Last Thoughts about Italy: Religion and Connections

The last email I received from my mother started off with her asking if being in Italy has reaffirmed my Catholicism and I really didn’t know what to reply because I didn’t want to simply respond with the abruptly dismissive answer of “no”.  After visiting and seeing so many churches in such a short amount of time and thinking a lot about what it means to fully understand something, this question made me consider the idea of faith and the things involved with it.

Praying has always been something that I have done, even after stepping away from organized religious practices and these days, I pray the most by the river, my back resting against a thick barked tree.  I have a special place by the Arno where the grass is still long enough that lizards stumble over my crossed bare feet and peek into the folds of my jacket spread out underneath me.  I used to pray to the Mississippi during the months I was home, running there with very little air in my lungs.  I suppose I have always unconsciously gravitated to rivers because they give me both reassurance and peace of mind.  They represent movement, sometimes adapting and sometimes not, sometimes being absolutely vital for prosperity and sometimes carrying alien toxins that will destroy an entire ecosystem.  There are two exact sides to a river and a heck of a lot of content in between.  They can represent adaptability and change.  Or they can just be water, forever traveling. I don’t think that any God would have a problem with me praying to the river.

Praying and Napping by the Arno

The Arno

When I was younger, I used to sing to God at night, especially after watching Jurassic Park because I was convinced that while my family was sleeping, a dinosaur would step on our house and the four of us inside.  There is a zero percent chance of this happening but sometimes I would see them outside our windows and cringe farther under the covers, terrified of the idea that something could be that large. When I was younger, I was most vulnerable to my own mind, just as the human knee is most vulnerable to the body it is a part of, considering that much of the body’s weight is constantly rested on it.

Pisa

Pisa

There are roughly sixty nine churches in Florence and over two thousand churches in Rome and twenty four churches in Siena even though only forty percent of Italians consider themselves to be practicing Catholics.   I have been in twelve churches in Italy but always prefer the river.  However, when I can, I give my fifty cents and light a candle, whispering a little prayer.  I believe in well wishes so I pray for exactly three boys and one girl and the entirety of the rest of the world.  Sometimes if there are kneelers, I will be a little bit selfish and bow my head to look down, praying for my knees and increased resistance, hoping that these parts of my body aren’t as vulnerable as they seem.

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The Duomo of Firenze

Over one million bibles are sold every year.  The average household owns four bibles which they read only four times every year which is three more bibles than I own and four times how often I read it.  I tried to read it once, so if people asked why I am not religious, I could give an informed answer.  But I never got very far with the book and so I just tell people that for years I watched people who didn’t know what faith meant kneel in front of a wooden cross because if they didn’t, they would probably get detention.  The concept of religion that I was taught contained very little movement, based off of memorizing the Act of Contrition for a grade and followed a strict rigidness that was entirely not worth it if you didn’t even understand the words you were taught to say.  It was supposed to be Catholicism but almost a larger teaching hidden behind that was the religion of obedience.

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Siena

I guess I never really associated with those religious ideas which resulted in me finding ties in other things.  Recently rereading my previous posts, I realize that they all have a common theme apart from travel and perspective, it just took me until now to see what it was: the importance of effective connection.  While it may seem dramatic to say that we wouldn’t survive without connections, it is absolutely true, just in various degrees of validity.

Moving to a new country with very little idea of what I was getting myself into, successful interactions are 100% necessary for survival, primarily in relation to the language.  In the beginning, with no previous knowledge of Italian, association and being able to identify logical equivalents were key.  However, I will say that recognizing different societal cues and mannerisms is also essential as success within society is all about understanding different situations.  As someone who is not very physically affectionate, the first time my host mother kissed me, which was also the first time we had met, I was quite taken aback as only one person in my life has gotten away with this before and it was under very different circumstances.  But this was a gesture of friendship and hospitality, something that would continue my entire stay in Italy, and I was thankful to discover that this act did not happen between everyone and before every approachable interaction.  Connections are understanding.

My host mother with a fake fish she made and decorated

My host mother with a fake fish she made and decorated

Integrating into a new place, especially one as large as Florence, many people were introduced and many people were passed by.  But there are those who stick around because for some reason there was some conversation that was stimulating or a face that was more keenly remembered; a volley of knowledge resulting in a passing between: a connection has been made.  This can be a result of particular wording which will erode as time flies by or it can hold on like nothing else matters.  These are what count, the connections in friendships that keep us all relatively sane.

