Friday, December 17, 2010

A Dickensian Evening

"At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one...
. . . All this time the chestnuts and the jug went round and around; and bye and bye they had a song. . . from Tiny Tim; who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it very well indeed.



There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed... But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit's torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last."

I have had an evening at once as human and eternal as any such sweet incident out of Dickens. As I relate it here, it shall appear singular and disconnected, without context because of the absence of my writings here during these hectic months. Yet, I hope the atmosphere I shall endeavor to re-create in all its richness will help, in some small way, to fill up that void and relate accurately the character of the missing passages of time.

The last ordinary day of the semester had come; behind us was five months' scholarly labor and discovery, and ahead lay the grueling week of finals. The space between was a sort of respite, a calm before the storm, and several of the teachers took advantage of this time to do something special for the students. Our philosophy professor--a remarkable, keen-witted man to whom we owe much for opening the wonderful world of Socrates and Plato to us--invited all of his students to his home for a "little Advent gathering." I anticipated a pleasant evening, but I was thoroughly surprised.

We followed the directions he gave us along the dark, twisty country roads, through the naked woods of late autumn, up the mile-long gravel drive until we beheld the Christmas candles shining out from the windows of an old-farmhouse-style home. The door opened at our knock and flooded us with a soft golden glow. Inside, the home was lovely, perfectly decorated with an antique simplicity that gave it the charm of . . . a Dickens novel: something old-world and old-fashioned, quaint but homey.
Upon entering, we met his winsome, impish blonde daughters and his quiet, hospitable wife. The professor himself welcomed us and introduced us to all his family--his many daughters, his brave-looking little son, and his wife--her name, he said, was Sophia.

It was, perhaps, at that moment that the evening began to take on a special charm; for the very second he said her name, a strange thrill went through me. I was struck immediately by the immense--nay, almost Divine, in the Providential sense--humor and sweet irony in the name of his wife. Behold a man who, "hitching his plow," as he would say, to the great wisdom of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, had spent his life devoted to philosophy--to the loving pursuit of wisdom.

And he had married a woman named Sophia. And Sophia means wisdom.

How fitting! I thought, How incredibly right!

We all gathered in their cozy little parlor, and while other guests arrived, our host knelt down at the hearth of the great, carved oaken 1880's fireplace, and proceeded to build a fire. As he stirred the little sparks to flames and carefully placed the logs according to some art unknown to me, he was aided by his two youngest daughters, busily crumpling newspapers--which they occasionally stopped to read--to use for kindling.

The flow of conversation was, at first, merely a stiff trickle, as we gradually grew accustomed to the quaint beauty of our surroundings; but the cordiality of our hosts--particularly, that keen, insightful manner of his--soon made us feel at home. When everyone had arrived, and gathered around that glowing hearth, I rather wondered how the evening would proceed. What would we . . . do? Simply sit in his parlor? At any other sort of gathering, I'm sure a movie or a football game or at least music would have been playing in the background, for our culture has grown accustomed to perpetual entertainment filling in the blanks of our lives. But nothing like that was to be found in this house; nor would it have been fitting there.

So, I was slightly taken by surprise when the professor, seated on a little stool beside the fire and surrounded by his children, suggested quite simply that we "sing a few rounds." As novel and unusual--or rather, unexpected--as that suggestion was to me, it felt perfectly in accord with that little world; it was, in fact, quite natural. Something inside me echoed: "Oh, but of course, What else on earth would we do at such a time and place?"

And so we sang in rounds, what songs we knew; and what rounds we didn't know, we quickly learned. My, how wonderful it sounded! the whole room rang with the silly little songs we sang, harmonized and echoed through the house.

When the songs were done, we each had a mug of Christmas punch--wassail, they called it--and milled about a little while, just chatting, until our host shepherded us back into the parlor, and asked us to share our memories and thoughts of the semester. Cookies were then passed around, and we all hushed each other as he announced he would read aloud to us that poignant and powerful essay by Hilaire Belloc, "A Remaining Christmas."

As he finished with the sweet and moving final lines of that piece, there was all round an awed silence, as in the presence of something marvelous and ethereal--indeed, such a silence as one finds before the Holy Creche. As he closed the book, I noticed that the thoughtful look upon the professor's face was reflected in each of his pupil's faces, perfectly as in a mirror.

Then, suddenly, one mischievous student broke the silence and asked: "What's on your mind, doctor?"

He smiled and replied, "Actually, I was wondering what is on your minds." The richest, most beautiful discussion followed:
about Christmas and Belloc,
change and time,
tradition and eternity,
England, and Catholicism, and History, and The Faith,
music, and movies,
art and contemplation,
and the effect of images on the soul,
culture, and heritage and philosophy,
and life and death.

And when it was all done, and the clock struck ten, and the children had nodded to sleep beside their father, our host quietly signaled the end of the evening by rising from his seat beside the dying embers. We rose, too, and thanked him, bade farewell to the family and home, and departed. "God bless!" I cried out over my shoulder as I left; and I meant it from the bottom of my heart.

Human gatherings such as that, around a family, around a hearth, truly transcend time and place. Dickens knew this; he captured them in the Spirit of Christmas Present, epitomizing not only what was at his time, but what always ought to be. They are the same in every age, or should be; for the traditions we experience tie us to the past and preserve our memories for the future, letting us touch the eternal.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This Will Pass Away


Late last night I was suddenly awakened by the howling of a tremendous thunderstorm. Violent cracks and peals of thunder, sharp flashes of lightning, and the heavy, steady beating of rain pounded and raged outside my window. Wide-eyed and wakeful, I watched the storm for some time, stumbling out of bed to peer out at the fierce wind and rain whipping about the trees and drowning the lawn. One after another, streaks of lightning filled the sky, accompanied by cannonades of thunder so loud I knew the lightning must have struck quite close to me.

A little shaken and more than a little weary after watching this spectacular display of nature's wild temper, I crawled back into bed and turned my face away from the window in hopes of getting a few hours sleep in spite of the war that was apparently raging outside.

This morning, I awoke to an immense stillness. Every tree, every leaf, every blade of grass was as perfectly still outside as if it had been part of a painting. The sky was a fresh, clear blue, punctuated by one or two wispy white clouds. The sun had just risen and was sending shoots of light all across the garden, setting the foliage a-fire as every drop of water hanging on the flowers caught the light and sparkled and glistened. But everything was absolutely silent and still. Even the birds were not awake and singing yet.

