Monday, April 5
This is a busy week for some of us at Notre Dame, and (most noticably, since he hasn't been posting lately) for Matt, who is trapsing across Sicily. All this considered, we haven't had much time to blog, so I thought I'd bust out some quick thoughts on confession I wrote for a friend last year.
Thanks for your question about confession. I'm not quite sure where to start... But recently I've been thinking about sin -- or actually, about the Immaculate Heart of Mary! But it relates to sin. Because I was wondering what it really means to be "immaculate," or to have an "immaculate heart." Cardinal Ratzinger once said that the heart is the meeting place of our intellect, will, temperament, and sensibilties... which you could also call our soul, our mind, and our body. It's the center of our being.
And of course immaculate means perfect! So the very center of Mary's being was perfectly focused on Christ. Her every choice was aligned to Christ. Her every thought and feeling was aligned to Christ. Her every desire was aligned with Christ. And that is what makes Mary immaculate, perfect.
But sin, then, would be the deliberate choices, the feelings, the desires which are not centered on Christ. Each of these sins turns our heart farther away from Christ, makes Him less the center of our lives, and destracts or distances ourselves from Him.
And that's the beauty of confession! Of course Reconciliation is a sacrament, but a sacrament is a real encounter with the person of Jesus. When we go to confession, we are actually encountering the person of Jesus.
In Holy Communion, He comes to us in His Body and Blood, under the appearance of the bread and wine and with the limited abilities of the bread and wine. But with eyes of faith we can know He is present! Sometimes we even feel His Presence during Communion in the depth of our souls. He comes to be with us, to share the most mundane parts our life with Him and the most amazing parts of His life with us, to give us strength and comfort.
In confession, Jesus comes to us as well -- He comes to us under the appearance of the priest, and with all the limited abilities of that priest. But with eyes of faith we can know He is present -- and again, sometimes He even makes His presence felt deep within us. He comes to console us, to advise us, and above all to heal and FORGIVE us. In forgiving us, Christ removes the spiritual roadblocks caused by sin which are preventing our hearts from being completely centered on Himself. But Christ does not only REMOVE the roadblocks, in Confession He also heals our hearts by giving us the grace, the strength, to better avoid in the future whatever sins we have confessed today.
Of course we've all had struggles with confession -- maybe even been tempted to bolt midway through, or just sit/kneel in front of the priest not sure where to begin. Sometimes it may seem impossible to find an opportunity. When we do find a priest, we can be very aware of his limitations -- when he isn't listening, etc. But especially during these times, when it is so hard to get to Confession, we can really experienced Christ's presence in it. Like St. John Vianney said, we can really picture that it is Christ Himself who listens to our voice as we confess to the priest. What a clear way to KNOW God is hearing you! He is there! And when the priest forgives, sometimes one can physically feel your heart lift up like all of your sins had been weighing on it and then were suddenly taken off.
But the real gift is the conviction that all the sins which prevent us from making and keeping Christ the center of our life are forgiven. Even if one goes to confession kind of unenthusiastic (and if you stay away from confession 2 months, you really do get unenthusiastic about God!!), afterwords your heart flies up to Him so much quicker and more often than it had before. We have the joy of knowing that when we met Jesus in Communion the next time, nothing will block His way from entering straight into our heart. These Communions are always a great grace..
Confession really is a struggle. It is exposing our own hearts, giving the deepest center of our beings over to another. Even worse, it's exposing what is Wrong and Weak with that center. But really, in the end, it is the ultimate gift of ourself to Jesus: we give Him our hearts in confession, and we trust Him to heal their weakness. It is one of the deepest ways we give ourselves to Christ, and so therefore it is one of the deepest ways He gives Himself to us.
Friday, April 2
Implementation of our Saturday Solemn Mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary continues to go well. Hardly 48 hours after the solid conception of this idea, we are the happy owners of...
For Psalm settings:
- a copy of Worship (third ed.)
- a copy of Gather Comprehensive (second ed.)
- a copy of Ritual Song
For all other hymns, Mass settings, or chants
20 Adoremus hymnals
For the altar
- 1 server cassock
- 1 server surplice
Not to throw around the word "providential" lightly, but some of these items normally take a long time to ship... but they were all ready to ship on the spot today. Phase one complete... : ) Hopefully, Our Lady will be proud of this gift to her Son (and especially the greater gift of deeper worship it will help us to offer Him!)
Thursday, April 1
Well, it's been a tough week thus far. For those of us afraid that I might have fallen off the face of the earth, we're off on our spring field trip to Sicily in about two hours and in the mean time, we've swung into high architectural gear working on our final project. Mine involves the Lateran Basilica, a demanding site which has both a lot of wonderful old shrines in it and a lot of hideous modern and semi-modern urbanism around it. In the mean time, I've been all over the place, attended a penitential procession at the Scala Santa, been to Stations of the Cross at San Gregorio, saw the exposition of the Veil of Veronica at Solemn Vespers at the Vatican and even got to see a particularly rambunctious toddler get baptized and get loose in the Palatine Chapel of the Knights of Malta. However, work, play and paying library fines have intervened in my attempts to catalog my numerous adventures, so, I hope my eager readers can hold their baited breaths until my return over Easter weekend! Expect lots of Roman--and Sicilian fun upon my return. While I'd sooner be in Rome during Holy Week--I'll just be able to catch Good Friday when I get back, but only just--I suspect that Passiontide in Palermo and Cefalu (above) is bound to be undoubtedly interesting, with all the barbed good, bad and weird that that word implies. Details on my return.
That one day, Notre Dame students, and SMC students, can get together, and celebrate.. the Solemn Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
So we were having a discussion after Mass tonight -- a somewhat recurring discussion. Freshmen year, the discussion was usually a bit starry-eyed: fun ideas, but a fair ways from being realized, and we knew it. Last year, the discussion seemed a bit more plausable. And then Saturday, Rich gave the discussion new life: "We should really start saying the responses in Latin. It's what Vatican II wanted."
Hmm... We should... We plan the entire Mass; it's the only Mass anywhere on a Saturday morning. For a long time, the "tradition" has been the use the Roman Canon. But Latin seemed like a good idea. But.. why stop there?
Your Whapsters have a dream. This liturgical dream involves (Adoremus?) hymnals. It involves incense, and server cassocks with surplices. It involves communion chin-patens and sanctus bells... chants and, where possible, sequences.
Can you see the possibilities?
Of course, we've got a college-dorm sacristry to work with. We have the funds, fortunately, for hymnals. Probably even a single (certainly not a triple) sanctus bell. But the thought did occur to us, maybe a random reader has a couple of these items on hand? They would go to our student club, and be at the service of the ND community, owned by the club, indefinitely. Perhaps optimistically, we've even set up a Paypal account (see the side bar) to this end. We're not about to restrict the ways the Holy Spirit might work. If you're interested or want to know more, contact Dan (his email is on the sidebar!).
For those of you on campus, our revamped Saturday Mass, to be dubbed the "Solemn Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary," will make its inagural appearence the first Saturday Mass after Easter. This is the sort of thing that many students and younger priests are open to, but have neither the opportunity nor the supplies to experience. We hope to change all that :)
Next up: the annual Mary Procession. But this year, we're thinking.. habited seminarians, processional crosses, incense, and, of course, a life-sized statue of Mary, hoisted up on 4 pairs of shoulders. Cross your fingers. But, one thing at a time...
Tuesday, March 30
Yes, the rumors are true -- Dave Barry has a blog!
Saturday, March 27
Well, I didn't really see this one coming:
Yahoo! News - "The Passion of the Christ" a hit in Beirut, Damascus
"The funeral rites are exquisite!"
That was myself, trying to describe the Anglican Use requiem. S. burst out laughing across the room. I haven't a clue why.
Back in 2002, some liturgy-minded Anglicans called the Gild of Clerks got together and performed a Requiem according to the lavish medieval Use of York. This was a pre-Tridentine form of the mass not unlike the extravagant Sarum Rite that was sadly extinguished during the Reformation after one hopeful last gasp during the reign of Mary Tudor. Pretty nifty photos: black vestments galore, of course. Check out the mourners, "looking suitably sad," though could somebody explain to me what the anchoress is doing there?
Illuminated missal from Cologne open to the beginning of the Canon, c. 1075
A Sneak Peak at the New Missal from Adoremus
The inimitable Helen Hull Hitchcock posts a new article on the Englishing of the missal by Vox Clara including some absolutely spectacular new translations--I'd go as far to call them heart-wrenchingly good. Check out the new beginning of the ancient Te igitur (Eucharistic Prayer I), so mangled by ICEL's 1973 translation:
Most merciful Father,
we therefore humbly pray and implore You
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord,
to accept and bless +
these gifts, these offerings,
these holy and undefiled sacrifices...
Rejoice, rejoice and again I say rejoice!
There are times when I wonder if I have stayed too long in Rome. It is almost sinful to grow used to living in such a dense web of interlocking histories. Every day and every night I stump past the vast pockmarked travertine front of Sant' Andrea della Valle, the cavernous, dark mother church of the Theatine order, and every day I hardly look up from the basalt-black cobblestones.
The sampietrini, as they're known, are quite wonderful themselves, glossy and wet in the rain. On Via Monterone, narrow and uneven, they throw up dissipated reflections of the garish green plastic sheeting that now covers the facade of our studio building as they restore our grimy stucco with the usual Italian surfeit of noise.
But I hardly notice them either, my mind is on bedtime instead. It sounds odd to hear from someone who pours forth such literary extravagances on a weekly basis, but I don't daydream much anymore. Imagination is like a valve that goes on and off for me, and as I recover from the grey rain and sepia skies of a Roman winter, my mind is still caught up in prosaic and quotidian questioning.
It's hard to notice, really, it's so easy to grow neglectful of wonder. Old cities are so full of stories swirling around them, eons of wars and noise and silence it's sometimes simpler to shut them out and pull back into your own story, such as it is. Sometimes it takes getting out of yourself, imagining yourself as if this were your first day in the city, free of all responsibilities, to bring back this joy.
And it hits you suddenly and marvelously. One night, alone at dinner with a book, I found myself at a second-story window looking down at the darkened Corso Vittorio full of bright headlights and realized this was the sort of idyll I'd longed for all my life. Alone in a big city full of wonder, free to see anything and meet anyone, settling down to a neat little dinner after a long and satisfying day.
