Thursday, June 19, 2008

Home from Rome

Our blog postings are getting less and less frequent, and less and less focused on kidneys, but some brief account of our recent two-week stay in Rome deserves a place in this journal, as one of our reasons for going to Rome was to celebrate the kidney transplant. (That we were able to go to Rome or anywhere for so long was thanks to our daughter Anne, who moved into our house in our absence and gave a helping hand to Lorraine, Nancy’s 91-year-old mother.)

This was our first extended time away from home since May 2006, when we went to Prades, France, Thomas Merton’s birth place, to take part in a Merton conference. On that occasion, Nancy and I made many long drives from Prades to Perpignan, location of the nearest dialysis center. I am happy to say that, while in Rome, not a minute was spent at a hospital.

Merton again had a role in our going to Rome rather than various other places we might have been tempted to visit. As in Prades, we were participants in a pilgrimage group organized by the Canadian Merton Society. Rome had been chosen because it was there that Merton, then eighteen years old, first began to find his round-about way to Christianity, following the deep religious estrangement that surrounded his father’s death when he was seventeen.

In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton vividly described the impact of his stay in Rome in 1933. It was not the usual tourist sights that moved him. He found much of the city’s ancient statuary and monuments “vapid and boring” and was equally unimpressed with the art and ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation.

What truly astonished him were the city’s most ancient churches, in which so much of the iconography of Christianity’s first millennium was still to be seen.

“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,” he wrote. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and ... all the other churches [among them Saints Cosmas and Damian, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Sabina, San Giovanni in Laterano, San Prassede, Santa Constanza, Santa Agnese, Santa Cecilia and others] that were more or less of the same period.... Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

Eager to understand the iconography of the mosaics, he bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels, and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day.”

On one memorable day, Merton climbed the Aventine Hill to visit Santa Sabina, one of Rome’s oldest and least modified churches. He decided it was time to pray and to do so on his knees, yet prayer in a public place was intensely embarrassing. “That day in Santa Sabina, although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” Despite his self-consciousness, he managed to cross himself with blessed water as he entered the church and then, kneeling at the communion rail, to recite the Our Father over and over again.

As you might expect, one of the first churches we visited was Santa Sabina, walking there from the hospice where we were staying a few kilometers away. (Another of the ancient churches we visited was San Teodoro, on the west edge of the Forum, not far from Santa Sabina, but probably this is one Merton didn’t enter, as I doubt it was open to visitors back in 1933. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II gave it to the Orthodox Church. Following restoration, it was opened in 2004. Nancy and took part in the Liturgy there on our last Sunday in Rome.)

Happily, there was plenty of time for many unscheduled and unhurried walks, as the ten-day Merton Society program was light: breakfast together each day, lectures on four mornings either by Michael Higgins or Donald Grayston, a get-together every evening on the hospice roof, and two shared suppers. Together we also attended Pope Benedicts’s weekly audience, at which we were among the groups introduced to the pope (he waved at us and we waved back). We also went as a group to the Trappist Abbey of Tre Fontane (which stands where St Paul was beheaded in 67 AD), then to the catacomb of San Callisto, along the Appian Way to the southeast of Rome, and finally to San Paulo Fuori le Mura (St Paul’s Outside the Walls), where Paul was buried.

If you have an interest in seeing the photos taken during our time in Rome, they are here:

There’s also an account of our visit to another of Rome’s best preserved ancient churches, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls):

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Photo: a view of the exterior of Santa Sabina.
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