We arrived in a taxi at breakneck speed as though the driver was practicing for Monte Carlo. Within minutes it seemed we were circling the Coliseum, maneuvering through narrow one-way alleys, cutting in and turning and nearly skimming cars alongside, then up the Via Tritone, pass the Barbarini Piazza, and around to our hotel not far from the Borghese Gardens. The driver sported ear-rings, and manically grasped the wheel with tattooed arms. His biceps were scarred, whether from knife wounds or burns I could not tell. No seat belts in the car. I tried not to worry, and in any event, we made it, arriving with screeching breaks. My husband, usually a cautious man, surprisingly said, “He did an excellent job, going the most direct route.” I just looked at him quizzically as he praised our driver and gave him a hefty tip. The young man grinned and I was relieved.
Rome is a city of contrasts. Opinions are heated, loves are joyous, hates are intense. Perhaps it is the colors of the sunshiny days, the energy of the city of scooters and artists, of opera singers in small restaurants singing Three Coins in a Fountain to you at your table. Perhaps it is the deeply religious Catholic life of childhood if not of adulthood and the abundantly sensuous life of adulthood if not childhood. Everything is embraced with gusto.
The Americans left their mark here during and after the war, and American Bars are common in this grateful Italy. For our troops swooped up from the south and freed this country of poets and painters and sculptors from a misleading dictatorship of cruelty. We, in the end, won the war which became theirs as well. So Italians for the most part are friendly to Americans visiting their paradise.
I love the churches in Rome. There are nearly five hundred I am told, but I am so enthralled with the main ones I spend my time devising routes to revisit them all. I shall never get through the five hundred.
Tuesday we visited Santa Maria Maggiore, the international Marian church, housing a piece of Christ’s cradle and an incredible Madonna and Child reputed to have been painted by St. Luke. The ceiling is gilded in gold from the new world of America. the church is a setting for my first novel,Pilgrimage, and my novel in progress, The Magdalene Mystery. InPilgrimage, Madeleine says:
Mary Major stands on a vast square on the Esquilino Hill. Legend says it snowed on the site in August of 352, a rare occurrence. When the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius, commanding him to build a church within the boundaries of the snowfall, he obeyed. Since then, every August 5 in the Ceremony of the Snow, white petals shower from one of the cupolas onto the congregation.
We crossed a broad parvis and climbed massive stairs. Opening a heavy door, we paused in the narthex. A long straight nave led to a gleaming altar and glittering apse. Forty marble columns ran up the side aisles marking the two hundred feet to the altar.
I stepped into the nave, leaving the dark entrance and turning toward the light apse and its canopied altar. Circular marble tiles covered the floor, and, at the far end, the apsidal mosaic showed Christ crowning his mother. The entire ceiling was coffered in gold—American gold, I recalled, brought back from the New World. Behind me, Jack checked his guidebook as he studied a row of mosaics high on the side walls. Pilgrims and tourists milled about; some sang hymns, some knelt in prayer.
We reached the end of the nave and descended curving stairs to a shrine in the confessio beneath the high altar. Whose relics lay here? Mary’s body was never claimed; many believe she was taken bodily into heaven, a miraculous event called the Assumption.
“It’s the Christmas crib, the manger cradle,” Jack said.
Inside a glass ark topped by a cherub rested a small piece of wood. Behind us was an oversized statue of a pope kneeling.
“Now I understand,” I said, half to myself, “why this church was first on the list.” Here was the beginning of God’s great act for man, his momentous intersection in man’s time, the birth of his Son, the God-man, in a manger. The child became a man, died and rose from the dead, fulfilling ancient Jewish prophecy. My own loss seemed insignificant in comparison, yet just as real. Maybe I was to take my grief seriously and not to overlook the small, the humble, the seemingly little things of our world. Maybe there were no little things. Pilgrimage (OakTara, 2007)
So we returned to Maria Maggiore, and all was the same – the stunning nave, the Madonna in the side altar. But alas, the Christmas crib had been removed for restoration. Even so, we stepped through the adoring crowds, some singing, some attending masses in side chapels, praying for our world, our parish, our communities, our families, and our friends. There is always a list, I thought, with some more urgent matters moved to the top, and this was true this first day in Rome.
I gazed upon St. Luke’s Madonna and gave thanks, and in the thanks, began to adore her son in the tabernacle beneath, and within the adoration understood my imperfections and unworthiness. I began to love. For it is only in recognition of our smallness, I suddenly realized, our failures, that we can understand what it is to love. For love comes from an emptying, and then a filling, and then an emptying for the beloved.
We left Maria Maggiore and headed up Via Contra Verdi to Santa Croce, to the Basilica of the Holy Cross.