March 15, 2013

Roman Holiday

It's the Ides of March today, the middle of a long dark month, nearing the end of Lent in 2013. Today is the day Julius Caesar was murdered by his own country men and friends. He was warned of course so eloquently according to Shakespeare:
Caesar. The ides of March are come.
Soothsayer. Ay, Caesar; but not gone. (3.1.1)
I have always felt a strong amity towards this day. Growing up I loved the Romans, especially their ancient history; their glorious empire, their conquering of their known world in due course. The beginning of this empire of course came about with the birth and power of Julius, who rose to power and was quickly snuffed out. I remember well the made for TV movie Masada, and while the film was about an oppressive empire snuffing the rights of a small powerful people, I as a child fell in love the regime of the Romans, their armies, uniforms, leadership. Following this film I read every book our local library had on the Roman Empire, relishing their expansion and even their inevitable fall.

Upon graduating from college seminary I was offered the opportunity to travel to Roman to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University which was a privilege and honor. Very few American seminarians are selected annually for this honor, and it was a sign from the Archdiocese that they were grooming me for leadership in church after I was ordained a priest. I took the chance, urged by my bishop, my friends and my parents to accept this chance. To live in Europe, to travel in Europe, was indeed an exciting thought, and I couldn't help but to say yes. I was very motivated by the prospect of being lead there to excel, to be recognized, to be important.

My trip to Rome was uneventful, flying there from JFK to Fiumicino was long, exciting, filled with hope and expectation. The airport was shocking and an eye opening, armed guards everywhere (many terrorist attacks had been experienced by the Romans), chaos, and general mayhem. For an American from a small town who had just lived the last four years at a monastic college, it was shocking, scary, and overwhelming.

As our group of first year seminary graduate school students was rounded by up the universities representatives (we were to live and pray at the Pontifical North American College which sat on Janiculum Hill overlooking St. Peter's, a technical part of Vatican City) we were rushed onto a long city bus that wound its way into Roman history on those narrow streets. I realized though as soon as we were on the bus that I had made a terrible mistake. Rather than highlight to us the surrounding wonders of ancient civilization around us, the college president, Father John, asked us to take our rosaries, and as we wound around the city into the heart of one of most ancient cities left, we would pray silently while he lead us on the rosary. My heart sank, and I knew that this was no Roman Holiday.

I won't delve into my Roman seminary experience here, I intend to do so at a later date. Let me just it was a time of absolute and total despair.

I found great comfort though in the ancient city all around me. I loved to go to the forum, the colosseum, the Circus Maximus, the Pantheon, the catacombs, these old failing vestiges of a powerful empire seemed fresh to me, familiar, like home. Even in the magnificent christian churches, I was always looking for the church or temple beneath their modern foundations. I looked to escape the modern reality around me by traveling to a time and place that was so far away I forgot I had allowed myself to be enveloped by an experience so totally inauthentic for myself. I took comfort in the broken stones and buildings more than in the dark recesses of chapels or churches.

There is a statue of Julius Caesar in Rome that over looks the forum that I would often stop near and rest at. In 1993, on March 15 I was there on purpose to commemorate the Ides of March near his home and near the place where he was stabbed by even his own friend, Brutus. While I was there, a small Roman woman came up to the statue and laid a bouquet of bright, red roses at its feet. I was amazed and asked her, "Donna, che cosa stai facendo? - Woman, what are you doing?" She smiled at me and said, "Mi ricordo di Cesare. - I am remembering Caesar."

It was a gray day that day, as is so often the case in Italy in March (everywhere in the northern hemisphere perhaps). The bright red roses laid out against the gray/green skin of the bronze statue were striking, the small Roman woman dressed in all black remembering a dictator who had been dead nearly 2,000 years cast in bronze standing over a crumbled, decayed city center, these things all propelled me to that place that allowed me to escape.

Now nearly 20 years have past since that day when the roses at the feet of a man dead 2,000 years gave me a moment of joy, of hope. I still remember being struck, awed by the simple gesture this Roman took to remember not the man, but the empire. To remember not the murder but the life. My time in Rome ended in July of 1993, and I was glad to go. However, today especially, the Ides of March, I miss Caesar. For in that brief moment in the gray drizzle I loved him too.

This was the noblest Roman of them all;
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man!' (5.5.68) - Julius Caesar, Shakespeare.

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