So, a few days later, coming out of studio one cool purple evening, I decided to turn on my imagination again for that short, uninteresting trip across traffic-choked Piazza della Valle. I passed one of my fellow students in the alley of the Redentoristi, the bright fluorescent tubes fixed to the metal scaffolding backlighting his head, his face all but invisible save for the red sparking end of his cigarette. I muttered a hello and moved onward. I'd seen him day in and day out, but what an image, this conjunction of fire, electricity and darkness!
Maybe that was a lucky break, but I filed away that memory in my head should I ever write a novel about Rome. Then, for a few moments, it seemed forced as I tried to consider the millions of feet, from ancient Romans to modern Romans, that had tramped my same path, the coinicidences of twenty centuries that had brought the buildings and blocks to lie just so on the map. It was forced.
But then I saw Sant' Andrea, really saw it for the first time in many months. It's easy to grow complacent in Rome about church architecture; a basilica that would be the outrageous ornament of any American metropolis sometimes seems just like an inferior copy of Sant' Ignazio or a superior--but incidental--variation on the Gesu. Volutes and pilasters blur together into a single ideal church, which then blurs into oblivion in the lumber-room of the architect's head.
I saw it, and I realized it was orange and violet, not white travertine. Or so the Roman night had painted it. The orange light of Rome's streetlamps has a peculiar way of settling on the eyeball; their aureole becomes almost visible, a real and tangible ring of light threaded with rays that glimmer as you blink in disbelief. The fiery Mandarin yellow of so many of these garish streetlamps had bloomed vividly, delicately on the old stone. St. Sebastian's agony had grown ever more vivid as he writhed in his aedicule, his muscles outlined in sharp purple shadows. Above, far above, angels flew with billowing wings on either side of a great ecclesiastical coat-of-arms suspended weightlessly in the pediment. Lit from beneath by electricity, they had a comforting theatrical turn to them, as if they were about to transform into trumpet-blowing muses. City as theater, church as theater, God as director.
I sometimes wonder if I have been too hard on Rome, perpetually questioning the value of so many apartments like a communal hive. Love your enemy and love your neighbor, perhaps because they're often the same person, and when you share a thin party wall with them, it becomes an even greater struggle for charity. But the truth is, so many of Rome's old palazzi, now turned into gracious plebeian housing, are not hives: Italy's indefatiguable and unconscious individualism comes through in the end. Laundry spills down from light-well windows while roof-terraces bloom with vast verdant thickets of palms and ivy.
Now that the skies are blue and cloudless, a pure and bright and unadulterated a blue straight out of a paint tube, everything is returning back to life. Blue skies. I saw some this morning, and wondered if there had been a mistake.
I remain agnostic about city life: after so many years of dogmatically depreciating the American ideal of the little house on a great green hill, it seems only fair to give it a fair chance now that I have seen how the other half lives here in Rome. Nonetheless, there is a particular stretch of crooked lane that runs north of the Gesu, in the shadow of an old papal palace festooned with roccoco pilasters and heraldic eight-pointed stars, that I find myself returning to again and again. It is blissfully quiet during the day. There are no shops or motorini to break the silence, though if you step into the next street the hurlyburly of Rome remains conveniently close at hand.
I look up at the names on the apartment buzzers or the single green door of a rowhouse whose dried vines will soon burst into a great robe of glossy-leafed ivy and I think, I could be happy here, with my own door, with my own climbing greenery, maybe with my own roof-terrace with its illegal pergolas. Maybe I could.
I should amputate that word, maybe. Last night, I walked to my room across the narrow balcony that spans the courtyard of our little hotel, and looked up. A golden spotlight gleamed on a latticework of green branches interlacing with a trellis on the terrace of the building next door, three stories overhead. Like a most perfect work of art in a gallery, green and gold against the night sky. Only a few steps from where I sleep. Wonderful. Wonder. I had rediscovered wonder. Of course I could be happy here. I already am.
Friday, March 26
John Collier, Catholic Artist
Remarkable. I discovered Collier about three minutes ago via the good ladies of the Summa Mamas. He is adept at rendering his canvases with a grand, almost baroque splendor with just the right touch of the surreal, as above in The Woman Clothed with the Sun. Other works have a stark, wintry sobriety that reminds one of Grunewald and van der Weyden. He also has a talent for reintroducing that sense of timeless contemporarity--ancient St. George as a "modern" medieval knight--that gives much of Gothic art its charm. While Lazarus in jeans and a tee shirt might seem more of a stretch than showing him in Germanic trunk hose as in many anachronistic triptychs, Collier's suburban Annunciation, with a delightfully awkward teenaged Virgin in rolled ankle socks, works. And works sincerely, not as some postmodern liturgical jive. I would be honored some day if a Collier image would hang above the candlesticks of any of the high altars, whether Baroque or Gothic, that I hope to design in my career as a church architect.
Thursday, March 25
Annunciation. Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898. From J.S. Matt's website.
Ancilla Domini in Stereo
It always surprises me that the solemnity of the Annunciation of our Lord isn’t a holy day of obligation. I find myself blinking in surprise as I check the Code of Canon Law yet again to see if it’s one of the big ten that we’re still responsible for. Unless, of course, it falls on a Saturday or a Monday or in Ramadan during a leap year, all those Byzantine attempts to make the layman’s life simpler. In the Middle Ages, it was Ladymas or Lady Day, the first day of the new year, the traditional date of the Crucifixion just as it was of the Incarnation, and the day the world would someday end.
Nonetheless, I turned up at San Gregorio at six thirty this evening, that familiar, humble church door at the end of a dark, nondescript alley. I paused in the claustrophobic dark wooden sentry-box fitted over the inside of the door, the bussola that climate and custom has provided all of Rome’s churches with in lieu of a narthex. And I found myself fumbling with the doorknob, realizing it was the right-hand door they left unlocked and popped into San Gregorio.
I’d lied—it wasn’t six-thirty exactly, maybe a bit after it. I was, as usual, fashionably late. They were already at the Kyrie, whispered sotto voce, when I entered, and unfortunately my first thought was some snarky comment about the astonishingly ugly pattern of bright-red poinsettias on the priest’s Roman chausible and matching chalice-veil, atrocious petalled scarlet against the mandated white for the feast of the Virgin.
I tried to orient myself, straining my ears to make out the intimate mumblings of the server and the priest, and quietly backtracked over to the rear pew to snatch up a bilingual missal. Then, I realized, over at the side altar not two yards away from the sanctuary in this tiny oratory, Father Tomas was beginning a whole other mass by himself. Things had suddenly gotten very, very confusing: I had received the singular privilege of Tridentine instant-replay. The whisperings suddenly turned to Latinate mush, the snakelike sibilants of the letter s, the one letter you can’t ever truly whisper, interlocking and interlacing into an inverted Pentecost—in other words, Babel.
Father Tomas. I’d recognize the back of that head anywhere. He’s really still a kid, a little Croatian with cropped yellow hair, round steel-rimmed spectacles and an impeccably-tailored cassock and long black cloak that could have come out of a Bing Crosby-era clerical supply catalog. Or, in the gilded robes and falling sweeps of laced alb he had selected for the solemnity, out of a forgotten, smoke-darkened Counterreformation altarpiece of one of those passionate young Jesuits, Aloysius, Stanislaus or John Berchmans the Belgian.
He moved to the center of his side-altar with drill-field precision, turning and strutting and turning again to kiss the relic beneath the three layers of consecrated cloth, addressing his low responsories to no one in particular. Oramus te. Domine, per merita Sanctorum tuorum, quorum reliquiae hic sunt, et omnium Sanctorum: ut indulgere digneris omnia peccata mea. Amen. His biretta lay neatly on the wooden footpace of the altar, looking primly forlorn. I tried not to be amused, but the utter dazzling confusion of the sight of two priests with their back turned offering two separate masses within earshot of one another was—God forgive me—weirdly comic. Or perhaps the way I was reacting was the origin of the humor in this situation. It just seemed like some strange optical illusion, Latinate déjà vu all over again as my eyes clicked back and forth from priest to priest.
No—wait—up in the little tile-floored sanctuary, the two lonely candlesticks of low mass lit with little wavering flames, they’d just ascended the altar-step. Maybe they were at the Confiteor when I came in, not the Kyrie. I heard more intricate mutterings, and tried to wedge in a whispered Christe eleison from the pew between the quick exchanges between the be-poinsetta’d celebrant and the server. Now, the Gloria—oh yes, for a feast, of course, wrapped in silent and frustrating gauze as Tomas continued his own mass at the side. A white-haired old man had joined him below the creaky footpace and was quietly answering his responses. Now they were at the Gloria, and I tried to offer my continuing confusion up to God having nothing else to give. Something, anything to salvage my utter bewilderment.
I have to admit, though, my first thought when the battle of the dueling celebrants began, was simply that there was no way I wasn’t going to write about this, it was just too singular an opportunity to miss. It’s a struggle sometimes, the impulse to play liturgical tourist and lose yourself in descriptions of orange silk maniple-linings flashing in semidarkness, of liturgical osculae and triplicate crossings, or even semi-comic ecclesial curiosities like the odd tableau that I had stumbled into on Lady Day. And it’s a struggle even to admit it’s a struggle, as even that makes for interesting writing.
I pulled myself together and tried my best to get back to my prayers, hoping whatever came out of this, either in my soul, my head, or my journal, that it was for God and not my amusement. I tried to bury myself in the little paperback missal, over-carefully reading the private prayers to re-orient myself.
Concelebration, the rite of several priests consecrating together the sacred Victim at mass, was virtually unheard-of in the days of Pius V, when the old mass was first fully codified as a weapon against the religious strife that then wracked Europe. Before the Council fathers had sat in snowy Trent, the custom had died out, but not before St. Thomas could defend it and Durandus deny it. By the sixteenth century, it had been reduced to a peculiarity of the Ordination mass, the one time that the words of Consecration were said in anything more than a whisper. By necessity—to keep the newly-chrismed priests, their chausibles still folded up on their backs, in time with their leader, the bishop.
