Going to Church as the Romans Do

Entering a church in Rome, I step out of time into stillness and peace between moments of ordinary life.  A few tourists pause in front of the frescoes.  Someone puts coins in a slot to illuminate the apse for photographs, and then the light is dusk again.  Romans from the neighborhood pray silently in the pews.  A priest is busy at the altar with some preparation.  Time stays suspended until I step back out into the street.

St. Peter’s Square/Piazza San Pietro, by I, Dfmalan, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

The first Swiss Guards my friend Dora and I saw stood in their costumes in front of the gate to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica.  We had just entered Piazza San Pietro through the middle of the embracing colonnade, and I was feeling unequal to branding into my memory the details of the piazza, Bernini’s colossal columns, and the basilica itself.  In guidebooks, the scene looked untouchable and remote.  In life, the scope, flamboyance, and magnificence were just as extreme, but when I was standing inside the scene, it also felt welcoming.

Within the Basilica di San Pietro, with its shimmering splendor, I found a living church, not merely a museum, in spite of the treasures.  I was a Quaker then, not yet a Catholic, but I’d always felt at home in a Catholic church.  I felt so even there in St. Peter’s, the grandest in the world.  Perhaps a reason was that Catholicism had woven through my life.  For a time in college, I had played the guitar for the local folk Mass—that was the late 1960s.  I remember strumming along as we sang, “And we’ll sing a song of love / Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia.”[1]  I’d studied medieval Church history fairly extensively in college and had later dated a former priest for a few months.

After Dora and I entered St. Peter’s, Michelangelo’s Pietà was just to our right; Bernini’s swirlingly ornate ninety-foot altar canopy, the Baldacchino (Balachin), was straight ahead.  Bernini remains one of my favorite sculptors because his captivating, often graceful saints, angels, and other figures have strong personalities.  Restraint was not Bernini’s watchword.

Interior of the Basilica di San Pietro/St. Peter’s Basilica, by I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons

I couldn’t absorb more than a little of the rich vision the basilica offered, and so I did such things as look up into Michelangelo’s dome; stare at Bernini’s Monumento a papa Alessandro VII, with its skeleton hand holding up an hourglass from under marble draperies; touch both of St. Peter’s feet, not just the right one as was expected; meditate by the tomb of Pope John XXIII; and sooth my sense of inadequacy in grasping it all by resolving to come back many times over the years.

Our map showed the Vatican Museums (the plural is correct) to be located right next to the basilica, and they were, but the entrance was a ten-minute walk around the Vatican walls, past the wagons selling souvenirs and bibite (soft drinks).  Because it was by then about two o’clock, to enter the museums, we didn’t have to wait in a line like the two-blocks-long throng we passed one morning later in the week.  It had drizzled a little as we’d left St. Peter’s, but the only real rain fell while we were inside the museums, climbing up and down stairs, walking from room to room, from masterpiece to masterpiece.

Visiting the Vatican Museums was a succession of, “Wow, this is here!” and “I wish I could assimilate all these wonderful things”: the Hellenistic Period sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, a Roman emperor’s mosaics and stone bowl the size of a small swimming pool, Raphael’s School of Athens, and the grand prize at the end, the Sistine Chapel.  I thought, “Popes are chosen in this room.  Michelangelo himself painted these scenes.  Now I’m standing here.  I’m numbed by the responsibility.”  I willed myself to see, really to see, the images I had looked at so many times in reproductions—above all, God giving life to Adam and the Delphic Sibyl, my favorite.  From time to time, an official hissed, “Ssh!” to the milling crowd.

Vatican Museums spiral staircase, by © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

We reached the bottom of the museums’ dramatic, wide spiral staircase and stopped into a small snack bar to rest and drink mineral water.  Dora was ready to return for a nap in the convent guest room where we were staying, and I set off for Castel Sant’Angelo.  Loving opera as well as churches, I wanted to see the setting for Puccini’s Tosca.

Castel Sant’Angelo with the dome of St. Peter’s visible to the left

The next day, after exploring the Pantheon—where I felt the stones hadn’t yet absorbed the overlay of Christianity—we were ready to find the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.  This church is almost adjacent to the back of the Pantheon, but we took a circuitous route down the wrong street and around the block, so that I decided to ask directions from a woman of perhaps sixty who was talking with two men.  I liked her appearance and manner, which were typical of the self-confident, friendly, and efficient middle-aged and older Roman women I saw throughout the week—the kind of woman I want to be.

