I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy. The travel blog starts here: https://smritaly21.travellerspoint.com/1/
It’s a very interesting time in which to travel. My travel companions and I hatched the plan to go to Italy in late spring, when Italy announced its reopening in light of declining Covid rates. As the delta variant began to wreak havoc with the world through the summer, we debated whether or not it was wise/advisable/responsible to travel at all. In the end, we went, abiding as well as we could with restrictions, advisories and recommendations. Along the way, we were very grateful that we had our vaccination cards to flash whenever asked (and we were asked a lot), but wishing the US had got its act together for a meaningful digital option, which would have been much more convenient.
This trip to Italy began with several days in Rome for all three of us and then a walking tour through parts of Umbria and Assisi for two of us, while the third attended an in-residence workshop for artists.
I’ve been to Italy several times, but the Umbria and Assisi part of our trip was all new to me. And, with these new places (Orvieto, Morre, Spoleto, Assisi, and the little towns nearby) there were new churches to explore. Well, not “new” of course, but new to me.
All of the churches I visited were, no surprise, Roman Catholic. Some of the churches were so overwhelmingly stuffed full of stuff (paintings, sculptures, candles, devotional pieces, etc), I found myself glad that I wasn’t a part of a tradition that would take such an approach to the faith. It all seemed so busy, distracting and sometimes just plain bizarre. Other churches, though, were lovely and quiet refuges, with artistically offered pathways to the pondering of faith and story. How does each person and each community reflect on and find themselves part of God’s holy work? How does the faith, and its stories, find expression in the buildings in which we gather and how do those expressions inform, influence, convey, and carry forth the various elements of spiritual connection, whether mundane or profound?
The artwork of some churches seemed driven simply to scare people, using demons and the torments of hell to inspire, I suppose, faithfulness and good behavior. Here are a couple of photos from the Duomo in Orvieto:
Other churches offered fascinating windows into theology, story and the significance of the Trinity, especially Jesus Christ. While there was generally a consistency in the messaging from church to church, occasionally we would find something unexpected. One example is the Basilica di Santa Maria Trastevere, a minor basilica in the enchanting Trastevere neighborhood in Rome. This church is one of the oldest in Rome and includes some amazing mosaics from the 13th century. One of those mosaics, at the front of the church, above the altar, offers a picture of Jesus and his mother, as if both of them are working in concert as intermediaries between earth and heaven:
And, then there were the other places where we encountered interesting, and sometimes disturbing, elements of Christian-related storytelling. Take the Vatican Museums. In the Gallery of Tapestries—a long, narrow room with large tapestries on both long sides (on one side, tapestries depicting the life of Pope Urban VIII, and on the other, the life of Christ)—of the nine tapestries focused on Christ, THREE of them visualize the slaughter of the innocents from the second chapter of Matthew. I asked our tour guide if she had any thoughts or insights into the remarkable display of the murder of young children in the wake of the birth of Jesus. She did not.
Of all of the stories about Jesus in the Gospels, why does this single story, connected to only one of the Gospel writers (and not corroborated by any historical account) find its way to so many tapestries? And why is the Vatican so eager to display them?
I’ve been wondering quite a lot about story and the stories of our faith. Which stories mean the most to us, as individuals and as churches, and do those stories remain consistent over the course of our lives of faith, or do our attachments to stories alter as we age? How do we, and how should we, convey those stories to others? How do those stories find expression in how we live our lives, as people of faith?
Our stories are important. How our stories connect to those holy stories contained in scripture is also important, and worthy of serious contemplation. We may not be so inclined to paint a large mural, assemble an intricate mosaic or construct an enormous tapestry, but we should be about the work of wondering how we bring to life the sacred stories that feed our faith, as well as how we engage with those biblical stories that cause distress and pain. How do we tell our stories and how might we do so in ways that are yet more life-giving and life-affirming?