La città eterna. Caput mundi. One of my favorite places on the face of the Earth.
No, not just because of the food (although the best food I've ever eaten has been in Rome, saltimbocca, cacio e pepe, carbonara, amatriciana...).
No, not just because of the history (although I majored in ancient Roman history as an undergrad in what now seems like ancient history itself).
No, not just because it is the seat of the Holy Catholic Church (although, as a Catholic, Roma locuta est, means causa finita est for me).
No, it was not just any of those things, great though they all make the city be. Rome, rather, holds a special place in my heart for it is there that an important step, nearly imperceptible at the time, of where my conversion from irreligion to Catholicism occurred.
It was a generous spring break gift from my parents in my last semester of undergrad school that first brought me to Rome. I remember being nearly overpowered with the sense of history from walking on those ancient streets. My great grandparents had made the long ocean voyage from Italy to America and, ever since I was old enough to realize that our family came from another land, I had a strong desire to return and walk on my ancestral soil.
Flying across the Atlantic that first time, thoughts of Julius Caesar and the Italy of my bisnonno (my great grandfather)filled my heart and soul. Little did I realize that this trip would also be my first meeting with the face of Christ, that I would meet Him there. I would have laughed at the idea as ridiculous at the time.
Wasn’t Jesus just some long-dead, but nice spiritual teacher?
It was on this first Roman trip that, after spending hours looking at the Roman and Greek antiquities in the Vatican Museums, I found myself confronted with the image of Christ the Just Judge separating the wicked from the saints on the last day in La Cappella Sistina (the Sistine Chapel). I entered the room with a growing love of Italian Renaissance art and as someone more or less wholly indifferent to religion and perhaps even hostile to the Catholicism into which I had been baptized.
I was wholly unprepared for the encounter awaiting me in the Chapel. I had desired to see the Sistine merely as something that was de rigueur on any Roman trip without the least idea, or desire, of having a “religious experience.”
Nevertheless, on that cold, rainy, Roman day, Michelangelo’s image of the end of time was seared into my soul. Standing in the space where men become popes, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment held my full attention. I wasn't aware of the paintings, by many of the greatest artists in history, on the side walls of the Sistine. I only briefly took in the famous ceiling frescos. The altar wall commanded my full attention. The sheer size of the image of a triumphant Christ, oddly beardless, raising his mighty hand as he permanently separated the accursed and the blessed for all eternity was overwhelming. I stood for I don’t know how long lost in that image, it seemed like an instant and like an eternity all at once. I imagine heaven must feel something like that.
I was in the Sistine Chapel and I had, unknowingly, just met Jesus Christ. I wasn’t a believing Catholic at the time. I wasn’t even Christian. I was barely even a theist. Yet I met Him there, even if I wouldn't have been able to articulate it, or admit it, at the time.
I had never before quite felt the presence of God as I did on that day. It wasn’t the end of my journey (that would take several years of struggling yet) and it wasn’t even the beginning (my love for Truth had been inspired the year before by reading Plato's Theaetetus), but it was a shifting point.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but something had changed. I had encountered something, no better still, I had met someone. If you had asked me, I wouldn’t have confessed Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I wouldn’t have assented to the Apostle’s Creed. I certainly wouldn’t have confessed and believed all the Catholic Church confesses and proposes for belief. At the time I would undoubtably have passionately argued against Christianity, against His Divinity, and against the authority of His Holy Church. Nevertheless, in some very real way, something had happened to me there. I couldn’t describe it, but I would be haunted by that sense of the presence of the Divine whenever I thought of the Sistine ever-afterwards. The image would be with me for years to come. And that thought, just that nascent thought in the back of my mind, of Christ the Judge, would compel my journey, my search for the Truth, forwards.
Which is why I love Rome. Why I love the Sistine Chapel. Because I had that experience there, even if, at the time, I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what I had experienced.
For more thoughts on how beauty can lead us to Christ, please check out my personal blog, www.adoroergosum.blogspot.com, where you can sign up to receive emails alerting you to all my posts.
Pax et Bonum!