But otherwise, for better or worse, for all its ubiquity today, it was unknown then. The endless ranks of splendidly-marbled side-altars in so many churches are a testament to this liturgical quirk, allowing every priest to have his private mass every day of the year. Churches rang with the staggered sound of sacring bells, one Consecration coming after the other with imprecise precision. Priests even complained, as the golden sky of the Middle Ages slowly rolled up into the apocalyptic scroll of the Reformation, of pious laymen rushing from chapel to chapel to adore the upraised host in mass after mass.
And here was I, living on a page of liturgical history and trying to pray and not to gawk. To look and not stare. I considered fumbling with my rosary, but turned back to the missal balanced on the pew-rail.
My eyes kept slowly wandering back and forth between the two priests. I watched the old celebrant at the high altar bow with slow familiarity, assisted by a bespectacled, black-cassocked old acolyte.
And I watched Tomas as well, resplendent in his kingly vestments shot with black-graped gilt vines, move through the ritual with the graceful over-enthusiasm of the neophyte, laying on signs of the cross with the vigor of a tomahawk chop, cutting the air over the paten and chalice with a balletic and solemn slice of his hand. He is growing slowly into his priesthood, and it is marvelous to watch, as I did at high mass this last Sunday, Laetare Sunday, as this innocent, unprepossessing-looking creature turns to his server, hand pressed to his silk-clad breast, and gives a stiff little blessing with his forefinger touched to his thumb, the pardon before Communion. Possibly the most beautiful gesture in the world.
Indulgentiam absolutionem + et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum, tributat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.
Communion—but not yet, not yet today. I strained to listen for the Sanctus and tried to hang onto the words as the server rang the altar bell three times, and then silence. A single moment of silence at both altars, and then even lower, more secret whispers. Another bell tolled, and I waited in anticipation, as the Host was raised on high, almost piercingly white against the dark canvas of the reredos.
I’d missed Mass twice over the last few days, and perhaps that’s why He seemed so glaringly present, not in some mystical sense, of course, but there was a certain odd solidity about that sacred Disk of bread that was not bread in this collision of liturgical tableaux. And then I found myself waiting again, eagerly, excitedly, as I looked over to my left and saw the same miracle happen one more time, a doubling of Calvaries like Christ in a sacred temple of mirrors—yet it was no reflection I saw. Time loops in on itself at every mass, bringing us back to Golgotha, and here I had the unique privilege of seeing God do the impossible two times in a row.
Staggered humilities, flavored by different accents. Nobis quoque peccatoribus. And then again from the side altar, in Croatianized Latin, more subtly, more murmured. Nobis quoque peccatoribus. Though we are sinners, the only words of the old Canon said aloud.
I saw the priest at the main altar kneel slowly as he worshipped the Host, and then noticed Father Tomas out of the corner of my eye fall on his knees, almost seeming to strain as he fell onto the footpace with a great clatter to reverence the God He had just brought back down to earth. Two reverences, two men, one Lord.
And I quietly went over to the altar-rail and took the Host silently. No response, the missal had admonished me, no response to the priest’s complex quadripartite gesture with the Host (And the absentminded, gentle blessing of Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.) The mass soon ended with the Last Gospel, said so silently as if one had to take the instruction to genuflect at et Incarnatus est on faith from the priest. He left then, the chalice veiled in his hands, the black biretta square on his head like a curious piece of Roman origami. But Father Tomas was still at his side-altar, bowing low again and again as he prayed the last series of blessings, scarlet vestment linings flashing in the semidarkness, the dangling stole with fishtailed ends bouncing against his knees. And so I joined him, thinking he might appreciate a congregation as I stood sideways in the pew.
As he turned around to impart the final gesture with a simple crossing, I waited and wondered if perhaps he might notice me—but then I looked up, watching his skinny hands impart the sign, and realized his head was bowed, his eyes almost closed in serene, intensely-controlled mysticism.
It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to him who was listening, who was there. It hadn’t even mattered if he had a server to say all the Et cum spiritu tuos at the beginning, the old man had come to him, not the other way round. As a favor, maybe, like I had.
I remembered the words in the missal, black on white. Three times, three taps of the breast.
All. Domine, nom sum dignus et intres sub tectum meum; sed tantum dic verbo, et anabitur anima mea.
All. Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof. But only say the word and my soul will be healed.
Only say the word. Words, words and silence and secrecy and eyes sealed shut in communion with God. A strange mass, with the silent Canon and Consecration of the old rite, to attend on the feast of the Annunciation, that day so full of words, Ave Gratia Plena exclaimed aloud, words that could trouble a sinless virgin because they were understood and not lost in a stream of jarring whispers. Words and the Word, and the Word that entered through the ear of a Virgin and went straight into Her womb.
I am not sure I like the silent Canon of the old mass, but I know well enough to respect it. And I hope I understood it better on this day of loud and sacred words, of that grand seraphic greeting painted on so many unfolding Germanic triptychs of centuries past. Because the word of the Annunciation, the word that mattered, was not the angelic salutation of Gabriel but the word that came in secret from the overshadowing Holy Spirit and dwelt for nine months in secrecy within the Virgin’s womb just as the priest stands in silence bent over the altar whispering the unchanging words of Consecration and the alter Christus brings Christ into the world.
Of course he had his eyes closed. It was not about him, this mass. It was about something else. Someone else, with a name, and, because of a teenaged girl in Nazareth, a human face. And for Her, it was not about Herself either, but Someone else too. Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Be it done unto me according to Thy Word.
I've been very excited about the new Ave Maria University and accompanying New Urbanist-inspired college town going up near Sarasota, even if it's supposed to be an orthodox rival to us unfortunates at Notre Dame. Heck, the more believing Catholics in higher education, the better; maybe some competition will do us good. At the very least, it'll mean more people I can add to my instant-messenger list.
Nonetheless, I'm still less than excited about the modernistic glass-and-steel curtain walls of the new university chapel, which looks even less like a church than anything from the oeuvre of Rev. Fr. Vosko or even "the least straight cathedral in the U.S.," the Mahoneyite Yellow Toaster of the Unknown God over in Los Angeles. The new chapel is like the love child of Joseph Paxton and Caspar David Friderich. Very disappointing. Anyway, have a peep at what noted controversialist Michael Rose has to say about the new project. And then write to university benefactor Tom Monaghan and tell him to wait until I graduate so I can drop a replica of Borromini's Sant' Ivo in the middle of campus.
Wednesday, March 24
Namely, that it leads to bizarro conversations around Studio which include lines like "Was Opus Dei behind the lunar landing?" This is doubly disturbing because it was actually a segway into a series of conspiracy-theory riffs plagiarized from Zoolander about how male models have been behind every major political assassination in the last 200 years. Don't ask.
Turns out, according to the inimitable Prof. Yeraslav Penguin of St. Toucan's Orthodox Seminary and Roadside Icon Shoppe, that the world-shaking crisis of the Filioque clause was the result of a squabble over pastries. Also, streaking seems to play a role; but I won't go there, as this is a family weblog, even if it is perhaps somewhat dysfunctional on occasion.
Tuesday, March 23
Dale Prince pulls off the best Da Vinci Code gag reference yet in an amusing dissection of an anti-Latin Mass rant from the Arizona Republic. Delightful.
The Drive-in Basilica
There are times in this city where you simply drop everything you were thinking, serious and silly, and just say, “Hey, I’m in Rome,” and it’s enough to make you smile. Things slow down, and the manic rush of traffic boiling around the Colosseum just doesn’t matter anymore. You start noticing things. The outline of a Romanesque campanile against a delicate sky of shardlike plumes of cloud. A flock of little pilgrims in matching red ball caps. A Franciscan with an Adidas backpack. Or St. Christopher painted on the side of a tour bus in hues of green like some sort of sacred Jolly Green Giant.
It happens in the evening when skies turn to salmon-pink and buildings die into purple shadows, just like it happens at the start of the afternoon siesta when the big slab of pizza you picked up in the Ghetto starts to catch up with you. You notice things, lots of things, dozens of things—but somehow they don’t come crashing down on your head in an insane baroque blur of motion. You’re in no hurry, and they aren’t either. The Mannerist molding-profiles ain’t going anywhere either.
I was walking towards the Lateran the other afternoon, ostensibly gathering research for the final project of the year, where I glanced off the roaring Via dei Fori Imperiali, with its cluttered souvenir stands and Iranian fruit vendors peddling moist coconut fragments from tin fountains, when I noticed the Basilica of SS. Cosmas and Damian was open. I was supposed to go there for a station mass last week, but the combination of sloth, a late project and the fact that it was starting at 7 AM had made me think better of it and pull the sheets higher in my stuffy hotel room.
So I wanted to see what I’d missed. It’s not much to look at from the outside: a large fascist-classical portal set into a rambling series of monastic buildings built into the edge of the Forum. The whole complex backs up on the round temple of Romulus with its porphyry-purple columns and densely ornate architrave, more refinedly Byzantine than brashly Roman. Oh, yes, it’s not the Romulus, but some Roman emperor’s kid who died young and got deified because, I suppose, his dad knew the right people.
I was a bit surprised to discover that SS. Cosmas and Damian appears to be the only basilica, major or minor, with its own attached car-port. The arch concealed a lazy, little monastic vestibule with a small mini parked just inside, with Roman nonchalance. I glimpsed a refectory through a side-door, prosaic Grandma’s house furniture in contrast to the ornate gilded candlesticks and crucifix set on a sideboard.
I found myself in a quiet cloister, surprisingly cool and quiet away from the traffic and tourist racket of the street. I circled the courtyard, slowly drinking it in and wishing I could simply take a book and sit there all afternoon and watch the sun change on the gritty, pleasant stucco shaded somewhere between peach and pink in faded paint. A fountain dribbles quietly, droplets of water following slowly from the mossy, green-furred mouths of lioncels amid a forest of potted palms in big bulging amphorae. Even under the mottled cloudy sky it seems tropical. Dark, indistinct frescoes still hung between a few arches like tapestries, while a few painted saints peered around at me from the backs of pilasters. I finally reached the basilica after following a typically Roman series of directional arrows and stepped into the grey afternoon darkness of the nave. Cool, almost chill on this grey, luminously cloudy day.
