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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

meeting jesus on the steps of st peter's basilica

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.

The Colosseum



Roman Forum



Pons Fabricius



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.

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9 Comments:

At 12:33 am, June 26, 2008, Blogger merrymishaps said...

Lovely post.

I was raised Catholic, but abandoned it during college. Organized religion, especially in the Catholic church, wasn't agreeing with me.

I can definitely see where you're coming from. There can be so much judgment where there shouldn't be!

 
At 5:07 am, June 26, 2008, Blogger Heather said...

Oh my - I have had similar experiences and almost exactly the same reaction. I blogged about it after being barred entrance to the "holy of holies" in an ancient church in Ethiopia... http://fumblingforwords.blogspot.com/2007/01/no-entrance.html

 
At 11:46 am, June 26, 2008, Blogger Robyn said...

(I need to preface this by saying that I'm just commenting on where I am at right now, not having a go at you)
Its so hard, isn't it? I think Jesus must just weep sometimes to see His Bride, we who are supposed to be His hands and feet and identified by the love we show to others, acting in such an unloving way. I struggle with "Church" at times but I have to admit that I'm hardly the greatest at being His hands and feet either. Our congregation is going through a very hard time at the moment and it is extreming difficult to go along each week (and in our interactions durign the week to)and love people even though I really disagree with some of the things that they are doing/saying. I keep getting hit with that verse in the Bible about the log in your own eye needing to be dealt with before I look so critically at everybody else and the process of self examination has me very humbled. All Christians are part of the body of Christ and therefore in my family, like it or not. I can't criticise my fellow Christians without hypocrisy because I daily fall so short of where I need to be in my relationship with Jesus and in living out His calling for me. Obviously I don't have to agree with everything but I need to deal with my own stuff and then hopefully by using my own little sphere of influence He can use me to change things for the better - in my own little Church family as well as the wider Church. Sorry that got a little long (and was off the top of my head so probably not particularly coherent but I need to run so won't stop to edit), and I hope that didn't come across as a criticism of your post at all - it was good and got me thinking some more - just me dumping my thoughts on where I'm at.

Have you heard "If we are the body" by Casting Crowns?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SExJ9od-0zQ (there is probably a better clip but I just grabbed the first one)
Lyrics:
It's crowded in worship today
As she slips in
Trying to fade into the faces
The girls' teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know

CHORUS
But if we are the Body
Why aren't His arms reaching
Why aren't His hands healing
Why aren't His words teaching
And if we are the Body
Why aren't His feet going
Why is His love not showing them there is a way
There is a way

A traveler is far away from home
He sheds his coat
And quietly sinks into the back row
The weight of their judgmental glances tells him that his chances
Are better out on the road

CHORUS
But if we are the Body
Why aren't His arms reaching
Why aren't His hands healing
Why aren't His words teaching
And if we are the Body
Why aren't His feet going
Why is His love not showing them there is a way

Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the Body of Christ

Chorus (2x)
If we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching
Why aren't His hands healing
Why aren't His words teaching
And if we are the body
Why aren't His feet going
Why is His love not showing them there is a way

Jesus is the way

 
At 10:45 am, June 27, 2008, Blogger Cherie said...

Good good post, Cecily, on many levels.

I know how you feel about religion as contrasted with the actual Truth of God. Your experiences speaks volumes. Thanks for sharing it.

I'm sorry you had to stand outside in your nakedness - ha - while exposed boobs and bulges walked in. It reminds me of the time my sister and I were not allowed to swim in a hotel swimming pool because we had no swimming caps to wear. Our hair was swimmer short - really really short, much shorter than the long-haired late 60's era boys who swam away right in front of us.

After Mom pointed out the inconsistency to the employees with no luck, and after Dad pointed out that the pool filter system would not suffer nearly so much with our short hair as it was going to from the foot long hair of the swimming boys, Mom told us to slink on into the water and if the 'pool man' came along to just "go deep" underwater, something we Californian swimmers were quite adept at.

If only there'd been a way for you to slink on in and go deep.

But still, you shouldn't HAVE to!

Love the photos! Really good and artistic.

 
At 12:24 am, June 28, 2008, Blogger Deanna said...

I love your photos, Cecily. So good to have you back. And I, too, appreciate greatly the ways you wrestle with what's true. Everywhere on this planet it's a worthwhile pursuit.

That's a pretty dress, btw! Glad you got to wear it.

 
At 12:40 am, July 03, 2008, Blogger claire said...

to those who will follow your steps to the eternal city I recommend looking into vacation rentals in rome to plan their trip....

 
At 2:06 pm, July 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"No tourists allowed. If you are searching for God - he is not here." Hard to believe!!!

Oh, Cecily, how could anyone say that to another and be considered a Christian. I too have a problem with organized religion. Isn't it amazing that those who profess to be, treat the rest of the world as if they were the only ones entitled to be "saved", Mary Brox

 
At 2:54 pm, July 04, 2008, Blogger Angela said...

seriously, did my witty, thought out comment from a few days ago not post? argh. sometimes i hate blogger more than i hate those low, low, low riding jeans.

on other matters - cecily - i love it when you comment on my blog. it never occurred to me for a single, tiny second that you weren't "literary". you's a smart one. i like your brain.

 
At 11:35 am, July 05, 2008, Blogger Sandy's Notes said...

I came back to this post to look at the pictures. You and I have walked the same roads. I was in Rome and took some of the same photos, funny how life is.

 

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