Such an incredible contrast, between the stormy wilderness of last night and the peaceful garden this morning, brought to my mind a poem I had read--oh, many years ago--by John G. Saxe. In this poem, a youth, full of hopes and dreams, approaches a wise old man and asks him what he should take as his motto in life.

"Give me a motto!" said a youth
To one whom years had rendered wise;
"Some pleasant thought or weighty truth,
That briefest syllables comprise....
And, reverend father," said the boy,
Since life they say, is ever made
A mingled web of grief and joy;
Since cares may come and pleasures fade--
Pray, let the motto have a range
Of meaning matching every change."

The old man ponders a moment, commenting that the lad has given him no easy task. Finally, he replies:
"What think you, lad, of this device
(Older than I--though I am gray),
'Tis simple-- 'This will pass away.' "

The old man explains that everything on this earth comes to an end. Good times may come, but they also will assuredly go. More importantly, however, even the bad times will pass away, too; when the boy meets with his darkest hour, it is not the end of all his hopes and dreams, warns the old man. "To grim Despair be not a prey," he cries.

"When skies are clear, expect the cloud;
In darkness, wait the coming light;
Whatever be thy fate today,
Remember, 'This will pass away.' "

This plain phrase struck me the first time I read it; and it has grown on me since. As simple and even quaint as the old man's motto is, it is proved true in veritably every stage of life--at least, I've found it so. Our youth, our friends, even our families change and pass away with time; everything earthly that is good is, alas, not eternal. And yet, the minute we must face the bleakest of outlooks, when we seem in the dark, when we can't see our way, then, as Zechariah said,
"In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and guide our feet into the way of peace."





Sunday, July 18, 2010

Walking with Children


Several days ago I found myself braving the withering summer heat and humidity to take my 6-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew for a walk. I'm not sure why I thought going for a walk in that sort of weather was a good idea; perhaps I felt I needed a little excitement in my day. The fact is, I've discovered that taking walks with little ones always ends up as something of an adventure. Children, you see, aren't as afflicted by the bored sort of familiarity with which all adults regard their normal, every day surroundings. Going on a walk is a sort of philosophical recreation, a stepping outside to get a look at the world; that, of course, also makes going on a walk the perfect time for children to demonstrate their own fresh way of looking at everything. I love to switch roles with them; to let them play the teacher to me, so they can tell me all about life and why things are the way they are.

Case in point: as we passed one of my neighbor's lawns, I pointed out to them an obvious object of interest: an electric-blue garden ball, perched on a stand next to a tree.




"What's that?" I asked them.

"It's a ball," they sagaciously replied.

"But what is it doing there?"

They pondered a minute. Said the six-year-old, "Maybe somebody lost it."

"But what is it? What's it for?"

"Maybe..." the four-year old said, thinking hard, "Maybe it's a bird--no, a bird bath! It's for the birds, it's a bird bath!"

While secretly I agreed that garden balls are "for the birds,", I merely said: "Hey, you're right, it is sitting in a bird bath. But what is the ball there for?"

"I think the ball is sticky, and it got stuck to the bird bath. That's why it's there."

"No, no, no!" Said the six-year-old, who happens to be a master at puzzles and "find the one that doesn't belong" games, "It doesn't belong there! It doesn't go next to a tree!"

This sparked an argument about whether the ball was stuck there or whether it was supposed to be there for the birds as a sort of nest or shelter. There are, however, a million more interesting things than garden balls on any walk, so the conversation soon moved on to clouds that looked like dinosaurs, bugs on the road, birds that flew by, etc.

When I go for a walk with children I can't help but feel as if, in their minds, we are on some epic journey: we deliberately leave our home only to come back to it again, braving mad perils and climbing mountains along the way. They spot a car four blocks down the road and announce firmly that we have to stay out of the way, as if it were a giant or a monster; they dash to the safety of the grass crying "Look out!" They point out squished frogs as evidence of the menace cars pose to all things on the road. They spot mysterious markings on the pavement, arrows meant to indicate water meters, and eagerly race forward to find the next ones as if they were a series of all-important clues in a treasure hunt. The blue plastic squares put on the roads by the firemen are also objects of interest and speculation. They point out tiny details and things too big for adults to see. When we near the end of our journey, they try to espy our house from afar like weary adventurers returning home. And--perhaps this is where they are most wise--when they do catch sight of home, they race toward it, without fearing that it is too hot or too far for running.

I've given this weekly column a rather pretentious-sounding title from King Lear, but really, that two-word title fits no one better than the little ones I know. With innocence and wonder, they view the world through the untarnished window of childhood; they see everything the way God made it. They puzzle out the secrets of the universe; they dare to ponder the very plans of Providence. They are more objective than any scientist; more reasonable than any rationalist. They are quicker to see absurdity than adults who have grown to accept absurdity as normal in society--like glass garden balls. And they are wiser for the wonder that pervades their view of life. They ask why, and how, and if things are always that way. They take upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God's spies.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Escapism


During the summer, I tend to indulge to the fullest my whimsical literary appetite by reading as much of whatever I like whenever I like. Freed from the structured discipline of assigned reading for school, I relish picking up my favorite old tales and perusing them once again, or finding some delightful novel I've not yet read. For instance, this particular summer I've had the thrill of revisiting the cheerfully absurd A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Sherlock Holmes canon. Other favorites for relaxing reading are the All Creatures Great and Small series, or the short stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Honestly, I'm a pushover for a solid adventure or a good mystery.

However, I can't say this indulgent method of reading--if one could call it a method---is a practice I especially recommend, because it can often lead to a frightful by-product of reading only for pleasure: escapism.

Now, before I get blasted (though who would do the blasting, I haven't the faintest idea) for discouraging reading, I'd best clarify what I mean by escapism. Almost everyone has something of the escapist in him; if we didn't, both popular and classic novels would be non-existent and everyone would have merely shrugged and turned away when talkies were invented. Everyone loves a good story, whether it be a laughable one or a genuine tragedy; there is a momentous power in fiction, the power to move us or call us to contemplate some ponderous truth about God or men or society or the whole vast cosmos. And of course, fiction also bears the power of drawing us away from our own day-to-day world into an imaginary one that is exciting, fantastic, soul-stirring---and that is where escapism comes into play. By escapism I don't merely mean withdrawing into an imaginary world as an "escape" from responsibilities or personal problems; after all, it is good to take breaks from our difficulties, to get a little physical or mental relaxation, so that we can return to our duties with a fresher mind and spirit. Where escapism becomes most dangerous is when the imagination becomes alluring for its own sake; when it becomes not merely a break from reality, but a serious distraction from it; when an imaginary world becomes entirely more desirable to us than the real one.

