A visit to Rome prompts the author to reflect upon his own journey to Catholicism. It was not rational argument that shipwrecked the mind as much as a growing recognition of something lost long ago: something that now somehow satisfies the universal desire to both remember and be remembered, to consoled as to be consoled.
Holy Week is late this year. The Roman natives wear black, not having yet shifted to the lighter shades of spring. Vespas whine along the Conciliazione. What more could be written, you wonder, and what’s more, could be remembered, or is worth remembering, about the Eternal City? The Palatine Hill flanked by the Arch Domitian erected to immortalize his brother. The Aurelian Walls enclose the Seven Hills, the Field of Mars and Trastevere. The cut thoughts and passage ways. The late night convenience stores on every street corner. The political graffiti. The stickered signs. The centuries old alabaster. The lyrical dimension of the mother tongue. The screech of scooters coming to a stop at cross walks. The Café bar on the Cipro roundabout where the youth gather to converse.
The aged elevator takes an eternity to arrive at the third floor. In the end you make a note to use the stairs to your room. The dome of St peters visible from the window. In Rome they look upon life with a determined gaze and on fate with indifference, as if civilisation is merely the vestige of a long forgotten dream. In St Mark’s, waiters carry trays of coffee where seventeen years earlier you stood on a school trip, though not a Catholic then. As a child, you were taught that the bread and the wine, the nexus of Christian worship, was merely an act of remembrance: something you did to make you feel something about something that happened long ago.
Seventeen years ago you sensed you were entering a special place. But what do you really remember unalloyed by prior experience? What part of the original is still down there somewhere, languishing deep inside of us? Neurologists refer to memory as the ability to assimilate thought; to reconstruct reality based upon these representations. Yet transcendental apperception makes memory a fundamental cognitive function of the mind. The imagination from within time interfaces with the mystery that extends beyond it. We “remember” impressions as opposed to facts which occur in time and flow away irretrievably with time.
You remember the shadow of the bronze doors as you slip into a side room to retrieve an envelope. An otherworldly silence greets you in St Peters. The weight of the Vatican’s marble and frescoes. The sculptures upon their plinths: the resolve of later generations to preserve the memory of their heroes of faith. Anthropology singularly attests to this most inalienable instinct: to assure continuous remembrance of the deceased. Ahead of you are two English seminarians and a Head teacher. Beside St Peter’s tomb you ponder Apostolic Succession and the unbroken chain of words spoken down through the ages. As an Evangelical all you had was your personal interpretation of Scripture, as a Pentecostal all you had was an experience in the moment. Finally, the Confessor opens the hatch. Everything is like water poured out on the ground. To forgive and be forgiven, to console as to console. “Believe, have faith; Receive the grace of God.” The priest is speaking in the person of someone altogether greater.
Another memory surfaces: Chrism oil upon your forehead when you were received into the Church six years ago, oil you now realise was consecrated in this very room. Anamnesis occurs when the faithful receive the bread of eternal life and the chalice of everlasting salvation. The sum total of all the Masses offered on all the altars across the city down through the ages testify to this enduring truth. Moreover, not only is Christ present in the Eucharist, but there is only one single sacrifice anchored within but extending beyond time.
After the Chrism Mass you cross the Piazza della Repubblica. Later in the day inside the ruined Diocletian Baths, the Priest is washing the feet of the faithful. In these rituals there is something that opens a passage across time, or despite time that yearns to imprint an abiding image of something greater, like the fiery tail trailing a falling star, or the traces of Elijah’s burning chariot. Every movement of body and sound, speech and movement has as its basis nothing else but the excruciating thirst for eternal memory.
The following day is marked by the mysterious suspension of time when you behold Michaelangelo’s Pieta for the first time. In the Madonna’s tears you contemplate how sacred mystery condescends to art. Yes, art can fail she seems to say, as if speaking to your heart. For there is something waiting there beyond the veil for all who are ready to be subsumed into the life that comes from another. With the Pieta you reflect on your own journey to Roman Catholicism. It was not to an idea or a synthetic way of knowing, but rather the awakening of another way of seeing.
I Felt the earth rotate upon the axis of her sorrows, silently lost in the anamnesis of her son. At times like these 24 hour is playing in a loop waiting for you to move on. I want to console her. The pain grew sharp and sharper in my heart. Mary was it worth it? Did your fiat encompass all you knew you must suffer? Mary were you aware or what your ‘yes’ entailed? Moreover, does everyone suffer the same in different ways? Or is this suffering special if it means something more? What is it about the Pieta that embodies the thirst her son exclaims upon the cross? Moreover, what did the Holy Virgin feel there in the moment, that you can hold fast to, attach yourself to, become united with? Utterly forlorn, her for whom one person is missing and the whole world is empty. She who has modelled perfect devotion: she who was steadfast, gracious and true. To Mary what did the serpent whisper before she trampled it underfoot? To the impersonal voice that questions the rationality of evil? Mary was there any hope that beauty in the face of death would win? And Mary how did sinlessness feel in the moment? Or were you tempted to let your sorrow give way to unbelief?
