I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months thinking about spirituality. What it means to me, how I define it, how it differs from faith and religion. So I suppose it’s fitting that I find myself in a city that is defined by religion, if only to further my internal discussion.
I am not a religious person. I grew up the child of an atheist and an agnostic. When I was little, I was dropped off at Sunday school, first to an Anglican church, then to a United church before my mother finally abandoned the effort to expose me to some sort of religious education. As a teenager, I recall being invited to a Roman Catholic mass on Christmas Eve. My friends were going and I was curious. Part way through the service, I felt an intense need to escape. The incense, the prayers, the Latin service were overwhelming. I stayed because it would have been rude not to. But I was filled with relief when it was over and I could step out into the cold snowy night.
My spiritual ponderings are a recent thing and have much to do with the profound sense of peace and wellbeing I feel when I am wandering through the Northern Ontario bush, feeling connected to the earth, not bothered by the busyness of urban life. I’ve been thinking that perhaps spirituality is whatever it is that gives a person that sense of peace and wellbeing.
Now here I am with my husband in Rome. We’ve had several long discussions about religion and spirituality over dinner as we dissect the events of the day.
Not surprisingly, the presence of the Roman Catholic church is everywhere. There are some 400 churches here, from the modest to the magnificent. We spent time in the modest – the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, a church where a lay community leads. We wandered through Saint Ignatius church, a Jesuit space frequented by the current Pope, with its remarkable painted ceiling designed to look as if it opens to the heavens. We marvelled at the architecture and sheer quantity of marble in the 1800 year old Pantheon, originally built to worship a variety of pagan gods before being co-opted by the Catholic church. And we toured Saint Peter’s Basilica, both magnificent in size and opulence and oppressive for the same reasons.
In Saint Peter’s, the excessive nature of the art and architecture is in stark contrast to what it must have taken to create it. As we made our way through along with hundreds of other tourists, I couldn’t help but wonder about the workers who laboured to build the church. What did they get beyond, according to our audio commentary, promises of glory in heaven if only they could survive the pain and misery of everyday living? The themes of agony and ecstasy are pervasive in Catholic doctrine and are reflected in many of the statues, sculptures and paintings in the Basilica. Michelangelo’s Pietà, for example, is an undeniably stunning piece of work depicting the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the crucifixion. It was originally commissioned as a funeral monument for a cardinal of the time. Michelangelo, we were told, wanted Jesus’ face to appear peaceful, rewarded for his sacrifice and united with God.
There’s a particular chapel in the Basilica open only to those who wish to pray. I did not expect to enter, but my husband wanted to go in. I was surprised. He was raised a Catholic but lapsed many years ago. We entered in silence, took our seats. He knelt, crossed himself, bowed his head. I looked around. The entire chapel was gilded. The statues of angels. The altar and its trappings. The ceiling. The paintings. I tried to be respectful of those for whom the chapel was meaningful, careful not to look anyone in the eye, careful to keep my head down. It was intensely uncomfortable, oddly reminiscent of that Christmas Eve so many years before.
It’s the contradictions that I am unable to reconcile. Wealth versus poverty, agony to achieve ecstasy, fear and repentance to gain entrance to heaven, dogma over progress. We learned during one of our outings that Rome was one of the last major cities to illuminate its streets with gas light because the then Pope resisted. The lights, he claimed, would compete with the true light of God.
That’s not to say that change isn’t possible. The current Pope, Pope Francis, is a progressive. He preaches austerity and is said to be embarrassed by the wealth of the church. He has gone so far as to excommunicate cardinals who live excessively. He’s trying to clean up the Vatican bank. He’s also attempting change within the tenets of the church, saying, for example, that gay marriage should not be condemned. And yet, he disciplined a priest who was promoting women in the priesthood. Change does not come easily to an institution with 2000 years of history and well entrenched culture.
The wealth of the Catholic church is well known. It’s impressive. It owns more than 20 percent of Rome’s real estate, some of it the most expensive real estate in Europe. Near the Spanish Steps, a square metre might cost as much as 10,000 euros. The church has a large chunk of property there and leases space to high end brands such as Versace at no small rent.
As an institution, the church preaches charity and compassion. Outside every church in Rome, there are signs of poverty. There are numerous beggars who are by and large ignored. Except by my husband who hands out coins even as I shake my head.
I asked him at dinner later why he chose to go in to the gilded chapel when he hasn’t been a churchgoer for many years. He said he was remembering those for whom faith mattered. Perhaps that’s what spirituality is really about.