Last year today I was twenty. I hadn’t seen castles and catacombs. I hadn’t walked in the countryside all night long. I hadn’t stood before terrifying living history, I hadn’t yet vomited beets out of my nose after catching a 24-hour flu along with an entire town, I hadn’t received three birthday cakes in one day, I hadn’t eaten dinner from 8 p.m. until midnight, I hadn’t seen the sunrise from a medieval cliff, I hadn’t had a three month foot injury, I hadn’t yet raced to and dove into a train to the gasps of many, I hadn’t walked through an entire city covered with an antique show, and I hadn’t sung in rounds in a sprawling Florentine church. But the point of this blog post is not to tell you all of the things I did in Italy, as fantastic or miserable as they were, so let me pause here. I want to tell you about my heart. The edges have been grated like cheese but the space made room for something clearer, something closer to the shape it’s supposed to be.
February: “As I depart in less than 4 hours, the bittersweet tears of nostalgia well up. Sure, that sounds typical but let me be honest and explain how the bitter flavor has dominated over the past week. … Instead of avoiding [trauma and sin], we continue forward to meet the dawn (coincidentally in Matt. 14:25…). Spiritually, I hope to increase my memorization of Scripture and time in prayer. I pray that the Lord would meet me powerfully as I learn to rest. Relationally, I pray that I could prioritize the Christian community in the program and that God would bless me with a rich and joyful group of people whom I can give to and receive from. I’m realizing that one of my greatest fears about the trip is not feeling a sense of belonging.”
It’s September now and I’m living at home while taking the semester off. I’ve discovered that I don’t like cars or phones or hurried people. What I mean is, these things make me feel uneasy. The rush of suburban American humanity has gotten something wrong and doesn’t seem to know it. It scares me how many people can live in ignorance of how human community and pace of life were designed to take shape. But how can they when all they hear is noise?
March: “Although I’m still waiting for their potential to fully develop, I’ve learned about first impressions and authenticity. While in Rome, my assignment placed me in an apartment with some girls I hadn’t chosen to live with. But after standing before the weight of the Colosseum with one, speed walking through the streets of Rome on a Friday night, and uniting over a shared experience of loneliness and sadness, I found an unlikely friend. In Rome I saw paintings and churches by Caravaggio, Caracci, Bernini, Boromini, Bramante, and da Vinci. The program went to St. Peter’s, the Vatican, and the Pantheon but even in their grandiose Baroque glory, they were nothing in contrast with the Colosseum and early Christian catacombs. Seeing both of these ancient monumental creations, as integrated and yet opposite as they were in intention, left a mark on me. I walked among the gravesites of 70,000 early Christians, including martyrs. I touched the rough stone of the most belittling building I’ve ever seen. I looked between the arches into black vastness where slaves, criminals, innocents, and my early brothers and sisters were slain in brutal entertainment. I sat beneath a temple built where Peter’s crucifixion likely occurred and realized what a fright it must have been for him and Paul to have maintained energy in Rome compared to the simplicity of Galilee. Walking these streets that hold such incredible feats of humanity disoriented this 21 year old from the twenty first century.”
When I first returned from Italy, I sat in a church thinking about the irony of how I should be still to contemplate the Lord but couldn’t get away from the clanging music. I thought about Vespers, a daily service of nuns in Orvieto, and felt a strange nostalgia for authentic Catholicism. I wrote in my journal that the words of the song in this American Protestant church were “so dry and floppy” and found myself wishing to meditate on words of liturgy, even if they were in a different language, or to just pause to wonder at the sight of the the others sharing my pew.
April: The primary impact of St. Francis’s legacy revolves around his occupying the humblest of places, even giving up the clothes on his back to live with lepers.
Lately I’ve also had the chance to read and discuss Scripture authentically with some friends. Vulnerability and honesty have slowly developed in these friendships—for which I am very thankful.
We tend to say we have the answer figured out and perhaps do this so many times that we’ve convinced ourselves of it. But I think we need to stamp a big question mark on ourselves. We aren’t sufficient without one another. We need each other and have to tell each other that. If we fail on this account, we wrong our friends and ourselves.
May: I realize my changing feelings — I love my friends. I love Orvieto. I love creating art.
It’s our job to fight the noise and, together, fare forward: “He set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
June: Today I finished my final presentation discussing Michelangelo, the Renaissance, Catholicism, and Protestantism… This last month has been a gift to me. I took an Iconography class because I wanted to learn from the professor. I saw countless depictions of the face of Jesus, churches with shimmering mosaic tiles, and had conversations comparing icons with Renaissance paintings. I’ve learned about humanism but also about the incredible pieces of art from the Middle Ages (Dark Ages) which have not been broadly recognized.
The end of the semester has also given me a greater understanding of community. Friendships, I’ve experienced, are not as straightforward as perhaps they should be. People act fickle, disinterested in you, preferring another, but rarely does this mean that they no longer love you. The next week, they’ll act particularly happy to see you but then when this high ends and they treat you “normally” again, it’s not your fault. I’m learning to give myself grace socially and verbally, having naturally affirmed others more than I’ve seen myself do in my life ever before. It seems fair to say that after four months of extensive sightseeing, I wish to be most impacted by the person standing before me, friend or acquaintance, by the astounding fact of their presence. Last night, we walked to the Duomo and laid on the cobblestones, staring at it together, and I said, “It’s funny how the first time we came here, we were so overwhelmed by it. But now we’re just overwhelmed by each other.”
Today I prayed for help to stay in my zoomed out and zoomed in mind. This is where I see the big picture of life and time while also noticing the beautiful details before me. It happens when I’m hiking, making art, talking with someone about a biblical nuance, or hearing a friend’s raw memories. It’s when I’m fully in reality and fully aware of my limited self. Italy taught me many things, but today’s lesson was to avoid the tunnel vision of a hurried soul.”Put usefulness first and you lose it” (Roger Scruton). So I drop my clenched shoulders and look at the autumn sunlit tree and say, that’s enough.
By Emily Nelson ’17