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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Ave for Dante, the Sole in Exile, and an Ernest Lament

I sang an Ave at Dante's Tomb the other day.

I can't swear he would have recognized the Latin, but the tune would have been familiar, the Gregorian melody the same that has been sung by generation after generation of Catholics around the world since before even he was born.

It somehow seemed appropriate to sing this, our ancient form of the prayer to Our Lady, at the graveside of one exiled, a banished son not just of Eve but also of Florence, his final resting place discreetly tucked away on a dead-end street in the town of Ravenna, Italy.  We passed by it several times, finding it crowded with tourists who didn't seem quite sure why their guide thought this an important they dashed, out they dashed, some took pictures, some wandered toward the square, finding the nearby restaurants and shops of more interest than a dead poet.  Italy, after all, is full of such shades:  the bones of saints, the images of artists, and the whispers of writers.  It is impossible not to see the reflections of all that is divine in mankind while walking these streets.

One could not turn a corner without catching a glimpse of a Madonna rendered in oil or stone against a high wall, overlooking  a little side alley that someone found worthy of her attention and protection.   The fountains, once so vital and necessary to the inhabitants of the cities, were carved into elaborate and fantastic shapes and designs, water flowing from and over the pagan gods and mythical creatures, obelisks rising from elephants, churches rising from pagan temples, saints lying in wait beside ordinary folk, art mixed with slang graffiti, ruins beside the ruined...death, life, time and eternity mingled as only God's creation could be.

It was fascinating to me.

Here I stood beside the tomb of one of the greatest poets that the world has produced, a momentary lull in the flood of tourists leaving us lonely, and I sang a prayer for him.  What an awe-inspiring thought, that of the continuity of the Church, that   we could share in something not only across centuries but into eternity.  As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

I caught glimpses of others as we wondered through the streets, particularly in Venice.  The characters of Brideshead surfaced more than once with all their faults, the illicit loves of Julia and her father found their way into my thoughts as we dined on sole that was as unobtrusive as Waugh had described it, the brandy in a thimble if not in Charles' presence, and the beauties of the Catholic world were laid out before us in St. Mark's and so many other lovely chapels, all reflected in the water of the canals, all expressing the Faith as majestic and powerful, sacred and beautiful.  Venice, too, can claim souls for God by her very incredible existence, something of beauty in a place she shouldn't be, her stability resting on water, wood and rock, much as our salvation rests on Baptism, Holy Rood, and Faith.   It is no wonder that such a city appealed to Lord Marchmain in his self-imposed exile.  I fancy that he was thinking of her as he lay dying, her streets, saints, and basilicas, only to be restored to a more eternal beauty in the sign of the cross he offered near the end, a simple gesture that drew again on the rites instigated by Our Lord's Baptism and Passion.  Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro...

There were others, too, that came to mind, those secular beings who may not be called saints, but who have so influenced me in my decision to become Catholic.  We stopped in Venice for the obligatory drink at Harry's Bar, a favorite watering hole of Ernest Hemingway.  I do not know that anyone would consider him a good Catholic, but he professed the Faith and was buried within Her rites, and so we drank a toast to Ernest and traded quotes from our favorites of his novels...and yes, we prayed for him in a nearby Church, requesting Our Lady intercede for him, asking the Fisherman who served Christ first as Bishop of Rome to remember another who loved to fish.   I would like to think of him in Heaven...along with so many others who lived and died within our Faith.  Frederic Rolfe, whose bones lie on the island of San Michele...Virgil, Dante's virtuous pagan escort, even an old bluesman named David York that we remembered in a tiny chapel in Rome, a relic of the Precious Blood unexpectedly within our view bringing us more wholly to our knees as we offered our intentions, those private and those profound, praying that God would grant them, and us, sufficient mercy to find each other in Heaven someday, and that it would be much like Venice, Rome, and all the places here that have brought such happiness to us.  Isn't it pretty to think so?