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Sacred Sites, Peaceful Moments, and…Noisy Tourists?

The candles flickering, the old Italian lady quietly praying, the dark lonely crypt with so much history you can almost feel it, the peaceful sound of a camera loudly “click click clicking” non-stop – wait, where did that come from?!

Don't hesitate to take non-stop noisy photos in quiet places

There is nothing more frustrating than travelling thousands of miles to visit a beautiful, holy site and then have it ruined by tourists stomping about as if they were at McDonald’s. While to some visitors the site may just be a spot with beautiful artwork or a great addition to their photo album, for others it really is a holy site that they want to appreciate it in peace, tranquility, and prayer.

Yet it is amazing to me how many people do not seem to understand this and act as though they are attending a social gathering at a museum or historical society. Because I have spent far too many times amazed at the lack of respect, I created this list of some of the things that really bug me when visiting sacred sites and dealing with irreverent tourists.

The Seven Official Ways

1) Take photos using your flash – do not bother to check if your flash is turned off. Just step up and start shooting with wild lights in the middle of Mass, a quiet church where people are praying, an archeological ruin that someone else is trying to enjoy, etc. They will definitely appreciate the flashing lights and may see it as a sign from Heaven emanating from your welcome camera.

2) Snap some great shots using a noisy camera – you know, one of those cameras that has to make noise every time you take a picture. Then do it over and over and over and over and over and over…and over…without stopping – like Chinese water torture. When people stare at you, just ignore them. Who are they to expect you to be less intrusive about your photos?

3) Hang out and talk in churches or other sacred places – we all know churches are great social halls and not places where anyone would want to spend some personal time in quiet prayer. So mill around and chat for a while. If the person in front of you appears to be praying, act like you did not notice. Talk about the art, talk about what you want to have for lunch, talk about anything but just talk. Oh, and if you have any of those noisy shopping bags, play with them a lot so that they distract everyone around you.

4) Enter chapels designated “for prayer only” – if you do not want to pray, but are really curious to see the chapel, just enter anyways. Walk right in and gape at the ceiling, the walls, the statues. Sit in a pew in the middle of the room and keep writhing in your seat to get the full view. Sure, the other people there are focused and intent on prayer, and can tell you could care less, but you want to see the art darn it!

5) Attend Mass for 5 minutes just so you can see the church and then leave – if Mass is being said, but you really want to see the church, take a seat in one of the pews and linger for a few minutes. Then get up and leave when you are done. Sure you are distracting, and completely irreverent, but who cares?

6) Talk on your cell phone – of course the call cannot wait until you can step outside. So just take it there in public. It is your right!

7) Complain about the money that was spent on building such sites really loudly or make fun of religious customs you do not understand – forget the fact that thousands of unknown souls may have found solace, hope, and healing in such a place and through such a faith. You don’t like it and you travelled all the way around the world just to see it, so you could complain about it some more! Really, it is a very rational move and the money you could have given to the poor that you spent on your airline ticket, well, who would ever expect you to carry the burdens you lay on the shoulders of others?

Ruined Moments

These are just some of the things that have attempted to ruin some very sacred moments for me when visiting holy sites. It seems that in our modern world, people tend to view churches and holy places as relics from the past, a sort of living museum, but forget that others still see it as a very sacred place indeed.

So now that I have vented, what are your pet peeves and aggravations when visiting holy sites or traveling? Let me know, I would love to hear!

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Today was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and I was able to welcome the forty day season here in Rome!

Lent is traditionally the time when Catholics prepare, by fasting, prayer and penance, to remember the passion and death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection from the dead on Easter. Many will renounce something important to them for forty days as is customary, or intensify their religious/spiritual life. As for me, I usually stumble through it pretty poorly, and today started off as no grand exception.

Nestled warmly in my bed, I was none too delighted when my alarm called me to the new day. Fumbling to turn that call off, I pulled the covers over my weary head for just a little more sleep. Strange how in those moments we do not rationally remember how that decision always goes! When I finally re-opened my eyes, it was far too late to attend Mass at my favorite parish. To make matters worse, I had not researched Ash Wednesday Mass times for any other church in town! The day was not headed in the best of directions.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to remember that this is Rome! With a church on every corner, all I needed to do was scurry from parish to parish and I should eventually hit a mass. The blessings of the Eternal City to the rescue.

Soon dressed and out the door, I stopped by the nearest church. I paused in the back for a moment, but it looked far too dark for a Mass to be commencing anytime soon, and I did not see any of the tell-tale “Mass is about to be said” signs to look for (candles being lit, alter wine being set out, etc.). That was when I thought of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the largest churches in Rome. It is only about a ten minute walk from my place if I hurry and take the narrow, winding back roads, and being as important as it is, I figured there had to be a Mass there!

A painting of Santa Maria Maggiore as it looked before cars and vespas went zipping by

Before long I was making my way down tiny cobbled streets, dashing across larger busy ones, and almost out as breath as I neared the church. Flying through the doors, I blessed myself, dodged tourists and felt relief as I heard the sounds of a priest delivering his Italian homily. I was able to slide into one of the large gated side chapels just in time. Safe!

