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Italy 2004


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November-December, 2004
Italy: The Catholics

Remarked an old gal at St. Peter's
"You can say what you want of their leaders,
But Catholics still rule,
Their artwork is cool --
I don't even mind the bare peters."

I went to Italy to clear out my mind. The first year of my second career was fun and busy, but in a November lull. Work on a little screenplay seemed to be getting harder, not easier. The election politics got me all fired up, then Kerry's loss made me disgusted with everything, but still addicted to political-blog reading. My discipline was shot.

So Italy was meant to be a tonic. Clear out my mind. No news, no TV, no all-night radio. No work on current projects.

But you know me. As justification for buying a new camera, I also tried to plan out my enlightenment ahead of time. "I need a theme," I told Jim at dinner before we went. Would it be "amore" or would it be "excess"? Jim looked at me. "Why don't you let it emerge while you're over there?" Oh, that -- the old "go with the flow" gambit. Okay.

So I drain the murky waters from the swamp of my mind and open the floodgates for "something else" to rush in.

Eek, it's holy water!

I kick out the politicians and in march the Catholics. But pay attention: I'm not saying God walked in. Or Jesus. I wasn't born again. No bright lights at the crossroads.

What came roaring back was 16 years of Catholic education at its most storyful. What gives a religion its staying power is its stories and then the visual shorthand of their symbols (lilies, keys, books, etc.). I have forgotten a ton, but still I could explain to Jim exactly how St. Elizabeth was related to Mary and that John the Baptist was always the one with the messy hair, wearing the hermit's hairshirt. And we had a conversation about Herod's slaughter of the innocents as I quickly shuffled through my memory for details of an event I hadn't thought about in at least 35 years.

Miles and miles of paintings and statuary tell all the favorite stories. Reconnecting was inevitable. I've seen acres of Asian religious art and made passing attempts to grasp the iconography (green goddesses and Buddha's footprints). But my experience in Italy was not academic. It was a surprising discovery of my roots where I least expected them. I may be ethnically Irish, but the history and culture I share with a large part of the world is Roman Catholicism, radiating from Italy. It is my citizenship in a vast, complicated world that wasn't (and isn't) necessarily all that virtuous. (Cosmopolitan, man!)

It makes a difference that the art is so good. And large enough to overpower. It's not the watered down holy card stuff we got handed in grade school. Of course, some might say that the naked, writhing, ecstatic, all too human bodies of the Renaissance and Baroque periods strayed a bit from strict worshipfulness -- or seemed to worship humanity more than God. And they might have fed the outrage of those dour Reformation types. (I got reminded that selling indulgences may have financed the Sistine Chapel.) But that's part of the whole picture, isn't it? No heaven without earth. No piety without mischief.

So, when I say the "Catholics" marched in, I guess I'm referring to the flamboyant artsy ones. The ones who could take a single moment of an old story and fill it with real emotion and outsized personalities: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, for starters. And those sculptors who could put a pulse into stone: Donatello's David, the naked young man with floppy boots and a grand hat; and Brunelleschi's Terese Avila, swooning open-mouthed in the thrall of an angel who is apparently lighting her fire. Now those are some interesting Catholics.


Swooning saints in stone,
Clouds of blackbirds in the sky:
Thanksgiving in Rome.




Do you remember the mysteries of the rosary? All 3 sets? Describe how Saints Peter and Paul got killed and why. Review these, plus the lives of Jesus, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Jerome, and other early saints before going to Italy. A few of the juicier Old Testament stories are worth reviewing too: Judith beheading Holofernes, David beheading Goliath, etc.


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