Saturday, May 5, 2012

Following You

Right now, at this singular moment of my life, I am following a child. This gives me renewed admiration for those who follow Jesus, who was a child himself, of course. The child I am following just now is not Jesus, however, or at least if I am following Jesus, it is not obvious that I am doing so. The child I am following is my own child, my daughter Marian, who is not really a child anymore, at age 24.

Six months ago, Marian invited me to walk the Camino de Santiago with her. I said yes instantly, confident that I knew what was involved. Blithely (a wonderful word that means both happily and empty-headedly, like Tim Tebow after a win), I agreed to terms. Effectively this means that I have followed Marian here to Rome, on the sunny first weekend in May 2012. Here in Rome we are on the brink of driving or railroading (my daughter and I are arguing about this at present) north through Italy and then across southern France to the head of the Camino in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, just beyond Lourdes—where we will "wash up" one last time before five weeks without regular hot showers.

Seriously, it's hard following your child. In fact, let me tell you about our day yesterday, a day I spent in Rome and the Vatican City following Marian and her mother, my wife Katie.

By 10 pm, I was beat, whipped, toasted, and I was playing quite expertly the role of impatient, surly, resentful dad, muttering to myself about how long could it possibly take Marian to choose three flavors of gelato. I did not know that my daughter had inherited her mother's ability to dwell over a menu longer than a meal. I had already wolfed down my three generous scoops of Amarena, Malaga, and chocolate with peaches and oranges, and I was seriously ready for bed. By the way, I heartily endorse the last of these flavors, which the Italian gelato man, placed evilly at the very corner of our street, has labeled Cioccolatapescarancia.

But following.

As I detailed in my last post, Marian arrived by taxi on Friday evening. I was moved to realize, after she had thrown her bags down on the floor of our rented apartment and her jet-lagged body on the couch, that Marian had one priority for our three days in Rome, and one priority only: to see churches, especially St. Peter's.

So yesterday morning, we effectively set out to see churches. As my father famously said to me after seven days of a proposed fourteen-day Civil War battlefields tour, "If I see one more Civil War battlefield, it will be enough." On that occasion my father and I proceeded straight to Gettysburg and then home.

St. Peter's is the Gettysburg of churches. But that's not where our day began or ended yesterday. The day began at St. John Lateran (think of it as Shiloh). This amazing cathedral is but a few blocks from our apartment and a few more blocks from the Colisseum. As I have already confessed, my architecture-describing skills drop off drastically after Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian, so you will have to Google St. John Lateran to appreciate its grandeur and beauty. St. John Lateran is the Pope's cathedral, the church serving as his seat (cathedra). No, despite his reputation as a billionaire, the Pope does not own St. Peter's. In fact, the Pope is not even in charge of St. Peter's. As the bishop of Rome, he is in charge of a church in Rome, St. John Lateran.

Rather than describe the church itself—the towering statues of the Apostles lining the nave, the organ pipes like giant redwoods on one transept, the impossibly ornate altar and tabernacle on the other—I will describe my favorite moment. As I sat in a back pew facing the tabernacle in the left transept, a small boy about seven years old, passed me, genuflected, made the Sign of the Cross, and knelt at a pew to pray in front of the altar. Dressed in a lime green polo shirt, with sandy brown hair and a slender build, he knelt absolutely still for thirty seconds, until his mother came up beside him, gently placed her hand on his head, and knelt with him. I took a picture and I will cherish it.

But not as much as another picture I took a few hours later, after a few kilometers of pavement had passed beneath our feet. We visited the Piazza di Spagna, site of the much photographed and touristed Spanish steps, then headed toward the Tiber and, beyond the river, the Vatican. We paused for another shopping odyssey at one of the many stalls selling knock-off items, until Marian had finally found the two (two?!) fake Cassio watches that she absolutely had to have (what do you think? blue and pink, or pink and red, or red and green?). Then we headed out onto the Tiber bridge, and the world stopped.

In a moment, Marian saw St. Peter's down river, stepped to the balustrade at the brink of the bridge, propped her elbows on the balustrade and her chin on her hands, and contemplated the headquarters of the Holy Catholic Church. I have a picture of that momment too.

It was quite easy to follow Marian then and to be moved in the following. We walked to St. Peter's and attended what I would call a hybrid Latin mass at the rear altar, behind the amazing baldacchino that covers the main altar. Hybrid, because the mass was in Latin but not in the extraordinary form. The priest faced front, a server did not perform the elaborate choreography of the "traditional Latin mass," and so on. But it was beautiful. And the homily (on the passage in John where Jesus calls himself the way, the truth, and the life) mentioned the camino and the Italian word for pilgrimage several times, as Marian and I shot each other looks of amazement. Of course, the homily was in Italian so while I suspect that camino means way or path or journey in Italian as it does in Spanish, it might mean battlefield.

We asked directions from two hip, hot young Americans. Marian was convinced that they were "angels," which reflected either her religious glow after leaving St. Peter's or the angels' hipness and hotness. The young men directed us to a genuine Italian trattoria, just around the corner from the most traveled tourist spots. Then we visited the Vatican Museums, where we had preordered 8pm tickets.

Here is where impatient, surly, resentful Dad began to rear his ugly head. Katie seemed determined to take a photograph of every bust and torso in the first fourteen exhibition halls. But we were here to see Catholic art, not Greek!! Finally, we moved into the Raphael rooms, and then into the Sistine Chapel, where the tour ends. Here, as in Assisi, the holiness of the place trumped any other feelings I might have had. I listened attentively to our Audioguide, which reminded me that papal conclaves are held here. Papal conclaves are part of what made me fall in love with the Catholic Church. I have watched every conclave on television since 1957, when John XXIII was elected and I was a sandy-haired Congregationalist Sunday school boy in a lime green polo shirt.

Afterwards, as we rode the taxi back what seemed like twenty miles to our neighborhood—you mean I followed you all this way?!—fatigue took over fully and finally. By the time we got out by the gelato place, it was all that I could do to stand straight.

It can be hard to follow your child, and we haven't climbed the Pyrenees yet.

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