I realized this quite suddenly today when I caught myself seriously wondering whether it would be better for me to step outside to enjoy the garden, or curl up with my battered old Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. II., and follow my dear Dr. Watson and his eccentric friend through one of their now-familiar mysterious adventures. I saw the flowers peeping at me from the other side of the window, shining in the sunlight, and I realized that there shouldn't have been any contest. How could I dare to pick my favorite imaginary world, narrow and two-dimensional because it exists only in my mind, over the glorious reality all around me? Even if I were in the most desperate straits--which, thank God, I am not--I ought to be able to recognize that this life, this REAL, living, breathing world, is too monumental a gift to actually compare with an imaginary one. I love my imaginary worlds; but they are only, at best, a quaint imitation of God's creation. It reminded me of a Chesterton quote: "Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it." It must also be true, then, that as genuinely good as our fictitious worlds may be, every aspect of the real world is better if only for the simple fact that it is real.



There is a great, grand world outside; and with all its dark sides and rough edges, it is inherently good. God gave it to us as a gift to be cherished, not ignored. So, Sherlock Holmes went back on the bookshelf, and he will stay there the rest of the summer. I've read those tales before, but today comes only once, and I intend to thoroughly enjoy it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Daily Gift

I emphasize again that our pilgrimage to Italy was not a sight-seeing tour. It was, as I have said, a journey of faith; it was not about what we saw and did, but about the spiritual character of where we were and how we prayed there. Still, I have now seen things with my own eyes that I never thought I would, sacred places and things which we were incredibly privileged to be able to see--the most important, of course, being the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of Christ, which is seldom on display to the public. At each place we visited I had to pinch myself when I realized that by the grace of God I was seeing or touching or kneeling before something that had caused saints and kings to embark on pilgrimages--or even more frequently, something saints and kings of long ago had longed to see but could not.

Never did I feel this point hit home more clearly than at Loreto, where we stopped on our way to Assisi, on the same day that we visited the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano. The town of Loreto was built up around one home--I could almost say the home, for it is certainly the most important household in history: the tiny house of Mary in Nazareth, miraculously transported to the safety of a quiet Italian village. Imagine, if you can, what it was like to kneel on the floor of that tiny house, to lay my hand upon its brick walls and think: Here, the heavenly messenger Gabriel cried out that one great 'Hail, Mary!' that echoes in the prayers of all the faithful through the ages. Mary and Joseph labored with love here as they took care of the Son of God. Jesus Christ slept, played, worked, and grew from childhood to manhood within these walls. Glory be to God, I can't believe I'm really here...

Outside of the church of Loreto, I came across a sign where there were listed all the saints and blesseds that had ever visited Loreto. My eyes grew wider and wider as they went down the list: Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Don Bosco, Robert Bellarmine, Francis Xavier, Edmund Campion, Isaac Jogues. The list went on for pages and pages. Just think, I told myself, All these saints came here to Loreto, and you've been given the grace to come here too...to walk the ground their feet have trod in pilgrimage. I felt suddenly very small and insignificant, as if I were in the presence of all these heroic men and women. There were memorable stories, too, about saints visiting the places we visited; for instance, it is incredibly humbling to learn that, after traveling all the way to the Cave of St. Michael, St. Francis felt himself unworthy to enter and so only knelt down and kissed the stones and carved a tau cross there.

Then, of course, there were the amazing Eucharistic miracles at Lanciano and Siena; the basilicas and cathedrals we visited; the tombs and relics of many saints, including St. Paul, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare (beautiful and incorrupt), Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, Padre Pio, and countless popes in the Vatican, including John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II; the crib of Jesus from Bethlehem; the most moving and beautiful Pieta, the Sistine Chapel, and the incredible St. Peter's Basilica; the catacombs of the early Christian martyrs; the Portiuncula where St. Francis began the Franciscans. I've touched my rosary to more sacred places and things than I can remember all at once. I'm simply blown away when I think of everything I encountered.

Some of these rare and precious things came crossing our path when we least expected them. There was the glove and crucifix of Padre Pio, for instance; those unexpected sacred objects were in the little parcel of the Franciscan priest with whom we spoke at Padre Pio's shrine, and he took them out to bless us with them. Among the surprise blessings, the greatest crossed our path on the last day of our stay in Rome. Our tour guide, Antonello--who was quite a character, a proud and knowledgeable Roman who really deserves a post of his own--had taken us to see all the grandest churches of Rome outside the Vatican. In the last church, he mentioned the relics of Holy Cross in connection with something else; our group expressed regret that the relics themselves were not on our schedule. Antonello, after a few phone calls, made an exception and surprised our group by announcing, to our great joy, that he had been able to organize for us to visit the relics. Shortly afterward, in a small and quiet room paved with marble, we knelt before the reliquaries that contained the wood of the cross, the crown of thorns, nails, and the wooden tablet Pilate erected above Christ, which read: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."

For all these great blessings, for all these holy sights, privileges and experiences, I am most grateful. Taken in the context of a spiritual journey, they comprise the essence of our pilgrimage. It was an inestimable blessing, a strengthening of our faith. Yet, when I remember all these precious encounters, I must bear in mind that they were wonderful, but not necessary. Every single day, you see, God offers us a gift greater than all the churches and relics in Europe.

When the priest who accompanied us on our pilgrimage gently took the glove and crucifix of Padre Pio into his hands to allow us to kiss them, my brother commented on how lucky Father Joseph was to be able to hold them.

Father Joseph instantly replied: "I hold Jesus in my hands every day at Mass."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Word Became Flesh


The city in which we ended our pilgrimage was almost the opposite of the city in which we began it, in more ways than one. From Roma in the South, we had traveled to Torino in the North; and if Rome was a city of faith and art, of beauty and history, then Turin was, quite literally, the reverse of the Eternal City. Turin was a place of business, of industry, and of politics, all things that shift and change and pass like all the other works of man. I suppose it had its share of history, as any city must that has been around a few centuries; but Turin's history seemed oddly unimportant. There were government buildings where meetings had been held, where statues are erected to famous statesmen and soldiers. One building seemed to be a conglomeration of all Italian history; the foundation was Roman, and at each age some level, wing, or tower had been added in a new style. All eras were pieced together in that one awkward building; individually, each part might be interesting for a particular feature or design, but taken as a whole it lacked any meaning or continuity.


All of the city was like that. It was a typical city: buildings that looked big and important, such as government offices and museums, industries and pricey stores, crowded streets and a public transit system. But no one thinks Turin is important for having those things.

