When you go on a week-long European trip, you expect it to be a certain way and mean a certain thing. But Italy didn’t mean anything I thought it would. We had only been there two days when the vacation ended. A pilgrimage began.
What else could we do? Death can hit fast and hard, and if it is no respecter of persons, it is also no respecter of places or plans. My husband and I were with my parents for their anniversary, through the dark Tuscan countryside south of Florence, when we received the phone call about the car accident involving a family friend. I knew something was wrong as soon as Mom picked up the phone; the moment right before and the moment right after the call feel like snapshots of two completely different lives. I still can’t quite write about the following forty-five minutes before we got back to the hotel or even the following twenty-four hours. I can only write about the following week.
The gelato and house reds and charming courtyards were still there but just didn’t—couldn’t—matter anymore. We were seeking something besides a sunny Italy experience, now. And if out-of-country is a terrible place to process loss, Rome is a pretty good place to process death.
One piece of pre-trip advice stands out from the rest (and there was a lot of it). My college history professor told us that if we walked past a cathedral, we should always stop and go in. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the map or the list of top 20 cathedrals or whatever. Just go in. So, we did.
You encounter cathedrals differently when you are grieving.
The first thing you notice walking in is the cavernous, cool dimness. It’s more like a cave than it is like any other kind of building I’ve been in. The second thing you notice is the sounds. A cathedral steals your voice. You can hardly hear yourself. But you know someone must hear you because you can hear others. Something about the acoustics fills cathedrals with a constant hum of voices disconnected from the people they belong to, all lowered in instinctive reverence, like the intermingling voices of the living and the dead.
Sitting in a huge marble cathedral, plated in gold, filled with art, I was constantly pulled in two directions. The beauty and majesty pulled me outward, asking me to contemplate it. But the knot at the bottom of my ribcage pulled me inward, asking me to contemplate our recent loss. And which, I couldn’t help asking, is more worthy of my attention?
There was a constant tension between the transcendent and the personal, the agony and the triumph. I sat in these cathedrals to the Ancient of Days with this fresh, overwhelming grief and wrestled. At first, I was tempted to see a contrast between my present sorrow and this ancient place, and tempted to ask which was significant and which insignificant. But eventually, I saw resonance instead. Here was vastness and beauty and a story big enough to hold and give meaning to our suffering.
In Rome, I found no platitudes, nothing to dull my pain. I found churches built on graves, in graves, out of graves. Marble bridges guarded by angels bearing the instruments of Christ’s passion. I found statues of saints carrying the instruments of their own torture and martyrdom. I found Mary, peaceful, holding Christ’s broken body. I found Jesus—in agony on the cross, or carrying it, or risen but still with holes in His hands. Everywhere there were scars—in marble, in stone, on canvas, gilded in gold.
Suffering and glory, grief and joy, fear and peace, life and death, always together, and always agonizing and beautiful. This marriage of joy and grief, this aching peace—it was in me and reflected around me everywhere. Where these things touch each other, great Christian art seems to spring from the fissure it creates. The ache pushes us to create these beautiful things to outlast us and reflect the Lamb who was slain, who put this longing in our hearts and gives us courage to face our frailty.
This place, these cathedrals, they were big enough for the pain and beautiful enough to be truer than death.
It wasn’t an answer or even a salve, but it was something. I couldn’t figure out what.
There was one other piece of relevant advice we received, again, from our college professor, among others. We were told to visit a particular chapel in Rome with a Capuchin crypt underneath. We were told that it was decorated with bones, that it was beautiful, that we had to go visit.
We didn’t want to. I wasn’t sure I was up to feeling that weight of death.
I’ve seen dead bodies before. My family was in a museum in a small city in a rural part of China on the edge of a desert (it’s a long story). The desert sands had naturally mummified ancient bodies—some thousands of years old—and the museum had them on display.
The experience left a curious impression on my sister and I, who were only 11 and 14 at the time. We remember it smelled funny and that we felt pressed down and nervous. We just wanted to leave. Since then, I’ve come to recognize the feeling of being around dead things. It’s an odd, weighted, disembodied feeling. I don’t like it. It’s similar to the feeling you get around very old things. It’s distinct and real enough that its absence is noticeable. When we went to a King Tut traveling exhibit, Sarah turned to me and said, ‘I can tell none of this is real’. She was right. It was all replicas. Cool in their own way but lacking the spiritual weight of oldness.
But in Rome we found ourselves with spare time and we were right around the corner. So we sucked in our reluctance and went. I knew exactly what I expected to feel.
