Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Roman Diary - worshp

This afternoon I walked down a few blocks from my hotel room and found myself at the Basillaca of Saint Mary's. I had been there a few days earlier and remembered that there was a picture I wanted to get that I had missed so I stepped inside. It was six o'clock and Mass was just beginning. The church was full of people, not tourists gawking at the Renaissance magnificence, but worshipers. You could not see the choir, but there was music, truly like angels, not so much coming from the front, but surrounding you in a way that only happens in the great Catherdrals, swallowing you in the otherworldly beauty of Gregorian-like song.

The bishop entered the cathedral from the back of the hall, near where I was standing, his acolytes accompanying him with symbols of the faith, and incense filling the air, sweet and thick, catching the sunbeams as they came in from the vaulted ceiling, and suddenly I got it.

What is "it"?

One of the conversations that inevitably comes up when we Americans visit Europe is the idea that the great cathedrals are like Museums today, and most of the time, it's easy to see where that idea comes from. They are unlike anything we have in the United States. We can't imagine why anyone would spend generations and unimaginable amounts of money to build such a place in a time when people were as a whole, so poor. How, we ask, could this be a real place of worship.

But sitting there, experiencing Mass and experiencing deep worship, I could understand it. I could understand what it must have been like to be a simple person of the Rennaisance age, a laborer who lived in the narrow streets of a city or town, in a tiny dark house, living in a world of dull streets, rouch spun clothes, darkness and often drabness (the rich bright colors were for the wealthy, in general). You were always looking down - down at your work, down when nobility walked by, down at the rouch streets so you would not stumble or step in the excrement that filled the streets. You life had joys, yes, but mostly it was hard, drab, nose to the grindstone and then you die.

From this life you walk into the Basilica, Your eyes are drawn upward to the light. There is gold and painting full of color and richness. All around you there is light and beauty, The priests and acolytes enter, music, not the rough spun music of the streets, but otherworldly music, melodic, multi layered, holy, fills the huge airy space. There are rich robes. Images, perfect in their white marble poses, surround you. I can imagine coming from your life outside to this taste of heaven. It would be a immersive experience that said - this is life with God. This is a hint, just a hint of eternity.

Would that hint make you want to be a part? To give? To worship? I imagine it would. I can see it now. To have that experience would be an astonishing contrast that evoked awe. To build that experience would be worth a lifetime of labor, even if you never knew it was finished, just to know you were part of building a taste of heaven. It would feel like building eternity.

And so I worshiped this evening, in an unexpected way, I was swept from the here and now, to a place of holiness, of deep worship, caught in the spell of space and light, of sound and smell, to something otherworldly, holy, and perfect.

When it was over, I re-entered Rome, a noisy, crowded, dirty place, but my heart was still there, remembering, still feeling worship in my deepest places.


This is an excerpt from my diary entries on my trip to Rome, the first of several. In time, poems will burble up from the trip as well, but till then, I will share some of my thoughts and feelings here. Many of my readers travel more than I do, so hopefully, you can relate or even share these feelings with me.


PS - you can click on the image for a larger version.


Derrick said...

Hi Tom,

I like how you have expressed this. I have always thought that the actual builders would have taken great pride in their work, knowing that they were striving for the glory of God. The rest of the community might also have sought respite from the drudgery of life in the beauty and wonder of the cathedral but they were also intent upon their own salvation, which I'm sure was sufficient inducement.

Leonora said...

Beautifully expressed. My family is Italian and Roman Catholic so I grew up attending weekly mass at a cathedral styled church. There are times when I miss it a lot, like now when I read your blog.

Tom Atkins said...

Derrick - If you haven't read Ken Follet's book, Pillars of the Earth, you should. It perfectly captured your comments, tracing the building of the Cathedral at Kingsbridge through the generations of craftsmen.

Lee - I can well imagine that growing up in that tradition would leave some parts of you permanently touched, and it sounds like it has.


may the blessing be always with you!! ...............................