Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Thursday, November 20, 2008

For whom the bell tolls

It had rained all day in Rome, and we had walked everywhere. We had visited at least eight churches, including Santa Maria della Vittoria, with Bernini's magnificent depiction of The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with Rome's only Gothic interior and Michelangelo's last finished sculpture. We had stared upward until our necks ached -- stared at the dome of the Pantheon, through which the rain fell steadily onto the floor tiles of the basilica, stared at beautiful ceilings and stunning paintings, which called us alternately to contemplate the majesty of the heavens and the humble humanity of even the saints among us. We had eaten and drunk well. At dusk, we had trudged to the top of "the wedding cake," that massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II that Romans apparently love to hate. We had the spectacular view entirely to ourselves.

Standing atop Rome in the moist twilight wasn't enough for us. We decided to cross the Tiber and explore the Trastevere before walking home. We crossed a bridge, passed through Isola Tiburina, and came out into a very small square at about 6:30 in the evening. What sounded like -- and proved to be -- an ancient bell was tolling as we crossed into the square. Who can resist the call of a tolling bell on a rainy evening in Rome? We peeked into a tiny church, San Benedetto Piscinula, where from somewhere behind the altar came the sound of Gregorian chant. We sat in the back of the church as about fifteen members of the religious organization that tends the church, the Heralds of the Gospel, robed and hooded, entered for evening mass. They sang all of the main parts of the mass in Gregorian chant.

It was very picturesque and charming. We felt part of an old past and a beautiful and ancient tradition, until -- during the consecration of the Eucharist, no less -- we were called back to the present by the tolling of a very different kind of bell. Now, I had watched Sadeeq silence his cell phone as we entered the church. He had apparently forgotten, however, to silence the cell phone alarm. His negligence became horribly clear when, as the priest recounted the Last Supper, Sadeeq's phone began its electronic and very loud chirping in jingle-jangle counterpoint to the chant that had recently filled the tiny church.

There was no way that I could pretend I didn't know him. We were the only two non-Heralds in the whole church, and we were sitting next to each other. As Sadeeq fumbled to shut the darn thing up, I suffered visions of arrest, inquisition, torture -- or at least withering stares. Not a single Herald, however, even turned around to look.

The dedicated young men who surrounded us probably ignored Sadeeq's tolling bell out of a sense of decorum. But it occurred to me, as they finished the beautiful service, that their refusal to acknowledge the cell phone alarm -- far from signaling their rejection of the modern world -- announced their participation in it. It was as familiar a sound to them as the tolling of the ancient bell of San Benedetto. What we had experienced at San Benedetto in Piscinula was not some quaint, lifeless fragment of history entombed in the past, but a living expression of religious devotion rooted in ancient tradition.

Bernini's vision of mystical ecstasy and Caravaggio's grittier depiction of saintly vocation exist together in this insanely beautiful city. So do the tolling church bell and the chirping cell phone. It would probably have been better had Sadeeq's cell phone remained silent, but I'm not sorry to have been reminded that Rome represents, not the dead past, but the living present shot through with monuments of past human striving. Rome is a place where man's reach exceeds his grasp, but -- as Robert Browning pointed out -- that's as it should be. It has us always looking up, but always tethered to the mundane and the ephemeral.

Rome is a place where people lived. Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine, Michelangelo, Pope Paul V, Caravaggio, Bernini. It's also a place where people live. Scooter-drivers, souvenir-hawkers, graffiti "artists," bankers, lawyers, priests, wielders of cell phones, singers of chants.

And therefore never send to know for whom the cell phone tolls. It tolls for thee.


Blogger San Benedetto in Piscinula said...

Very intersting post! Thanks for visiting us.

November 25, 2008 3:58 AM  

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