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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Solitude, Order, and His Crowded House

I crave order.   Organization is an essential part of my well-being, my worldview, and even my flirtation with sanity.  There is no aspect of my life that is not subject to the natural rules of hierarchy, gravity, and orbit.  There is nothing that hasn't a place that was determined by efficacy and reason.

Order is my "Precious", and it is that which binds me in this place and time, and that which allows me make sense of all that is around me, to sort through what is important and what is not, to locate what I need and to abandon all else, to place humanity, deeds, and inventions in each's accustomed spot in what I know to be God's creation.

Thus, my concept of time prompted me to rise very early on a Saturday morning in June during a recent visit to Rome.  I had acquired a ticket to the Papal Mass for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and I feared the crowds would prevent my getting a seat.  

It had been a very interesting two weeks for me.  I had journeyed to Rome alone, ostensibly to attend a conference on Music and Liturgy, but really because I wanted to see the city again with an unhurried eye.  My last visit had been as part of a pilgrimage tour, and while it was an enjoyable experience, it had left me tired and often confused, my memories blurred and the impressions of each day overlapping the next to the point that I could not distinguish one from the other.   The lack of leisure and the sheer volume of activities had distorted the beauty of the city, much like viewing a garden in a downpour.   I was determined to see less this time, but to see it well.

I sat by the Trevi Fountain before the crowds arrived with their coins and cameras, the hour or so spent with moleskine and fountain pen recording the events of the day before, which had found me spending long moments before the paintings of Our Lady in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, which led me to a chance encounter with a French couple who had retired to the hometown of Dali in Spain.  They spoke a little English, I spoke a little Spanish, we all mimed and chortled through our attempts to discuss the beautiful art before us, and finished with a discussion of music, particularly lai and Guillaume de Machaut.  I ventured through a horrible little wax museum and visited Our Lord in countless tiny chapels as well as in the grander churches for which Rome is famed.  I ate gelato.  I prayed.  I drank prosecco and cried.  I watched the sunset over the Pantheon from a hotel rooftop, and I enjoyed my solitude.  I found the eternal in my days.

It was rather sad, actually, to give that up when the conference began.  I saw old friends, made some new ones, and quite enjoyed the learning that comes with such things, but the unhurried peace that comes with lonely beauty quite vanished.  I found myself longing again for solitude, and so I rose early, and went alone to stand in a queue, intent upon finding the eternal again, in seeing My Lord in His Accustomed Place, and resuming my observation of a world that seemed better for its not observing me.

It was not meant to be, however.  Despite my reaching St. Peter's Basilica at seven, the line was already long.  My ticket, blue with a number well over seven thousand, convinced me that I would be lucky to see His Holiness during the celebration of the Eucharist (I am quite near sighted and rather short) and, with his soft-spoken words, probably ill-fated in hearing him speak, as well.  Crowds are not known for their silence, and the shifting of seats and thousands of bodies would disrupt the sense of the sacred, or so I thought.

Our Lord, though, is gracious and kind, and He knows best what we need, no matter what our longings are.  There were three ladies ahead of me in line, obviously American and of the Southern persuasion.  The queue was long, the morning young, and a conversation quite naturally developed.  They were from Louisiana.  I knew a priest there.  They knew him, too!  They were hoping to see him that very day!  (He was currently in Rome, studying.)  A common tongue and a common friend led to them offering me an "extra" green ticket, which allowed me to sit near the altar,  close enough to see the Sacrifice, to watch the Elevation of the Host, to glimpse the beauty of the chalice, and to participate as I had always done at Mass, with wonder and awe that Our Lord should come to us again in the form of bread and wine, that He would impart His Grace here, among the ruins and the art, among the relics and the living, among the noise and, yes, the peace.

"Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi..."

Then, suddenly, there was no order. The congregation became a crowd, pressing forward from all angles toward the priests who were distributing Communion. There were no lines, no ushers directing us, nothing organized about our movements, we were all just pushed forward, sometimes stepping over those who had returned to their seats, those who remained kneeling, those who stood waiting patiently for someone to tell them what to do. The priest nearest us simply turned from one waiting tongue to the next, protected by the rotational movement as much as by his vesture, the surging crowd shifting back and forth as more and more people pressed forward to receive.

I was irritated and annoyed. This was a Papal Mass. Surely, there should be a more dignified way to do this! This was a shambles, the priests distributing remaining calm, but being buffeted a bit and often turned by the pressure of the crowd around them. Where were the ushers? Why were there no lines?

Then, a thought occurred to me as I glanced about the Church. There was a continuity here, a bond that joined us to the earliest Christians. They, too, had crowded around the Lord, buffeting and bumping Him, striving to touch Him, hoping to reach just the hem of His garment, content with the mere sight of His Face as he passed among them. We were the same crowd, pressing forward to be near Our Lord, our eagerness was the same as theirs, we wanted to receive Him, in whatever way He permits.  We wanted to touch Him as Thomas did, even if only with our tongues. We wanted to know His Mercy, His Grace, His Peace, and we were creating a different order to do that, an order which found Him at our center, the only calm in a crowded place filled with beauty and disarray, a world that only grew calm again when we had all received Him.

This was my thought as I received my Lord and my God, kneeling once more, uttering my thanks for His forgiveness and the gift of salvation, grateful for my Faith, this place, and even this age. There is no peace in the confusion of the world, there is no order that is not centered upon Him, and there is nothing that I can do that will ever pay the debt I owe for the wounds He bore for me that Thomas touched and the other Apostles witnessed, and that He shows to the Father each time I plead forgiveness for my sins, an offering made again here, before a crowd that knew nothing more than it must press toward Him to be healed.