|Mosaic of beardless Jesus over the altar in the nave of the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy|
I recently returned from a trip to Italy. It was not the kind of vacation my husband and I normally take. Because we have long been city dwellers, we often choose to go away - to vacate - where we can get away from it all.
But this year, we went INTO it all. We took an art and architecture trip to three cities chock full of everything: people, cars, Vespas, and bicycles dodging each other on the narrow streets/sidewalks; vaporettos, topettas, water taxis, gondolas, and the UPS delivery boat all jockeying for space on the Grand Canal; where the lines to get into the museum, even when you’ve made a reservation, snake around the plaza for an hour. Where tour groups squeeze into a tiny ancient building, following a guide carrying a stick with a toy on the end of it who regales everyone in French or German or Japanese with a quick history and notable details before everyone snaps a few photos and files out again.
And we joined in. We walked along with the throng, through the streets and museums and the churches crammed full of masterpieces. We took in the storied sights from recommended vantage points and posed for selfies with our gelato.
At some point, Tom asked me where did I see the sacred in all of this. And at first, I admit, it was hard to see. It was different in Ireland and Scotland where we’d experienced thin places out in the wilds, among ruins that only whispered their half-forgotten histories. Now we were in a place where everything was shouting its story, in competition with - or at least side by side with - all the other stories.
But I did begin to see that there were two places in particular where people were experiencing the holy amid the busy. Places where people could really be attentive and intentional, could really be “there.”
One of those places was, happily, in churches. In most every church, small and large, there was a section roped off, often a side chapel, with a sign saying “for prayer only.” A place where you left your Nikon in the bag and went to light a candle and be present to God right in the middle of the crowd - which was also in the middle of exquisite beauty created and displayed for the Glory of God. There were always people sitting quietly, contemplating the icons, mosaics, altarpieces, tuned in to the undercurrent of centuries of prayers that permeate even the beautiful and worn tile floors, oblivious to the crowd streaming up and down the main aisles. They didn’t have to go to a remote ruin to open themselves to the Divine.
The other place where I became aware of this kind of sacred intentionality was at the dinner table. Dinner was always a two-plus hour occasion. Here was a time to sit and savor, to connect, to pay attention with delight, to be thoroughly nourished. One perfectly proportioned and presented course arrived at a time, with no rush to get to the next. Every bite was to be enjoyed in every way - with the eyes, nose, and mouth. And everything was prepared with such care and presented as a gift. Some of the most precious time we spent was over a beautiful, leisurely dinner, all senses engaged, with no thought about needing to finish up and go somewhere else. As one who, at home, sometimes eats standing up or in my car, I felt such deep gratitude for the time, for the taste, for the nourishment, for the beauty, for the gift of being lovingly fed. And looking around, it was obvious that other people were having the same experience.
I came home understanding that the holy is not confined to certain times and places nor is the possibility of experiencing the Divine. I can find space to contemplate beauty, to be nourished and fed, to experience gratitude by being mindful and intentional, no matter what is going on around me, be it a traffic jam or a tour bus invasion. God is always there, everywhere, waiting for me to notice the holy shining through, like the light catching on that one 800-year-old chip of golden glass plastered into the ceiling among a whole 8000 square feet of mosaics above me; like, as Wendell Berry says,* the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
* The Peace of Wild Things, a poem by Wendell Berry.