Somewhere in the distance, the occasional bustle of the sacristy leaked unconcernedly into the church, sounds like vague whistling, the purr of a telephone, but oddly this somehow made the church’s silence seem even more palpable and even more casually unhurried. Very Franciscan, in a sense. There’d been an emaciated, dancing Brancusi-modern statue of their founder set up by the entrance. It seems that the monastery and basilica belongs to the Third Order Regular of the Franciscan Friars, better known for their sober charism of noble austerity, but the church is nonetheless a miracle of that faded Roman exuberance that offers both joy and rest to the tired eye and mind.
Admitted, to the uninitiated eye, the dilapidated magnificence of grimy Counterreformation plasterwork in so many churches in Rome might prove taxing. But Cosmas and Damian’s home here belongs to that era of equilibrium between the cerebral sophistry of the Renaissance that seems inhuman and the nervous, ecstatic energy of the Baroque that to others might be a little too human. For me, somehow, the basilica’s encrustations of curling acanthus and cherub-headed escutcheons caged by so many eggs and darts in neat and surprisingly mannered Mannerist frames has all the old cozy familiarity of steaming meat pies on a chill winter evening at home, or a broken-in sofa in a twilit room.
Whatever you call it, Counterreformation, proto-Baroque, late-Renaissance, Mannerist, whatever, it’s a good break from so many billowing bishops. While restrained, nonetheless, it never quite lets you go, like sitting in silence with family and friends who you know too well to need to speak. Aloud, anyway.
The first thing you notice, however, isn’t terribly stimulating: there’s a great window at the far end of the nave looking in on the old vestibule, the gutted temple of Romulus. It’s been tiresomely restored with bland and disappointing thoroughness so the public can see every last bit of the original walls—that the Romans would have covered up with marble revetment.
At the top, it’s cold and almost Palladian with the few remaining bits of stucco adhering to the dome, at the bottom it’s just more dull brick stumps. A helpful placard notes its complete restoration, though that phrase is followed by a curiously bracketed question-mark as if perhaps the restorers themselves weren’t quite sure what they were doing. A few of Urban VIII’s bees and suns cling tenuously to the rim of the oculus, adding a bit of charm to an otherwise preposterously empty museum-exhibit. But turn around, and the whole world changes. You sit in a pew and find yourself mellowing perceptibly.
The eye slowly follows the tromp l’oeil curves of palm leaves, the gentle bulging shadows of the stucco laurels and torch-bearing baby angels in relief that line so many pilasters, gold on grey and grey on gold, both hues equally tarnished and delightfully dirty so the little pudgy putti have grubby knees—and grubby everything else—like their real-life counterparts playing soccer in the street. Perhaps that’s a literary fancy so close to the childless dead space of the Forum, but, well, surely there must be some playing soccer somewhere in Rome.
But nonetheless. You simply take this all one piece, one volute, one cyma, at a time, in slow, relaxed contemplation. Even the most silly of details earns a certain charm in this mood, like the winking, artificially quivering orange flame enclosed in the rayonnant light bulb crowning a grubby silver side-chapel lamp worked with little seraph-heads. But this, even with the flickering fake flames and the faintly operatic—Gaston Leroux rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber—electric fittings that snake and snarl above the dark stations of the cross in their little golden frames, is not a kitsch church. One glance at the venerable, miniature organ lofts that stand above you on either side of the glassed-in old vestibule refutes all that with the gentle paternal authority of a grandfather clock.
Someone’s vacuuming somewhere in the convent, and I can hear it. It’s oddly therapeutic.
Where was I? Oh yes, the organs. The pale light falls diagonally across the organs, gleaming on the thicket of sensible pipes, on its bright gold and sea-grey, sea-green cases festooned with sober, naïve little half-Mexican angels and near-baroque arabesques starting to spill every which way but not quite as free as they would find themselves in the days of Cavaliere Bernini. And above all on this curious instrument is the shield of the penitents of the Third Order with their emaciated twists of the Crown of Thorns and the robed arm of St. Francis, the alter Christus, and the bare limb of Christ.
And what of Christ Himself? The eye continues its lazy trek along the line of empty confessionals with their odd foam-green curtains, past the shabby pulpit standing high and dry and empty too almost twelve feet in the air above the congregation, and you come finally to the high altar where God reposes in a gilt and ebony tiered casket that seems like some courtly Renaissance kunstkammer full of esoteric sea-shells and magic coral.
It’s topped by a dome, as if to echo the gutted temple of Romulus with its little rim of Barberini-era stucco-work, but this temple holds life rather than neatly-restored, lifeless history. As if to accentuate this point, sprays of white flowers, fresh amid the genteel, arrested decay of the church, surround Him, striking against the black marble colonettes and nesting pediments above with their deep Corinthian brackets. Two lazy, overfed grey stucco cherubim loll at the top while a faded image of God the Father looks in gently at a narrow frame below. An Emperor and His Son: Romulus and his bare monument seem rather silly now in comparison.
And beyond? The altar and reredos are actually free-standing, and beyond is a shallow apsidal curve of well-polished choir-stalls surmounted by a register of canonized nuns in baroque frames. And then above in the semi-dome, the tranquility slowly explodes. It’s an ancient mosaic, or looks it anyway; it’s too archaeologically correct to be authentic, so I suspect it’s quite modern. But it’s perhaps the best in Rome whatever age it stems from, half-Christian Constantine or half-pagan Benito. Christ hovers in golden robes on a great river of sunset-red and noon-cerulean clouds—like, one almost feels, the spilling of blood, though one hates to break this reverie with violence, even the sacred violence of the Passion, however pervasive and necessary it is. But the blood is glorified and transfigured, as inviting and romantic as a beach sunset, and twice as joyfully solemn.
Here we see the glorified Christ, and the hot scarlet of the Passion has been transfigured into peacock magnificence, the blood-red of Passiontide into the flamingo-pink of Laetare Sunday or the purple of the Second Coming. And beneath Him, we see Peter and Paul and Cosmas and Damian draped in snuff-violet and senatorial white. The two brothers, doctors and martyrs, come forward with heavy gilt laurels outstretched in cloth-swaddled hands like a priest in a humeral. They lack the delightful Renaissance red caps familiar to us from so many Medici commissions and instead have returned to their ancient, gracefully prosaic roots. They all have the curious abstract intensity of Romano-Egyptian tomb portraits, gazes fixed on us rather than God above. And out of one corner against the deep blue mosaic sky, peeps out the face of Pope Felix looking like Santa Claus, pink and bearded among all these unfamiliar Levantine faces. Christ, after all, was no bland Norseman, and come to think of it, neither was St. Nick.
And yet, and yet, amid all these dark eastern faces, one hardly feels frightened at all. God’s black-eyed glance and Cosmas (or is it Damian?) with his frown are telling us that it its time we took up our burdens again and stepped back into the real, hurried world we left a few steps behind us, when we entered the only basilica in the world with its very own attached garage.
Saturday, March 20
My friend the Roman Seminarian has directed my attention to the travelogues of H.V. Morton, an English Catholic, in particular this little online gem which ends his book Through Lands of the Bible, detailing, among other things, a spectacular pre-Conciliar papal ceremony (involving pigeons, by the way) in St. Peter's. Well worth the read.
God’s Maytag Man Takes Tram No. 8 to Caesar’s Assassination
Adventures around here inevitably begin with an email, just as the archetypal Sherlock Holmes story begins with Watson fussing with the gasogene and reading out loud part of the Great Detective’s correspondence from some troubled soul. However, rather than picking up a letter from Miss Violet Hunter or the Count von Kramm, my informant is an old and familiar one, always well-anticipated.
My gentle readers are familiar with him under the simple and anonymous meme of “The Roman Seminarian,” and when I see his name in my in-box, it means I’m in for something unusual. I don’t know how he keeps track of so much going on in the Eternal City from up there at the Irish College, but because of him, I’ve partied in the high Bohemian manner with Czech priests, visited the site of St. Catherine’s death, and even gotten Cardinal Ratzinger’s autograph with my clerical-groupie friends.
So when last week I received an e-mail written largely in Latin from him, I was less surprised than most people would have been. It ran something along these lines, and was provided with a helpful translation below:
IDIBUS MARTIIS NEQUITER TURPITER IUGULATUS PIE SANCTE CONCELEBRATUR DIE SOLIS XIV MARTII PRIDIE IDUS IPSAS.
Conglobabuntur participes apud Templum Sancti Andrae de Valle hora 3:00
pomeridiana et ad horam usque 6:30 commemoratione illa occupabuntur...
In other words, the famous Father Reggie Foster Ides of March walking tour leaves from outside S. Andrea at 3 PM next Sunday.
Reggie Foster! Ides of March! Today was the fourteenth, and the famous tour was held the day before the actual assassination, March 15, 44 BC. I owed it to myself to check this out, not just because of the historical value—my hotel stands on the site of Pompey’s Theater, where the Senate was meeting and I had heard he had been killed—but because Father Foster, in certain strange and wonderful circles, is something of a celebrity. A weird celebrity, too. His name causes priests to spontaneously burst into laughter, and then sing the praises of his intellect. He’s the Pope’s official Latinist, has a show on Vatican Radio (appropriately misnamed “The Latin Lover”) and teaches at the Gregorianum, Jesuit intellect central. Beyond that, most everything about him is a large and delightfully elaborate question mark, even if that is a form of punctuation unknown to his beloved ancient Romans.
A sarcastic or hallucinatory journalist once referred to him as “fresh-faced Father Foster in his immaculate Carmelite habit.” Almost everything in that description is wrong. He’s a Carmelite all right, a discalced Carmelite who wears beat-up loafers and powder-blue Maytag man jumpsuits. The standard rumor is that if he wasn’t a genius, he would have gotten retired to a remote hermitage eons ago, though on what charge is a little unclear. I’ve heard him accused of everything from cynical crypto-Tridentinism to raving modernism and every heresy in between, though I wouldn’t have known unless I’d read it somewhere. He also, if the nickname “Wino Reggie” is to be believed, likes popping open a beer on occasion, which indicates he can’t be all bad.
So, at two-forty-five I found myself beneath the great travertine shadow of Sant’ Andrea, for once on time. My friend the Seminarian generally expects me to be late, considering the number of essays I’ve written that begin with me getting to mass in the middle of the Kyrie. Still, I was well-rewarded: the crowd that had gathered was just about as interesting as the tour itself.