The first thing I discovered is that I was picturing the wrong church. If you’re picturing a dark room lit with torches and stacked with grinning skulls, so are you. The crypt is made of several small chapels, all painted white and lit by windows to the outside, and is beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church. And it is, sure enough, decorated with bones.
Pelvic bones arranged to form flowers, spinal bones forming curly-cues, tinier bones I couldn’t identify flowing out of corners and crevices into delicate flourishes. There are full skeletons, too. Some stand, some lie on beds. The bones belonged to friars who had served at the church.
But there was no feeling of death. Oldness, yes. Death, no. The chapel held dead things, but it was not about death. At least—it wasn’t only about that.
In one of the central rooms, a large painting showed Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Human bones framed the painting. Resurrection literally sprang from the centre of death. In another room, full skeletons wearing their monk habits stood on either side of a central display. One extended its foot, as if it was caught in the act of stepping down. The other’s face was upturned toward heaven.
The air was heavy with waiting and anticipation. The most pervasive feeling was that this was the place to be—or at least it would be, on the Final Day.
And we weren’t allowed to be detached observers, like visitors looking at old uniforms and butter churns at a museum, peeking in on a life they have no part of. The skeletons, the dead, took us into their ranks, reminding us in plaques, What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…’
We are all in this together, they said, You will join us in dying, and you will join us in rising.
It is strange to say, but standing in the crypt felt almost companionable. I am sure I would not have felt quite that way at another time. But here, in my sadness, constantly trying to ward off the looming grief, I was glad to hear the word of my brothers, dead though they may be. It was not unlike when a friend sits silently next to you instead of trying to comfort you.
We know the bite of death. We will wait with you.
I think, in that moment, I had a glimpse of what the creeds mean by the communion of saints. These old monks reached across time, across languages (surely they spoke Italian), through the very pall of death, and told me I was part of their story and they would wait with me. Isn’t that why they put these bones here? To remind those of us who came after that we do not face the greatest human fear alone, but are joined by the multitudes of brothers and sisters who have already conquered it? In rising, He is firstborn of many brethren.
I don’t think that visit made me feel better, exactly. I wasn’t less sad or angry or even afraid. I wasn’t less of anything. I hadn’t been soothed. I had only been placed. It placed my pain in time, as surely as being out of country placed my pain on the map, and assured me that random was not the same as meaningless. My pain had been fitted, slid into place inside a larger narrative with a greater hero and a better ending.
It reminds me of Samwise Gamgee’s response when he realized Frodo’s glass held the light of Elendil, the same light Sam had heard about in stories his whole life. ‘Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’
Those bodies, waiting, dressed in their work clothes with their faces uplifted towards the sky, told us we were part of a story. I knew that. I’ve said it and said it and said it. But these people were real and physical. Their hope was instantiated in this chapel. Their joy in the face of death manifested in literally turning their dead bones into art. They knew their dry bones would dance.
They knew what Job knew—that He shall stand at last on the Earth, and after our skin is destroyed, in our flesh we shall see God. It is a tale that is only two-thirds through. And I was part of the same tale still.
It’s a little uncanny looking back at that first day of the trip before everything happened. We left the Uffizi museum before we had seen everything, because I was so hungry I was shaking. It smacked me in the face. Here I was, feeling the sting of my own mortality because I hadn’t eaten in four hours, and these paintings I was leaving behind were so transcendental they had survived their artists by hundreds or thousands of years.
I’m not making this up. I said as much to my mother.
The next day, the sting of mortality decided to really show up.
It’s coming up on two years now, and there have been new wounds and sorrows since then—new confrontations with the last enemy. On Ash Wednesday, I submitted to the ashes of death marking on my forehead the sign of life. For these forty days we remember our mortality, together. We wait through the long hunger of Lent and the darkness of Saturday for the coming Sunday, as one recently departed friend loved to remind us.
And I will remember. Even now, writing this, it is hard to go back. Back, in my mind, to those great dark cathedrals with their muffled echoes, to the grief and grandeur, to the sand-coloured streets and eerily ancient buildings and the cobblestones that drove pain into my feet and, it seems, my feet drove my pain right back in return. Because when I go back, I find my grief there. I do not want to think on that long darkness. Sometimes, even a gelato shop makes my chest constrict.
But I also find my place there. I go back to meet my brothers who know Death and who can sit with me in the presence of our enemy. I know that their souls are with our loved ones as surely as their bodies were standing with us in that chapel. Waiting… waiting, but not always waiting… to join our Eldest Brother who has already been born into newness of life.
Because that’s what we are really waiting for. We are waiting to be born.