I was telling a friend about some of our travel experiences today and it set me to reflecting upon something that happened in Rome. I'm jumping a little ahead of myself in the holiday reminiscence, since Rome was the last city we visited, from whence we jetted home... maybe I'll just sift through all the memories in reverse, or, more in keeping with my personality, you might receive random snapshots of our travels!
Anyway, Rome was hot - hotter than anywhere else we visited, except perhaps Hamburg and Heidelberg, which also turned on scorchers for us. I had been carefully carrying a summer dress all holiday for just such a day. (Actually Frank carried the dress most of the way, since we shared one backpack between us and he insisted on doing the manly thing and bearing the heavy load)
I confess when travelling I tend to opt for practicality over style, resulting in the unmistakable appearance of a tourist or (even worse) an Australian backpacker. I stomp around in my super comfortable Merrel sandals and shorts, enviously eyeing off those who choose glamour over comfort, tugging self consciously at my small, safe but unattractive travel purse.
In a frivolous attempt at travel glamour I packed my sunny dress, and between its careful folds I tucked an image of myself gliding elegantly through the streets of Rome like Gwenneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchet in 'The Talented Mr Ripley
'. Actually that movie gives me the creeps - but there is no mistaking the elegance.
So it was hot, and we were in Rome - what could I do but don my glamour gown... or at least put on my home made cotton dress. With the shoes that did nothing for style but (yes) were comfortable! And off Frank and I set on a day packed with site seeing.
Church of Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore (on Piazza Navona where statues were predictably plastered with scaffolding, and every inch of ground was covered with pigeons, artists and tourists. Somehow Rome did not seem half as pleasant in summer as it had in autumns past when peak season crowds had departed)
Pantheon (is anyone else instantly reminded of Star Trek when they enter this building?)
And Trevi Fountain
I personally detest the Spanish Steps so they barely rate a mention and didn't garner a single snap, but I must mention the gelati bought just off Piazza Navona... the best in the world just as they claimed (and surely the most generous serves in the world too)!
Soon enough our path crossed St Peter's Square, with its elegant columns, multitudinous statues and enormous Basilica.
With some coaxing, Frank agreed to join the queue, endure an x-ray search and enter the Basilica. At which point we encountered a problem - my breezy summer dress possessed no sleeves and in my eagerness to look just a little classy I had forgotten to bring a cover for my shoulders. We inched our way forward, hoping I might be able to sneak past the Basilica guards, but no such luck. Their male eyes were all over the crowd, seeking out indecent women and they instantly spied me out and signalled me off to the side with a sharp Italian 'No'. I looked beseechingly at them to no avail and watched longingly as Frank entered the most holy temple of God without me.
OK, I'm embellishing the story just a little there. I have seen St Peter's Basilica before and decided that since I could remember its opulence and little else (apart from numerous golden bees flying all over the altar) there probably was not much point pretending to appreciate the religious art all over again. I indulgently encouraged Frank to enter without me so he too might be wowed by its incredible wealth.
While he bumped awestruck shoulders with myriads of other pilgrims in the coolness of the Basilica, I sat outside in the heat and reflected on the message of being denied entry due to exposed shoulders. I stood just beside the exit to the church watching men and women stream past. Like the vigilant guards, I had eyes only for the women.
What a sight - lace tops that covered shoulders but revealed bras, bulging stomachs spilling out between tops and trousers, leggings accentuating buttocks and thighs, cleavage peaking over necklines. I failed to see how my rather demure, pretty (but sleeveless) dress was any worse than the clothing of any of these women who had been granted entrance. The inconsistency irritated me.
And what's with men being the sole keepers of the Basilica? I thought we had left such sexist days behind. (It seems I forgot this is the Catholic Church we are discussing here!) Their superior demeanour rankled. If I wasn't already (barely) part of the church, this experience would turn me off completely. Not only do I find the wealth and art irrelevant to my faith, but the judgemental, exclusive attitude of their spirituality leaves me cold. If this is God, I am not interested.
It reminded me of our experience in Canterbury Cathedral. Frank was remiss in removing his hat when we entered the building. Half way down the nave a woman stridently called out "Excuse me sir, would you please
remove your hat. Gentlemen
in England remove their hats in church" as if to say Frank was an uncouth barbarian from whom one could expect little better. (Was it our comfortable tourist attire that gave us away?!) We were both mortified and incensed. Cultural politeness aside - does a hat matter to a God who looks upon the heart? Is there any call for such belittling behaviour? Again, if this is God, I am not interested.
Similarly in Prague, as we respectfully attempted to enter a church in the evening the door was closed in our faces. "No tourists allowed. If you are searching for God - he is not here."
I have written previously about my struggles with church and institutional religion - every single doubt was confirmed by our experiences of formal religion in Europe. Where was the love? The mercy? The hospitality? Apart from a lovely small church in Prague filled with praying nuns, I struggled to see it.
As I stood with my naked shoulders exposed at the door of St Peter's Basilica I could not help thinking of Jesus. When the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery for him to judge, he looked at her with compassion. Where they saw sin, he saw her soul and gave her freedom.
With the sting of refused entry still smarting I too looked up into the eyes of Jesus and saw only love.
This... this I can believe. This I can follow with all my heart. Religion be damned.
Labels: church, God, rome, spirituality, travel