Month: May 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


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.

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.

With my own two eyes

Perspiring in the intense noonday sun of Southern Italy, we patiently waited–or as the French say, attended, for we were there for one attentive purpose–with a crowd of thousands in the square. United by that single intent, we had endured the heat and the anxious anticipation with good humor for several hours. After one or two false murmurings ran around the crowd that at last the moment had come, the uproar in one corner of the square indicated that now it really had. We stood on tiptoe, craned our necks, braced ourselves against our neighbors’ shoulders to catch a glimpse of what we had come to see.

Certainly, we had seen it countless times before–in pictures, on TV–but this was so intrinsically different. There was no medium between us and the truth; we had not come to see what we had seen before, but what our eyes had never seen: not the image of the reality, but the reality itself.

Exultant shouts of delight, cheers and applause moved slowly from one end of the square to the other. It sprang up quite near us; a few more tense moments and I felt my heart skip a beat as the white-clad figure of our Pope came into view.

Human beings are a two-fold miracle, unique in the created world, possessing both an intangible spirit and a physical body. What one part of us does affects the other. Though we believe with our mind and our heart, our faith is edified–our soul strengthened–when we can see and hear, touch and taste what we believe. That is why people treasure pictures of the ones they love, why family and friends embrace each other when they meet…and why thousands flock to see the Vicar of Christ on earth, with their own two eyes.

The Inspiration

Come, let’s away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; —
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

* King Lear, V:iii