“Rome took all the vanity out of me; for after seeing the wonders there, I felt too insignificant to live, and gave up all my foolish hopes in despair.”
– Louisa May Alcott in Little Women (1869)
The great folly of the anticipation of travel, especially for the young and the inexperienced, is that one is so unsure of what to anticipate. Many prospective and youthful wayfarers will, in the time leading up to their departure to the unknown, dream away their days in idle and ill-informed excitement, conjuring forth a stream of phantasms of this or that distant and exotic land and all without any sense at all for the soul—or, in many cases, the most basic geography—of the place to which their aircraft is set to carry them.
In many cases their ignorance naturally leads them—as human nature is wont to do—to create idealizations and expectations that have more in common with all the promises of our fore-fathers pertaining to the pleasures of Paradise than with anything earthly. Many are captured by this hope—one of the most ancient of dreams found weaving its amorphous way through the collective soul of Man—that the moment the soil of the earth has fallen away beneath our feet, that in that moment we will also have left behind all pain, all boredom, all confusion, all worries…all things human; and it so often leads to the devastating folly of Icarus.
Before boarding the plane for Rome I conscientiously forbade myself from anticipating the Eternal City. I have been burned by this particular flame before and wouldn’t be burned again; I have given in to the folly of holding distant lands to standards that no place on earth was ever meant to meet—except for that long forgotten Garden—and when they failed to measure up, as they are bound to, I met the sickly specter Disappointment.
So whenever anyone asked me of my coming journey (and many, many did) “are you excited?”, I could only tell them, in all honesty: “No.” I couldn’t be bothered. What would be would be, and this time I would patiently wait to see what would be.
But being a dreamer by nature I was only able to suppress the natural response of Man to the unknown for so long; especially such an unknown as Rome. And so, halfway through the six hour flight that would land in Paris I woke from a nap, and found to my shock that I was no longer in the same craft that had roared so violently off the tarmac at Dulles in Washington in the District of Columbia in the United States of America in the continent of North America on the spinning planet Earth, so many hours before.
Most all of the lights on the interior plane had been extinguished; outside the tiny windows of the cabin everything was black, and everything inside the cabin was cast in an eerie, unearthly glow; everything was suffused with the heavy weight of the restless sleep of the two hundred semi-divine wayfarers, while the craft (whatever exactly it was) itself vibrated so very faintly with the strange hum of mechanized flight that has nothing at all in common with the progress of any of the trains or automobiles or traveling beasts that are chained to the sandpaper surface of the globe.
Without really thinking about it, or stopping to choose words, or to ask what on earth I was going to write, I flipped open the notebook that I had solemnly dedicated to my travels and swiftly wrote (and I quote):
“…I am no longer on any of the terrestrial crafts of men. Now I find that am a passenger on a spaceship that is shooting haphazardly through the darkness of the cosmos; I am on a journey to a world that is beyond my understanding of the nature of the universe. Perhaps, I suspect, we aren’t even in the universe anymore, but are passengers on the craft of the Great Divorce, speeding through God knows what to God knows where –but not France, not Paris; anything but there. Something immeasurably greater; something ethereal, a little dark, at least to our understanding – and that is why we sit so silently in our seats, staring straight ahead, not caring to talk to our neighbour, not when we have within our minds, when we carry in our imaginations this precious treasure, this image of the Elysium that this celestial craft is destined toward.
“It is no matter if the image is false – it is not the particulars of these haunting dreams that are the manna of the mind, but rather it is the unknown wonder that await us, the peace and the happiness that we can be sure are at the end of this journey, in whatever form they should take. So much the better if it is all unlike anything we can think of; so much the better if it surpasses the phantasms of our minds, those images that are at best only extensions of the images of the earth, after all.
“It is only a trick of the imagination of course. For I know that when we land we will land in a city, the stones of which have been cut and placed by the hands of men. And in that city men will awake in tears and will live out their days in sorrow; and there is yet another spot on earth “where men sit and hear each other groan” and “ but to think is to be full of sorrow” .
“And yet, it is so much more than a trick of the imagination, is infinitely much more. All along I know that it is not just a dream, but a memory and a foretaste. If you look hard enough the sweet—the now bittersweet—taste of Heaven lingers in the air all around us; Heaven suffuses everything with its odour. Dare (and you must dare) to touch it, taste it with the tip of your tongue and you will never ever forget; you will always, always know that the prize at the end of the road is far to great to pass up; not for life, not for anything.”
Tonight I stood on the roof of Casa La Salle (the hotel where we reside). It is against the rules, but I appeal to the theological loophole of penal law; plus, I was alone, and silent, and very unlikely to cause a ruckus. I stood watching a distant fireworks show glimmering to the East over the sparkling silhouettes of pines and palms and apartment blocks, and over above St. Peter’s and the Coliseum and the breath-taking basilicas that are the pillars that keep Rome standing; everything was silhouetted in flickering gold and silver (and this so soon after the great fireball of the setting sun had painted everything with a fluorescent brush). It looked and sounded like a battlefield.
Being in a reflective mood I thought of many things. Much of what I thought centered on
the unexpected, breath-taking realization that absolutely everything here in the Eternal City has surpassed all my expectations.
“Everyone who has gone to Rome before you has come back changed,” she said to me before I left. I didn’t believe it though. What business does a place, just another spot on the surface of this earth, filled with men and their sins, have in changing a man? What place on earth has the power to do that?
The answer, I have found, is none at all. But Heaven certainly does. And in Rome most of all, all of the glory to be found in the final, eternal Kingdom descends in one giant column of flame and touches the plane of Man; and at the very center of that flame is St. Peter’s, and from that epicenter it spreads out in an inferno that is constantly kindling every part of the globe in this divine conflagration. Throw as much water on it as you will, it is but a drop in an ocean.
Heaven, it is so very clear from this, the tallest tower on Earth, is nothing less than inevitable; and that, I believe, is the source of all of the hope and comfort of our Faith.