The Holy Father too is wheeled in just like the chrism oil the previous day. Like a heavy tree, barely able to hold up his head. What is the question waiting there at the end? The world in which you reside, the sum of your frantic activity. Successive generations advance and retreat like waves. In Rome you feel a constant reference and turning to the immortality to which you strive. You feel it emanating from the marble torn from the facades of the Colosseum and the crypts of the burial grounds. Abandon time all ye who enter, the sign reads. Most men live lives of quiet desperation. Most women too, discontented with their lot. What separates the righteous from the dead; only time and their attachment therein. The American tourists with their childlike wonder in the church of the Holy Cross. Is this more than the sum of everything you have imagined, experienced and lived through? Human striving for remembrance: the vain groping after a shadow, the mere simulacrum of earthly life washed out by time.
The Holy Father sits across the concourse, doesn’t pause on every word, just rattles through the liturgy. Looks down pensively, like he’s suffering, straining to see a way ahead. Or perhaps it was the weight of the world. He looks up only once during the Mass: a dreadful spectre, as if to say that sometimes all these miracles and acts of grace are not enough. There is literally no way to express the haunting sadness; the luminescent reminder, the ever present transposition. What answer or sign would subsume the insatiable desire for the final word bar the peace that comes from heaven when the anamnesis is spoken: “Do this in memory of me”.
Later that night, as Christ hangs atop the crucifix you are eating pizza alone. The wise thief’s request bears witness that to be remembered by the Lord equates to be in paradise. Remembrance harks back to a pre-existing, objective and ultimate truth. The journey of faith then is to subsume one’s own vision of the past to an absolute vision of time and history. God’s “eternal memory” of me and my “eternal memory” converge in The Church. You meditate on the final seven sayings: what was Christ thirsting for upon the cross when he said “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”
On Saturday Rome reverberates with the rain, the heavy and violent downpour lasts all morning. You descend the Via Cavour to the Coliseum a mile away— thick with traffic, lined with shops and hotels. Market sellers anxiously cover their wares with faded plastic sheets. On Via del Moro a bookshop stocks a copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time, his thesis on sin. The Arch of Constantine marks the site of the Emperor’s conversion, you overhear a tour guide say that his crown contained a nail of the true cross, the second fashioned into the bit in his horses’ mouth that led his army into battle. St. Paul falls under the lifted hoof of a white canvas horse. Caravaggio himself bears witness to the Church’s readiness to use imperfect means to achieve its ends.
The guide instructs his group to stand on the marble disk where Bernini’s columns merge. In mausoleums you pause to contemplate the death shroud covering the eyes. The expressions upon ancient statues rarely rejoice, lament, or are indignant. Largely the stone exudes a pensive expression that mirrors your own quiet, tranquil concentration. Poetry expresses the incommunicable qualities of perception, mirrors the course of the human spirit. To picture the world through the eyes of another, someone else’s love or loss, caught in the music of a single word. The Renaissance fountains and the Baroque Sant’ Agnese where the faithful kneel in dim sacristies, murmuring prayers. In the dialogical encounter you concurrently offer yourself as you receive in exchange a new perspective. What inspired Solomon’s request?
The metro is quiet. The tracks resonate with the approaching train. On the radio is playing a song with the line “Pray to a god I don’t believe in”. It’s strange, you think, if to pray in the face of unbelief is the ultimate expression of openness to the possibility of transcendence. Perhaps these are the words of one following in the footsteps of the Apostle who said “Lord you know all things, you know how this ends, you know that I love you.”
On Easter Sunday you round the corner to St Mark’s where a queue is forming. Red-eyed pilgrims race to claim the best seats, plucked out of the mundane orbits for a weekend. Was it worth it coming home for Holy Week. What was the sign you sough here? And did you receive it? Or did it occur in passing? When did Transubstantiation become for you the way of seeing? How did the mystery whereby in the bread and wine Christ is truly present – body, blood, soul and divinity – became for you the light that enlightened your eyes? Christ transfigures time for all those who receive him in the Eucharist. He whom is above time can make anyone commune with eternity.
How? By remembering them.