In the center of this very secular city is the one thing that makes Turin really remarkable, and it is not the work of man. Just outside of Turin there is a church on a mountaintop, high and lofty and beautiful even from a distance: but the famous Shroud of Turin is not kept there. It is kept in the heart of the city. The church that houses the Shroud is just to the side of a great secular square, where even the smaller church in which we held Mass seemed to blend into the monotonous facade of official buildings. (On our way to try and locate the entrance to the room where we could have Mass, we passed some of the darker stores one finds in city alleyways, and I shuddered to be reminded that Turin, like all cities, probably has its uglier side in addition to its dull modern side.) The Shroud of Turin has been kept in that city for hundreds of years; tradition indicates--and faith confirms--that it is the Shroud of Christ Himself. I believe it; and, more importantly, so did the millions of faithful who flocked to Torino this past May to venerate what has been described as the nigh-photographic image of the body of Jesus Christ.



No photograph or detailed high-definition image I had studied previously had really shown me what I saw that day with my own eyes. Stretched out in the dim light of the church was the full sixteen-foot strip of cloth with the unmistakable figure of a man upon it--a tortured and murdered man. Gazing at it, one gets a very strong impression of the physicality of the Man on the Shroud; it is almost as if one could see the very weight of his body. You get a very real sense of his height, his strong build, his hands and feet, his bleeding wounds--his bleeding face.





His sorrowful, gentle, bruised face explains the painful truth of it far better than words. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and this is what we did to Him. Jesus Christ became man and entered a world full of all the problems man faces: political turmoil, religious conflict, Pharisees and Pontius Pilates wielding earthly power, God's house being turned into a marketplace. He came into the heart of the human race, right in the middle of our suffering, and took it for His own. And that is why, as strange as it may seem, it is right for the Shroud to be in so secular and mundane a city as Turin; in the heart of the city, in the heart of humanity. Jesus is here with us, dwelling among us, saying to us, with the silent witness of His Passion recorded on the Shroud: I suffer with you, I suffer for you, because I love you.

There is one, final note to be made about the Shroud. It is not just a testimony to Jesus' Passion and Death. It is a testimony to His Resurrection. The image on the Shroud is the image of a man in the repose of death, but His body is not decayed and did not decay; it only left this luminous image behind, because He conquered the grave and rose from the dead.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Assisi


When I contemplate our pilgrimage, my memory is filled with many bustling days: long hours on the bus or walking back and forth through busy cities and small villages, amazing churches and holy sites, and returning wearily at the end of the day to collapse in our hotel room. I think of sacred spots where I felt almost as though I ought to remove my shoes, since where I was standing was holy ground; prayerful places, and so many other beautiful things, artwork and sculpture and countryside.

But when I come to Assisi, I must pause, and call to mind again the whole of my experiences there. No other place affected me so deeply, for there our pilgrimage reached its most intense moment. It felt like the climax of a story. All that came before led up to it, and all that followed afterward was a crowning glory, a resolution; but at Assisi we came, quite literally, to the crux of the matter.

Before anyone can understand how this came to be, it is necessary to paint in a little of the background of our Assisi visit. The glorious sunset we witnessed on the evening of our arrival, the panoramic hills, and the ancient little town were not the only backdrop to what we did there; even that first sunset was tinged with a darker color for us, as if we felt as though the sun might not rise again. This was because we were, in fact, walking the medieval streets with only half a heart; the other half was preoccupied, back at home. My brother, back in the U.S., had been very ill when we left; we were told, however, that it was merely an unknown virus from which he would recover--with time. Yet, time had dragged on, and on, and by the day we reached Assisi his condition had suddenly grown so much worse that a new evaluation was absolutely necessary. There, in a rather remote town in the Italian foothills, far from any airport and only a few days from the end of our pilgrimage, we waited anxiously for news from the other side of the world. Each day the news was worse, and the doctors, speculating about his illness, began to suggest that it might be fatal. We were in beautiful Assisi; but it felt like Gethsemane.

Yet, perhaps because of what was going on inside of me, what was going on outside of me took on a stronger and stranger significance. Assisi was as unique as St. Francis himself. Indeed, it was St. Francis that made Assisi unique; his spirit of peace imbued the town. It was quiet; it was ancient; it was utterly peaceful. I couldn't look out the window of our room, and view the little church, the hundred swallows flitting about the sky, and the descent into the green plains below, without thinking how very Franciscan everything felt. The upper and lower churches of the basilica are both beautiful, and even in looking at the many gorgeous frescoes there you can see something of the way men were inspired by this one man who always pointed to God with intense fidelity and love. Visiting Assisi, by the way, dispels the cloud of nature-loving myth that surrounds St. Francis in the modern mind; it is clear that he respected Creation only because he revered the Creator. You meet the man there; not merely a person who spoke to the birds and tamed the wolf, but a man who was a soldier, a romantic, a saint; someone who thirsted for God so deeply that he embraced total poverty and suffered intensely if only to come closer to Christ on the cross.

No place gives better evidence of this than in the dim crypt of the double basilica, where there rests a humble altar upon which tall white candles perpetually burn; and in the rocky enclosure behind the altar is a rough, severely simple stone coffin, and one dark lamp hung above it. This is the tomb of St. Francis, and merely a glance at it imparts something of the character of the man himself: the man who went singing a hymn of joy while walking the road of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and who was the first to receive the stigmata.

At his tomb, my mother--too distraught to do anything but pray--spent almost the whole of our time in Assisi, praying intensely for the healing of my brother. Everywhere I went, I prayed, too; in the Basilica, in the monastery, at the Church of St. Clare, in the home of St. Francis. Everyone in our group was so wonderful, gently reminding us that they were praying too, offering kind words and support. Later, I discovered that almost every person in our group had put in a petition for my brother at the Poor Clare monastery--petitions which would be placed in the altar and kept in the prayers of the Sisters for a month.

I don't know how else to describe the experience of these few days in Assisi, except to say that they were the most intense of my life, because every single moment was a prayer. I had heard of living like this, when every act and every thought become a prayer, but out of necessity now I experienced it. I was helpless to do anything else; I could not cure him, I could not even go to him; I could only pray, pray pray. Our rosaries slipped through our fingers hour by hour. One prayer was on my heart day and night. When I returned to the tomb to join my mother, I felt as though I had gone full circle and come to my last desperate stretch of faith. "Lord," I begged, "So far, I haven't asked you for a miracle; so far, I've just asked that you cure him, in your time and way...but I'm asking for a miracle now."