The large side chapel where I attended Lenten Mass in Santa Maria Maggiore

After the homily was finished, Italians proceeded to converge upon the priest in a rapid cluster to receive their ashes (in Italy there is no formal sense of ‘waiting your turn’). For a Catholic, this means standing in line to have the priest dip his thumb into a small dish of black ashes and trace a cross on your forehead, while inviting you to remember that life is temporary and that we will all one day return to dust. It is part of the custom to leave the black ashes on your forehead until preparing for bed that night, as a witness to both yourself and the world of who you belong to, what you profess, and the deeper thoughts of life and death that you are contemplating.

Completely prepared to spend a day wandering around Rome with a gigantic cross on my forehead, I blended into the queue. When I finally had a clear view of the priest, I stepped forward, closed my eyes and waited to feel the ashes traced across my forehead as I do every year.

And I waited…

The seconds ticked by and I quickly realized nothing was happening! My eyes fluttered open in self-conscious bewilderment and instantly fell on the dish of ashes. Instead of black suit, all I saw was an off-white powdery substance. Confused, I looked up at the priest, who just stared blankly back at me. Realizing nothing more was about to happen, and that if I stood there any longer I would risk looking more foolish than I probably already did, I quickly stepped aside.

As I crossed through the chapel on my way back to my standing room only spot, I looked at every forehead that I could but did not see a single dark cross. In fact, I saw nothing. What had happened?

When I reached the back of the chapel, I turned around and silently studied the priest. He followed all the procedures, dipping his thumb in the ashes, blessing the foreheads, but he did not seem to be actually touching anyone and if he did, it was leaving absolutely no mark!

Having been raised a cradle Catholic, this sight was absolutely surprising to me. I was even a little let down that I did not get to spend my customary day of minor embarrassment with people gawking at the strange girl with the unusual mark on her forehead. (Many priests are not good at forming a cross, so often you just get a big black smudge. It can actually make for an interesting day, if you have a good sense of humor!)

By the time Mass was over, I gave up my contemplation of dashing to the American parish in Rome with the hopes of finding a “real” Ash Wednesday blessing, and decided to settle for my invisible cross. Besides, I figured Santa Maria Maggiore was a good enough place to commence the Lenten season because it contains a relic of the manger that Christ was first placed in when He was born. The correlation between the beginning of Lent and birth (new life, new beginnings) seemed like a fair enough match, and so I stayed put.

The reliquary shaped like a crib that holds relics of the real crib Jesus was placed in when he was born

To reach this reliquary, one must journey down a set of marble stairs into a small little alcove tucked away under the altar. It is here in this holy alcove that I went to pray.

Under the main altar of Santa Maria Maggiore can be seen the Crypt of the Nativity and the reliquary

Given my Lenten track record, I wanted to do contribute something meaningful to my spiritual life, but I could not figure out what. The customary “just give up chocolate!” came to mind, but that seemed to trivial. After praying a little longer, I eventually wandered away, still pondering this thought. As I was about to leave the church, a small voice deep in my mind suggested that I go back to the crib and pray once more. I hesitated, but then figured “why not?”

The central nave of the church as viewed from near the entrance/exit

I made my way back over to the altar, where I stood in prayer at a heavy marble railing that overlooks the little alcove. I considered the correlation between birth and the new Lenten season once more, and that was when it hit me. I had something to give up, and it was better than chocolate!

Understanding that the baby Jesus had been born into this world for the sole purpose of one day dying to save souls, I reflected on how this was His entire obsession, and what He thirsted for more than anything. So what could be more delightful to Him than to have someone present themselves as a gift during the season that prepares us for His own great gift of His life.

I decided to “give up” my laziness towards my morning offerings, and offer myself each morning as a gift to the baby Jesus who, in 40 days as a grown man would give His life for me. Coupling this with the intention to give up any negative thoughts (this could get complicated!), I decided that I had settled on my Lenten offerings.

What really touched me though was that as I was leaving the church, I had the most strong sense of tender innocence wrap itself around me, and for the rest of the day I dwelt in an unusually tangible peace.

A painting of Mary and the baby Jesus by the famous William Bouguereau

Maybe I will botch up the entire season, who knows. Hopefully I won’t! But today turned out to be a good start to Lent after all, and Rome once again proved itself to be a rich spiritual resource if one is willing to step beyond the photos and sightseeing to simply look deeper. And thank heavens for a church on every corner!

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Today was another Monday in Rome, and as always I had Monday errands to run. But the really neat thing about living in Rome is that even the most ordinary of days is surrounded by so many extraordinary places. It just takes a little inquisition and curiosity to bring it all to life!

Santa Maria dei Monti standing proud behind the usual row of vespas

One of the places that I always like to stop by is Santa Maria dei Monti. To the tourist wondering past, it is just another Roman church, but this is very far from the truth.