I am always nervous when I go to a new place that I won’t for some reason fit in, that I will be driven into a spiraling loneliness that will make me regret the wonderful places where I am.  Thankfully,  this was not the case and I have met some really interesting individuals who I look forward to getting to know more in the future.  But good connections coupled with the unavoidable changes necessary for life can create a moment of sadness when one thing ends and another begins.  I really will miss my little visits to the Arno and the way the Italian countryside smells but more importantly I will miss the friends I have made who I have to say goodbye to.   To avoid sounding entirely like a graduation speech, I will just say this, I will see them again…just a little bit later.

girls

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Possession and the Sistine Chapel; or Depth and Illumination

I recently returned from a short trip to Rome, a city rooted with ancient ruins and umbrella pines, and while it seemed to be inhabited mostly by determined men from Bangladesh, I loved it.  See, Rome is big.  And I mean big as in expansive but also regarding grandeur: every building seemed to contain many archaic levels, every horse statue fit only for riders of gargantuan size.  It is natural for a place like this to produce something like awe in travelers like me.   IMG_3657Possession 

As we began our tour for the day, our group embarked with the ingredients of tourists: a map of the city, too many euros, and our cameras weighing down our necks or jacket pockets.  We started at Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of  Rome and had a guided tour through the Forum.  We simultaneously lifted our arms  to snap a picture of the ruins, of the pillars, of the skyline because they were ancient and beautiful and we all certainly wanted to remember them, to hold onto them.  Not quite as drastically as the ancient Romans sought to conquer and  control a large part of the European continent, as traveler and writer John Ruskin identified, part of being human is wanting to possess beauty.   Photography seems an initially convenient medium for capture as it offers an immediate result with accurate proportions and  depictions of reality.  While Ruskin was originally a fan of  daguerreotypes, he soon realized that practitioners of this new art were replacing actual sight and study of place for a fleeting click of a camera.

As my last post highlighted the importance of learning how to see, I connected with Ruskin’s goal of teaching people how to see through drawing, not so that they will become better artists but so they will learn how to love their surroundings.  I constantly see people around me looking only through the lens on their camera, taking a picture and moving on, scarcely looking up.   And I have been guilty of this myself but I have recently been frustrated by the pictures I take.  They do not capture the depth that I need in order to fully possess the beauty I see and I am often left with a small image that is flat and seems to represent limitations more than the vastness of the original scene.  

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Robert Pirsig also writes about this in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, comparing the act of  looking out of a car window to watching TV, all confined “boringly in a frame”.  Pirsig and his extensive values stem from the openness of experience, of being completely a part of surroundings and existing “in the scene”.   And while Ruskin might have challenged Pirsig to make more frequent stops and certainly would have added a sketchbook and pencils to the list of vital travel supplies, I think they both would have agreed with Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel when he says:

“We can see beauty well enough by just opening our eyes, but how long this beauty will survive in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.” 

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Continuing with our tours the next day, we embarked on an incredible journey through the streets of the Vatican Necropolis, through long underground roads that gave a new meaning to the term “dead end”.   It was humid and quiet and I  loved that I could touch everything: walls, engravings, the smooth marble of sarcophagi that represented entire bygone generations.  And then we moved up to Saint Peter’s Basilica, craning our heads back in order to take in as much as possible.  I am still having a hard time contemplating the exact magnitude of each detail of the walls and ceiling, and because of my realizations of the cameras restrictions during the previous day, I didn’t even dare take a picture of the inside.  It was completely enough to just wonder at every aspect of the basilica’s glory.  

The Sistine Chapel 

 After slugging through the rain and entering the labyrinthine Vatican Museum, full of rooms of tapestries, sculpture, and art from every movement, I finally got to what I really wanted to see: the famous Sistine Chapel.  I packed myself into the space along with a hundred other people, shuffling along and waiting until I could get a seat along the edge of the room.  Sitting, I finally looked up at  Michelangelo’s ceiling.  I was incredibly disappointing by the whole thing, extending down to Botticelli’s frescoes and the papal conclave.  The people who had come to view this religious space scuffled along like they were part of a current, only moving rhythmically, systematically and were occasionally shocked into silence by the stern voice of the museum guard whose reprimanding hollers were as distinctive as the green parrots I had tried to spot outside.  I left with a frown on my face.

courtesy of the internet

courtesy of the internet

I suppose I was so disappointed because I found there to be a striking lack of illumination, both physically as the room was surprisingly dimly lit, and mentally as some sort of understanding evaded me.  I am not sure if I went there expecting to gain some sort of comprehension regarding the glory of either God or the greatly artistic space but I left thinking that it was smaller, less complex, and in some ways, more human than I thought it would have been.  I tried to give the paintings more attention in my mind, focusing on small parts at a time but when I looked back at the whole picture, I still felt a little bit cheated by the previously boasted splendor.  I again thought back to de Botton and applied the inverse of his words:

Many places strike us as beautiful not on the basis of aesthetic criteria – because the colours match or symmetry and proportion are present—but on the basis of physiological criteria, inasmuch as they embody a value or mood of importance to us.”