Through the intercession of St. Francis and many other saints, through the prayers of countless faithful who had joined us in besieging heaven, and by Divine Mercy, God granted our request. Late that same night, news reached us that the doctors had suddenly--and almost accidentally--uncovered the source of his illness and had removed it entirely. He would recover slowly, but he would recover totally.

"It's a miracle he's alive," we were told.

Deo Gratias, I whispered; and when the sun rose the next morning, for me every inch of Assisi was glowing in the light of a new spiritual dawn. As every breath had been a petition, so now every breath became an inward shout of gratitude. I never saw anything so beautiful as that medieval little town in the morning light that day, because I saw it in the light of faith.

I'll end by saying, simply, that for me the greatest lesson learned from Assisi--indeed from our whole pilgrimage--is this: never, ever doubt the tender Providence of God, and the mighty power of prayer.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Miracles

In Willa Cather's western novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, there is a compelling scene in which two missionary priests discuss a miracle. They are contemplating the effect of miracles on faith:

"Doctrine is well enough for the wise, Jean," says one priest, "but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love."

"Where there is great love, there are miracles," replies the other priest after a pause. "One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."

These words came to my mind as I was contemplating one of the miraculous places we visited on our Italian pilgrimage: Lanciano. It was a small town, with the same crooked Italian streets and lovely balcony windows that we had come across in almost every small Italian town we had visited that far; but Lanciano was not an ordinary town. It was not even an ordinary Italian town, because while almost every locality in Italy can claim at least one saint or famous building as their own, Lanciano can claim something far more marvelous than the shrine of saint or a magnificent cathedral.

In the heart of Lanciano, there is one, small church--which is beautiful but ordinary as Italian churches go. In this church, there is a tiny back-room where there took place, 1300 years ago, what may be the most earth-shaking miracle in all of Christendom; and this miracle continues to happen, every day, in sacred display behind the altar for all the faithful to see.

The story goes that in the 700's A.D., a Basilian monk and priest was suffering a serious crisis of faith about the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He was going through the motions of the Mass but had painful doubts that Christ really came into the wafers of bread he consecrated--that the hosts truly ceased to exist and that he held, instead, God Himself in his hands. One day, when he said the words of consecration with these turbulent doubts weighing upon him, the bread and wine he consecrated turned visibly into flesh and blood. That thin section of heart flesh, and few dark drops of blood, are still venerated in the church Lanciano--miraculously preserved through the centuries without human aid.

It is called the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano; but the miracle is not that the host turned into flesh and blood in the hands of the priest. That is what happens at every Mass, as astounding as it is. The miracle, in this case, is that we can see it. Just as the priest says in Cather's novel, our human vision is corrected by divine love, and we can suddenly perceive see what is around us always! At Lanciano, by God's mercy we can physically see the spiritual reality that is within every tabernacle and at every daily Mass: the Flesh and Blood of God.


Lanciano, however, was not the only Eucharistic Miracle we were privileged to see. In Siena, hundreds of years ago, two thieves broke into the cathedral and stole everything of value they could lay their hands on--including a silver pyx containing several hundred consecrated hosts which had been laid aside in preparation for a special feast day. When the loss was discovered, the whole town was full of anxiety, terrified that the Eucharist would be desecrated or discarded by the thieves. A three day fast was declared and the people of Siena prayed fervently that the hosts would be returned. Then, shortly afterward, a priest found the hosts dumped in the dust at the bottom of a collection box. Since the priest believed they could not be used because they had touched dirt, he put them aside in a small box in the tabernacle where they remained for years. Later, when the box was reopened, the hosts were found to be fresh, white, and sweet--and still are, four hundred years later, now kept in a special glass vessel in the cathedral. It was a little miracle; God crying out in the Eucharist, See that I AM present here, and that I AM eternal.

As at Lanciano, the miracle in Siena is that we suddenly can see a truth, a reality, that is with us always. It strengthens our faith, gives us something to "hold in our hands and love," as the priest said. In no instance, perhaps, is this perception of miracles more true than in the case of Eucharistic miracles, when our vision is "corrected by Divine love." In the Eucharist, there is always more present than meets our flawed human vision. True God and True Man is there in double disguise within the appearances of bread; God makes Himself totally vulnerable there for us. How often we pass Him by or stare at Him blankly without recognizing the miracle before us, while our angels tremble and bow low before Him: Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, hidden in the little white host.


Friday, June 4, 2010

The Altar and the Cross


"I don't believe it," I thought, "This can't be right." I had been looking forward to visiting the tomb of Padre Pio, but now, as we saw the church for the first time, a feeling of dread and disbelief came over me. It looked like an awkward heap of green shingles and bent white bars; the front wall was covered with a monstrous graffiti-like painting.



Within, spidery pillars arched upward from a disproportionate center reminiscent of a blue web--the sanctuary. There was no tabernacle. It looked, as one of my fellow pilgrims put it, like a vandalized spaceship. I passed the altar and an old cross; I remember now that the cross was beautiful, though I had difficulty appreciating that at the time. We followed a spiral descent into the crypt where Padre Pio's remains were interred. Glittery gold paint was all around the interior, which was full of odd angles and queer shapes, all shining with overt gaudiness. There was no avoiding the unsettling modernist flavor.

I wanted to cry. I could only sit back and stare with wide-eyed horror around me. The whole thing was wrong, entirely out of keeping with the character of Padre Pio. He must be rolling over in his grave, I groaned inwardly. He was a holy, humble, traditional friar, an Italian farm boy turned Franciscan priest, full of common sense and devotion, who wasn't afraid to rebuke sinners, who worshiped God daily in a small, ordinary church that was erected with respect for our sacred Catholic heritage. And now, supposedly to honor his memory, someone had built for his tomb a top-heavy monstrosity wrongly bearing the name of "church." Huge sums and long years of labor had been spent--wasted--on this place. I was only too glad to leave it, and almost too sad to continue on to the monastery.

"We go now to the English office," announced the guide, without explaining what this detour meant, while our group was silently escaping from the church.

We were taken to small room where we were shown a short video about the life of Padre Pio. I watched it distractedly, still mulling over the bloated piece of architecture which I had just left, and which I so heartily wished didn't exist.

But a surprise awaited me. A friar (God forgive me that I don't remember his name, though I shall never forget the man himself) who had known Padre Pio was going to come, speak to us, and give us his blessing. We waited for some time, but at last he entered: a soft-spoken, elderly Franciscan wearing a scarf and an extra layer over his habit to keep out the chill. A well-worn rosary hung from his belt. He gently put aside a parcel he was carrying and apologized in simple English for making us wait.