The Seminarian later told me with a smile on his face that he thought “we were officially what is known as a motley crew.” And how. Students, Gregorian alums, even ordinary “Foster groupies,” as my friend put it. There were men in baseball caps; matched sets of pudgy children and pudgy mothers; priests; a black-robed Benedictine novice with a pale El Greco face and a vast shaven pate; an Anglican vicar with prim round-lensed gold-rimmed spectacles and a graying Rowan Atkinson bowl haircut; and several pleasantly pretty college girls. (People, I’m not made of stone, you know).
And then there was “fresh-faced” Father Reggie. He’s not fresh-faced; he’s far too interesting-looking to be handsome, his vast bald head, bull neck and florid face like an imagined Roman pugilist’s. Cracked veins stood out on his ruddy cheeks like an anatomical diagram. And I smiled, because I saw he was wearing his own habit—not immaculately Carmelite but distinctly and weirdly Fosterian. Yes, here he was, in powder-blue windbreaker and navy pants, looking all the world like God’s own Maytag man. I started scribbling down furiously, telling my Seminarian friend I was getting some local color.
The Seminarian continued to fill me in on the last few weeks since we’d seen each other, about the Lenten Station mass at San Clemente (the only service in Rome involving stomping on bay leaves, incidentally) where one of the congregants had started snoring as well as entertaining me with a falsetto version of part of the Dominican litany that only he could pull off. Like me a liturgical tourist, he also filled me in on the Syrian subdiaconal ordination I’d missed last week, saying of the tonsuring rite, that “any liturgy involving scissors has to be good.” This is why I like hanging around this guy, if you hadn’t guessed already.
Meanwhile, Father Reggie had started pulling out thick bundles of photocopies from a plastic shopping-bag filled with row upon row of Latin and dozens of classical floor-plans. And then he started talking. I noticed a bemused Benedictine smile on the novice’s face.
“Everybody thinks Julius Caesar was assassinated down in the Forum at the Senate House,” he began in his big, gravelly, raspy voice. “WRONG!” he bellowed. I laughed to myself. I knew the truth well; they'd moved it because the Forum Senate House was under repairs, they were removing (or installing) asbestos or something or cleaning up the blood from the last knife-fight. We were just around the corner from the Albergo della Lunetta, General HQ for me and the other arkies, set in a curious curved city block whose shape derived from, as I said before, the theater of Pompey that was built there two millennia earlier.
That meant—surely—that Caesar, the great G. Julius Caesar with his stupid bronze-cast haircut and memorable last words, et tu, Brute? had gotten knifed to death somewhere in the basement of the place where I slept. Heck, there was even a restaurant around the corner built in the old theater’s vaulted basement, and if you’re going to murder a dictator, a vaulted basement seems like just the right spot to do it. In fact, maybe that had something to do with the ghost sightings I’d heard rumors of a few months earlier.
We moved along the great blank brick side of the church, standing along the vast stuccoed curve of Largo di Pallardo. Somewhere above us was the window of my hotel room, overlooking history. It was odd, frankly, to think about it; the greatest Latin scholar alive (as well as possibly the strangest) was standing amid the parked motorini on a spot where I’d once spent three incredibly dull hours trying to draw the dome of Sant’ Andrea using a laundry marking pen for an incredibly experimental assignment. Campo dei Fiori’s lazy backstreets were now full of death and sex and violence, or at least historic sex and violence as opposed to the usual stuff garnered from taking a Roman taxi ride.
The Carmelite was talking loudly again. “We’ve got some pictures, the kids always like pictures,” smirked the Carmelite as we flipped through our packets. I dug out my map, and my heart sank. “You see where I’ve written ‘Cur. Pomp’? That’s the site of Pompey’s senate house, where Caesar got murdered.” I did some mental calculations, checking the diagram of the old theater against the modern street map. It had been part of Pompey’s marble multiplex, but certainly not the bit I called home.
Oh yeah, and Foster further added salt to the wound by telling us gleefully that Caesar didn’t say “Et tu Brute?” but something “IN GREEK!!”
Et tu, Reggie? Can I have just one little inaccuracy to call my own?
This isn’t to say Pompey’s Theater is chopped liver; Foster reminded us that the dedication ceremonies had looked like something out of Aida with elephants parading across the stage and a thousand jackasses, according to my notes, though the context is such I’m unclear if he means animals or people. Pompey’s Theater was, in greatly magnified and bombastic form, in the great tradition of the Roman illegal structure. The flat roofs of so many palazetti around here teem with dubious terraces, elaborate makeshift timber structures hung with curtains and green plastic shades, wild with ivy and TV antennas. Anywhere else, they’d be ugly, but like everything the Romans touch, they are beautiful and quaint, no matter how jury-rigged.
Regarding Pompey’s theater, well, I’m getting to that. Some people find it hard to believe the ancient Romans are the same people today that sell cheap plaster Augustuses from carts around the Forum or drive with the recklessness of Judah ben-Hur in the Circus. Caesar’s heirs may have conquered most of the known world, but the modern Imperator, Mussolini, had only Abyssinia and Albania to his credit, and with Abyssinia, it bears to remember that modern, united, up-to-date Italy had been beaten by the Ethiopians less than fifty years earlier at Adowa. Nonetheless, Pompey’s Theater is governed by the same insane loopholes that make the Italian world go round, except in even more spectacular form. You see, instead of building the illegal structure on top of a roof, quiet and simple in easy-to-take-down plywood, he did it in marble, and plopped the only legal thing in the whole place on top of it.
Theaters, stone ones anyway, were highly illegal during the Republic. Perhaps because the Tiburtine sybil had looked into the cloudy future and seen Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen, the Senate feared the possibility of infama actors dabbling in politics, especially when declaiming inflammatory lines from stone stages in stone theaters that would make very convenient fortresses should Zero Mostel feel like taking up arms against the S.P.Q.R. Pompey, of course, being a high-roller, would have none of that, and put up his very own grand theater with stone seats and stage—and, as a spectacular legal dodge, plopped a temple to Venus on top of the whole extravaganza and told the architecture police that the stone seats were just steps up to the temple.
It’s stories like these that suggest that ancient Rome was more Caesar’s Palace than Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. That and those mysterious “thousand jackasses.”
But what about poor Caesar, lying on the floor of Pompey’s theater in a pool of blood? Reggie was reading his Latin again from the packet, as loud and vigorous as possible. He waved his free arm around, clenching and unclenching his fist with comic drama like a conductor keeping time for a student orchestra. It was church pronunciation, naturally, but the way he said it seemed centuries away from the sonorous, soporific Latin I was familiar with from daily Low Mass.
So. Caesar. Cicero seemed to be looming large here in G. Julius’s murder, even larger than the famous Brutus. After all, he was an ally of Pompey—and later a flatterer of Caesar. A very back-biting flatterer. “Cicero was a bum and a rat,” said Foster, his bright, idiosyncratically blue eyes crinkling with surprising humor. And what was his evidence for saying this? Two “abominable lines,” as he said grandiosely, quoting a letter from the orator to a certain Basilus. Tibi gratulo, mihi gaudeo; te amo, tua tueor; a te amari et quid agas quidque agatur certior fieri volo. Which means, “Congratulations, I am delighted! I am wholly at your service. I want you to be the same to me and to be informed of what you are doing and what is being done.” Written, most curiously, on the ides of March itself, it is said, at the first news of the assassination. “Good riddance to the old buzzard!” cried out Foster, mimicking Cicero on Caesar.
Actually, Cicero did not really have much to do with the dagger-wielding, but I get the impression he certainly liked the idea. “ ‘If I had been there,’ ” quoted the Carmelite, “ ‘there would have been no leftovers!’ ”
We trudged towards the site of the Senate House, worming our way down narrow grubby cobbled streets and dodging the occasion Kamikaze Roman driver. “The Latin is just out of this word,” said Foster, continuing. Caesar and Cicero were rival orators; indeed, Caesar’s prose “so lean and military—so mmmmmghrmpmpgh, wonderful!” obsessed Cicero. However, they hated each other, or at least Cicero did, especially when Caesar sent him a letter asking first about his work, ‘opes’ meus, which turned into a request for support from his bank account, ‘opem’ meus. That, coupled with the fact Caesar, as Reggie Foster put it, was plotting to take over the world in three weeks, didn’t improve things.
After all, he’d marched on Rome, conquered the city, and been hailed as everything from Consul-for-life to demigod. He’d also exiled Pompey, in whose senate house (which we had yet to find) and before the foot of whose statue he was to be knifed twenty-three times. postquam senatus idibus Martiis in Pompei curiam edictus est, etc. Stabbed twenty-three times in the curia . That’s a favorite magic number for Romans, and even Reggie Foster mentioned once being on tour when a man leaned out of a window and bellowed the sacred “ventitre!” Tell them he was stabbed twenty-three times! It’s important!
Caesar was obsessed by the title of King. He also liked cheese. He probably would have taken the crown proffered to him by Mark Anthony at a public ceremony if he hadn’t noticed the fact that the expressions on the crowd below resembled nothing so much as curdled milk, and I don’t mean parmigiano. But anyway, he had already been declared imperator (then more like Norman Schwarzkopf than Jean-Bedel Bokassa) and Pater Patriae, so what else could he do? The mess got worse when Caesar tried to have some tribunes arrested who destroyed a crowened statue of Caesar put up by Mark Anthony, and even worse when Caesar acted like a complete twit when the Senators arranged some ceremonial shindig in his honor. In all fairness, he was probably just a bit sleepy at the time.
Incidentally, the whole wreath of laurels thing had nothing to do with kingship: Caesar just put it on his coins because he didn’t want to look like he was losing his hair.
And so the situation continued to deteriorate. Caesar’s enemies, as they would later justify themselves, didn’t hate him because he was Caesar, but because he was going to ruin the Republic. “Not because he didn’t brush his teeth,” joked Foster, free-associating, “but because they didn’t like his politics.” Soon, Brutus was getting drawn into the fray, when he found someone had put a sticky-tab on the back of his chair in the senate saying Dormus Brutae! In other words, “Brutus is asleep,” since his family apparently had a tradition of stabbing tyrants with stupid haircuts. One of them had apparently done in the last Etruscan king, beginning the long Roman hatred of guys in crowns. Then things got even weirder, as Reggie informed us.