Following the woman’s instructions, we walked around another corner and were then in front of Bernini’s statue of an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back.  I love elephants for their wisdom and personality, as Bernini apparently did, too, and I had admired pictures of this statue.  So rounding the corner was one of my many gratifying Roman moments of desire opening up into reality.

Bernini’s elephant with Santa Maria sopra Minerva behind

There behind the elephant was Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with its plain exterior that leads into interior color and light—Gothic, but with its own Roman character, so that the church is not just a small transplanted cathedral from the North.  Santa Maria sopra Minerva is beautiful, with its celestial blue-and-gold vaulted ceiling.  At one time, a Roman temple to Minerva was on the site—hence sopra Minerva, meaning above Minerva—and when I sat in that church, I was with those ancient Romans, as well as with centuries of Christians.  The great religious buildings of the world reach across time.

Interior of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, by Livioandronico2013 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Every church I visited in Rome was filled with works of profound beauty inspired by the artists’ devotion.  I could not hold information about all of the art in my mind.  Because of the vast magnificence, I could barely even see each fresco and statue clearly and consciously.  All I could do was store the most outstanding impressions, buy books for later study from the small gift shops, and carry with me the feelings I found in the air as I sat and walked in each church, absorbing its aura formed by the centuries.

I had seen pictures of the inside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and Andrea Bocelli’s Aria video was filmed there, so I wanted to wander through the basilica, turning pictures into experience.  There was Michelangelo’s sculpture The Risen Christ, and I found St. Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis), interred beneath the altar—but without her head, which is in Siena.  Wandering beyond the altar to the left, I came across the tomb of the 15th century painter Fra Angelico, important to me because my father and I took an art-appreciation course together when I was a senior in high school, and I first heard about Fra Angelico then.

When I joined her, Dora was sitting in front of the Cappella di San Dominico, also to the left of the altar, and meditating on a statue of the Madonna with three children—Jesus and two St. Johns.  Dora had lighted a candle, and I lighted one, too, for the people meaning the most to me.  I wish it had not been the only candle I lighted in Rome, because a prayer for the wellbeing of another is not an empty gesture.

The churches of Rome carry a sense of permanence and meaningful tradition.  Traditions have the potential either to support or to bind, depending both on the traditions themselves and on the way they are used or misused.  Some are excuses for continuing injustices—for example, the traditions that subjugate women and those in whose name violence is committed.  Other traditions, the kind that deserve nurturing, link us to other people without pushing away or diminishing those who do not share our traditions.

By the time I visited Rome, I was not finding a sense of permanence and tradition in my own spiritual experience.  While I thought my religious views meant I would not make a good Catholic, I felt more spiritual satisfaction from sitting in a hundreds-of-years-old Catholic basilica than I did from meditating in my own Quaker meetinghouse, where, by then, all but the barest traditions seemed to be kept assiduously scraped away.

Meetinghouse window, sketch by Mason Hayek

When I was a little girl, vibrant Quaker traditions were maintained and nurtured, and in those days the Meeting felt welcoming and so comforted my parents and me as a place where we belonged.  Then we were a part of something worthwhile that had been built up over time, even though Quakerism’s centuries are many fewer than those of Catholicism.

For the first few years after my parents and I joined Friends Meeting,[2] when I was five, every Sunday morning before meeting for worship, a lively woman played the piano for us children to sing songs and hymns.  I loved to sing.  Then for many years, after meeting, adults and children sang together, always ending with the same hymn:

As we leave this friendly place,
Love gives light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn,
Light our hearts till we return.”[3]

Meeting was a friendly place, with older Quakers who still used “thee” and “thou” and were looked up to and respected for their ministry, with younger adults who took an active role in the life of the Meeting, and with children of all ages.  At Christmastime, we children decorated a mitten tree for needy people, acted out the Nativity story, and made gifts to sell at the Meeting’s annual fair.

By the time I visited Rome, nobody sang hymns in the meetinghouse anymore, most of the “weighty Friends” were gone, and those of us who were left sat scattered around the meetingroom on Sunday morning, often, it felt to me, without much intimacy and shared spiritual energy.

Vatican at dusk

When I was in Italy, I wasn’t yet ready to turn Catholic, but I did want to take my Quaker heart into St. Peter’s and Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the other churches I especially loved in Rome—Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Maria della Vittoria—gaze at the art that appealed to me and up into the ornate ceilings, and think about all the people of the world to whom I was linked through this art and architecture: those who created it and those whom it has helped to make their way in the world and understand life’s mysteries.


[1] James Thiem, “Sons of God.”

[2] Quakers are more formally known as Friends, as members of the Religious Society of Friends.

[3] Vincent B. Silliman, “As We Leave This Friendly Place,” 1935.

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