"When he was a young friar, he knew Padre Pio," explained the American assistant, "So that makes him a second-class relic!" We all chuckled, and the little friar laughed but said, "No, no, a third class relic!" When the laughter died down, he added: "But remember: I am not a saint. Padre Pio is a saint. I am only a friar."

He said that instead of telling us what we already knew about Padre Pio, he found it was better if we asked him any questions we had and he would try to answer. We eagerly complied. He told us many beautiful and simple details in answer to our queries about Padre Pio--his special devotions, his daily habits, etc. I wish I had a word-by-word account of what he said, this incredibly humble and patient friar who tried, despite his incomplete knowledge of English, to answer our questions as thoroughly as he could. He even related a little personal story about Padre Pio; one day, he said, toward the end of Padre Pio's life, when his health was failing, this friar was assigned to accompany the saint on the meditative walks he liked to take about the monastery grounds.

"What are you doing here?" Padre Pio asked him as he saw the quiet young friar standing there awkwardly to one side.

"I'm here to keep you company." the timid man replied.

"You're not very good company," Padre Pio responded.

Near the end of this wonderful interview, one of our company articulated what was on everyone's mind, though no one had yet mentioned it; the incongruity of the elephantine structure we had just visited with the character of Padre Pio. The poor friar's response was patient and tactful: he did not laud or even excuse the church, nor did he denounce it; rather, he implied that, no matter what we thought of the design, there was a more important element to it that we should bear in mind.

"In this church, always at the center is the altar and the cross. That is what we must see: at the center of the church is the altar and the cross. They were at the center of Padre Pio's life, and it is right that they are in the center of his church."

He was right, and his words comforted me. In the center of that queer building, there was Jesus on the crucifix, and the altar used for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There are many modern churches in America, and some of them are regrettably ugly and irregular, like the one in San Giovanni Rotondo. For those of us who must attend them weekly, especially after seeing such glorious churches as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, it can be distracting and even upsetting that we cannot worship in surroundings that reflect God's beauty and are more conducive to true prayer. I take comfort, however, in the holy friar's words. Always at the center of the church--spiritually, at least--there are the two focal points of our faith: the sacred altar of sacrifice where bread becomes God in the Eucharist; and the Cross, the symbol of the meaning of suffering, the comfort and challenge of all Christians. Christ, on the cross or on the altar, is always at the center of our faith and our hearts--no matter what else surrounds us.


On a final note, we had seen a powerful contrast that day. There was the grotesque new church, which was absolutely inconsistent with our knowledge of Padre Pio. And then there was the quiet friar, who recalled to our minds everything we knew about the life and spirituality of the humble saint. Man had built the church; but God had made the friar; and he, and the saint whose story he shared with us, was a little sampling of what God can do--and has done. As my father put it, man had failed to capture, in that church, the essence of Padre Pio; but there at the English Office, we met the essence of Padre Pio, shaped by God in the little Franciscan friar.




*Special thanks to Miss Sandy for the pictures.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"And they were afraid when they entered the cloud." Luke 9:34



Though we spent almost three days exploring the Eternal City, the day we left it felt as though we could never exhaust the wonders of Rome. One could live a year with the Romans, I think, and still not absorb even half the rich heritage and history so deeply embedded in the Roman streets and Roman walls. However, we were soon busily occupied ascending the Italian hills as we passed out of Rome into a new region, Umbria.

Two places in Italy, though separated by time and distance in our trip, seemed to have a unique connection to each other, at least in my memory; it was as though they possessed in common some fundamental spiritual quality that was distinct from the areas surrounding them. The first was Monte Cassino, the sacred monastery founded by St. Benedict, and the second was Monte Sant'Angelo, also known as the Cave of Saint Michael.

It was not just the fact that both were pilgrimage sites atop mountains, though oddly enough there was a distinct outward similarity between them. When we visited each place, it was a wet day, cold and rainy, with misty white clouds hanging low all around the horizon; and the higher we climbed, the colder it became. We had to wend our way up narrow switchback curves of the dark Italian hills, at times very slowly because the white mists prevented us seeing the road more than a few feet in front of us. When we finally rose above the initial layers of foggy cloud, we could see down into the valley, and it looked as though the mountains on the other side were floating above the town in a sea of mist.


As we approached Monte Cassino, our guide told us that this ancient monastery, founded by the Father of Western Monasticism himself, was destroyed and rebuilt no less than seven times in history--rebuilt most recently after the Allies demolished it in World War II. This little historical tidbit presented a bitter contradiction to my mind when I at last viewed the sacred monastic walls; the very first thing any visitor sees is one sweet Latin word above the arc of the first doorway: PAX.

The impression recurred to me as I marveled at the powerful beauty of the great church; Forgive us our trespasses, I murmured, as the thought passed through my mind of bombs ripping through that beautifully intricate roof. However, I soon left behind all mental lamentations about the sad errors of war, for the atmosphere of Monte Cassino transcends mere history; there is something intangibly eternal in the very air of the place.

We descended to the chapel crypt, and there we were privileged to hold Mass at the tombs of Benedict and Scholastica. The upper church was stunning enough, but the crypt was, on a smaller scale, beyond compare. Beautiful, delicately-patterned mosaics, mostly gold, lined every inch of the walls. Two graceful statues of the saintly twins stood behind the altar, gazing heavenward. The scripture we read and the hymns we sang reverberated and echoed, almost as though the voices of past Benedictines were joining us in the eternal Sacrifice of the Mass at the tombs of their spiritual parents.

In the presence of these holy siblings I began to realize that it was their spirit that pervaded the air, and the spirit of all their followers who gave up everything to follow Christ. Benedict and Scholastica lived in the Dark Ages, which G.K. Chesterton once compared to one long Lent for the whole world; the great Roman Empire had collapsed upon itself, had come crashing down and brought the world with it, and civilization had not yet emerged from its ruins. In those already harsh and dark days, Benedict and his followers chose to abandon all and seek first the kingdom of God. They mounted the mountain, as if to get farther from the world and closer to heaven; as if they were searching for the light of Christ on the mountain of the Transfiguration; they pursued sanctity in a simple spiritual rule of ora et labora, prayer and work. And climbing that mountain, through the white clouds, the pilgrim really does feel as though he were abandoning the world and venturing into the lower levels of heaven.