In the 1580s, a miraculous image of Mary with Saints Stephen and Lawrence was found in a nearby Poor Clare convent that had fallen into ruins. To celebrate this great find, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the building of Saint Maria dei Monti and every year on April 26th a copy is still carried through the streets of Rome in an honorary procession.

Entering the church, this miraculous image can be seen directly over the altar. It stands out not only for it’s central position, but also because it clearly dates to an earlier time from the other artwork that decorates the church.

The miraculous image of Mary in Santa Maria dei Monti stands out for its simple beauty

In this image, Mary is holding Jesus in a very loving yet protective way, as one would hold a beloved child destined for great things. The child Jesus looks out at us with an innocent nobility as he raises his hand in a blessing. The saint kneeling on the right raises his hands in a gesture which suggests his is both imploring and accepting the blessing and calls the viewer to do the same. The stars, which were likely a later addition, add a sense of heavenly yet gentle glory to the figure of Mary. To think that this painting inspired the construction of an entire church shows just how much it was valued by the Romans of the time. Even today it is considered important, and my landlord has a copy in her apartment next to mine.

Not only is the church noted for this exquisite work of art, but it also has a rich history of involvement with many famous individuals.

Some important people who were connected with the church include:

  • St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, said Mass here from April to June of 1762.
  • St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, also said Mass between 1745-1767 when in Rome.
  • St. Benedict Joseph Labre collapsed in the church in 1783 and passed away in a home located behind the church. He is also buried here. He has an official feast day on April 16th.
  • St. Joseph Calasanctius, founder of the Piarists, often prayed in the new church after arriving in Rome in 1592 before the miraculous image. While praying before it, he was inspired to dedicate his life to helping young children who were poor. Before he died, he had an appearance of Mary who promised him his school would be protected (this last part I translated from Italian).
  • St. Vincent Pallotti, founder of the Union of Catholic Apostolate in 1835 was also devoted to Santa Maria dei Monti St. Benedict Joseph Labre who is buried in the church.

The church has a very rich spiritual heritage as a result of being so intimately connected with so many holy figures, and to sit for a while in this church in contemplation is an experience that one can walk away knowing they have shared with many great persons before them.

View down the Via Baccina to a dome that overlooks one of the ancient Roman forums

Leaving the church, I turn to the right and head down the Via Baccina, a narrow road with little if any traffic that leads straight to the Foro di Nevera, another ancient Roman forum.

The road eventually overlooks this smaller section of Roman ruins, and following it along as it curves to the right and then uphill, there continue to be some lovely views of the area.

Near the top of the hill is a little restaurant that I often pass and cannot help but notice in fascination. Even though it is small, their display of fish is absolutely marvelous! It is really worth a peek, and the waiters are so friendly and very eager to share with you their knowledge about these interesting creatures.

A small but intriguing display of fish is arranged like a culinary art exhibit at Osteria Corte del Grillo

I was snapping photos of these fish, fascinated by their wide eyes and gaping mouths, when one of the waiters, Stefano, came out. At first I thought he was probably going to ask me to put away the camera, as I know pointing and shooting can often lead to such a request, but instead he was very friendly and I could see that he wanted to share with me his knowledge about these sea creatures. I asked if he minded if I took more photos, and he so sweetly replied “of course you may! Our place is your home. Please feel free.” He said it so well, and in such a cute accent to his English, that it put a smile on my face.

And the lobster! I never saw such huge lobster in my life! It must have been three times the length of my hand and absolutely enormous!

Do take the time to click on these photos and open up the larger version which does them more justice – but even that cannot compare to the way they catch the eye in person.

I have to admit, if I worked at a place like that with such an artistic display of fish, I would probably be just as eager to talk about fish as they were!

Some of the interesting fish on display at Osteria Corte del Grillo

Gigantic lobster the length of at least 2-3 of my hands at the Osteria Corte del Grillo

The entrance to the Osteria on Salita del Grillo in Rome. You can visit them virtually at http://www.osteriacortedelgrillo.it

Just past the Osteria, and situated high on an elevation, is the famous Angelicum, also known as the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The famous Angelicum, where many notable figures have studied including Pope John Paul II

This university is famous not only for its strong educational system, but also for many of the famous people who have studied here. Pope John Paul II is one of those who have passed through these halls and can be remembered as a true alumnus.

For more information on the history of the Angelicum and some of the famous figures who have studied there, check out this short article on Wikipedia by clicking here.

There are always nuns, priests, friars, brothers, sisters – a complete assortment of the religious life – coming and going from the Angelicum in their many different religious garb. But lay people can study here too, and they offer many classes.

Seeing sites like these on an ordinary Monday while running errands makes living in a city like Rome so fascinating. Yet how easy it would be to pass these by if a little investigation was not done into the history and significance of each place. This is why I always suggest living in a place rather than being a tourist, as daily life can draw out so much more of the true depth of any city or place.

The Madonna peers down at me as I pass the Angelicum on another "ordinary" day in Rome

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