There are layers of history in Rome—“layers like lasagna”—one tour guide suggested. Literally, layers were built on top of layers, buildings that had been destroyed by war and natural disaster were covered with dirt and new buildings were erected over ruins. Symbolically, many Christian churches were built over ancient pagan sites.
The architecture, art, and religious history communicate something spiritual, a deeper story with layers of meaning, like lasagna. I’ll share some of my favorite places, and the journey, from my trip to Rome to attend the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates:
St. Peter’s Basilica and the Scavi tour
On my first morning in Rome, I had scheduled a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Scavi tour of the necropolis beneath, including St. Peter’s tomb. My plan was to have a taxi drop me off where I needed to be to start the tour for a stress-free morning, no need for coat and umbrella, and no need to hurry. Where I thought I could find a taxi, there were none; where a distracted police officer pointed, there were none. A little nervous, I decided I should just start walking in the general direction of the Vatican or I may not get there in time. Surely, I would see the large dome and signs along the way. There were none.
I remember that the Vatican was just to the left of the Tiber River as it changes directions. With this vague idea, I set off on a lovely tree-lined path along the Tiber River. The views were beautiful—this will be just fine, I say to myself, I have plenty of time.Getting a little chilly, but I’ll be there soon. The online map said a 45-minute walk. Oops, a few sprinkles, a few more. Darn it, why didn’t I bring the umbrella I had packed?
I reach the point where the Vatican should be but I see no less than six different options to take; I see no dome and no signs. In panic mode now, with it getting colder and sprinkling more, I ask a woman, “Where is the Vatican?” Mind you, I had asked one young couple who responded, “In hurry, no time” and another woman who circled herself saying, “hmmm” whom I decided not to trust for accurate directions, but this woman—she is my angel. “No English. I take you,” she said. Oh, thank God.
She takes me a few blocks to the intersection where I finally see St. Peter’s Basilica (and its dome. Who knew the Vatican was surrounded by other tall buildings? Not what I had pictured.) I have finally arrived, yet I still need to walk several blocks in light rainfall, so I duck into a little storefront outside of St. Peter’s Square and buy an umbrella. Better safe, than sorry, I think.
Thirty seconds later, new umbrella overhead, I experienced the hardest rainfall I’ve ever walked in (outside of the time I got lost in Munich, Germany …. hmmm, seems to be an international pattern). I arrive at the gate of the Swiss Guard in plenty of time to stand in the cold and rain for at least 30 more minutes before the tour began. Still, I am grateful I walked. I learned, and saw, much more than I would have had I been delivered directly to St. Peter’s Square. There are layers of meaning when you surrender to the journey.
The tour was quite amazing, but I was most struck by the case the guide built throughout the tour that the Basilica was indeed constructed over St. Peter’s tomb. The area beneath St. Peter’s Basilica was only discovered in the 1940s and during excavation, archaeologists found a 4th-century burial ground and a grave marked with ancient lettering translated, “Peter is here”. I was so touched by the reverence our guide showed letting each individual participant have a few moments to privately view the site. It was a moment for the heart to remember only; no photos were permitted on the tour. Nearby the guide pointed out an elaborate grate in the ceiling—directly above, one could hear the prayers and responses of a Mass in progress in the Basilica. For centuries, what laid below was hidden. This faith, built on a grave, has layers of meaning, like lasagna.
I had plenty of time to explore the Basilica and its side chapels in quiet solitude when I went on my own, but on the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates group tour we learned some of the symbolism behind the artwork, altars, and relics from a guide. I learned the bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys of heaven was a pilgrimage itself—for centuries pilgrims touched or kissed his right foot, literally wearing it thin, to receive a blessing from the Church’s first Pope, hoping the gates of heaven would be opened for them. This Catholic faith holds so many beautiful rituals with layers of meaning. Layers, like lasagna.
Aventine Hill, One of the Seven Hills of Rome
Before going to the conference center, I stayed two nights at a monastery at the bottom of Aventine Hill, chosen to be near Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino, the monastery of Fr. Mauritius Wilde. Located in a surprisingly residential area near the Coliseum, I favored the solitude and quiet of the crooked, narrow street lined with gardens, parks and ancient churches to the bustle and crowds of St. Peter’s Basilica.
On the leisurely journey up the hill to visit Fr. Mauritius, I visited the Basilica of Santa Sabina, the oldest Roman Basilica built between 422 and 432, where Pope Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, the Pope begins the celebration at Sant’ Anselmo’s, walking on foot from one basilica to another, to celebrate the beginning of Lent. Further up the hill, I visited Santi Bonifacio and Santa Prisca, as well as a park that overlooked the center of Rome, and the famous Knights of Malta Keyhole that outlines a view of St. Peter’s perfectly.
It was a delight to see Fr. Mauritius, who moved to Rome after serving as Prior for six years at Schuyler’s Christ the King Priory. After a behind-the-scenes tour of the academic center, monastery, chapel and grounds, we enjoyed conversation on the patio. I had kept in touch with Fr. Mauritius since his move the year before, but this revealed another layer, like lasagna. There is a contentment knowing just where my friend’s home is, to know where he works and prays.
St. Benedict’s cell at San Benedetto and Montecassino Abbey
Both destinations were a highlight of sacred sites visited—first, the cell of St. Benedict while he studied in Rome (about the year 500) before founding his first monastery in Subiaco. The cell, or small room, has been preserved; a small chapel adjacent, San Benedetto in Piscinula, dates back to the 12th century. I loved, LOVED, loved this special place. I could have stayed there for hours. To know that St. Benedict listened “with the ear of his heart” in this very place, rejecting the political corruption of Rome and what was expected of him, to pursue the call he knew was from God—well, for a Benedictine Oblate, this is a moment. Had I not been in a group with a full sight-seeing schedule, I would have likely spent a half-day in contemplation at this chapel.
After a beautiful drive in the countryside east of Rome, we arrived at the Abbey of Montecassino where St. Benedict wrote his Rule. We were welcomed, after a foggy drive up the mountain, by clear skies and a heartfelt blessing at Mass—“This is your house as Benedictines,” the priest said, “St. Benedict welcomes you, hugs you, blesses you.” After Mass, we visited the original part of the Abbey, dating back to the 5th century, which had not been destroyed during World War II. This was another profound experience—to be in the place where the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide for monastics and oblates for over 1500 years, was penned. Later we met a gentleman who, as a little boy, had taken refuge with his family at the Abbey during the War, hoping to be safe with the monks high on the mountain. How devastating war is, how many layers there are—for this young boy and his family, the nearby town and, ultimately, the Abbey, bombed in the Battle of Monte Cassino. There are no winners in war.
Place is a powerful thing
It gives us perspective, a sense of where we’ve come from and how we’ve gotten here. The Christian story unfolded in this place of Rome. I am so grateful to have experienced this place of Peter and Paul, the places of St. Benedict and so many other holy places.
But I remember that home is holy too.
Home is where I work out the tension between stability and conversion. Home is where I listen to the ear of my heart. Home is the most important place; it is our present moment. Home is the people you surround yourself with, our friends and family. Our story unfolds at home. This is where we uncover our many layers, like lasagna.