Not seeing…and seeing.
So much can be missed when you’re trying to see something specific. And so much can be seen when you’ve supposedly missed seeing something else.
My family and i boarded the Metro on our first full day in Rome expecting to head straight for the Colosseum. But one stop into our journey, we met a family of Texans/Tennesseans/Ohioans on their way to see some other sites along the way. The patriarch was a college professor and history buff, and they invited us to join them. And with a wink in our eyes, we jumped off of our ‘itinerary’ and onto theirs.
Ruins of Nero’s Palace…the basilicas of San Giovanni Laterna and San Clemente…not at the top of a tourist’s list of things to see on their first day in Rome, but a fascinating adventure nonetheless.
In San Pietro-in-Vincoli (St. Peter-in-Chains)…two statues on either side of the altar…to the left, Jesus…to the right, John the Baptizer. Both are silky smooth and sinewy representations of the men by Michelangelo.
JC is carrying his cross of solid, heavy wood, looking to his left with his face set towards Jerusalem, the One who is the Way leading the way.
JTB is leaning on his cross of hollow, lightweight wood…bamboo, looking down at anyone who glances his way with a stare simultaneously piercing and inviting, pointing towards the heavens, the first follower and proclaimer of the Way.
And anywhere i stand, he’s looking at me.
And me at him.
Unnerving. Disorienting. And absolutely captivating.
What does he see in me? What do i see in him? And why does it make any difference, since ‘he’ is just a structure of marble and i am a being of flesh and blood and spirit?
But in the moment, it’s as if the roles are reversed. He is the one breathing life into the moment…and i’m as stiff as a statue. His eyes are as blank as a new, untouched artist’s canvas and as vast and deep and timeless as the ocean…and mine are transfixed, frozen in time, a reflection of a void that is ever present but rarely surfaces.
Except in the presence of a supposedly lifeless work of art.
But although his glance penetrates my very being with a sharpness and deftness that raises tears to my eyes almost as a reflex less than a reaction, i don’t feel accused or judged. i feel strangely welcomed and accepted, not so much by the one depicted in the statue, but rather, by the One to whom the statue is pointing.
i looked at John the Baptizer…but i saw the face of Jesus.
Two days later…at Vatican City…St. Peter’s…God-sized murals of Pope John Paul II…vendors selling stale paninis and hot dogs to sweaty touristas…tour groups in every language under the sun…all looking, searching, longing for an experience of the ‘magical’ or even the ‘sacred’, the presence of the Presence, the Face who made and knows all faces.
We climbed to the very top of the Basilica in the morning, and with trembling legs (more from climbing 582 steps than from the awe of the moment) took some nice shots of stunning views of the beautiful city of Rome. We took in a few minutes of a mass from the walkway near the top of the cupola, as the sounds of prayers and chants and hymns rose up into the air and resounded in the dome around us like multiple angelic choirs. We strolled awash in the visual spectacle and splendour of the sculptures, mosaics and paintings that adorn the main areas of the basilica. We even endured those stale paninis and hot dogs as our much-needed sustenance at midday.
The afternoon adventure was to be the Vatican Museum, and particularly the Sistine Chapel…and especially the miraculous artwork on the ceiling.
Upon arriving, however, our plans quickly changed.
While the visit to St. Peter’s was free of charge, the VM was not. 15 Euros per person. The Sistine Chapel as merely one exhibit of many, not as a place to experience on its own. The boys were hot and tired. The budget was not prepared for such an expense. And both Kir and i wanted to see the SC.
We struck a plan. Kir would go in to the museum while i took the boys back to the hotel (just 4 blocks away) to kick back and relax for a while in air-conditioned comfort. Kir would return about two hours later, giving me the chance to go over and see it for myself while she takes my place. i got the backpack (which had the keys to the hotel within it) and the boys and i headed off while Kir headed in.
One problem: when i got outside to get the hotel keys out of the backpack, they weren’t there. And our hotel didn't have a 'front desk' with a person waiting to help with us a replacement key.
Another problem: Kir had all of our money on her (as well as our Metro passes).
Yet another problem: we had left our international cell phones in the hotel room because the batteries were dead, and we weren’t planning on splitting up for any reason that day.
So…this meant the boys and i were stranded on a hot saturday afternoon in Rome, with tired legs and woozy heads, no money or train tickets, no water and no access to the air-conditioned comfort for which we were longing.
So…with no other options, we went back to the museum to what we thought was the only exit to wait for Kir.
And we waited…and waited…and waited. For over two hours. In the heat. My two incredibly tired, yet patient and hopeful boys, and myself.
And no sign of Kir.
So…we went back to the hotel. And there she was…waiting for us. Having exited through St. Peter’s. Not realizing that she had the keys to the kingdom all the time.
After lots of sighs of relief and apologies, i headed back to the museum for the last hour or so that it was open that day. Not realizing that while the museum closes at 6pm, the front doors close at 4pm.
i missed seeing the Sistine Chapel.
But i saw something else. Something i would have missed if i had seen it.
While we were waiting outside the museum, looking for the face for which we were longing at that moment, i decided to look at all the other faces. The faces of all the toasted touristas exiting the exhibits of the extraordinary…young and old, single and coupled, emanating elation and exhaustion, wondrous awe and wearied anxiety…glowing in the glory of new love and newer life…aching in the agony of old ways and longer days.
And i was transfixed, my eyes glistening with magical moisture.
i wondered if these wonderful and weary travelers knew that as they were being herded through those galleries of grace, those time-capsules of transcendence, looking, longing for a moment of magic, searching for a sense of the sacred, they were actually reflecting what they were desperately seeking in those faces of paint and plaster in their own wonderful and weary faces.
i wondered to what extent they were unable to perceive what was right before my eyes as they walked out of the darkness and into the day.
i wondered about what they were not seeing (and what i so often don’t see or can’t see in myself), and what i was seeing in them.
And i wondered if this, ever present in those eternal instants, is the crux of our crisis, the depiction of our dilemma, the secular apparition of our sacred amnesia.
We look for the divine on the ceilings of our cathedral halls. And we miss seeing it in the reflections of our restroom walls.
So…i’m looking at strangers from all over the world…and i see the face of Jesus.
(John the Baptizer...martyr of faith, king of disco)