2016年04月19日

every single night for an entire year

I don't remember the name of the church that had those frescoes that looked so much like American WPA New Deal heroic murals, but I do remember Catherine pointing them out to me and saying, "You gotta love those Franklin Roosevelt popes up there . . ." I also remember the morning we woke early and went to mass at St. Susanna, and held each other's hands as we listened to the nuns there chanting their daybreak Gregorian hymns, both of us in tears from the echoing haunt of their prayers. My sister is not a religious person. Nobody in my family really is. (I've taken to calling myself the "white sheep" of the family.) My spiritual investigations interest my sister mostly from a point of intellectual curiosity. "I think that kind of faith is so beautiful," she whispers to me in the church, "but I can't do it, I just can't . . ."


Here's another example of the difference in our worldviews. A family in my sister's neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, "Dear God, that family needs grace." She replied firmly, "That family needs casseroles," and then proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this is grace.

We walk out of St. Susanna, and she says, "Do you know why the popes needed city planning in the Middle Ages? Because basically you had two million Catholic pilgrims a year coming from all over the Western World to make that walk from the Vatican to St. John Lateran--sometimes on their knees--and you had to have amenities for those people." My sister's faith is in learning. Her sacred text is the Oxford English Dictionary. As she bows her head in study, fingers speeding across the pages, she is with her God. I see my sister in prayer again later that same day--when she drops to her knees in the middle of the Roman Forum, clears away some litter off the face of the soil (as though erasing a blackboard), then takes up a small stone and draws for me in the dirt a blueprint of a classic Romanesque basilica. She points from her drawing to the ruin before her, leading me to understand (even visually challenged me can understand!) what that building once must have looked like eighteen centuries earlier. She sketches with her finger in the empty air the missing arches, the nave, the windows long gone. Like Harold with his Purple Crayon, she fills in the absent cosmos with her imagination and makes whole the ruined.

In Italian there is a seldom-used tense called the passato remoto, the remote past.

You use this tense when you are discussing things in the far, far distant past, things that happened so long ago they have no personal impact whatsoever on you anymore--for example, ancient history. But my sister, if she spoke Italian, would not use this tense to discuss ancient history. In her world, the Roman Forum is not remote, nor is it past. It is exactly



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