We have been meandering through Venice, following the tiny lines on the map to campos (squares), along calles (alleys), over ponti (bridges). The crowds are dense around Piazza San Marco, but lessen in the neighborhoods.
So today we headed away from the shoving crowds toward one of my favorite churches in Venice, San Zaccaria. The walls are covered in dark masterpieces and many visit this church for the famous art. But I was more interested in the bodies rather than the paintings, for here likes Zaccaria, father of John the Baptist. He was where I recalled, in the south aisle. His sarcophagus seemed to have been cleaned and restored, now with better lighting. And there above him, in his own tomb, lay a second great saint, the fourth century Doctor of the Church, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
The close proximity of the two saints made me smile: the man of no words, struck dumb by the angel when he doubted Elizabeth’s pregnancy, lying near the man who whose words defended the Trinity against Arius’s heresy. Zaccaria was speechless; Athanasius spoke the truth that led to the formation of the Nicene Creed.
Briefly, the Arian heresy stated that God the Father and God the Son were not of the same substance, that the Father created the Son. Athanasius defended the One God in Three Persons, the Trinity, saying that Christ had always existed, was the Word himself from the beginning. Most Christian Churches espouse this Trinitarian doctrine, and the Nicene Creed, the statement compiled by the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, added certain phrases to the simpler Apostles’ Creed to specifically counter this Arian heresy. In essence, the Arian heresy is held by those today who claim Christ was a good man, a moral teacher, but not God. A big difference.
So I like to pay my respects and give thanks for St. Athanasius who, because of his great faith, was given the words to mold our beliefs into the shape of the Nicene Creed. And St. Zaccaria reminds me of the curse of doubt, reminds me that words are withheld when faith is weak. In the end, I must wait silently for the action of God in my life; I must trust each day that his spirit will not leave me, but will guide my thoughts, actions, and words. I must pray for this to happen. I must say yes to God.
There is a time for silence, for only in silence can we listen, can we hear the voice of God. So we retreated from the shoving crowds of San Marco’s piazza, the screams and the loudspeakers, the boat horns and the hawkers shoving goods at us, barring our path. We retreated to the alleys and waters and bridges of the old neighborhoods, getting lost of course, but finding our way back eventually.
It is easy to lose one’s way here in Venice. It is easy to take a wrong turn and then another wrong turn and end up at a dead end, all the while certain of the route. So, too, in life it is easy to lose one’s way, easy to be tripped and sidetracked by the hawkers of all kinds of wares. Without the lesson of Zaccaria and the words of Athanasius we would have less of a map to follow, if any. Others contributed to our map of faith, the path through life to heaven. The many saints, those who we meet in our daily lives and those who we honor with calendar feasts draw and have drawn the lines on our map. But it is the baptized faithful who form the Body of Christ, the Church, that makes sense of what God is telling us, prompting us. It is the Church that preserves and protects the truth, handing us the map.
A few bridges away we visited St. John the Baptist’s church, probably built over an earlier chapel dedicated to this son of Zaccaria and Elizabeth. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the Baroque composer, was baptized here and was a member of the parish. I admired the colorful and balanced high altar painting of Christ’s baptism by John, but my thoughts kept returning to Vivaldi, particularly since his music played in the background. A north aisle chapel had artifacts dealing with Vivaldi’s baptism. A Catholic priest, he worked in an orphanage; many of his compositions were written for a female ensemble there. Although influential throughout Europe (Bach admired him), he died in poverty. The last century has witnessed a Vivaldi revival.
Vivaldi spoke with music just as Athanasius used words. And Zaccaria, after his time of silence, waiting for the birth of his son, spoke out the name John when asked what the child’s name would be. He had learned to wait and wonder and trust. Just so, we all must wait for the Holy Spirit to produce good within us, we must listen to the music of faith, following the Church’s teachings protected by the words of men like Athanasius.
In this way we shall map our route to heaven, and even, God willing, add a few signs along the way, composing for the world whatever God desires.