This, in a sense, is what connected the mountain of St. Benedict to the mountain of St. Michael. As we approached Monte Sant'Angelo, we had to undergo an even more nerve-wracking drive up steep, twisting mountain roads, in a mammoth bus that had to inch along because of the impenetrable fog that surrounded us. Once we arrived and had to walk through the small mountain village to reach The Cave of St. Michael, each step forward we made into the blank wall of mist made what was behind us disappear into it again.


When we passed through the mist and at least reached The Cave of St. Michael, I somehow felt that it was, like Monte Cassino, a place of unfathomable spiritual significance. Above ground, everything was swathed in a layer of cloud; entering the cave seemed like stepping behind the cloud. The rough, natural roof seemed to lower overhead like a solid, dark storm cloud, and incongruously at the edge of this, like a temple on a mountain, was carved out a beautiful altar and sanctuary. Behind the altar, a marble St. Michael, white and gold, raised his sword with an air of power and calm, to strike the demon cowering miserably at his feet. Beside him, and in many other places about the Cave, was etched out the battle-cry that once echoed in heaven: Quis ut Deus?---"Who is like God?"


It felt sacred, separate, removed from the world. The intangible character of the place is captured best by the words of St. Michael himself, passed on to us from ancient tradition: "I am the Archangel Michael, and am always in the presence of God. The cave is sacred to me, it is of my choosing. . . It is not necessary that you dedicate this church that I myself have consecrated with my presence. Enter and under my assistance raise prayer and celebrate the Sacrifice. I will show you how I myself have consecrated that place."

Undoubtedly, that was the spiritual connection between the two holy places, the mountain and the cavern, Cassino and the Cave. They were sacred with the presence of God, raised high on the mountaintop and separated from the world, shrouded with mist as with a veil because what is sacred always ought to be shrouded, like Moses conversing with God on Mount Sinai, or the presence of God in the Cloud guarding the Israelites, or the closed golden door of the Tabernacle in church. And somehow, there was a fitting fear I felt as we approached each place, an uncanny hesitancy and doubt that accompanied me as we entered the mist. I could not identify it at the time, but I knew it had something to do with unknowing, with not being able to see what was ahead of me in the fog. Now, as I think of another holy mountaintop, where Christ revealed Himself in His glory, I know why I had simultaneously a sense of the sacredness and the fearfulness of both Monte Cassino and Monte Sant'Angelo. We cannot see God fully on earth; we cannot know what lies ahead of us in the future. Yet, we must trust Him totally and step forward knowing that while we pursue Him, we tread on holy ground, even when we cannot see the pathway. We must follow Him, search for Him; even if it means, like Benedict, abandoning the world and climbing the mountain, or embarking on a pilgrimage to holy sites like the Cave of St. Michael, to remind ourselves why we are following the light of Christ in dark and clouded times. It is the same reason that Jesus revealed His glory to His disciples on the mountain of the Transfiguration, to strengthen them for the days of darkness ahead.

"...He took Peter and James and John and went up into a mountain to pray. And whilst he prayed, the shape of his countenance was altered and his raiment became white and glittering. And behold two men were talking with him. And they were Moses and Elias, appearing in majesty. And they spoke of his decease that he should accomplish in Jerusalem. But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep. And waking, they saw his glory and the two men that stood with him. And it came to pass that, as they were departing from him, Peter says to Jesus: Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for you, and one for Moses; and one for Elias: not knowing what he said. And as he spoke these things, there came a cloud and overshadowed them. And they were afraid when they entered into the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud; saying: This is my beloved son. Hear him. And whilst the voice was uttered Jesus was found alone. And they held their peace and told no man in those days any of these things which they had seen." ---Luke 9:28-36





Monday, May 24, 2010

The Reflection of God's Glory


One of the most remarkable things about Rome was the fact that almost every other narrow street would open upon a decorated plaza with at least one beautiful church on the corner; and oftentimes a relatively small church would house some fantastic work of art. Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, for instance, was practically hidden away in a tiny church on a street that had no less than three churches on it.


However, though Rome is filled with beautiful churches, cathedrals, and basilicas galore, certain ones stand out for being exceptionally grand and lovely. St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran--most of these names will ring a bell, not only to Catholics but to everyone who has an inkling of appreciation for what is beautiful in art and architecture. Walking into one of these churches immediately impresses on the observer a feeling of awe and reverence, of humility in the presence of something far greater than oneself. The sheer size of these places is of such fantastic dimensions and filled with such overwhelming beauty that jaws automatically dropped as we walked inside.

In St. Mary Major, for instance, the ceiling was carefully designed, three dimensional baroque patterns of solid gold; stunning paintings hung everywhere, along the walls were many beautiful side altars and chapels. Above all, I loved the little crypt, where a golden Child Jesus lay upon the rough remains of what, tradition says, is the manger of Bethlehem. (How fitting, I thought! The crib belongs in no place better than Mary's special church in Rome!)



In St. Paul Outside the Walls, there are vast mosaics across the dome and ceiling above the sanctuary, so painstakingly pieced together that they look like virtually flawless paintings, and fashioned in colors so bright and vivid they catch and hold the wandering eye, inducing reverent contemplation of the mysteries of the faith. There are columns of gigantic proportions, marbled floors of incredible design, windows made of alabaster cut so thin that a soft golden glow shines through them.


In St. John Lateran, the walls were lined with colossal statues of the Twelve Apostles, full of movement and so lifelike--with billowing cloaks, and muscular arms, and stunning details like veins on the hands and feet, wrinkles and strands of hair--that they seemed like living Titans caught in an eternal climactic moment. Some figures that impressed me especially were St. Andrew, strong and powerful, clutching his gigantic X-shaped cross, the instrument of his martyrdom; St. Matthew, former tax-collector, symbolized his abandonment of worldly goods for the sake of Christ by carelessly trampling a bag of gold, and the huge coins realistically spilling out of the statue's niche; St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, holding out his own limp hide, his face visible upon it, as if to say "This I suffered for Christ.

In all these churches, there were so many beautiful things to see that we could hardly absorb it all, taking into consideration the short time we were able to spend in each place. Everything was beautiful, everything was stunning, everything seemed to rise higher and shine brighter and look luminously more splendid than anything I had seen before. (Even the holy water fonts were epic-looking: giant shell shapes with countless dramatic baroque curls swelling up from their edges like frozen waves.) This was not, however, just a sight-seeing tour; not a trip just to look at pretty things. The churches were not built for the sake of being beautiful, for making generations marvel at the artists and artisans who designed them. In each church, the message was clear: This is for the glory of God. Look up! Raise your eyes to Heaven! Praise Him! It was with unmistakable clarity that one could see why these churches were built: to imitate--and therefore praise--the glory of God and raise the minds and hearts of the faithful to Him. It is impossible to walk into such a church and not feel the urge to fall to your knees and worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose glory exceeds all the wonders around you, the loving God who gave us eyes to see such things and minds and hands to fashion them.

