Destroy me, O Lord, and upon my ruins build a monument to your glory.St. Laura of Jesus
“Everywhere you turn, something beautiful has been built upon the ruins of something else.” Sally’s comment has been echoing in my mind. Looking at the Area Sacra di Largo Argentina sitting about 60 feet below street level in Rome, the sense of the modern city sitting on top of the past comes to life. Virtually everywhere you look in Rome, church, monument, public building, restaurant, piazza, or galleria is sitting atop some ancient ruin.
Nowhere is the notion of building upon ruins more evident, or more profound, than in the numerous Basilicas and many holy places across the cityscape. I’m not sure if St. Laura of Jesus knew anything about Rome when she wrote her prayer including the quotation above, but the Holiest of the Holy in Rome were often intentionally built upon specific ruins: a Roman temple, a Roman public space, a Roman fort, etc. Often, parts of the ruins were incorporated into the new structure – the materials were reused or even entire structures were left as they stood to be used as part of the design.
How much of our lives is built upon ruins? Failed relationships. Failed ventures. Failed promises. Failed efforts. We love to remember, and to celebrate, the times we won, the relationships that last, the great ideas, and the heroic efforts. However, many of the solid structures within which we now live are standing upon the ruins of the things that did not go as planned, efforts that failed, and the losses that forced us in new directions. Would the Basilica of St. Paul matter as much if it wasn’t built upon his tomb or St. John Lateran upon the fort of the Roman imperial cavalry?
Cecillia met us today right on time and off we went for our walking tour toward Trastevere, a neighborhood across the Tiber River in the southwest corner of historic Rome. Our first stop was the Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Fratte, a special church for Cecillia as she attended there with her grandma when she was young. We’ve started to notice very interesting connection to pieces of our own lives; this particular Basilica was the site where St. Maximillian Kolbe gave his first homily after becoming a priest – he sacrificed himself for another prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II. Maximillian Kolbe is a special Saint for Sally and our daughter, Madison, and finding his memorial here was a special discovery.
Moving along, we stopped at the Basilica of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This stop was another interesting bit of connectivity for us as St. Ignatius is our son, Kellen’s, confirmation Saint and on display in this church are the remains of Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine, the namesake of Bellarmine University where Kellen and his wife, Victoria, attended school together. Of course, the frescoes are stunningly beautiful as well.
Our next stop was the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple now serving as the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs. The current structure was built in 126AD and converted to a church around 609AD. The Pantheon was originally part of a massive complex built by Emperor Marcus Agrippa that included a Forum and Bath (essentially a spa and workout center that was quite important to the ancient Romans). The Pantheon is the only remaining part of the complex and one of the best-preserved of any ancient Roman building.
The really fascinating thing about the Pantheon is the ingenious engineering. The front Portico of the building has large columns and is beautiful, it is the Rotunda that is truly amazing. The height to the Oculus (the open “eye” in the center of the dome) and the circumference of the Rotunda are both 142 feet, a fascinating bit geometric that would enable a 142 foot sphere to fit perfectly within the space. The materials of the dome become less dense toward the top of it making lighter and able to support itself. The dome is still the worlds largest un-reinforced concrete dome. Wow!
Area Sacra di Largo Argentina
Walking along, we came upon an interesting bit of ruins sitting in a rectangle form about 2 blocks long by 1.5 blocks wide. The area was uncovered during a building project in the late 1920’s and fully excavated to reveal four Roman temples, a theater, a bath, and the Curia of Pompey – the place where Julius Caesar is believed to have been assassinated. “Et tu Brute?” has been running through my head all day.
Just past these ruins was another ruin that had a shape that reminded me of the Colosseum. Though it shared designs elements with the Colosseum, it was actually the Teatro Marcello, the remnants of a Roman amphitheater that now supports apartments on top. Everywhere, those ruins are holding something else up.
Isola and Trastevere
The next stop was Tiber Island, a small island in the middle of the river that originally housed a hospital to help isolate plague victims from the rest of the city. Also on the Isola is the minor Basilica of St. Bartholomew. Bartholomew, also known as Nathanael, was St. Philip’s brother, brought Christianity to Armenia, and was martyred by being flayed alive. His relics rest in the altar, which is shaped like an old bathtub, but in marble with a marble top. Our connection to St. Bartholomew? We have a nephew named Nathanael.
Our final stop with Cecilia today was…the Church of Saint Cecilia! Cecilia was martyred in her own home in a botched be-heading. Her family took her the hot baths to help her die a good death..a death that’s came more quickly. The Church of Saint Cecilia is built over what was her home, which is an interesting “scavi” or dig showing storerooms and some of the original structure. Also below the altar is a crypt with her remains honoring Patron Saint of Music.
