A convert visits Rome Part 2

A visit to Santa Maria d’ Antiqua

After visiting St. Peter, we’d had enough of churches. We decided to be pagans for the afternoon and visit the Roman Forum. I didn’t expect any easy answers to my doubts, and decided to just put them aside for a while.

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The shadows lengthened behind the broken columns in the Forum and we were almost ready to leave, when I noticed the entrance to a church at the bottom of the Palantine Hill. It was called Santa Maria d’Antiqua. It was built in the 6th century, and used until it was buried under rubble by an earthquake  in the 9th century. Hidden for more than a thousand years, it was re-discovered in 1900.

Although some of the wall frescoes had worn away in places, it was easy to imagine that almost every surface of this church had once been covered in paintings. Even after all these years, the colours were still bright and the style fresh and simple. There were paintings of the apostles, scenes from the Old Testament and the life of Jesus as well as the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus. Some paintings depicted events from the lives of the saints and one showed several Popes, with a square rather than a round halo over the Pope who was alive at the time it was painted. On the floor lay the remains of an altar which had contained a recess for relics.

I left Santa Maria d’Antiqua quiet and humbled. This 6th century church contained everything which I had found objectionable in St Peter’s basilica: paintings and decoration, the Virgin Mary, saints, relics and even several Popes.

The destruction of images

If the Protestant narrative was right and the church had wandered away from its New Testament roots, then Jesus’ church hadn’t even lasted five centuries before going badly astray. I either had to accept this narrative, or accept the alternative that the 6th century Christians hadn’t fallen into grave error when they decorated their church with scenes from the Bible as well as pictures of saints and popes.

Other uncomfortable images sat in my mind as I turned over these thoughts. Earlier in our stay in Rome we came across an exhibition showing photographs of historical sites in the middle east before and after occupation by Islamic State. The earlier photos showed ancient temples and statues or the remains of old towns. More recent photos showed the same sites standing in ruins after being deliberately destroyed. The most disturbing photo showed a bearded young man, sane and respectable looking, at work systematically destroying an ancient statue.

As we left the exhibition, I expressed my indignation to my cradle Catholic husband. He was silent for a moment and then said, “You do realise that your Protestant ancestors did exactly the same thing to Catholic churches.”

He was right. In Scotland, very few ancient churches escaped the ravages of the Reformation. Arbroath Abbey and St Andrews Cathedral are now just broken walls with grass growing in the interior. I have stood inside the ruins and wistfully wondered what they looked like, before the angry young men, who were Scotland’s Reformers, smashed statues and altars, tore down the roof and encouraged the local population to use the walls as a source of building materials.

Perhaps Scotland’s churches were once as richly decorated as the churches in Rome.

Does God like bling?

If I am going to accept that the people who decorated the 6th century church in Santa Maria d’Antiqua were trying to give glory to God in the best way they knew, then I also have to accept the more modern Roman churches crammed with religious imagery.

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The Virgin Mary and child – Santa Maria d’Antiqua

I prefer the Byzantine art, with its flat faces and bright simple colours, to the paintings of more recent centuries. However, this is simply a matter of taste. Both ancient and more modern churches depicted the same kind of subject matter. My own taste may run towards the very simple, but I also have to admit that the plain little chapel I imagined after my visit to St Peter’s Basilica, looked very like the church in which I was brought up.

The conclusion I have reluctantly reached is that God does like bling. Or perhaps it isn’t so much that He likes bling, as that He understands our need for images and symbols. He also understands our need to seek Him through music, or words or paintings. Even these blog entries are a result of my own fumbling attempts to seek God through trying to express my thoughts.

In a time when very few people could read, paintings were an important way for them to learn about faith. Some of these paintings and images might be more to my taste than others, but they all represent a turning towards God, a seeking. No-one can possess God or know God fully in this life, and paintings, imperfect as they are, point to the Divine.

The visit to Rome was challenging. I may never be entirely comfortable in richly decorated churches. However, whenever I question whether God can also be there, I will remember the visit to Santa Maria d’Antiqua.

A convert visits Rome. Part 1

Before I became Catholic Rome was probably bottom of my list of European cities which I wanted to visit, but things change and I found myself wanting to visit Rome, and then making the opportunity to do so.

I went loaded with expectations. Surely I would feel something profound when I visited the church built on the site of St Peter’s martyrdom. I liked the boldness of going to Rome, and hoped to integrate myself better into this strange thing called the Catholic church. I also hoped for peace and some of these quiet moments when I would feel, just for an instant, the touch of God.

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Trevi Fountain

 

I loved Rome: the coffee, the food, the piazzas and fountains, the narrow alleys with antique shops, and the colourful streets in Trastevere, The visit was rich in experience. However, as far as religion went, I found turbulence and challenge.

On the first evening in Rome, when it was almost dark outside, we wandered into a church near the Trevi fountain. In contrast to the brightly-lit white marble fountain, the church was like a dark tent of deep red and blue, lit by candles and a few electric lights. The richly-decorated side chapels receded into darkness. A mass was underway and near the front of the church, women in dark clothes, some wearing mantillas, recited responses in Italian. Nothing looked or sounded familiar. I had the feeling that I had stumbled upon the rituals of a totally foreign religion.

