I had envisioned the Vatican embalmed in a state of continual holy solemnity; a silent chamber of wafting incense and chanting priests. Naturally, I felt a distinct sinking feeling in my stomach whe I entered the vast nave of St. Peter’s Basilica and emerged into a land of yelping children, tour guides chanting monotonously in 15 different languages, and people weaving in and out of the side chapels with phones and cameras plastered over their faces. The prevailing attitude was one of “checking it off the list:” see the dome? Check. Touch St. Peter’s foot? Got it. So when do we leave for gelato?
It was loud, and chaotic, and utterly devoid of the magnificent peace I usually feel when I enter an old church or chapel. I wandered away from my group, growing restless from the noise level, and attempting to restrain my worrying about future events on the trip. The motto of my travels is always “be present,” but that can be difficult when the present is as cacophonous as a train station!
I began to think about the rest of our day, mapping out destinations as I gazed at the beautiful frescoes on the wall ahead, before my eyes flicked left and I came face-to-face with the Madonna herself.
Michelangelo was touched by something divine when he carved the Pieta, of this I have no doubt. The face of Mary, young and beautiful, is carved with the most essentially human expression I have ever seen on a statue. There’s love there, yes, and sadness; but the prime feeling is one of ultimate sacrifice. So often we are led to think only of the divine sacrifice of Jesus when artists reflect o scenes from the crucifixion, but the Pieta raises to transcendental levels the ultimate sacrifice of the corporal world: a mother letting go of her beloved child. I couldn’t see this image and feel distant from the moment; I played a major role–I took in part of the Madonna’s pain as my own, and there was intense beauty in that moment of connection.
The whirl and chaos of the Vatican melted away. All chatter and noise grew to a senseless drone in my ears. For that moment, I was left alone with Mary and her son, a holy communion of three, a world of our own inside the tourist jam.