The greatest church in Rome (that you’ve definitely never heard of)

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 in a three part series.
Part I: No, Casey Neistat, don’t ‘do more’
Part II: Screw white sandy beaches. Give me Covid lockdown.

Scene: Rome.

Time: A February morning, some eight years ago.

I have spent the previous three days gloriously alone, touring museums, art galleries, churches and piazzas. It’s lunchtime. I’m wandering the Trastevere district looking for a cheap place to eat. A church bell begins to clang nearby, signaling the start of the liturgy. I have not been to mass, and suddenly I feel compelled to go.

Pursuing the sound through the narrow, cobblestone alleyways, I come upon a delightful sight: a small, shady piazza, at the far end of which is the entrance to a tiny, old (very old) church. The church is of the barest, simplest, unadorned romanesque construction, built sometime in the 12th century.

A tall monk – seeming all the taller on account of his rail-like thinness – stands out front, dressed in a brown habit, welcoming the faithful.

For three days, I have bathed promiscuously in the baroque. My head is still swimming with visions of cherubs and coffered ceilings and gilt mausoleums and marble; of the Carvaggios that I have chased down, one by one, with aching feet, all across the city; of the gods and nymphs of Bernini’s statues, ensconced in the great halls of the Villa Borghese, which I devoured under the absurd two-hour time limit the gallery imposes on visitors.

And yet, I have no idea how over-stimulated I am: no idea, that is, until I stumble on that little church.

Inside, it is cool and dark. After the cobblestone and the crowds, it is a relief to sit in the silence.

The ceiling is constructed of huge, dark timbers, criss-crossed by thick, rough beams. The walls are made of a simple, rose-coloured brick, unsoftened by plaster or paint. One exception is the apse, which is decorated with faded frescoes, half of which are missing, chipped and eroded by age.

In the very center of the apse, the focal point of the church, is a rare stab of colour, a bright icon of St. Benedict, the church’s patron.

Viewed from afar, the central figure seems disproportionate and crude, possessing none of the realism of Rome’s many masterpieces. And yet, it seems to me that it is the most beautiful painting I have seen all week, if only because I can actually see it, whereas the other, far greater pictures were swallowed up in a riot of competing paintings, gilding, marble and statuary.

In the cool and dark and quiet, it seems easy to pray. So that is what I do.

The sermon is on heaven. Though my Italian is embryonic, I understand nearly every word of it. The monk speaks simply, and directly: and, what is more, he says a great deal more with his eyes and his hands – which are electric with belief, and joy – than he does with his lips.

Attention: Archimedes’ lever

Churches are, it hardly need be said, built for the purpose of fostering prayer. That is their telos, their end. In light of this, it seemed to me then – and seems to me now – that this church was, in some important sense, greater than all the great basilicas of that great city: or at least it was so for me, on that morning, because it produced prayer where the others did not.

In the years since, that little church has assumed typological proportions in my mind. The rough brick, the heavy beams, and the simplicity of the sermon have become for me symbolic, a representation of all ordinariness, and the richness of beauty and meaning that might be found in the ordinary, if only we had the eyes to see.

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that the most important part of any painting is the frame. The point he was making is that the frame, by limiting and narrowing the scope of our sight, expands our vision, focusing our attention on the thing depicted. Which is, of course, the whole purpose of a painting.

Riddle me this: why do you take a photograph, and then immediately ooh and ahhh over the photo, even as the actual subject of the photo is still right in front of your eyes? Because – it seems obvious – the photo serves as a frame that empowers you to truly see the thing photographed, which otherwise is lost in a maelstrom of peripheral detail.

Most of us barrel through life missing the trees for the forest, our attention so overwhelmed by such a vast and confused panorama of stimuli that our minds never rest on any one thing long enough to grasp one one-hundredth of its meaning.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” wrote T.S. Eliot. Too much reality, and our minds choke up. Too much data, too little bandwidth.

The picture frame is one way that humans have devised of reducing reality – or rather, our field of vision – to a manageable size. But it isn’t the only way. We might define a contemplative as a person who has perfected the habit of seeing the world through the mental equivalent of a frame.

Where most of us have dissipated minds, leaking attention from a thousand unplugged holes, the contemplative is the person who has learned to concentrate all of his or her attention into a single, torrential stream, one that can – like Archimedes’ lever – move the whole world, when properly directed.

For Emily Dickenson (see Part II of this series), it was arguably the very smallness of her life that served as the frame she needed to enlarge her vision, to create the conditions in which the little things loomed large, and nothing escaped her attention.

In this, Dickenson was akin to the trained artist who, upon entering a baroque cathedral in which every square inch has been frescoed by a master, does not stand and gawk like a tourist, but, selecting a few square feet, sticks his nose up to it, finding more to wonder at in the individual brush strokes within that tiny space than the untutored tourist discovers in the totality of the thing.

Embrace life’s frames

Our age, it seems, contemns and even fears the ordinary, the repetitive, the limited. A life of stable respectability is, we are convinced, a trap, a way to lose one’s soul, a bourgeois selling-out.

Many of my generation, for instance, view marriage with undisguised horror, the mere idea of binding oneself to a single lover for a lifetime considered as something akin to voluntarily condemning oneself to a life’s sentence. And as for children, could there be anything more limiting, more certain to reduce possibilities, anything that more completely encowls one in a straight-jacket of cramped, daily, inescapable duty?

But what we fail to understand is that marriage, like every choice we ever make, is – or, at least, can be – just one more frame that, by narrowing our limits, enlarges our possibilities.

It is quite simply a statement of fact that even the most successful playboy, who every night beds a different beauty, will, so long as he pursues this path, be condemned never to taste the more rarified pleasures of authentic intimacy, earned through decades of faithfulness to a single woman. To taste of these he would have to choose, and in choosing, to limit himself; and it is precisely this that he will not dare to do.

The same thing can be said of the many other restlessnesses of our age. We are an endlessly mobile people, continuously changing jobs and moving cities. We are an endlessly distracted people, chasing stimulation, lest our mind ever be left alone with its thoughts.

Some of this comes of necessity, an unavoidable and unpleasant side-effect of the obliteration of distance caused by easy travel, and by technology and globalization. But much of it is by choice, the conscious cultivation of an insatiable appetite for change.

The risk, however, is that so long as we chase our pleasures on the superficial, two-dimensional plane of novelty, we will remain completely ignorant of the oceanic, three-dimensional depths of meaning that lie hidden just beneath the appearances of things.

We cannot have both change and stability. We must choose. And we have much too swiftly and uncritically accepted the belief that choosing novelty is always preferable to repetition, or that stability and adventure are somehow inherently opposed.

After all, what if it is true, as Chesterton once said, that, “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time”?

If this is so, then in our frantic quest to always look at or experience something new by fleeing the familiar, do we not run the grave risk of never truly seeing or experiencing anything at all?

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