On the third day of this pilgrimage, we went to the Vatican. To say this place is overwhelming is vast understatement. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the sensory overload — tourist cacophony layered upon precious metal layered upon semiprecious stone layered upon multicolored Renaissance fresco.
Since I was born Baptist, I think I was taught in utero to be skeptical of all this Roman Catholic stuff. Of Mary. Of popes and princes. Of these incense-tainted, saintward prayers. Of the overreliance on the heritage that traces back to St. Peter (though of course we would never have called him St. Peter). At one point, our guide said, “Upon this rock, I build my church blah blah blah.” She meant no disrespect. Yet it was one of the funniest, most unwittingly perfect things she has said, pithily capturing our sometimes-cavalier attitude toward this church and, for some of us, institutional religion more broadly.
Now I see that there’s something compelling about the through line to which the Catholic Church clings so fiercely, the one that connects it directly to Peter and to Jesus. There’s something moving about the expression of the endurance of the faith and the saints — and you probably know what I, in my undying Protestantism, mean by that.
The faith endures in so many different ways. As we toured the Vatican, I saw ample evidence of how we have always sought to contextualize our faith in the prevailing culture. There is, for instance, a statue in the Pio Cristiano gallery at the Vatican called The Good Shepherd. This Jesus, carved in marble two or three hundred years after Christ, stands just over three feet tall, a lamb wrapped awkwardly around his shoulders. It appropriates pagan iconography — the statue bears the face of Apollo — and renders it sacred with an almost universally recognizable concept from the Christian Scriptures. The face of this Jesus is young and attractive, appealing and relevant, at least to its intended, Greco-Roman audience.
I suppose that opening St. Peter’s Basilica to the camera-toting hordes plays for popular appeal too. But amid the thousands of people milling about, where and how do you draw the line between tourist and pilgrim? I know I was constantly tempted to do so, especially as I grew weary of being jostled and trying to keep the rest of my group within view. (I hate being short. I hate being nearsighted.) Why were all these people even here? Were they doing the reverse of what The Good Shepherd did? Were they turning the sacred into the profane?
We had only 15 minutes on our own at St. Peter’s. After a few minutes, I found a short line outside an anteroom. The sign for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament made clear that this place was for prayer. After waiting a bit, five old ladies and I were admitted, through a thick, gray curtain, into a room that shone with gold leaf. It was as quiet and still as the nave was noisy and bustling.
There weren’t more than a couple dozen people in there. All were on their knees. I joined them. What was I doing? I wasn’t really sure. I didn’t know what exactly to pray for, so I prayed that I would know better how to pray. Then I prayed for my husband and our marriage. I prayed for my attitude and mind-set. I prayed for lots of things and, at moments, for nothing. It seemed enough just to be there. This, I felt, was why I’d come. This, I felt, was how I could make my faith relevant to my circumstances — by finding a place to talk to God, or at least, in my recurring doubt and frequent agnosticism, to try.
When I was done, I asked a guard whether there was anywhere at St. Peter’s to light a candle. He said no. So later, after we returned to our hotel, I dropped my backpack off and then headed back out. Our hotel sits on a square just a few footsteps from the Dominican parish of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and I wanted to go there.
In some ways, I prefer its calm to St. Peter’s madness. It’s never even close to full but it’s never totally empty either. When I slip away from the group for some time in that semi-dark space, I find salve for my shyness, I suppose, but also reminders: of the power of stillness; of the fact that in my faith journey I am never alone (and I mean that in a good way); of the reasons for this pilgrimage.
Many, if not most, of our American churches are Sunday (or, for the more devout, Sunday and Wednesday) only. But the doors of so many in Rome are open throughout the week. They are always-available havens from daily life and quotidian anxiety. The accessibility of Santa Maria sopra Minerva has been an antidote to my typical mindset of faith by installment, of spirituality as occasional accessory. Kneeling in that sacred space for a few moments, I’ve been reminded me of the omnipresence of God. What would it say to our culture about the heart and the relevance of the church if, in America, our doors were open all the time too?
You can take the boy out of American evangelical culture but you can’t fully take American evangelical culture out of the boy, so as I walked back from Santa Maria sopra Minerva yesterday, I thought of a praise song called “One Thing Remains.” It’s by the group Jesus Culture — strangely apt — and it sings of the constancy of Christ’s love: “Your love never fails. It never gives up. It never runs out on me.” The open doors of these churches echo that.
Of course God isn’t found only in the physical spaces that we build and then call church. But I also believe that God constantly calls us back to God’s self. Too often, back home, I don’t answer.
Here, I’ve gone to Santa Maria sopra Minerva at least once and sometimes two or three times a day. Every time, I light candles. It has been a gesture of intentional response and aspirational faith. It says to the rest of my life: Let there be light.