We were now standing overlooking the temples at Largo Argentina, the vast open archaeological wound that another would-be king, Mussolini, had opened in Rome’s fabric. It’s not the prettiest ruin around, overwhelmed by the clatter of the No. 8 tram and the enormous number of cats roaming around amid the broken columns and scattered beer bottles. A smell of urine predominates, as do cats.
The Largo Argentina temples are now a sanctuary for Rome’s cats. Somebody has taken to hosting a three-o-clock happy hour at a makeshift bar down in the archaeological pit, for reasons inscrutable even to the most sulfur-stoned sibyl. The Seminarian turned to me as we waited for the indefatigable Reggie to catch up. “You see, back after the Second World War, the Romans had to eat the cats to survive. And so, stricken by guilt, the commune passed a law forbidding anyone to hurt the cats of Rome afterwards.” Perhaps this explains the absence of meat in this city.
I was unable to continue this line of thought, probably fortunately, when Foster caught up with the group, craning over the metal guard-rail to look into the antique detritus. It seemed, he explained, that omens were everywhere that day. Brutus was ready to go, along with his fellow tyrannicides, while Cicero was gleefully standing on the sidelines writing incriminating notes even if it seems he wasn’t the brains of the outfit. The little sacrifice that morning—“to get things going, like daily mass,” he said, causing the Seminarian and I to burst out laughing—had gotten ahold of an animal with no heart, which, in addition to being anatomically impossible, really freaked out the augur. Pigeons had started attacking each other in mid-air near Pompey’s senate house, and then there was that weirdo soothsayer guy who approached Caesar en route on his meeting with destiny and twenty-three stab wounds.
Caesar wasn’t fazed by all this. “ ‘I don’t give a hooter-de-dee about religion,’ ” said Reggie Foster, translating the dictator’s thoughts imaginatively. “ ‘Poo on all that stuff.’ ” He ran into the soothsayer again and started taunting him. “The ides of March had already come! Everything’s okay! But,” said our guide, pausing dramatically, “ ‘They have come but have not gone…’ Oooooh!”
We were briefly interrupted by a motorino when the heavy slaughter began. Plutarch reported that the frenzy got so wild that Caesar’s assailants actually started stabbing themselves and running into stabs. They even got Caesar once in the groin when he finally fell down onto the marble pavement, the great dictator modestly covering his legs so he wouldn’t look unseemly as he crumpled, muttering “Kai sui tecnon?” to Brutus in Greek. “And you, child?” (Et tu, Reggie, must you repeat it?) And then one final little “Oooohhhpph,” according to Reggie’s version of Plutarch.
Like the old joke about Mussolini, with three hundred sharpshooters aiming at him and only getting three bullets, only one of the wounds was actually fatal. Unlike Mussolini, they didn’t put him on a meathook but left the corpse there for hours, running away and not knowing what to do.
Meanwhile, Cicero went into action, enjoying his moment in the sun even if he had had nothing really to do with it.
So where did they actually do the dirty deed? Where was this famous senate house (and who the heck builds a senate house in a theater, anyway?) Foster pointed down into the archaeological site and I whipped out my map. The far wall of the senate house was just visible, barely uncovered on the far edge of the vast crumbling pit, lost amid the reinforcing walls That meant…that meant that the site where one of the most pivotal figures in the history of the world went to his deserved or undeserved reward—was directly below the No. 8 Tram stop at Largo Argentina.
Next time I’m there, I’ll look for blood on the asphalt.
But the fun wasn’t over. Reggie turned to us and said we’d stop by the Forum for one final parting bit of fun, we’d go find Caesar’s statue and sing.
“Sing?” I said to the Seminarian.
An older woman, obviously a regular, overheard me and said “Sing, yes, and drink!” Now I couldn’t miss this, could I?
And so, with churchbells tolling the evening Angelus and evening settling over the sky, we found ourselves standing in front of G. Julius himself, the Via Fori Imperiali roaring at our backs. Foster finished up one final oration—the Seminarian jokingly called it “first Vespers of the Ides of March”—and the fun began.
Singing to Caesar’s statue is actually pretty mild stuff compared to the usual Roman reaction to the hallowed date of Caesar’s murder. If you drop by his statue on this secular and pagan dies natalis you often find piles of fruit at his feet as if a deputation of visiting Santería enthusiasts had hit the place during the night. Anyway, the offerings weren’t for G. Julius but for us. For, suddenly, backpacks miraculously disgorged bottles of fizzy cheap red wine and plastic cups were handed out. The Seminarian and I politely declined, almost simultaneously, but I admit it was bizarrely fun to watch. And then came the singing.
“Now, turn to the last sheet at the bottom, and we can sing the first couple of verses to the tune of the Ode to Joy and the last one to O My Darline Clementine.” Everybody now, together! Sing and raise your glasses! Ave Caesar!
Ecce Caesar nunc triumphat qui subegit Galliam,
Civiumque multitudo celebrat victoriam.
Gaius Iulius Caesar noster, imperator, pontifex,
Primus praetor, deinde consul, nunc dictator, moxque rex!
En victores procedentes, laeti floribus novis,
Magna praeda sunt potiti et camptivis plurimis.
Exsultantes magna voce io triumphe! concinunt,
Dum auratem ante currum victa oppida ferunt.
Legiones viam sacram toatm complent strepitu,
Capitolinumque collem scandit Caesar in curru.
O sol pulcher, o laudande, Caesarem recepimus
Et corona triumphali honoram vidimus!
And so we did, belting out überclichéd tunes to a dead, cheese-loving, crown-hating dictator whose name has adorned emperors from the Kaiser to the Czar as well as pizza boxes, Mexican labor agitators and casinos everywhere.
My friend the Seminarian had asked me earlier, with a jaunty tone in his voice, if I had gotten enough local color. It was the understatement of the month. This was the Eternal City, in all it sublime weirdness, incarnate. Our alcoholic salute to Gaius Julius seemed a wholly surreal, wholly Roman and wholly fitting way to end this afternoon of murder, mayhem and cats with this odd little clump of dead-language tourists and their impromptu chorale to the man murdered on Tram No. 8 two thousand years ago.
Thursday, March 18
If The Passion continues on this trajectory, it's possible for it to surpass Star Wars [$461 million] and even Titanic [$600.8 million] as the domestic box-office champion of all time
In related news, word on the digital street is that Mel's considering more Biblically-themed movies, perhaps specifically a film on the Maccabees. First he articulates a beautiful understanding of Mary's role in the Christian experience for Evangelicals in The Passion, now his work might perk up Evangelical interest in Deuterocanonicals... If all this should come to pass, what official interfaith dialogue commission could claim more tangible success in promoting a gradual understanding and helping mend the fold?
Wednesday, March 17
All Praise to St. Patrick (and a word on the Holy Sponge of Rockall)
A happy St. Paddy's to all and sundry (and then some), that day of the year when melting-pot Americans celebrate the one-fourth or one-eighth of their blood which is pure Irish by drinking green beer (that would be blasphemous in Dublin) to solemnize a transplanted Romano-British aristocrat whose real name was Succat. But anyway, Go Irish! Expect further blogging soon on Fr. Reggie Foster (OCD) and the various adventures of my fellow Whapsters in Rome, once I finally get my latest round of projects done. An architect's work is never done.
In the meantime, for those of you in a satirical-ecumenical mood, if you think that your parish's liturgy is bad, check out this week's services at the Patriarchate of Rockall-Aquilea-Grado, the only autocephalous and autocratic Eastern Orthodox humor website online (link courtesy of the less-autocratic and equally funny Onion Dome). Trust me, if you're not laughing by the end of Vespers, you have serious humor issues. Also, in regards to the delightfully apocryphal St. Ermintrudis of the Sponge (and her peculiar childhood method of detecting heretics), remember that we at the Shrine invented St. Flutius first.
Monday, March 15
George Cardinal Pell, everyone's favorite orthodox Catholic Australian ex-footballer just walked down the street as I was having an aranciata at Cafe Sant' Eustachio with several acquaintences. He had been doing some shopping if the Barbiconi bag was any indication. I love this town! I decided to give him his space and not to hold him to his promise to me to visit my studio, if anyone remembers my essays about my clerical-groupie adventures during the post-Conclave celebrations. Now, Cardinals, they know how to party.
To the True King Over the Water!
For all your white-cockade needs, check out this fascinating Jacobite Gazetteer, especially the page on Rome. Santa Maria in Campitelli (also called "in Portico") has a particularly fascinating entry, considering it mentions that James III and VIII left an endowment to the church so that prayers might be said for the conversion of England. His son, the Cardinal Duke of York (above), was titular deacon of this parish for some time before moving to higher office, and doubtlessly nourished the custom. Some form of this prayer is still being said, apparently, at 6:30 PM every Saturday (you know where to find me next week), and goes a little somethin' like a-this...
Ecumenical Prayer to our Lady in Portico
Translation based on the official English text with corrections by the author based on the Italian
Most Holy Virgin, for many centuries
Thou hast made Thy maternal presence
felt in this community of believers:
hear the prayer which we earnestly make unto Thee
for all the Church of Christ and in particular,
for our brethren of the Anglican Communion.
Give unto us, in Thy maternal assistance,
a profound consciousness of our limitations,
that we might not be led astray by pride
and serve God with humility.
Grant to us, O Mother, that we might rediscover the way to unity
in the mystery of the Redemption
which has been won for us by Thy Son Jesus,
Who, clothed in the purple vestment of his Passion,
immolated Himself on the Cross for His spouse, the Church.
Enlighten the hearts of all with the light of the Gospel of truth;
praying in this Cenacle,
that Thy Son might send the Spirit of unity,
concord and pardon.
Gather once more all your children around the portal of salvation
to make one undivided people of the Covenant.
May, Mother, that day soon come in which all of us, in
concord, form a single flock under one Shepherd. Amen.
Prologue: Porta Coeli
The doors! The doors! In wisdom let us be attentive.
--Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
And so I stood there, late that Saturday evening, almost near that peculiar witching moment where it turns into the Lord’s Day, Sunday, and watched the door of my studio close and my visitors, my friends, disappear into the midnight darkness of the little Roman street beyond. It seemed like they had stepped through a portal into another world, like the exeunt of a stage-play, like the recessional of a mass. I’d called out, “Ite, missa est” to Emily as I caught a glimpse of her head turning back for one final glance. A shared sacred wisecrack among all my visiting friends, but perhaps that quotation, with all its holiness, was more appropriate than I supposed then.
