This bellow is what punctuates the droning din in the Sistine Chapel. Well, that and…
“MOVE TO CENTER!”
As we worked our way through the Vatican Museum, our tour guide stressed to us multiple times that the Chapel was a sacred place. She explained beforehand the history and things to look for in Michelangelo’s massive fresco because she was not going to talk once we got there. The finale to our tour was supposed to be a place for silent reflection.
Instead we were herded around like cattle in the room. Overzealous security guards tried to yell us both into silence and the middle of the room. Third party tour guides rambled on to groups as they waved their silver tour guide rods with brightly colored flags. The vibe was not exactly conducive to reflection or even appreciation of art. Poor Paula our tour guide must have been frustrated.
St. Peter’s Basilica, like the Sistine Chapel, is one of the most famous religious landmarks in the world. It is a massive structure filled with beautiful art including Michelangelo’s sculpture Pietà. It’s an important place to a lot of people. Again, it’s sacred.
So naturally that is an optimal place to break out the selfie stick and take a picture of you and your bestie throwing up peace signs in front of Mary cradling her just crucified child (And don’t get me started on the guy that took five minutes giggling in the Vatican Museum trying to get the right picture of him pretending be hung on a cross. I almost kicked a dude in Italy).
I’m not Catholic, but as a Christian it’s kind of jarring to see churches turned into the religious version of the World’s Largest Ball of Yarn. Those sacred spaces just didn’t feel like they were sacred. It was just another place to check off an itinerary.
The next day EA and I went to St. John Lateran, which was St. Peter’s before St. Peter’s. It is actually the Archbasilica because it is considered the Mother of Catholic churches and it is cathedral church of Rome (and its bishop the Pope). Despite this importance it is not as hot a tourist ticket as its Vatican City compatriots.
It actually felt like a church. People still snapped pictures, but there was more space and silence. You would occasionally here whispers and the clop clop clop of shoes walking across the marble floor. You didn’t have to move with the current of a massive mob.
You could sit and reflect on the sculptures and art that decorated the sanctuary and watch as Catholic men and women slipped into the side chapel to pray. I was actually able to wrestle with my admiration for the building’s ornateness while still wondering how much the gold and marble took from those in need. I think it’s important to be able to think enough in sacred spaces to wrestle. I think the statue of Thomas across the way would have agreed.
Silence and space made St. John Lateran feel more holy than its more famous sister churches.
I think our modern faith could use more of that: the silence and space. There is nothing inherently wrong with crowds and noise; they can be exciting catalysts in our lives. Yet I fear that in our desire to turn everything into an epic event that we lose something. We spiritually amuse ourselves so much that we forget how to be still.
As EA and I quietly reflected on our journey so far, admired the artwork, and watched people treat this church like a sacred space, I soaked in the silence. Our trip was going to be full of excitement and adventure which always comes with a dose of the hectic. We probably could use some of this silence and space. Not just on this trip but when we return home as well.