Tuesday, August 8, 2017

More Vivid in Venice?

Our experience is often affected by the reception we receive. That was true on July 12, 2017, the day I visited the Basilica of Saints John and Paul in Venice, Italy. With GPS in hand, our son Jeremy guided my wife Judi and me through the corridors of Venice toward Piazza San Marco to visit St. Mark’s Cathedral. It’s an inevitable destination for tourists. On our way, we broke out into a square where I saw another church. “Let’s quickly stop here!” I blurted.

When I entered, I was welcomed by a magnificent display of religious art—architecture, sculpture and paintings. The guard, housed in his glass enclosure, also welcomed me. It wasn’t a backslapping, used car salesman, kind of welcome. It was a quiet but genuine expression of hospitality. Later when I thanked him for his warmth, he remarked that most Venetians are tired of tourists. He wants visitors to feel glad they’ve come. He went on to express a genuine affection for this sacred space.

As we conversed, I asked if there are books written in English that describe and illustrate this basilica. He showed me two, briefly detailing their strengths. He also pointed out that visitors are not allowed to take pictures. When I asked why, he explained that this is a house of worship: picture-taking would mar the experience for those who come for that purpose  The ban also keeps tourists from posting photos on the Internet, thus guarding the integrity of the art. I mentally flipped a coin and bought the larger of the two books.

The gatekeeper also urged me to look around before I bought a ticket (€3.50). He even offered to waive the ticket price because I had bought the book. He also encouraged Jeremy and Judi to look around. As we began to explore, I found Jeremy in a side-chapel called Chapel of Our Lady of Peace. He was fascinated by a painting and an icon there. So we had a short conversation about the meaning and significance of both works.

Not wanting to outstay our welcome, I went back to the guard and explained that we were on our way to St. Mark’s. At that, his demeanor conveyed deep disappointment. When I asked why, he expressed that, in his mind, this basilica is superior to St. Mark’s. After a brief explanation, he said, “Go and explore St. Mark’s for yourself. Then come back and tell me which one you think is better.” I assured him that I would return.

So, the three of us resumed our trek toward St. Mark’s Square. When we arrived, the line to enter the Cathedral was long: I estimated it would take an hour or more to get in. I wanted to enjoy the basilica we had just left rather than wait in line here.

As we started back, Jeremy had trouble finding basilica on his GPS. I felt a sense of loss: We had stumbled onto the Holy Grail; what if we couldn’t find it again! But we did. And by that time we were tired and hot from all the walking. So Jeremy and Judi found a nearby cafe with WiFi. They would hang out there until I was ready for lunch. After an hour or so in the church, I joined them in the cafe for some food and a respite. After lunch, I returned to the house of worship to continue basking in beauty.

I believe my first impression of this basilica—its beauty and the guard’s hospitality—was God’s invitation to come and enjoy, to rest. My soul was experiencing its own version of Psalm 84: “How lovely your dwelling, O Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts! My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lᴏʀᴅ.

I began to use the book I had purchased to match the photographs with “reality.” It was obvious that even professional photos pale in comparison with the fairness of this place. Just as pictures are mere facsimiles of art, art itself only suggests ʀᴇᴀʟɪᴛʏ. C. S. Lewis expressed it well in The Great Divorce: Heaven (God’s presence) is more real than our world.

Having encountered such elegance, I decide to spend time in the smaller world of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary where the loveliness is more manageable. The book explains the charred odor I notice as I enter: “On the night of 15-16 August 1876, a serious fire destroyed the chapel…. On October 1959 the restored chapel was solemnly reopened.”

One of the reasons I feel so at home here in the Basilica of Saints John and Paul is that it isn’t crowded. Everyone, it seems, is at St. Mark’s. I relish this intimacy with God, which reminds me of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at my home parish on Friday mornings. This is a perfect place to adore our Lᴏʀᴅ. Surely Christ’s presence is even more vivid here than in that simple chapel with inexpensive icons back home: Sanctuary lamps convey Christ’s presence in the tabernacle. Priceless paintings such as “The Assumption,”  “Adoration of the Pastors,” and “Annunciation” by Paolo Veronese adorn the ceiling. Other canvases such as “St. Michael Vanquishes Lucifer,” “Last Supper,” “Jesus Meeting Veronica,” and “Dead Christ” by various artists are closer to eye level. Low reliefs like “Annunciation” and “Jesus Disputing with the Doctors of the Law in the Temple” are on the walls near the altar. Smooth, beautifully varnished, wooden benches and kneelers and marble floors complete the elegant atmosphere.

As I settle in, I decide not to focus on the art. The book will help me recall the images and the intimacy when I get home. Instead, I’m attentive to the palpable presence of Christ. I truly feel at home: “My home is by your altars, Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts, my king and my God! Blessed are those who dwell in your house! They never cease to praise you” (Psalm 48:4-5).

But is Christ really more vivid in Venice? When I return home and resume Eucharistic adoration in our modest chapel in South Hadley, I realize that Christ seems as close here as he did in Venice. Perhaps my respite in the basilica has enhanced my awareness of Christ wherever I may be.