The trip was 11 days long and we saw a lot. We saw Venice, Padua, Florence, Orvieto, Pisa, Tuscany and Rome. There was time for shopping and leisurely strolls through the cities, towns and villages. I discovered a love for espresso.
There were many chances for true amazement and awe. The statue of David by Michelangelo was incredible, but there was one place that seemed truly holy to me.
It was near the end of our trip. We had seen many magnificent churches spanning the ages. Our visits were to the simplistic beauty of village chapels to the opulence of The Vatican. But none made such an impression on me as St. Paul’s outside the wall in Rome, the proclaimed burial site of St. Paul himself.
The weather was cold but sunny. Our bus pulled up in front of the church. The front of the church was depicted on canvas covers disguising scaffolding. But the real story was inside.
When you enter the church, you are suddenly standing in a large nave. The floor and ceiling are beautiful. There are large columns bordering the edges as you look forward. And, the church is totally empty. Not empty like no people, empty like no chairs, no aisle, no nothing. Just a large empty nave and at the far end in front, an altar.
Now, St. Paul’s is not a small facility, it is 432 feet from front to back, only 80 feet less than The National Cathedral. There are 40 columns on either side of the nave going forward.
So think about it, a very large basilica with the remains of the blessed St. Paul entombed beneath its altar, but devoid of anything of the other normal fixtures of church.
It was an incredibly quiet place, as if all were afraid to talk in this most holy space. The tourists seemed to be lost. I reflected on this at the time but could not really discern what I was feeling or why such a strange atmosphere seemed to be present. I have thought about it again, often and without any conclusions until just the other day at an event here at our own St. Paul’s Church.
Conversely to the scene I described from Rome; here, there was a packed Parish Hall. There were plates of pancakes, a busy kitchen and over 100 people enjoying themselves and each other.
Think about the total opposites of the different scenes. One being and stone quiet basilica and the other being the fun and tradition of Shrove Tuesday. Yet, these two scenes share a commonality. It is not the namesake of these two places. It is not even simply that they are both churches.
You see, the answer is simple and yet so often hard to see. But in both cases, these places were filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. One, a very sacred and holy place from our Christian heritage, and the other; a very sacred and holy place from now, today, this moment.
The road ahead of us is unclear. We do not know who will come to be our shepherd. Our visions are blurry. But, friends, if nothing else, one thing is very clear and very real. God is with us. Amen.
(From the “Thinking Outloud” column written for the parish newsletter; a thought shared on the departure of the current rector)