The airport taxi would come at five in the morning. No reason to sleep, and they'd pack before they left, if they could figure out how to fit ten pounds worth of copies of the Vulgate into their suitcases (don’t ask). They spent their last night in Rome sitting on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo among the weightless but very physical Bernini angels, perhaps cold and milky-marble in the darkness. They gazed at the fiery orange and pale green floodlights that gave a subterranean cast to the dome of St. Peter’s, that great sacred breast of the Mother Church. It had been a grand success--they’d seen the Pope. Brian had gotten his Cardinal Ratzinger shirt signed, much to everyone's amusement. Andy had gotten his beloved statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel after days of popping into stores and getting blank stares from shopkeepers at his question of Monte Carmelo? Or even worse, an attempt to palm off Our Lady of Victory on him instead. Shocking. You never know what those rapacious religious-article guys are going to palm off on you.
And so they waited. Em sat pensively at one end, singing snatches of Pange Lingua from memory (she’d been humming it all week along with Stabat Mater, while my friend S., my co-host, tried to fend off the stony chill and sat next to Andy, her good, great, gentle friend. Good, reliable Rich (perhaps a little too sober sometimes) had gone already to sleep, while I imagine Kristin spent her time dreaming of the Dying Gaul, the one thing she had come to Rome to see. And occasionally they teased Brian gently.
I was tempted to go after them, spend one last shard of time with them and ignore the clock with Carthusian gusto. But I had to leave as well, leave the Rome of pilgrimage and pastime for the Rome of work and thought. And so to bed. Though first, I turned back to the computer lab and found a grad-student friend of mine at a station. I realized I hadn’t seen Kate in three weeks--it was a jarring reminder of reality; and somehow she seemed oddly out of place even here where she belonged. My two worlds had passed like ships in the night--or perhaps like the Barque of Peter.
We’d both passed through our own door and life had returned back to normal. But, as I lay there in bed, waiting for sleep to close in over me and watching the dull neon-orange light of a Roman night cast vague and strangely-colored shadows on the walls of my bedroom, it was a comfort to think that they were still in town, somewhere--that unlike characters in a play, they were out there somewhere in the same universe, Andy, Brian, Rich, Emily, Kristin (and Stacy, who'd left the day before), and some day I would see them again.
Perhaps the last minute or so I spent with them seems an odd first chapter of my attempt to describe our visit, with its masses, its clerical celebrity visits, its silly religious humor and absurdist puns--someday I’ll try to explain to you about Rich’s elaborate gag about giving birth in the Gesu, his favorite church in the whole wide world--or even its moments of quiet profundity as rosary beads rattled and we paced around a silent Romanesque cloister praying in half-remembered Latin.
Or singing, for that matter, delightfully off-key looking over each other’s shoulders at a little Gregorian Liber Cantatus as we walked down a tiny Roman side-street in the shadow of Sant’ Ivo’s Babylonian spire of wisdom.
Pange, lingua, gloriosi
quem in mundi pretium
fructus ventris generosi
Rex effudit Gentium.
Before they left, they’d presented me with a little wooden triptych of the Virgin, and I found myself fingering it in my pocket the next day during mass. I’d wandered beneath a long-looked-for blue sky up to Sant’ Attanasio near the Spanish steps and taken a seat amid the dozens of guttering candles of the Byzantine church. A bearded face peeped out from between the curtains of the iconostasis, the gold and crimson robes making him seem almost as gaudily glorious as a Mandarin (gaude gloriosa--gaude, gaude Domine in laude) I stood and watched the scarlet-vested priests, deacons and clerks of the Greek College circle slowly around and around before the iconostasis and venerate a relic of the Cross with solemnity so rich and grave it bordered on comic.
It was a spectacular and unfamiliar scene, about the farthest I had ever traveled liturgically from the mass of Rome, and yet I was still in Peter’s royal city. The priests had formed up, beneath an ornate crucifix and the great silvered sunbursts of the liturgical fans, moving from one door to the nave as the choir boomed words with exotic masculine beauty. I found myself, however tired from my late night, singing along in Greek, in transliterated words off a crude song-sheet, in modes and tones I had never heard before.
The priests continued their slow progress, the celebrant bearing a great veiled tray on his head, blazing with candles like a Hellenic St. Lucia and weighed deep with flowers. If it weren’t so beautiful it would have seemed ridiculous, wonderful in its extravangant strangeness. Like so many of my friends’ esoteric jokes. Like trying to sing a Kyrie to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight over dinner or calling the Graduale Triplex, with amusing but genuine enthusiasm, crazy-go-nuts with its elaborate scarlet-and-black chant notation.
We laugh at such things because we love and cherish them. We laugh because we believe. We sing with our tongues the song of the Savior’s glory, and occasionally share a joke with Him. This year, as I have said so many times before, has been a purgative one, a time to discover the adult in me. But perhaps I was trying too hard, putting on a long face without reason, being a dour puritan in my soul. Growing up doesn’t mean turning into Hamlet; serious times bring out serious feelings when they are truly needed. Grace and God and crises force us to show our quality, but in the mean time, a smile and a snicker, given honestly as a self-gift, is almost as good as a thousand “adult” frowns. Gallantry is the only way to face life.
And so I watched this foreign rite, with its flowers and gold-shot scarlet vestments, almost Buddhist or Chinese in its Asiatic splendor and triplex bows and crossings, like something one might have glimpsed centuries ago in one of those crumbled Nestorian parishes of central Asia or perhaps a court ceremony of the mythical immortal priest-king Prester John in Tartary or the shapeless Abyssinia of Renaissance cartographers that covered half the continent of Africa.
I kept fingering my triptych, something physical to hang on to. That my friends had come six thousand miles to spend a week with me, some of my favorite people in my favorite city amazed and gladdened me. I’d been afraid this year might cut me off, leave me out of the daily life of my friends, but to know they missed me as much as I had missed them, that unlike a character in a play, neither they nor me had vanished from our consciousness the minute we exited the respective corners of the stage, stood as a great comfort. I mean something to them--I am remembered. It sounds perhaps a trifle selfish, but I don’t mean it that way. Because I respect all of them so very much, and keep them in my prayers, to know that the same is true for them about me is a marvelous thing.
We all in some form or other image God’s love to one another, we become in a sense gates of heaven. Andy said something at dinner once this week that threw me for a loop for a second, that we all play the role of Theotokos--God-bearer, Mary the Deipara--at one time or other, and I’d at first assumed it was some amusing parody of modernist theology. But then he blurted out, “No, at communion!” and I understood wholly.
The Anaphora was being said behind the curtain, and there was a moment of perfect, kenotic, cathartic silence in the church after so many responsories. Strange metallic clinkings and clankings came from beyond the iconostasis, the jingle of thurible bells and the murmur of hidden words.
The little triptych sitting on the computer right now, my pocket triptych, has a scene of the Annunciation on it, that great proto-archetype of Holy Communion where Christ entered through the ear of a Virgin. And it seems wholly appropriate because I realized this week, beneath the wonderful and delightful veneer of humor and self-conscious Catholic Nerdiness, how much my friends bring God’s presence to me. There’s always that moment, somewhere, when someone drops the mask and you see God in them, holy transparency. I’ve seen it before when a joking, jocular priest ascends the altar and turns into another person, quite literally. Alter Christus, the inside face of the closed triptych.
It requires silence, emptiness, and most of all, not forcing it. You can’t force it. It comes when God wants it. It’s like loving God: it’s so difficult sometimes, and trying to do it from a mere emotion can swing from mushy sentiment into paralyzing, self-doubtful fear. Prayers feel arid, dry, and you realize you’ve been saying the words without thinking. But then you realize, like distant friends--more than that--like the ultimate friend and brother, the Lord loves you and all you need to motivate yourself to move towards that real love which is an act of the will and not mushy sentiment is to simply let yourself be loved. It’s a hard realization for some of us, and perhaps it smacks of that spiritual gluttony St. John of the Cross speaks of, but at the same time sometimes you simply need something to assure you of that grace, give you that fuel that will come through in the heroic minute when you throw off a favorite temptation. The love of my friends, all my friends, not just those who visited me, helps me grasp in some small way the love of God.
And so I found myself in line for the Sacrament at Sant’ Attanasio, watching the priest intinct the Body with the blood with businesslike solemnity. Leavened bread. The Greeks used leavened bread for the Eucharist. I felt momentarily, oddly disturbed as he placed the crusty substance in my mouth. Jesus, God help me, tasted like French bread and was just as hard. That familiar dissolving wafer, the sacred, subtle taste of the Eucharist, the sweet holy taste was gone--and then there was this instead. I knew it was the Presence--but something felt oddly wrong. And I found myself faced with the worst (and half-comic) nightmare of any closet Tridentinist: Do I crunch down on Our Lord?
Yes, you do, because you must consume Him. Because He’s in there too, even if perhaps more deeply veiled than you’re used to. Just like God’s invisible love or the memory of my friends so physically far away, He was most assuredly there, making a self-gift of Himself in the form of the holiest masquerade--the holiest irony--the holiest humor ever.
And somewhere, under the same blue Marian sky I saw the Sunday morning their plane left, Brian and Emily are trying to sing Pange Lingua even though they’ve forgotten some of the words.
Fun at the Vatican
Thursday morning found us in the driving rain looking for the entrance to the Teutonic College in order to hear mass said by Der Panzerkardinale Ratzinger.
"My professor found the first evidence for beer nuts in Western Civilization, and unsurprisingly, it was in St. Augustine." (Emily, of course)
"Why do you seek the living among the dead?" (Fr. Buckner, a fellow Catholic Nerd we met in supremely random Roman fashion, introduces himself at the Teutonic College’s cemetery)
"Deo Optimo Maximo...to God the highest thing. Literally, it means, Dude!!!" (Fr. Buckner deciphers a tombstone at the Campo Santo Teutonico)
"…and you'll hear lots of screams and a bunch of shouting in Spanish." (Fr. Buckner describes visiting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ex the Holy Office)
Rich: (to Kristin, who discovered she was disqualified for the papal throne along with schismatics and heretics) But you'd make a mighty fine anti-Pope in my book
"Ha ha!" (His Revd. Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, upon Brian’s request to sign a tee shirt)
Then we shuffled off and waited in line under collapsing umbrellas to get tickets to the Musei Vaticani. It was definitely worth the wait, if only for the comments the exhibits resulted in. My friends, on seeing, at the Pinacoteca, a vivid painting of a zebra getting mauled by a leopard decided it would make an excellent painting for Cardinal Ratzinger’s waiting room…
"But I want the dumb zebra of heresy..."