That being said, there was one other nagging impression in the back of my mind as I softly treaded such sacred floors: those churches make our American modern-built churches look like something assembled by a ten year old out of cardboard. Well, perhaps that gives them too much credit. A ten year old at least knows how to draw a regular, traditional shape like a cross or a square. To compare the mind-blowing beauty of the churches in Rome built generations ago by people who hardly had running water and had never even dreamed of electricity to the latest church built in America with power tools and diocesan funding was, to say the least, depressing. The so-called "Cathedral" in Oakland looks like a big upside down coffee-cup next to these churches. Still, I thank God I had the chance to see such beautiful churches as I did in Rome.

As we left Rome and passed through the panoramic Italian countryside, another thought occurred to me. Those churches were astounding, incomparable, exquisitely lovely. Man has built nothing more beautiful. Yet, the greatest achievement of man in the field of art and architecture comes no where near to the glory of God displayed in His creation. He covers the sky in beauty morn and eve; He makes every droplet of water sparkle when touched with light, He shapes towering mountains with the palm of His hand, scatters monumental clouds across the sky in fabulous patterns, stirs the thunderous waves of the ocean; He wills each tiny wildflower strewn across our path in the hope that one human soul might look upon it and be reminded of His love.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I believe in the Resurrection of the Dead

We left the breezy outdoors and filed slowly through the doorway that led to ancient stone stairs. Arranged along the walls were broken fragments of stone sculptures and carvings--the remains of ancient coffin covers. At end of the stairs, we stepped into a well-lit room which was, we were told, an ancient subterranean Christian basilica, erected to honor to two martyrs. Several stone columns--which did not match each other because, as the guide informed us, the Christians were poor and could only afford to reuse discarded material--stood in rows near the center of the room, and at the head of the rows was a small sanctuary with an altar. The air was cool and pleasant and the light was quite clear because of several windows high near the roof; more broken inscriptions and sculptures lined the walls, which were formed of rough, pale bricks. The writing and the carvings were simple and almost rustic; they had none of the elegance, proportionality or smoothness of other Roman sculptures. The simple altar was adorned with plain white candles and draped with red in honor of the martyrs whom the early Christians had laid to rest behind the sanctuary.

Our guide explained that with the exception of the small basilica, the catacombs were always primarily burial grounds, never truly hiding places or a place to say Mass for the Christians, except in extreme necessity, because the stench of the decaying bodies and the poor lighting made the underground passages unfit for human habitation. The catacombs were chosen as burial grounds because the soft rock made it easy to hew out rough passages and graves, even up to four or five levels below the surface. Lighting was very poor in ancient times; they had only small oil lamps which would burn for about twenty minutes. The tangle of corridors, corners, and curves once made getting lost all too easy, he added. Also, there were very few intact tombs left in the catacombs; most had been callously destroyed after false rumors of wealth had circulated centuries earlier; hence the broken tomb covers and fragments of inscribed stone that we had seen arranged along the walls.

Then, we entered the catacombs.

Other places I had seen in Rome--churches and sacred sights--instantly inspired awe and reverence by the magnificence of their artwork and architecture and by the holiness of their history. This was entirely different. The catacombs inspired not so much reverence as...well, fear. All foolish superstitions and sensitivities aside, this was not like visiting any other holy place, or even any other graveyard; this was a simple and direct confrontation with the reality of death. Instantly as we entered the narrow passageway I noticed the musty, dank smell, the tightness of the walls; the roof was barely a foot above my head, and some doorways required me to bend down to enter. On every side, gaping, elongated holes showed up as darker patches in the brown walls: graves.

The lighting was much dimmer; sparsely-placed little electric bulbs were just bright enough to light my path along the irregular floor. The guide, without speaking, ushered us into a close room lined with emptied tombs. I tried to shy away from the walls, but when we had packed ourselves in, it was unavoidable for me to back up directly against an ancient grave--three graves, actually, each cut out narrowly above the other in the wall. Pushed in as close as I was to it, with the rocky roof brushing against my head, I was dumbly wondering at the tiny proportions of the tomb in my line of sight until I suddenly realized that it must have been for a child.

"Now, I will explain the graves," announced the guide. "The ones with the arched openings," he said, pointing with his flashlight, "were used as common graves where up to eight people could be buried together. The smaller tombs were for one or two people, and the smallest tombs were for children and babies...Now imagine, if you can," he said, pausing and placing his hands on either side of the cramped doorway, "What it would be like down here in the days of the early Christians. The smell, the odor of the decaying corpses, here in the darkness."

As we left the tiny room, we began to walk single file through winding curves and down darkening steps, descending deeper into the earth. We passed numberless narrow graves. I began to wonder how any poor soul would be able to find the grave of their loved one amid the masses of indistinguishable tombs. Suddenly we stopped, and I was, to my dismay, halted in an especially tight turning of the passageway; the low roof and the walls felt too close, and the light was so dim I could barely see the person in front of me.

"Why are we stopped?" I asked impatiently, barely controlling the panic in my voice. Two persons who had been at the head of the group began squeezing their way back--they were not feeling well, they said.

"But its alright," announced one of them as they passed me,"There's nothing wrong, I just need air...you can go on."

I didn't reply, because although I intended to go on, I thoroughly understood how they felt.

At last, after descending further and passing other dark sections of the graveyards, we mounted a narrow staircase and reemerged in the underground basilica.

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. Whoever believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live, and he that liveth and believeth in me shall not die for ever.

As we passed again the red-draped altar, I contemplated the staunch faith of the early Christians. It is one thing to walk in a graveyard filled with flowers in the sunlight and say you believe in the resurrection of the dead. It is another thing entirely that the martyrs did: announce their faith before a world that would kill them for doing so, knowing what awaited them. They would not get a white-washed Roman memorial with elegant statues; after being tortured and killed, they would be buried--wrapped up, sealed tightly away, buried-- in a sightless, confining tomb next to another decaying body, four levels away from the sunlight in the miserable, malodorous catacombs.

They knew all this, and facing that reality of death, they still confessed before the powers of the earth: I believe in Jesus Christ.

I believe...
in the Resurrection of the Body,
and life everlasting. Amen.