If ever you have the chance to go into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, on the right hand side you will find two chapels. In the first is Michelangelo’s “Pieta” – the marble grief of Mary over the body of her crucified son. In the second, a little further on, you may see nuns kneeling before an altar on which stands a piece of bread consecrated in Eucharist.
Neither of these would have any meaning, indeed life itself would have no meaning, were it not for what Teilhard de Chardin calls “the spiritual power of matter.” Everything in nature, he says, all matter – all “stuff” – has an “outside” and an “inside.” It is what we see on the inside that gives power and meaning to nature and events. Our eyes see the outside. Faith reveals the inside. We sometimes sing an old Latin hymn with the lines: “Faith our outward sense befriending makes the inward vision clear.”
A monk called Evagrius Ponticus went to live in the desert to escape the evils of the pagan Empire. He described the prayer of contemplation, in Greek, as “theoria physike”: in English “a vision of the true nature of things.” There’s a lot of talk today about “spirituality” and a lot of yearning for “spiritual experience.” To talk of spirituality is to talk about the totality of our vision of the true nature of things. To talk of spiritual experience is to talk of events that shape our “theoria physike”, our vision of the inside of things. What we see on the inside changes how we treat the world on the outside. Our “vision” affects our “action.”
Michelangelo’s vision, his faith, enabled him to see the fragile forms of Mary’s grief and tenderness and love within the stone. His spirituality gave him the power to warm cold marble with the life and passion of the Pieta. The nuns’ vision of the true nature of things enabled them to worship the hidden shape of Christ within plain bread.
I’ve just come back from a free week in Florence. I got to stroll and eat and drink for a week among the houses and markets and churches of one of the world’s beautiful cities.
Across the river, on a hill about half a mile away, you can see the church of Sancte Miniato in Monte – St. Minias on the hill. According to legend, Minias was another Christian hermit who lived on the spot around 250. Under the Emperor Decius he was beheaded in the town square. It is said he picked up his head, walked back across the Arno River and up the hill to where his Church now stands.
On a hot Monday afternoon, in a fit of English madness, I decided to visit St. Minias. I don’t know if I was attracted more by the story of St. Minias or by the postcard views of the city that must surely have been taken from there. I started at the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce near the city center. The church was big, echoed the sound of plainchant muzak, the hammering of restorers and the chatter of tour groups. Not your usual idea of a house of prayer! I crossed the river and began the climb.
The guidebook warned that it was quite a steep climb in places. It recommended taking a taxi to near the top. I don’t do that well on hills. That’s why I pay a cardiologist. A quarter of the way up, the road gives way to a very long flight of steps. I don’t do very well on steps either. I smashed up a knee-cap thirty years ago. I sometimes creak a bit with arthritis just enough to make me think twice about jarring the joints by going up and down long flights of steps with an iffy knee. And, uh-oh, where are the bathrooms? Let’s face it My “outside” is starting to show signs of wear and some of the bits are starting to drop off.
I paused to get my breath and looked up the vanishing flight of steps in near despair. What kind of a wimp are you, Eaves? I set out, alone and a bit nervously, one step at a time. I hadn’t gone more than twenty yards when I noticed that someone before me had planted large wooden crosses at intervals beside the path up the hill. Unwittingly, I was doing the stations of the Cross.
The long flight of steps now took on an a remarkable “inside”. I was not alone. It wasn’t just me who found it hard. Others, who were older, poorer, simpler, sicker and weaker than I had climbed these same steps many times over the years but, unlike me, they had a “theoria physike”, a vision of the true nature of things. They had seen the inside of the climb. On the outside, they felt their own weariness from the climb. But their inward vision saw a parable of their own lives. On the inside they saw the weariness of Christ on the way of sorrows. On the outside was their own physical failure and frailty, on the inside they glimpsed the Spirit of a suffering God within them shaping a piece of the new heaven and new earth out of their own lives. Teilhard wonders about the enormous power for change that would be unleashed if all the suffering of the world could be harnessed.
The men and women who placed those crosses, those who climbed these steps to the church day by day, could see the inside. And now their crosses were a witness to people like me that the journey to the top was a pilgrimage I shared with them and the Son of Man. Paul writes: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” The books spend a lot of time speculating what those marks were. I don’t know that I care all that much. Perhaps they were the scars of all the beatings he had received for his faith. Maybe Paul was just getting older like the rest of us. Maybe all the bits just didn’t work as well anymore. Maybe his knees hurt. Maybe he got out of breath. Maybe he had a hard time getting through the service without a pit-stop. But for Paul, who saw the inside of things, they connected him to the way of the Cross. Christ was in him, the hope of glory.
Step by step, one cross at a time, all of us – me, Jesus and the communion of saints – got to the top. It’s the honest truth that I never once felt the need to complain!
And what a top! First, there was, indeed, the view. Across the river, the red roofs and domes and towers of the city – a new and glorious perspective that you could not have conceived on the way up. Second, there was the church – actually there were two. It was a church as silent as Sante Croce was noisy, as peaceful as Sante Croce was chaotic. There it was possible simply to be. Thirdly, there was the graveyard. There, on the very top of the hill, all around St. Minias, were hundreds of graves and mausoleums packed into every inch of space just as they were in the catacombs of old. And there, just like in the catacombs of Rome, were chapels for eucharist. Because there, on the top of that hill, above the way of sorrows, in some mysterious way I do not begin to understand, the dead weren’t dead. It was a place of hope and fulfillment, a place of thanksgiving, a place to offer eucharist.
Fourthly, there was a restroom.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the story ended there in the middle of this glorious vision of comfort and meaning. But the Spirit doesn’t work like that. I had to hobble down back to the noise. I still had to step over the beggars at the next church I went into. The vision of the nature of things takes me into places I am not sure I want to go. The riff-raff cluttering up my way into the holy places are, on the inside, my brothers and sisters on the way of the cross. through her reverence for people like Francis and Clare, the Church has always taught that the beggars at the door are most closely the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Avoid that, and you distort the gospel as the Church has also done so often and continues to do in its perverted alliance with the Prince of this world. The begging rabble at the door of the church challenge my human version of economics with the economy of God in which we are all brothers and sisters of Jesus on the way of the cross. I don’t get that This word is spoken to the guy who has just bought a bigger house in a posher subdivision. If it doesn’t make a real and tangible difference to the way I think and treat the world, if it doesn’t open my heart, then the vision is wasted and I have no final place with the saints on the mountain-top.