Oh-shoot-I’m-here-for-less-than-a-month-and-there-are-still-so-many-churches-yet-to-see-itis

Before I relate the adventures described in the title, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an amazing experience on Monday night. I attended a magnificent concert at the Santa Cecilia (this is one of the oldest running orchestras in the world, and has a much longer name that I don’t care to look up). They played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and his Sixth Symphony, both of which (but especially the former) are among my favorite pieces of music. There was nearly nothing for me to gripe about. 

As you try to cope with that unfathomable reality, calm yourself by looking at St. Peter’s. This was taken from above Piazza del Popolo, where I wandered for a while after the concert…at NIGHT.

The orchestra was well balanced and very musically sensitive. The soloist (Isabelle Faust) was energetic and convincing. And, best of all, the violinist wrote her own cadenzas! I wouldn’t say “best of all” under most scenarios, and even in this rendition there were a few moments that caused me and much of the audience to raise our right eyebrows. However, I can use this descriptor because the lengthy cadenza at the end of the first movement proved what all connoisseurs of the piece have known all along: the timpani is by far the most important instrument in the entire concerto. Wait, what? Seriously, it’s the first instrument to enter; look how long it takes the soloist to finally enter! But seriously. The aforementioned cadenza was basically a duet between the violinist doing scales and other…interesting…things and the timpani repeating the core five-note-motif repetitively. It seemed like a blaring mistake at first, but when it continued going, I realized it was actually more of a slow-burn, lasting kind of mistake. So perhaps OTHER than that odd decision, I loved every moment of the concert.

Right, now on to the church-junkie part of the post. Rather than trying to sort them hierarchically, I will simply present the churches I visited today (well, technically “yesterday” at this point) chronologically. I went to Mass at Santa Maria in Via, which was noticeable for two things. First, there is a little side chapel commemorating the spot where an image of the Virgin saved the church from an overflowing well. Why there was a well in the church I do not know. Why said temperamental well is still there I understand even less. Correct they didn’t remove it: there’s a faucet right inside the chapel where you can go take a plastic cup and have a shot of well water. It was odd. Infinitely more off-putting than this was the Mass I attended.

I devote this blog post to the patron saint of cliff-hanger endings and plastic cups. Whomever that might be.

The first paradoxical component of this liturgy was the priest. On the one hand, he seemed to be accustomed to the extraordinary form (one can tell from how they treat their fingers; trust me). In my mind, this would normally correlate with a priest who displays extreme reverence and an understanding that the greatest things take their due time. However, the Mass was out in 17 minutes (I can assure this degree of precision because it caught me unawares by starting unannouncedly at the unusual time of 5:47, and so I checked my watch in amazement at the end). Perhaps the priest himself didn’t realize he was about to say a Mass, because he noticed at the time for the distribution of the Eucharist that he had no idea where the key to the tabernacle was. Sigh. And, on top of being painfully rushed, the few people in attendance were spread out all the way along the church, which was just weird.

With the goal of cleansing my palate, I stopped in the next church along my itinerary: San Giacomo in Augusta. It boasted one of the least odious Baroque ceilings I have yet to see, and also this novel and fascinating

Image

Do tell: has this literary device gotten annoying yet?

means of displaying an icon. Symbolically, this presentation struck a resonant chord about the necessity of bringing our Faith and our faith into the world and letting it be a real, three dimensional force. I was also intrigued—on a more aesthetic level—that the icon is able to command the focal point of the viewer’s attention without being rigidly front and center. So, one could say that my palate was refreshed. For a while.

You expected a picture here, didn’t you? Sorry, I don’t want to spoil it just quite yet. Whenever one is feeling good about the churches in Rome, one must remember not to underestimate the power of the electric light show. We have met Our Lady of the Thermonuclear Halo, but now I introduce you to this spectacle that truly exceeds my ability to come up with a fittingly snarky name:

Most Precious Glowstick of Our Lord and Savior?

This church also cast an overpowering red light on an image of St. (…Bl…) John Paul II, but luckily the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was basked in a radioactive green glow. Equally disturbing, even less comprehensible. I’m not really sure what the sort of a charism is motivating this spirituality, but it eerily reminds me of Dr. Nestor’s warnings against sounding like “New Age Crystal” music (his description is complete with little dance moves that I sadly cannot replicate here). Something tells me this is to be avoided at all costs, so I fled in terror.

Finally, at the end of my church binge, I visited Santa Maria di Montesanto. This is the second of the twin churches of Piazza del Popolo, which I had been unable to visit because of repair work being done earlier. The phrase “evil twin” has never made so much sense. Or, put differently, it felt about ready to be renovated from its renovation. OK, this is harsh. The church was just rather bland, and trying too hard to be “accessible” or “in sync with the modern age.” The most grievous offender was this:

This Eucharist brought to you Adidas ®!

I am aware that this is more of a pseudo-depiction of the feeding of the multitudes than a psuedo-depiction of the Last Supper. So, take my harsh words with a grain of salt. But a small one, because we cannot overlook the clear symbolic ties between those two events. That said, I would propose that one of the greatest plagues that faces the modern era, and a fault that is particularly damaging to the Church in said era, is that we have lost sight of the place of reverence in our lives. In the frantic paces of our work and homes, in the ways we interact with each other, in how we idolize cultural stars (and, I might add, whom we are idolizing…), even in how we digest our media, there is no place for profundity, contemplation, stillness or silence. And in our worship, if the liturgy is just a place we go to mumble responses as someone dressed a lot nicer than us talks for a long time, spare yourself the uncomfortableness and commitment and go to a college course instead (you can also bring Nutella to your college courses. Not that that’s been done…). 

Two important questions may arise: what does this have to do with this painting, and what am I even ranting about? To me, it’s evident that this image fancies itself as conveying a similar message to that of the icon in San Giacomo: bring your faith into the world and into your life. I suppose it’s vaguely New Evangelization-ey. And yes, the laity has a very important vocation to sanctity. But in innumerable ways–posture, setting, dress, and even the disreputable treatment of that poor violin (unless it’s a viola, in which case I have no issue)–this picture conveys to me nothing but a sad loss of the idea that there is anything special, transcendent, awe-inspiring or in any way surpassing the quotidian about something once referred to (again, permit a I symbolic connection) as O magnum mysterium. And no, I’m not condoning it as an OK time to start playing Christmas music. No.

So to answer your second question, I suppose what I’m getting at is this: Vatican II asked artists of all ilks to bring the very best of the culture into the churches, and I think we can do better than this. We cannot welcome Christ into our lives by making the sacred mundane, but by the opposite: sanctifying even the mundane. This ragazzo doesn’t convey that message to me at all. Also, I can’t even tell what the purpose of representing at least three different time periods of dress might be. Communion of Saints, maybe? Then why aren’t they being communal?!

Let me know what your thoughts are on this! Regardless of its deeper symbolic value, I also think it’s just rather boring and ugly, so that might be unjustly feeding my ire…

Tomorrow, God-willing, I will have updates about today’s very exciting event: a papal audience! But my fingers are getting sore, so a domani!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Oh-shoot-I’m-here-for-less-than-a-month-and-there-are-still-so-many-churches-yet-to-see-itis

  1. Joni Seith

    Matthew, you crack me up! I love your blog. Looking forward to having you over when you get back.

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