Farewell Cecilia, see you for our final tour on Friday!
Veneration or Idolatry?
Now 3.5 weeks into our pilgrimage in Italy, we’ve seen many, many churches, and learned about a bunch of Saints and relics. For those who don’t understand the connection between Catholicism and the churches, saints, and relics, I’d like to spend few minutes on some cursory explanations. First of all, Catholics do not worship saints, relics, churches, or other holy places. We believe, and worship the Triune God, one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also believe that Jesus Christ, both God and man, was born of the Virgin Mary, lived for 33 years on the Earth, was crucified (an act removing the stain of original sin after the “Fall” of Adam and Eve), and was resurrected after three days (an act allowing humanity access to eternal life in Heaven).
Our fascination, and reverence, with Relics is born of their connection to the story of Salvation History born through the life of Jesus Christ and propagation of the Faith through the Church as its existed over the last 2000 years. We venerate the Holy Relics and the Saints – we deeply respect and honor them as connection points to our faith and the stories of Saints as living examples of how to live and die as a faithful Christian. When we say a prayer to a particular Saint, we are not praying to them as God, we are asking for their prayers of intercession on our behalf. The Saints, the Relics, the Basilicas, and all of the beautiful art have a single purpose: to turn our eyes to God and show us the way toward right worship.
Standing in front of a wonderful collection of Relics in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem earlier this week, we saw several people kneeling, bowing, weeping, and praying. The danger of having such Holy Relics, Holy People, and Holy Places, is that there is a risk of falling into idolatry with the “thing” in front of us if we do not rightly align our focus, and our prayers, toward the right Person: God. When we tip into superstition or too much attachment to the “thing,” we move away from right veneration and closer to idolatry. For the faithful Catholic, kneeling, weeping, and praying fervently is best offered in front of the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Tabernacle of the Monstrance – something available in any Catholic Church, just look for the single red candle near the altar of in the chapel.
Forgive the Catholicism 101, but I feel it is important to understand the beautiful opportunity of experiencing these Relics, Saints, and Basilicas in the right context. Right praise is always directed toward God, true worship is obedience to command and call. The beauty in all of these places and things is in their ability to bring us closer to Jesus, His memory, His story, and His presence in our lives today. Seeing all of it can simply be a curious trip through incredible stories and works of art, or it can be a pilgrimage through the suffering, salvation, and ultimate beauty that is the Christian faith. Imperfect pilgrims we remain.
We separated to spend our afternoon recovering and wandering. Sally and I decided to visit the Basilica do Santa Maria Soprano Minerva, a church built upon the former Temple of Minerva – more ruins as foundation. The goal of this stop was to see the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena – remember her? We got to see her skull in Siena and learn a bit of her story. This Basilica sits about 100 feet from the back of the Pantheon and was particularly interesting due to a major storm that hit as we were walking in. The Basilica was very dark, with only the altar lit giving it a very solemn tone. St. Catherine rested behind the altar – she is the namesake of Macy Catherine Berry, our youngest daughter. Connections.
Heading home in a light rain, we came across a small church in a piazza. I must confess that I was “churched” out for the day but my lovely wife, always curious and enthusiastic for the open door of any church, said “Let’s go in!” In we went. The exterior was very plain and the interior completely dark except for subtle lighting on the altar and a completely lit side up the aisle to the left. A man walked quietly out of the dark to greet us – all of these churches have people watching them. Otherwise, the church was empty, the first such experience we’ve had since landing in Italy.
Having the church to ourselves, we moved through quietly and solemnly. Moving toward the altar, we saw an Icon of Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus mounted high on the retableau (altar piece) and decided to stop and say a little prayer. The quiet and stillness brought on a depth of calm and peace I had not experience since we began our trip. I felt emotional, raw, exposed. It was a relief and a release. I’m not sure how long we kneeled there, before the altar and the tabernacle holding the True Presence.
Finally standing, we moved back along the left to the brightly lit side altar, Sally saw it first and turned, bright-eyed toward me pointing upward. It was a painting of Our Lady of Lourdes with St. Bernadette kneeling before her. Tears welled as I felt the rush of connection to my own Patroness, Our Lady and the little Bernadette who have been an integral connection to the Northwind story, my own faith journey – St. Bernadette experiences her first apparition of Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, on February 11, my birthday. Our journey with Northwind has been one of faith and struggle and miracle – a finding of something special along the way and call to something deeper with each discovery. Sally and I stared at this altar for a long time, holding hands, and knowing.
Upon the Ruins
Tomorrow we will finally enter the Vatican. We will walk upon the beautiful steps and continue on through a faith built upon the ruins of so much, rising up and above all that was before. That is a comforting thought.