For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.
Italy is such living sculpture that one could easily fill a coffee table book with pictures of otherwise mundane objects that, here, have have taken on artistic flare. You could fill a profitable day just searching out interesting door knockers or doorways, drinking fountains or the weeds that sprout from rooftop tiles. We owe much of this picturesqueness to the medieval spirit that allowed craftsmanship and creativity to flourish on a human scale–and which has become less common in our age of planned obsolescence and Made in China.
Making the station church pilgrimage this year, I’ve been looking at the ground. I wrote before of the marvelous Cosmatesque floors in so many of Rome’s churches. This style is named after the Cosmati family, the medieval craftsmen who made use of Rome’s overflow of broken marble to turn what would otherwise have been refuse into charming and sometimes Escher-esque designs. It’s especially appropriate that the Cosmati’s work paves Christian churches, where sins are absolved and, picking up the fragments left by our mistakes, we are reminded that, with the help of grace, we can still manage something beautiful.
So here’s a slideshow of a handful of Rome’s graceful floors…
This week we passed Lent’s midpoint, which always seems the most grueling part of the journey, the part where you’re most tempted to ask, “Are we there yet?” The excitement of starting something new has worn off, and the end still seems distant. It’s the part of Lent where hitting the snooze button one more time comes oh-so-easily.
And here the Church again gives us a little boost with Laetare Sunday and the simple joy that comes from listening to your parish priest insist that his vestment is not pink, not mauve, not pepto-bismal, but rose, darn it, it’s rose.
My own personal mid-Lent boost came this week from the remarkable apse mosaics in the week’s station churches. I’ve always found mosaics mesmerizing, the fragments that make up a greater whole, the way the light glistens off each piece. The mosaics in Rome’s station churches are particularly precious because they are so old. Santa Pudenziana’s dates from the 5th century, Ss. Cosma e Damiano’s from the 6th.
There are a lot of churches in Rome. I’ve heard 900-something, but I’m not really sure. There are eight or nine chapels in the building I live in, but I might be forgetting some. Needless to say, it seems a little too late for a master plan to ensure efficiency.
The closest Rome ever came to an efficient program of church construction was probably right at the beginning, with the tituli, which were really just the houses of prominent Christians where the faithful gathered to worship, sometimes in secret. Titulus refers to the name of the owner, usually written on a plaque by the door. These centers weren’t laid out in any logical plan, but depended on whoever had a big enough living room (well, courtyard) to accommodate the whole proto-parish. When Christianity came out into the open after the Edict of Milan, the city’s faithful erected church buildings on the site of the tituli, which often enough coincided with sites of martyrdom. A few of the station churches are also built on the site of an old diaconia, basically an early Christian charitable distribution center.
Today’s station church, San Clemente, marks something of a milestone. San Clemente was where the station liturgy broke off two years ago in what was to become the longest fortnight in human history, “two weeks to flatten the curve.” In fact, in my experience of the station pilgrimage, the second Monday of Lent at San Clemente seems associated with portentous events. It was to San Clemente that I trudged through the slush in 2018, the last time that Rome got snow.
I’ve noted before the prevalence of former soldiers among the saints of Rome, a fact especially evident in the first week of Rome’s station liturgy, when day two is celebrated at a church dedicated to St. George and St. Sebastian and day three at the site two other former soldiers, the brothers John and Paul, were martyred in 360.
The prominence of these soldier saints is especially striking while war rages in the Ukraine. Though the signs were all there ahead of time–this was not the first time Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–the attack and the resistance to it has seemed to jolt the West from a deep and dangerous torpor. A friend recently showed me a poll asking the people of various nations if they would be willing to fight for their country; less than half of Americans said yes–and that was high for the West. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy, pledged to the world, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today, in the face of crisis, presidents compete to issue stimulus checks because, hey, free money. Something seems to have been lost.
Rising from the ashes is, I suppose, the theme of every Lent and Easter season, though it appears especially appropriate this year. On a personal note, this will be the first time since 2020 that I will be able to return to one of Rome’s great Lenten traditions, the station churches.