Italian Moment #1: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
Nearly eight months ago, I was busy preparing for my trip to Italy. And here I am, more than half a year later, having written almost nothing about a trip that changed me in some specific ways. Partly I haven't written about Italy because I want to do it really, really well, and that goal makes it feel intimidating. Partly it is because I'm still working on processing all of the photos I took, and I've gotten bogged down in that, too.
Part of it is just looking for a word to describe the sensation I had throughout the entire trip. Or, at least, one of the sensations. I've written about this a little bit before. The way that when you stand in a place that is old, there are so many layers of story there, and if you could just figure out how to make them like paper, somehow, so you could flip through them and see all the stories, you would get a glimpse of humanity, all if it happening in various times but in one specific place. I want to know those stories, and you can almost, almost feel them there, tingling just outside the range of what you can touch. I think of this feeling as the time story (if I were clever I'd have a better name for it), and it enveloped me completely in Italy. I can't write about how it felt to be there without the time story, even though I'm not sure that anyone else knows that feeling.
Becky has written about some of our experiences in Italy, and reading her writing takes me right back. Rather than follow her chronological approach, though, I think I'm going to write about my Italian Moments, the experiences that changed me, taught me something, brought me wonder or newness or understanding. The small-ish stories within the larger one of a week in a foreign country that, when the general details fade, will remain vivid.
The day we first arrived in Italy, Becky and I had planned on jumping on a train (our hotel was just down the street from the Rome Termini train station) to the coast, because how could we be so close to the sea—a sea we'd never been to!—and miss it? But when we arrived at our hotel (after a ride from the airport on a bus with a tour guide that told us the history of many of the places we passed), there was a mix up with when we could check in, and a delay, and by the time we'd sorted everything out, found (and figured out!) an ATM for some Euros, and eaten (a pizza which was its own Italian Moment), we didn't have enough time. Some of the other people in our tour group went up to their rooms to rest before dinner, but I was having none of that. I can rest at home, but who knows when I'll be in Rome again? So Becky, my mom, and I decided to explore a little bit.
During our bus ride to the hotel, the tour guide had pointed out the historical city walls, the ancient ruins of baths and Roman towers, many churches, an obelisk or two. But the building that grabbed my imagination immediately was the one that used to be a the Baths of Diocletian but was remodeled into a basilica after a priest had a vision of angels in the ruins. Remodeled into a church by Michelangelo. If that isn't a place that would be full of time stories (first a campo, then a Roman bath, then a ruin, then a church), then no such place exists. But I had no idea where, in all those stories told by the tour guide, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs was.
So when we wandered up the street and around a few corners, and I could see a seemingly-ruin in the distance, I wanted to go that way, just in case, and then I sort-of happy danced because there it was, the very basilica I wanted to go inside. To get there, we walked down a sidewalk with chain link fencing, and old grass and crumbled walls on the other side.
Being me, I didn't just want to go inside the church, I also wanted to wander in those ruins, which looked like the old grounds of the church. I didn't get to, but that is OK because I did get to go inside the church.
To enter, you go through one of two doors, which look like this one and are set in the austere and ancient brick wall:
Here is an alternate view of the doors. I think they are beautiful, the way the image melds into the metal. They aren't old—they were installed in 2006—but I didn't know that when I saw them. They are nearly a physical representation of my idea of the time story, characters nearly visible but fading into the past.
October days in Rome aren't scorching hot. But the church still felt comfortably cool. With my very limited traveling experience, I had no idea of what to expect, especially since Mormon churches—the staple of my life—are so very utilitarian. Functional, but not especially beautiful. This church was something completely different. Contrast, in fact, felt like the point of the experience: the contrast between the just-barely-muggy smog of Rome and the clear, cool air inside the church, and also that between its entrance and its interior. From the outside—the only church I experienced that didn't have an impresssive facade—it just looks like a ruin. So you'd never know, unless you went inside, what it held:
(Photographing churches is hard. All those different light sources! I didn't do it very well.)
Marble and other stone columns and facades. Statues of angels.
Reliquaries, paintings, cathedral ceilings. An enormous pipe organ. The Meridian Line, which is a sun dial. And everywhere, that light. Hushed voices. This stained glass window, whose purple hues I tried to capture in a photograph but failed miserably:
That window. I stood and looked at it forever. To me, it was the thing that made the basilica feel the way it felt, a sacred space lit by colored light.
Someone clever on our tour said something about being tired of seeing churches. I confess, though, that I didn't ever get tired of seeing them—mostly because I hoped each one would replicate the feeling I had upon walking into the Angels and the Martyrs. Maybe it's impossible to replicate, though, because I never felt it exactly that way again. It was a rush of all things combined: the beauty, the light, the colors, the images, and the layers of time stories. How many people have prayed there and found answers or resolutions or just a lingering feeling of peace? How many stories. This was mine: as I stood in the center, looking at the lavender stained-glass window, I thought about my Mormon faith. Of the questions and doubts I have, and of the sureties as well. I thought about the funeral I went to the month before, in my father's childhood church, and of what I wish my church could give me but doesn't. I thought about how it feels to know something is true, even when that truth really is unknowable.
About what creates the manifestation of the spirit.
Becky always says that if she wasn't a Mormon she'd be a Catholic. (My response is always, "I'd be a pagan witch," which is only half-joking.) I didn't understand that until I stood inside my first renaissance church. The art and the images and the beauty and the statuary: I think my church sees that as a sort of false worshiping. As if to have art in a church means we would be appreciating the art or the artist instead of the spirit. In excess, I understand this (especially after touring St. Peter's Basilica). But how it seemed to me in that moment that what the beauty inside the church did was to facilitate—to make it easier for me to feel an outrushing of the spirit. Not based on scripture or sermon but just on pure, ethereal emotion. Not the contrast between religions, but the similarities, the truths they each hold.
We explored every inch of that church. There was even a small courtyard we could enter. It had a statue of Galileo and this little grouping of Christ, Mary, and Joseph:
(I'm not sure what I loved most: the pattern on the floor, or the lettering on the sign.)
I didn't really want to leave, in fact, because I didn't want to lose how it felt. We did, eventually, leave. We admired the Piazza della Repubblica (which is just outside the church), walked past the opera house, and roamed around Rome.
I loved walking around a city i didn't know, especially Rome, which seemed to have art and architecture and beauty around every corner. (I need to ask Becky if she has any pictures of me that day.)
We ended up at the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica:
That photo is the back side of the Maggiore basilica. Is it odd that the back was my favorite part? I wanted to climb the steps, but they were fenced off. It was a beautiful church, with an amazing stained glass window depicting Mary holding the infant Christ. Maybe I was too tired to appreciate it, but it didn't hold the same feeling.
Maybe no other church can compare to your first basilica in Rome. But I will never forget how it felt to walk inside Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. Not just for the feelings that I had and the questions that came to me, but for the first inklings of an understanding about religion and truth and how, perhaps, we are all just fumbling around in the spiritual level, wanting to know, wanting to understand something that will always be larger than what we can know or understand.
It was a serendipitous first Italian Moment for me.