La Dolce Vita

He does look like Charlton Heston.

While waiting in the car at the DMV, Ellie asked about getting her passport. “Where does she think she’s going?” I thought…but then I remembered she was 19. Anyway, I told her I had my passport and looked in my purse. I didn’t have mine, but I did have Baby Evangelina’s from 1996 when she, my mom and I went to Rome. Twenty-five years ago. The last time I was in Europe, the last time I flew, the last time I went anywhere as exciting as Rome with my mother, except maybe JoAnn’s. We had a great time. And there are stories.

First story background. When I was a student at Simpson College in San Francisco, I had to take three semesters of Western Civ. Ugh…I loved the history part, but dreaded the Art section. Surprisingly, Dr. Humphries made the material very interesting and found works with compelling stories. During the Renaissance period, Dr. Humphries presented the works of Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo as well as many others. I was smitten with Michelangelo’s Moses. Dr. Humphries said it was called “Moses on Mt. Nebo” with the understanding that Moses was looking at the Promised Land, the land he wasn’t permitted to enter. The intensity of his gaze was powerful. And, I thought then, if I ever go to Rome…I must see this Moses. One of those little whispered spontaneous prayer-desires that only God hears. And remembers.

In 1996, my father was given a trip for two to Rome for his retirement. He wasn’t keen on going, but no one was going to stop my mom from going. I offered to accompany her, but I would have to take baby Evangelina. Everyone was OK with that, so off we go. First flight from SFO to Newark, New Jersey, then after the long flight from Newark, we landed in Rome, the Eternal City.

After we gathered our luggage, we went to get our ride to the hotel. But, the hotel transportation never arrived, and, as it turns out, there were no reservations at the hotel we thought we were booked at. Of course, we had to call my father when we landed, and he, par for the course, flipped out that we had no lodgings. We, on the other hand, were so tired from flying that we just sat and waited for the travel agent to take care of the mix up. Which she did. And so, remarkably, providentially, and delightfully, we were rerouted to the Hotel Palatine on the Via Cavour. Across the street from the staircase that led to the San Pietro in Vincoli chapel…the home of Michelangelo’s Moses, which we happily visited many times. I love the Lord for remembering my barely breathed wisp of a prayer more than ten years earlier. He does those things, you know. I love His surprises. I love the fact that He knows me, He knows my thoughts.

A chuckle of a story has to do with my, at the time, quasi-rigid Baptist dogmatism. Before we left, my mom told me the Archbishop of San Francisco, a friend of the family, arranged for us an audience with the Pope, Pope John Paul II, who my mother really admired. Wow…that’s cool. But then my aforementioned dogmatism gripped me when, in the fertile imagination of my mind, I imagined a generous Pontiff offering to baptize three month old Evangelina. In my fantasy scenario, I would have to kindly decline his gracious offer, because of my strong adherence to full immersion. Perhaps even discussing the finer points of the sacrament. My mother, in my imagination, would be rightly horrified. This low grade fear followed me throughout the trip until the scheduled audience. Imagine my relief and wry embarrassment, when the audience was not an intimate gathering of congregants at all, but a crowd of over 5000. I laughed to myself while I watched my mother run hither and yon trying to get a picture of John Paul in his Pope-mobile. She was pretty spry for nearly 67.

Our first stop in Rome was, of course, McDonald’s up the street from our hotel room. We went there a lot, food tasted the same. One night, we had room service prepare a fish dinner which we both enjoyed. We also agreed the best Chinese food was the meals we had in Rome. We ordered a meal for my birthday. The only Italian cuisine I remember was the ice cream from a street vendor. Ten days was not nearly enough time to see even a fraction of this great city. But we made the most of it. We flew through the Sistine Chapel, we paid homage to the Pietà in St. Peter’s which was my mother’s wish to see, and we shuffled our way through the winding crevices of the catacombs of St. Callistus. We visited the Colosseum, which was only three blocks away from our providentially placed hotel. We had a great time.

Years later, my trip to Rome gained new meaning. Often, I come across a piece of art whether it’s a song, a film, a book or evidently a sculpture that mysteriously resonates with me. That’s what happened when I watched the movie “Of Gods and Men” in 2012. This film tells the story of seven French Trappist monks living in a small village in Algeria who were abducted, and eventually killed. During the night of March 27th. In 1996. The night I was enjoying a birthday dinner with my mother and Evangelina in Rome.

This film tells their lovely, but tragic story while incorporating all that is beautiful in the Catholic Church. The simple liturgy, the acapella worship, the spiritual academia and the rich art history. Never has a movie so holistically moved me. These brothers – my brothers in Christ – lived and ministered to the townspeople of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. They were caught in the clutches of a brutal civil war, and were killed. To this day, their murderers are unknown, except to God, in Whose presence these monks are now basking.

THIS is Christianity. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, and that is just what my brothers did for their friends in Algeria. This, my friends, is a modern example of walking “in His steps”. I am not glorifying their deaths, I am glorifying their lives.

My trip to Rome and the story of the monks of Tibhirine have taught me how much God knows me, and how much He loves me. David wrote in Psalm 139: “O LORD, You have searched me, and known me. You know when I sit and when I rise; You understand my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down; You are aware of all my ways.” What makes this life so sweet is being known by God, by being loved by Him. I am seen. I am known, and I am not alone. My brothers that served in Algeria knew this too. My mother knew it as well.

Easter is the great event that makes this relationship possible. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Our Lord bridged the gap between God, the Father and man. There is nothing sweeter than knowing Jesus.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Psalm 34:8