who build banks and mini-malls, and that "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is nowhere on God's list of priorities.  The constant feeling that God is nearby, as opposed to this country, where one has to work hard to find man-made reminders that He even exists.


When my little group stepped into St. Peter's square for the first time, one of my friends said, "Here we are, the center of the universe."  Then she added, "Well, my universe, anyway."  Mine, too.  The entire time I was in Rome, I felt the way some people must feel when they climb mountains.  This was as close to God as I could get in this lifetime, or so it felt.  As much as I admire  and try to live up to St. Ignatius' admonition to find God everywhere, there are places where He is more easily found.  Maybe that just means I'm spiritually lazy, but I don't think so.  


I think it's more the experience of living, even briefly, in a world where God has not been systematically removed.  As one of my good friends constantly says, "Most of us are trying to do something very difficult (live our lives) on a subsistence diet of vegetables, while rejecting this incredible banquet."  I was graced with two weeks at the banquet.  Now I find sustenance in that memory, and in the comforting knowledge that -- God willing -- I will return.


One more quote from Wolfgang Goethe, and then I'll give up:


       "I have experienced the greatest happiness... and now I know

      the highest degree which from now on I shall be able to use to

      set the thermometer of my life."




Me, too.


Coming soon:  Pictures worth a thousand words...


Meanwhile, you can visit a wonderful site called "Passing Through St. Peter's"Passing Through St. Peter's" -- full of really nice photos.  Or click on St. Peter's dome above for a few more really nice shots.


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