Magazine article The Christian Century

A Shower of Nouns

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Shower of Nouns

Article excerpt

VIRGINIA WOOLF argued that life does not unfold like the neat plot of a novel. Instead, she said, life comes to us as "an incessant shower of innumerable atoms," an endless series of impressions that are different for every person.

I think of Woolf's shower of atoms on Sunday mornings in Rome, where my family is living this year. For me, newly arrived with my rusty Italian, going to church is like standing in a shower of nouns. The rest of the grammar flows past me so quickly that my ears and brain can't keep up. But I catch many of the nouns: pace, giustizia, misericordia. Syria. Burkina Faso. Libya. I bambini, i poveri, la creazione.

My favorite church in Rome is Santa Maria in Trastevere, which faces onto a piazza where the life of the church and the life going on all around it are one life. Children and street performers, priests and congregants, tourists and beggars and pilgrims mingle. And through it all runs the music of the fountain: water over water over stone.

Santa Maria in Trastevere is famous for its 12th-century mosaics. On the facade of the church, Mary nurses her baby, surrounded by women. Inside the church, Mary's baby appears in glory, a handsome grown man with his arm around his mother, his long fingers draped over her shoulder. Mary gestures toward her son, and no wonder: she is so dazzling in her beauty that we need to be reminded to look at anything else. Mother, son, and the saints who flank them are larger than life, their eyes wide, their faces still and beautiful. They shine out of the golden half-dome in which they sit.

Beneath them the congregation assembles. Every morning and evening and five times on Sunday, worshipers gather, embrace in greeting, and sit together in the pews. When worship ends each evening, the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay group dedicated to peacemaking and service to those in need, gathers for prayer beneath the grave and graceful figures in the dome. They return, as they put it, to the feet of Jesus after a day of service in the world. A basket near the front of the church overflows with prayers written on scraps of paper; a statue of St. Francis also attracts written prayers, and I add my own to the pile around his feet. Christians have been praying on this spot since the middle of the fourth century, and under the mosaics since the 12th. The place is saturated with prayers.

On Sunday mornings I sit halfway up the nave so that I can catch the nouns as they fall from the pulpit where the gospel is read, and so that I can see the face of the preacher. …

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