Even when I visited churches in the daytime, I was overwhelmed by the amount of religious imagery: scenes from the Bible, saints, martyrdoms, or simply decoration covering every available surface.

I was brought up in an ultra-reformed branch of the church. No religious image or symbol was permitted either in the church or in our home. I remember being punished for decorating my Bible with a cross. Given my background, it probably isn’t surprising that all this religious imagery was a real challenge.

A visit to St Peter’s

St. Peter’s, from which I had hoped so much, was too much for me. With the long nave, huge marble columns, more than life-size figures of past Popes and the large, ugly canopy over the main altar, it felt large and draughty and masculine. I stared into the side chapels and found one containing, quite incredibly, relics from the 4th century saint St John Chrysostom. I stared at the painted cupula above, trying to make sense of things, when someone pushed my arm. All they wanted to do was ask if I would take a photo, but I was feeling so confused and overwhelmed that this small nudge pushed me to tears. Fortunately, my husband was on hand to take the photo and exchange small talk.

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I went into a side chapel set aside for prayer and adoration. However, it was covered in so much gold paint and decoration that I felt as if I was inside a jewelled box. Even though I was surrounded by people kneeling in prayer, I had no sense that God was there. I asked God where He was in all of this, but the only thing I took away was a question, “Does God really like all this bling?”

A challenge to faith

I left St. Peter’s with some very uncomfortable questions. Why all these paintings and opulence? Why memorials to saints and past Popes? Why this devotion to saints and relics, and since I was questioning other things, I might as well ask whether the church needed devotion to the Virgin Mary? I yearned for a tiny chapel with white-washed walls, which was totally free of images, and wondered why the Catholic church couldn’t adopt this plan for its interior decoration.

The narrative I’d learnt as a Protestant went something like this: when Jesus founded the church, it was pure and simple and good. However, somewhere along the way (although it wasn’t quite defined when), the church acquired unnecessary and even idolatrous practices, such as confession and praying to the saints and the Virgin Mary. The Reformation came and allowed Christians to return to the simple pure form of worship which had existed in the early church.

After visiting St. Peter’s, I felt the attraction and the persuasiveness of this argument. Perhaps the Catholic church had drifted far away from what Christ intended. Maybe I had made a huge error joining it.

To stop this post becoming too long. I’ll describe in the next one how I received answers to these questions.

Statues of Mary

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From time to time, we visit the Southern Isles off the west coast of Scotland. The southern part of the Western Isles are Catholic from Barra north to Benbecula. More or less undisturbed by the Reformation, there are shrines to the Virgin Mary at the edge of the road. On a hillside in South Uist, stands a 25 foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as she looks down over the north part of the island and out towards the sea. It is known as Our Lady of the Isles or in Gaelic, Bana Thighearna nan Eilean. The statue was built in the nineteen fifties, at a time when a huge military establishment was proposed on the island which would have resulted in the displacement of the native people and their way of life. In the end, a scaled down version of the military range was built and no-one was displaced, although the hillside where Our Lady of the Isles stands is topped by radar domes, making it a strange juxtaposition of mother and child and military might.

The last time I visited this statue, I had already made the decision to become Catholic. I watched my children playing at the foot of the statue, looked out over the lochs and crofts of South Uist, and wondered how devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, was going to work out in my life. This is something which comes instinctively to Catholics, but which is a great challenge to Protestants. As we clambered back into the car, and drove northwards, over the causeway to the island of Benbecula, I felt a deep, settled sense of peace, the kind of feeling which you can’t explain or manufacture for yourself. It comes as a gift.

That was the only time I have ever really experienced a felt connection to Mary the mother of Christ. It is one of these things which doesn’t come naturally, but until it does, I’ll just keep on trusting the church’s teaching in this regard.

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That isn’t quite the end of the story. A few days later, I was walking past a statue of a lady, and experienced an instantaneous feeling of peace as I thought to myself that it was nice to see another statue of the Virgin Mary. It took a few seconds for my mind to catch up and realise that I had returned to a mainly Protestant town, and that I was looking at an image of a rich lady who had lived in the nineteenth century. By the standards of her time, she was considered a good person, but from a modern point of view she was someone who lived a priviledged lifestyle whilst others around her lived in poverty.

As a reformed Protestant, I was brought up to regard religious statues as idolatrous, but I asked myself what’s worse: erecting a statue of Mary and baby Jesus or putting up a statue to glorify a politician, a landlord, a member of the royal family or a military dignitary? If we take the view that religious statues are idolatrous, then we should be consistent and ban any statues which glorify influential people, whether they are dead or alive.

If we look at it another way and say that putting up a statue of a notable person is not idolatrous, but a way of honouring them and reminding us of their life or their achievements, then isn’t that exactly what a religious statue does?It’s not put there, so that we can worship a slab of stone, but as a reminder of a person’s life and how God used them.

Given a choice between an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a statue of a rich nineteenth century lady, I would choose a statue of Our Lady any day.