Saturday, September 7, 2014
I thought the image of the tilted bottle was going to become the logistical image for the day. Just before bedtime my bike still had not arrived and after about ten calls and one email I still had not heard a peep from Turkish airlines. I also spent over an hour buying a European-based SIM card as my phone bill was suddenly skyrocketing despite getting an international calling plan and other various attempts to limit my data usage. The short story is that I should use free wifi everywhere I can. Anything else will be costly.
I sat down late in the evening to take advantage of the free wifi at the hostel. Water is not served free here in Rome and I really needed a bottle of water to compensate for all of my walking in the warm air. I put my euro in the vending machine, pushed the button, watched as the bottle fell to the bottom and attempted to open the carriage. The bottle had fallen just at the perfect angle lodging itself between the solid bottom and the movable top. It took 30 minutes between the hostel clerk, an Australian engineer-in-the-making, and myself to figure out how to dislodge the bottle and allow the machine to be used again. In the process I got my thumb pinched, immediately drawing a stream of blood.
From a logistical point of view I was beginning to think that this little event said it all. What are the chances that a vending machine that has gone through one hundred R & D tests would end up with a bottle that was just the right size at just the right angle to outwit their system? What are the chances that I could have spent four months nurturing a job only to get beaten out by a last minute resume? And what are the chances that the one bag that didn’t arrive from Portland would be my bike which is the one item I spent the most time making sure that I did exactly what the airlines wanted?
I was just closing down my computer with the image of the stuck water bottle being the last working image of the day. The clerk burst through the door waving a sheet in my face and said, “Reverend, your bike has arrived!” I think he was almost as excited as I was. I had been bugging the clerks every few hours with the same response, “No. Not yet.” With that I can now start planning the next stage of my journey—how to get out of Rome by bike and feed me into the countryside and through small towns with monasteries and the hidden stories of Christian mystics.
But, I whine only from a logistical perspective because I spent the day at the Vatican and the Basilica of St. Peter . Damn, here I go again. Every time I begin to talk about the experience tears well up. I don’t think this is really ready for words yet. In fact, I am not going to try too hard as I think the experience has to ferment for some time before the words will find some sort of palatable richness and subtlety like a fine Italian wine.
For now the closest I can come is to name the other times I have had this feeling: standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon being completely overwhelmed and awed by the vast grandeur; witnessing the birth of my children and knowing that I had participated in something far deeper and more sacred than words can capture; and, arriving at the top of Trail Ridge Road in Colorado (the highest paved highway in the world at 12,183 feet) after nearly 2,000 miles of cycling and being awed even by my own spiritual, physical and psychological strength. For now all I know is that it has touched a deep place in my soul for reasons of which I am not yet sure.
The other-worldly blissful disorientation that I felt at the Basilica of St. Peter was tempered by two experiences. At one point I was near a German family who was examining the same sculptures and views as I was. At one point, the younger members, probably late teens/early 20’s were analyzing the symbolic meaning of some of the statues. This was not unusual, but what struck me was their tone and their use of past tense. I heard, “I think this was supposed to represent heaven and his outstretched hand was his invitation.”
Their tone was the same tone that I heard at the Coliseum where we were clearly reading history and trying to understand the values and myths of a former time and people. It was sobering to hear this young generation speak of the figures of the Basilica of St. Peter in the same way as if they were familiarizing themselves with the myths of our past. This was not their faith. This was a history lesson.
This was confirmed to some degree when I made my way through the crowd to attend the Saturday evening Mass in Italian. Thousands of people had filed by this spot, yet a smallish crowd of just more than a hundred sat and participated in the Mass. I was struck by how the history and grandeur of the Basilica drew thousands, but how the practice of the living tradition received not much more than a yawn from the crowds. Why was it that a picture from the top of the Cupola of St. Peter’s Square was a must do, but celebrating Mass was an optional side excursion?
The exception to this were the smaller sections reserved for prayer. I watched over and over as visitors who were hoping for a picture retreated respectfully when they realized that the space was limited to those who wanted to pray. The silence, the intention of those who sat and kneeled, and the slow prayerful movements created a truly sacred space. I felt a presence there in the silence that I could not feel through the words and the liturgy of the priest in Mass (sorry, senor!). Of course, I am not part of that tradition and I cannot simply channel some Catholic DNA right on the spot.
I spent the full evening making my way back to my hostel and had an equally delightful time meandering through the alleyways, sidewalk pizzarias, and gelato stores. The blend of ancient Rome with modern Rome is something to behold. The closest we Americans come to this experience is living on land that has an ancient story to tell. The culture of Rome runs deep and one can feel it in the pride and spirit of the people. I ate dinner at another lovely pizzeria at the Piazza Navona while watching street performers entertain, lovers embrace, and everyone soaking in the heavenly experience.
Today (Sunday), it will be time to put my bike back together and make sure that nothing was damaged along the way. If all goes well I will take it out for a test run and start planning a safe exit from the city. Woke up with a little sore throat this morning. Hoping it’s nothing more than allergies and tiredness.