The last time I was in Florence was a crappy series of days. It rained nearly the entire time. Homesickness hit hard. And I had a conversation with a fellow classmate that...well, we'll get to that in a moment. I just did not like Florence at all.
Yet whenever I talked with other people who had been to Italy, nearly everyone would just rave about how they loved Florence. And I would nod my head politely and say, "Yes, it's lovely" while I internally growled like my dog when a cat gets too close to our yard. My feelings towards Florence have been heavily shaded by that conversation and I've realized that conversation was a seed for some fear that I still carry around today.
Shortly before we left for Italy, I tried to write down how I came to my present thoughts on homosexuality. And as I wrote, it felt like there was a belt tightening around my chest. Though I believed what I was writing, the thought of others reading my words filled me with an anxiety that ached. I was worried some Christians would not want to associate with me anymore. Truth be told, I have long blamed this feeling on John Piper and his infamous farewell tweet to Rob Bell. But as it literally pained me to put pen to paper, I realized that this must be something more personal than that.
Over the course of my foreign study trip in college, this guy and I had struck up a friendly rapport. He was a good dude: smart, funny, and deeply committed to his faith. One day in Florence, we started talking about the Bible and I shared my then still fledgling conviction that maybe we shouldn't take a literalist approach to scripture. He strongly disagreed. I tried to explain myself a bit, but he only became more frustrated. Eventually he shut down the conversation and quickened his pace to join some other students further up the street. We barely talked ever again.
This was a good person, probably still is. Indeed, it probably would've been easier if he was a Bible-thumping, angry fundamentalist. Yet because my view of scripture was out of bounds he walked away from me. There certainly was other stuff going on with him that I didn't realize. But from my perspective, my beliefs stopped our friendship in its tracks. Thus I have carried this fear around, even when experience has suggested otherwise, that people would no longer want to be my friend if my beliefs differed from theirs.
For some reason, that conversation wounded me deeply and so deeply that it was easy for me to bury it. Even as fear fluttered each time I knew I'd have to share an unpopular belief, I couldn't get down to why I felt that way. That's why I have had such an overwhelming negative view of Florence: it's the city where I got left behind for who I was.
At the heart of Florence is their cathedral: the Duomo. Though this church doesn't have the spiritual cachet of St. Peter's in Rome or St. Francis in Assisi, the Duomo makes up for it by being an imposingly impressive structure. And there's another cool thing about the Duomo that I did not know on my first trip: you can climb to the top of the massive dome that crowns the church.
The journey to the top is not easy. You have to walk up nearly 500 narrow steps through corridors that are the stuff of claustrophobic nightmares. The narrow passages mean that when people are coming down, you must hug a stone wall just so someone else can squeeze by you. If you have issues with personal space, you would not like the climb.
On the way up, EA and I entered back into the sanctuary just beneath the dome. We looked down and saw the people in the church milling around like ants. Just above us was a massive fresco of the Last Judgment painted on the interior of the dome. I wondered how people felt when they had made such an arduous climb and the first thing they saw was Jesus sending people to one of two afterlives. Even then, the trip wasn't done. There were more steps and even narrower spaces.
It's a huge pain to get to the top of the Duomo, but it's well worth it. When you finally climb out of the dome, you are greeted by a breathtaking panoramic view of Florence and the surrounding hill villages. There was a certain freedom to climbing through dark corridors and then bursting forth into wide open light. It was like getting born.
EA and I stood high above Florence soaking in the view and taking pictures. And while I was up there, I completely forgot about all of the ill feelings I had towards the city below. All I could think was, "Wow, what a beautiful city." I don't know if my earlier experiences in Florence enhanced that beauty. It probably did. Dark makes light brighter just as the difficulty of our climb made us appreciate the view more than if we had just rode up in an elevator.
After we navigated back down to terra firma, we spent the day exploring the town. We ate dinner at an excellent restaurant called Brown Sugar (for reasons that completely eluded me). Finally we capped off the evening with a trip to the Accademia di Belle Arti: home of Michelangelo's David (and the world capital of jokes about male anatomy). We chatted with a nice man from New York in line, a fellow runner. We saw an exhibit on Franciscan art that served as unexpected coda to our Assisi adventures. It was a lovely day.
EA and I were holding hands as we walked back to our hotel. She looked up at me and with a grinned asked, "So did we redeem Florence?" As tourists hustled past us in the twilight, I smiled. "Yeah, we definitely did."
I still remember those gray days in Florence and I'll still have to contend with the fear that took root, but I was reminded that one of the greatest gifts we're given is, that as long as we're breathing, things can be redeemed. Relationships. Cities. Even our fears and failures don't have to be the final word. Indeed those ugly spaces can give us greater appreciation for those healed places.
If I did not come back to Florence, I would not have been reminded of that gift of grace. It would have remained a negative memory for me. But it's not. Florence was the city where I got left behind. Now it's the city that reminds that we can be redeemed.