“Andiamo.” In Italian it means “let’s move along for this moment together.” On our first day in Rome we moved through the ancient city, which was founded 753 years before the birth of Christ. In that history, we toured the Colosseum and wandered through the forum down the Via Sacra where victorious Romans made their triumphant marches.
Along the roadside were the ruins of temples and imperial buildings. We stopped for a moment at the site where the emperor Julius Caesar was carried after being stabbed on the ides of March. We passed through the Arch of Settimio Severo, who conquered Jerusalem in 160 BCE.
Along the way Hugo, our guide, encouraged us to imagine and visualize what would have been. He showed us pictures from a book. One page would have a photo of the ruins. A transperancy could then be laid over the photo to show you what the site looked like in all its grandeur.
Sometimes, I thought, it would be nice if our lives came with such overlays. We could see an image of ourselves as we are and then, with the flip of a page, see clearly what God is calling us to do and be.
At the end of this triumphant road, next to the Curia, where the Roman senators met, was the prison where Paul spent his final days. It’s a dank, underground room that now holds an altar and the opening to a small well from which, the Bible says, Paul baptized his jailors.
In the mids of the former grandeur of Rome, one’s mind automatically turns to power and glory. In Paul’s prison cell, power and glory seem to mean something very different.
Traveling through Christian Rome
There may be a few things on earth more beautiful — but I wouldn’t know how to name or rank them. The Sistine Chapel, whose vault was painted by Michelangelo when he was 33 years old, is one of the best things an artist every created.
Michelangelo was a sculptor. He was forced by the pope to take this commission and spent four years, from 1508 to 1513, contorted and emotionally torn as he crafted a masterpiece. Michelangelo’s mission was a simple one — to make manifest the beauty of God.
This should probably be all of our mission — those with gifts of every kind, laboring to bring the beauty and love of God to life where we are.
Beauty of this kind is present in St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest cathedral in the world. Michelangelo designed the dome of St. Peter’s. His Pieta, which feels like grace come to life in marble, sits by the entrance.
Sometimes I worry that the church has lost its inclination toward beauty. In history, church buildings were designed and made to reflect the Kingdom of God. One entered and every piece of architecture, furniture and decor were crafted to draw you into the presence of God. The richness of the symbolism almost made the liturgy secondary.
Today, we’ve lost some of that creative spirit that draws our imagination into the making and being of church. It’s a loss we should consider acting upon.
The Roman Catholic Church has declared this to be the year of Paul to commemorate the 2000th year of his birth. When one enters the Basilica of St. Paul, one passes through a sacred door, a porta santia, which marks the merging of time and space with the holy.
There is a similar porta santia at St. Peter’s, which is opened by the pope every 25 years, for one year.
Viewing the Sistine Chapel, one can’t help but be struck how it represented the first time in history that an artist took it upon himself to express his soul in his work, rather than just following the forms of tradition or the wishes of a patron. As we pass through the porta santia of our lives, I think we might do well to claim some of the beauty God promises and enhance it with our gifts.
There are masterpieces yet to be created. Paul tells us this, so does Christ. In the name of God, it may be time to get started.