It’s kind of long and not such an easy read but stick with it till the end…..
You’ll love Rome. Gnaw it clear to the marrow and suck the life out of it. Have no regrets, promise? A part of me will never leave Rome. Your last comment is still a brutal stab through my heart, some 23 years later…….I’ll catch my breath here, and proceed.
I spent one whole summer in Europe, studying the ancient conventions of classic Aristotelian rhetoric in Athens, where I met a mysterious, beautiful and sad-eyed European tour guide. Greece will grab an American. They had their own Alamo. At the Hot Gates (Thermopylae), 300 Spartans fought under the leadership of King Leonidas and went to their deaths against a million man Persian Juggernaut. You stand there and quake at this mighty inscription:
GO TELL THE SPARTANS PASSERBY,
THAT HERE OBEDIENT TO THEIR LAWS WE LIE
The chemistry between us reached the white hot level at King Leonidas’s memorial, and she quickly became my girlfriend. Americans are strange and exotic foreigners there. She offered to take me on the grand tour of Europe and parts of the sunny, aromatic Middle East. And best of all, I could shut up. She spoke fluent Arabic, British-accented English, Hebrew, Greek, Italian, French, German, and one other secret ancient tongue she shyly insisted on disclosing…..Later. At the right time. Patience.
Turkey (the onion domes of Istanbul and the seaside Temple of Diana); Israel (Church of the Nativity via Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Grief”); Syria (dusty Damascus), Cyprus and Sicily Islands via cruise ship, landing at Venice. We disembarked there, took the singing Venetian gondola tour, then lazily drove to Rome. It was the high point of my short undergrad years at State U, and I was blessed with my own personal professional tour guide for a couple of weeks touring, the leavings of the Roman Empire and gorgeous Florence as a finale.
The darkness: she had the unnerving habit of staring blankly off into the faraway distance almost in a trance for speechless silent minutes. I had to dig it out: she was at the Rome airport 5 years before when the Abu Nidal terrorists opened fire with machine guns killing and wounding many innocent bystanders and she ran and ran and ran for her life past piles of bodies…all the while panic dodging several near misses after bullets ricocheted and went zinging past her head. Pink sprays of blood. Everywhere. With head bowed, she crossed herself, whispering haltingly and darkly in heart-broken Italian. “Anni di’ Piombo” ….. The Summer of Lead. One little bitty girl shot through the tiny lung died in her blood-slicked arms, coughing and choking on tiny rivulets of pink foam. I could tell whenever she remembered it….. those stricken dead leaden eyes. The darkness: just one sharp memory away. The least I could do is sit still with her and be silent: Mourning is forever. Leon Wieseltier said it best:
“The contest between the light of memory and the words of mere history becomes acute, even excruciating, when the subject of the backward look is catastrophe….you are being addressed across a gulf, through a thick wall of glass, from the farthest corner of a banished heart. You listen carefully, but an approximation of her experience is the best you can hope for. You begin to understand that there are situations in which memory is not a privilege: if history is your only source of knowledge about the darkness, then you are one of the lucky ones. You look at this woman in the work of recollection and you no longer remark on the beauty of memory, or on its utility for the perpetuation of the knowledge of the disaster, you wish only that memory would falter and die, and you bless the moments of forgetfulness and all the divagations of ordinary life after the end of the world.”
She lived in Rome, alone, in a beautiful penthouse apartment overlooking the ruins of the Coliseum. After midnight, she urgently shook me suddenly awake from a deep sleep. Airport panic again, I thought. She grabbed my hand tightly and without a word drug me on a crazy wild goose chase through a labyrinthine and cob-webbed system of dank and fetid tunnels underneath Rome. I lost all sense of direction and even experienced woozy vertigo in the pitch darkness. This was it. She had finally broken and lost her marbles from acute memory overdose. Mercifully, we started ascending back up and up and up to ground level via an ancient set of stone stairs, blessedly smelling a few stray wisps of fresh air. She had to fumble with keys to unlock the massive wooden door. Italy gives licensed tour guides license. We went into a gigantic enclosed space and into a wall of thick and sickly smells, of incense and centuries of acrid candle smoke. I was in some sort of mystically blurred ancient dream state set in stone, as big as a parking garage. Ambient light flickered from some tiny candles far far across the room from the entrance, washing the walls in a kind of halting light, in a light that seemed anxious about its own appropriateness. .
She gasped a strange low wracked guttural sob, from the bottom of a shattered heart, furtively crossed herself and dropped to her knees on the stone floor. Crazy! Should I call the authorities? And how was I ever going to find my way back to her apartment? But I had no idea where we were, so I waited, glancing protectively as she sobbed this whisper prayer:
“Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat ei. Requiéscat in pace. Amen.”
“Eternal rest grant her, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace. Amen.”
God’s Grammar: The prayer language of mourning a stranger, a tiny girl. The Latin Prayer for the Dead. The riddle of the shy mystery language, finally resolved.
My eyes took forever to adjust to the vast dimness……gradually, I could barely make out some seething vague shapes and haunting violent epic battle forms flickering on the ceiling high above, becoming more and more recognizable, like a long ago vivid midnight dream. You sort of can recall ………but strangely not quite completely. Not completely. One of the images gradually shifted into sharp focus, and I – a gobsmacked ex-Adventist filled to the brim with unexamined boyhood anti-Catholic hatred – clumsily crossed myself and involuntarily sank to my knees. So spellbinding is the jaw-dropping sight of unearthly Michelangelo’s massive fresco of God touching the finger of and transmitting the first life to lifeless Adam……You lose reality, and time. I spent mute minutes staring mouth agape, eventually regaining enough composure to wobble upwards and stand on weak and shaking legs. It was just the two of us, in God’s Condo, embracing and shivering. In shock. Talk is stupid in that place. Silence is eloquence.
I boarded a plane three weeks later and never saw her again.
My advice? Make sure you wear your drool bib at the Sistine Chapel.If you are like me, you’ll be simultaneously mesmerized and electrified, you will lose all muscle control, mouth lolling agape staring dumbstruck at this earth-shattering otherworldly spectacle. At the greatest and most beautiful human-made phenomena in Rome, in Italy, in Europe, in the whole wide world.
I will be haunted by those images on that early morning in the Sistine Chapel, the memory of that sobbing Latin prayer for an anonymous tiny girl killed in an airport massacre and these overwhelming feelings of the direct and powerful presence of God…… until the day I die.