"And paint a miter on the leopard…"
And on a smirkey bust of Pope Leo XIII:
"Anyone would look evil from that angle."
" 'Smiley-er than the average Pope.' That should be a slogan."
The previous day, there had been much pontifical fun as well, with the papal audience, a high point of the trip. However, the long wait led to general antsiness among the pilgrims:
"I wish they had a Pope impersonator to come out and entertain us." (Brian, on the joys of a two-hour wait for the papal audience)
"So you want a warm-up comedian for the Pope?" (Matt)
"At least it hasn't turned that ugly seventies yellow color." (Matt comments on the futuristic architecture of the Paul VI audience hall)
"Do you think they'll beam down the Pope?" (Brian comments on the futuristic architecture of the Paul VI audience hall)
"He looks like Luther!" (Matt attempts to describe a tonsured Augustinian he'd noticed)
"What if the Pope pulled a CP30 and started floating in his chair?" (Brian, once again)
Then there were comments on our neighbors, who seemed to be some Italian mountain troops in silly hats and a concourse of Protestant bishops in very Roman cassocks and very flashy episcopal jewelry:
"I think only Pentecostal bishops are allowed to have bling-bling."
The audience itself was amazing; the Pope did not float in his chair, though he yawned a bit and blessed us. We all certainly had memorable thoughts about seeing him. But I think Emily should have the last word this time, considering in the space of two minutes afterwards we met respectively our old prayer-group leader from ND and a girl from my home parish in Tallahassee:
"You know you're Catholic when you meet more people you know in Rome than you would walking down the street at home."
Thursday, March 11
The Templars Have Something to do with Everything
Umberto Eco watch out: it looks like someone has re-founded the crusading Knights Templar, and I don't mean in a weird, pseudo-Masonic way. Check out the Ordo Militiae Templi when you have a moment. Looks legitimate. Well, maybe. It's both fascinating and puzzling, as one simply doesn't expect some Italian guy to up and revive a long-dead group of warriors, and especially during the 1970s. While I consider myself the consummate layman (only a layman could be as clerical as I am), maybe I've got a religious order vocation after all...but only if I get to wear a sword with that habit!
Tuesday, March 9
Attack of the Jesuit Clones
Our excursions around Rome for the first day-and-a-half took us to the Pantheon, a museum dedicated to Purgatory, St. Peter's (where Emily decided St. Peter would have been amused by John XXIII's choice of burial footwear), and up and down Rome's nexus of weirdness, the Corso. However, the first place we took our intrepid and jetlagged friends was our studio on the Via Monterone. Upon seeing our mini-monumental marble staircase with its stuccowork and faux marble, the first thing Rich asked me was "Do you have a slinkey? Those stairs are just crying for something to go down them."
Slinkeys were a running theme the next couple of days. We nixed the idea of putting one on the Scala Santa, and decided only a baroque slinkey (with its curious diagonal capabilities) would work on the curvaceous Spanish Steps.
Monday and Tuesday were full of various adventures, including a visit to the Irish College where my friend the Roman Seminarian proved an energetic and engaging host, remembering "the Evil Photoshop Genius" and "the famous Emily" in addition to giving us a behind-the-scenes tour of the college that filled us in on the real dirt on Pope Joan (a local heroine of sorts), the story behind the clerical classic The Scarlet and the Black and the Pope's deranged Carmelite Latinist, Fr. Reggie. We also got a close-quarters look at a belled Byzantine thurible and the presence of Gaelic missals in the sacristy proved too much of a temptation for my friends not to snoop. We wondered what took them so long to get out of there.
Other escapades revolved around the Society of Jesus. We started off one day at the Gesu, where St. Francis Xavier's withered arm-relic got Brian off on a flight of paranoid-Jesuit fantasy:
"It's like the arm from the Terminator, they've got a Jesuit cloning lab where they're creating a whole army of Xaviers optimized for baptismal efficiency!"
The last sentence was said an an appropriately Ahh-nuld voice. Later on, we found ourselves at the baths of Caracalla, which somehow degenerated into a discussion about Carl Jung and Star Trek. Rich is our resident Trekkie, if you don't know already. Oh sorry, Trekker. My bad.
Matt: I'm talking about the show, and I haven't even seen Star Trek! They've passed into the collective unconscious of mankind!
Kristin: I feel sad I'm not participating in the collective unconscious of mankind.
Emily felt compelled to write that one down. The hilarity continued when Brian attempted to speak Latin in regard to his Polaroid--"Carpe camera!" which seems to mean, according to Em, "Seize the room." In general, besides my pseudo-Lord Clark lecture on the caldarium, tepidarium, frigidarium and crisper drawer, the discussion had very little do do with the baths:
"It's an ancient Roman garbage can! (Rich)
"...the hosarium aqueum maximum..."
"...and give up an opportunity to make fun of Biblical scholarship?"
Kristin: This photo will be titled The Boys Being Dumb.
Rich: We're expounding wisely.
Brian: Yeah, the four wise guys.
"These are very nice trash cans. Not very trashy."
Brian: I don't want to get near the mosaic floors. Think about it, you could get ancient Roman foot-fungus. A gladiator-sized case of athlete's foot.
Matt: But you'd be one with the past! You'd be experiencing the germs of antiquity!
Emily: Yeah, it'd be like catching Scott Hahn's cold!
Rich was, however, in awe of the ruined walls:
Rich: These are tall.
Andy: Sometimes at night I lie awake thinking of how tall the Roman baths are.
Brian later decided they must have had the tallest shower heads ever. And then the non-sequiturs picked up later, including whether I, being a resourceful architect, could rig up a Roman bath using chewing gum, toothpicks and, of course, duct tape. And then there were some Jesuit ones, largely courtesy of Brian's continuing fixation with St. Francis's arm at the Gesu.
"People would come and take Francis Xavier's fingers..."
"...his head fell off because they put him in a tomb that was too small..."
"If you're gonna quote something here in the baths, quote Gladiator or something, sheesh." (Emily)
"...bionic baptismal bicep..."
"...It's time to bust out Xavier's bionic arm..."
"You wait all your life for a Marian apparition and you get the Lactating Virgin!"
"...Gandalf the Pink..."
"You would leave the premises if the apparition of the Lactating Virgin appeared?"
"...try and bargain with the Lactating Virgin for a red martyr's crown instead..."
Pay attention, St. Bernard's miraculous milk-feeding came back to haunt us later over dinner. Then there was Rich's virgin pregnancy, caused by him wearing his camera case under his windbreaker in a most incovenient way. For some reason, we decided he was going to give birth to a Greek word rather than a person. I think this was because, when asked the gender, he thought it might be neuter:
"...The baby will be second declension male..."
"...poor Little Greek Verb with the broken declensions..."
"It's a Greek noun. I can't wait to see which one it is."
"There are no regular verbs in Greek, which doesn't bode well for the future of my child..."
"Look, it's a plural!"
And then, there was dinner that evening. Dinner's always lively. The other day, it even included a mercifully-brief attempt to compose a mass setting to the tune of the Star Wars soundtrack and a Kyrie on the theme of The Lion Sleeps Tonight that sounded, quite honestly, like something by Guillame de Machaut or possibly a Greek Orthodox countertenor piece. S., my fellow arkie and co-host, dropped a pudding in front of Andy and told him she had heard that he ate the dish "in an unusual manner." This occasioned much hilarity, especially the pudding itself, which Rich said resembled nothing so much as a spleen with mono. And then there was more fun in various areas, including St. Bernard's taking a drink of mother's milk from Our Lady:
"...Listen to my theology of lactation..." (Brian)
"Am I the only person who takes this apparition seriously?" (Matt)
"Was Rich lactating?" (Andy; and please don't ask)
"Don't write that down." (Andy)
"Jesus didn't use silverwear."
"You mean, there's a Mormon among us?"
"...the fiery grape of doom. I've heard stories." (Brian)
"That's a sad attempt at a fez."
"...They have a priest, a rabbi, a mufti...hey, that sounds like a joke..." (Matt explaining a Tom Clancy novel)
"...C-section with a pudding spoon..."
"Blackbeard had a whole ecosystem in his beard."
Then Andy began to tell extravagant whoppers about how the recorded voice at the end of the Vatican escalator says, "Ite, missa est." Actually, it was a deacon, not a speaker, and on feast days they have a couple of deacons who sing it in modes. Meanwhile, Rich had mentally returned to the Capitoline Museums where we had spent part of the day, and in particular Kristin's favorite statue, the extremely nude Dying Gaul (who to me seems to resemble the villain from the Sherlock Holmes story The Solitary Cyclist but then that's another story):
"I'm sorry if I don't live up to your expectations of masculinity, but if I were to go into battle, I'd put on armor...or at least pants."
However, dinner didn't show any more bionic Xavier jokes. Nonetheless, jesuit wisecracks have been something of a running joke this trip, as we discovered during our trip to Sant' Ignazio the night before. Naturally, the location of the Blessed Sacrament was of crucial importance:
Andy: Look for the light.
Matt: There it is.
Andy: No, that's a plant.
Altar decorations at Italian churches are most puzzling. In my defense, the shiny red tinsel on the pot did look a lot like a vigil lamp. The altars themselves are often equally strange, as we discovered studying an uber-baroque reredos in rather bold green and yellow marble:
"It looks like bad furniture from the seventies...the beginnings of bad Jesuit taste."
Still having not found the tabernacle at Sant' Ignazio, we knelt down in front of the altar of Saint Aloysius and said a rosary (for the mystery of the finding of Our Lord in the Temple, appropriately enough) and halfway through the Gloria Patri, I was interrupted by very loud and very comic liturgical muzak being piped through the speakers. Emily leaned over to me and said, "Welcome to Italy." Indeed.