|St. Peter's Basilica|
The crowd surged forward and I was swept along with them, physically and emotionally. We were heading towards a railing, guarded by police, soldiers: men in uniforms of all varieties. The crush of people would have been overwhelming in any other circumstance but it felt so natural, so expected and almost as though it belonged. The fixation upon a single human being was what I would have expected from a rock concert or a political rally. Yet the celebrations here did not carry the same overtones, it was a victory, of that I was sure, yet not of a human endeavor. This victory was so much more powerful than any election that changed the rule of a single nation for 4 or 5 years, or the short found success of commercial industry. This was an eternal victory. The man we all pressed towards, with a charisma that was undeniable, though whether it radiated from his person or from the crowd it was impossible to tell, was no ordinary celebrity. He was a 70-something man, with thin white balding hair, fragile glasses placed over his narrow nose, the slight pudgy-ness that men so often develop in their waning years and a smile that spoke of quiet amusement through the expression of his face, but more strongly in his eyes, when you could catch a glimpse of them. He traveled in an open-air vehicle, not a convertible per se, since he needed a railing to hang onto. His security flanked him, but he seemed unfazed by them, focusing on the crowd. He didn’t use stage banter to warm them up, instead he spoke little, and when he did it was quiet words, written for him, spoken slowly and with emphasis, in a language that I mostly understood, but through which I could still sense the passion. He wore white from head to toe and jewelry, though nothing as flashy as I expected. I didn’t know what to say when he went past. I cannot recall if anything came out of my mouth. I put my hands into the air as a salute to this man, the representation of our victory, the center and focus of the energy of more than 150,000 people, packed into a square blazing with the light of a spring morning in Italy. He emerged from a balcony, and set forth his vision of the world, one that is utopic in its goals, and yet that morning, it all seemed possible. I had seen this man before, but never truly in the flesh, almost near enough to touch.
|The Stations of the Cross on Good Friday|
The first time I had experienced the ferocity of emotion attached to this man and what he symbolized, I was running late and a little lost. In the forefront was the coliseum, the premier symbol of an ancient and illustrious society. That night it took center stage to represent the underbelly of that society, how with immense power often comes immense cruelty and the desire to control every emerging force in the world. People gathered at its foot to huddle, some holding candles, others bathed only in the orange light of the monument. On the hill opposite, almost facing off with the symbol of Rome was a cross blazing with light. It looked so insubstantial as compared to the stone and arches of its opponent, and yet the state of the latter spoke about the strength of the former. Because Rome failed to control one force that emerged during its reign. The force took over, working beneath the currents of society, in its shadows before a man of privilege elevated it along with himself. It came to survive and endure while the creations of men crumbled, and were left for scrap, to be scavenged over for future building projects and disappear into the mists of legend. Those mists hung over the scene. In languages from all over the world, voices both male and female recited words that were admittedly foreign to me and yet immensely familiar. Slowly but surely, a journey emerged, one written in 14 parts, The Stations of the Cross and I choked back the tears at the end of each stanza, when the crowd came together as one to speak words that are recognizable in any language, beginning with a plea, “Our Father…”. Why they struck such a deep chord, I can’t say. I don’t know. I speak these words every day of my life; have known them by heart since I was a child. Yet the presence of so many, sharing this experience, remembering the suffering of a man, at a site that represented suffering for the sake of glory, suffering for the amusement of others, and for the truest proof of their domination of the known world, hit me. The journey ended on that Friday night, and the man in white spoke, remembering his family all around the world. It was a solemn occasion, one of contemplation and grief and yet I still experienced elation by being there. The tears were of genuine sorrow, but they were held back by the knowledge that joy had arrived.
I don’t know that I have ever experienced so much visceral beauty in such a short space of time. Some of it reached my eyes, in the form of painting, sculpture and architecture. The ruins of Rome inspire every budding artist who encounters them, from Brunelleschi forwards. I found myself marveling at the sheer grandeur of the spaces 2000 years later, the effrontery and arrogance of the people who ordered, designed and built these masterpieces and the talent they possessed to pull it off. After all the disgraces, the plundering looting destruction wars famines turmoil and uncertainty the structures still stand, perhaps not as proudly as they once must have done, but still magnificent. I saw works of art that left my chin on the floor, with museums name-dropping right and left, tearing my eyes away from a Raphael to be confronted with a Botticelli, every piece so replete with depth and emotion that even looking was overwhelming. To experience art is to run a full gamut of human perception and feeling, looking over the faces, the bodies, the postures, and the surroundings of every member of a group, looking for both the plain and the subtle meaning for each brushstroke. But the mind will never comprehend the way the heart can and so I find myself rooted in place, staring and trying to take it in, letting my eyes wander and fall when my soul trembles. Sometimes it is the great works, the famous and infamous; the grandiose in scale or subject. And sometimes I fall for the unloved, the pieces that everyone overlooks and yet I cannot continue on from. I don’t know that any other place can wreak the kind of emotional exhaustion on me that an art museum can. The smells of incense, food and human beings assaulted me, and the sounds of church bells, something I never would have thought of missing, but do, washed over me.
|The School of Athens by Raphael|
Yet for all of the tactility of Rome, its sights and sounds and yes, tastes (those were also quite good), it was the untouchable and unreachable that touched and reached me. My mind and my words lack poetry and so I find it impossible to truly describe the emotions of the crowd, the way that the pain from standing on cobblestones for 3 hours drained of significance, the guttural sobs that emerged from my throat at intervals and yet never truly blossomed into actual tears. I can’t explain to you why a small man dressed in white, riding on the back of a makeshift pickup truck has the power to command silence from a joyful mob and keep their rapt attention on him while he speaks. I don’t understand why this man can have such appeal, why I even cared that I got so close to him, since I’m not even a Catholic. I can’t tell you why I felt such contentment and rejuvenation from a weekend of tearing around a city at breakneck pace, going to bed late and getting up early, of trying desperately to understand a language I speak 0 words of, and being bombarded by some of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed to the point of oblivion. I cannot explain many things in this world. But I can tell you that I felt an immense power from the people who gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Easter morning to hear a small man named Francis celebrate with us the resurrection of Christ. It was a weekend I will never forget, and which I feel so grateful to have experienced.