When in Rome: My Thanksgiving Pilgrimage

“At that moment, language, distance and time were transcended. Where the sacred brings the past and present together is the point at which each experienced traveler knows that any one of us is open to meeting the next person.”

dsc_4498_00111BY KOHL GLAU — When traveling abroad, I strive not to be just another tourist, either on the inside or the outside. But what else could one possibly be? Stepping foot into another country, by definition, implicitly means you’re a five-year-old again: open to meeting all good people, open to unanticipated ideas, fresh ways of life, speaking a new mother tongue — and like, blending in as much as possible.

So why go through all this trouble as an adult? To paraphrase the great Harold Bloom, we can never meet enough people, and we learn something new about ourselves when we learn something original from another. If this is also the merit of reading great literature, doesn’t the same hold true of travel?

My latest travel novel takes place in Frankfurt am Main, Venice, and Ravenna. The plot: tracking the influences of the eastern Roman empire of Byzantium on western Europe. And the spiritual theme: travel is a sacred journey bridging us to the divine.

Frankfurt am Main: when ancient Rome and Carolingian ruins meet

bartexteriorDeparting from the plane in Frankfurt am Main, I quickly found the train to the center of town headed for my destination, Dom Sankt Bartholomaeus (Cathedral of Saint Bartholomeus). I had only one day in the city, and this is the sight I needed to see.

No less than 10 Holy Roman emperors were crowned in this church between 1562 and 1792. Emperors and subjects saw their religious and political identities tied to a much older institution. Approaching the Cathedral, I saw ancient Roman and early medieval Carolingian ruins in the shadow of the imposing church.

What would the ancient Romans have thought of a Christian German emperor claiming patrimony over Rome? That I cannot answer, but I did ponder why a German king would connect himself to Rome.

barttripticEntering the museum, I witnessed first-hand the liturgical artifacts of the pomp and circumstance of the emperor’s coronation; grandiose vestments for priests and deacons, and richly-detailed ceremonial books testify to the importance of the event, and its connection to an antique Rome. By this time in history, all roads did not lead to Rome but the roads of ecclesiastical authority, governmental legitimacy, educational achievement, and religious piety lead to an ancient Rome of Augustus Caesar and Saint Peter. If these late medieval Germans readily adopted an identity from the past, could I do the same? Whose history would I adopt as my own?

Never having traveled to Germany, I was surprised at a feeling of coming to an unknown home. I have German relatives in Bavaria, but whatever German cultural inheritance I could have received was lost with my grandfather, whose parents made it a point not to speak too much German in the household. My education is based on Greek and Roman classics, my religion is Roman Catholic, and I was beginning to feel a subtle and deep connection to a particular people. I speculated that perhaps a spiritual quest in search of the divine was not simply an individual endeavor, but a communal one, with one’s Volk, the saints, the community, past, present and future.

Hauling a suitcase over stone in Venice gives rise to Erasmus

dsc_4465_0044I could have traveled from Frankfurt to Venice blindfolded, but once I set foot on the island I might as well have been blindfolded. My hotel was only a five-minute walk from the taxi stand, but it took me nearly an hour to reach my new temporary residence. By  then it, was midnight. I was carrying a heavy suitcase with the entire contents of time, prompting my friend to ask, “Why don’t you use the wheels on your case?”

Slightly panting, I explained how I hated hearing that wheels-on-stone racket.

Besides, I continued, it was good exercise, which reminded me of Erasmus. He famously wrote that the Germans prided themselves on their large physical stature and gift for magic. Speaking for myself, I don’t know about the magic act.

Since Venice is an island, I knew I would always be in the city, yet wrong turns were easy to make. Many streets end at a canal, or simply fork into two other streets leading who knows where. Trying to find a painting by Giovanni Bellini amidst the confusion of the streets, I entered every church I chanced upon, took a few moments to say a short prayer, collected a half a dozen holy cards, and told myself, “Slow down. You might not reach the destination you seek, but you will find something worthwhile along the way.”

dsc_4470_00392One location I could always find was the Basilica of San Marco. Entering the church is to enter a picture book of the past, walking among hundreds of mosaics of Old Testament prophets, apostles, saints, and scenes from the life of Jesus. Here the new Rome, Constantinople, certainly had an artistic influence on Venice with its simple yet stunningly arranged mosaics.

Here lie the relics of Saint Mark, spirited away from Alexandria, Egypt, by Venetians in 828. Saint Mark’s presence gave the city a new link to a sacred past, forging a powerful identity for the island’s inhabitants. It occurred to me that it is not simply a case of everyone wanting a history to call their own; people want a connection to the sacred, particularly to a sacred history. Just as the medieval Germans sought union with a spiritual past, so too the Venetians. Was I so different?

Ravenna and Theodoric? Holy edict!

dsc_4203_0306I left the slowly-sinking island of Venice for a city on terra firma, Ravenna, about 100 miles south of Venice by train.

After Rome fell to the Gothic tribes in 410 A.D., prominent Roman families sought to co-create stability in sections of the Italian peninsula by working with their Germanic conquerors. (Meanwhile the eastern half of the empire went all-out to recover their losses in the west. Ravenna was a successful case-study.)

As it happened, the son of a Germanic king was appointed by the Byzantine Roman emperor to reclaim parts of the peninsula. Initially serving the emperor in the east, Theodoric the Great conquered much of the Italian peninsula by 523, made Ravenna his capital, and managed to act as a Roman agent for the eastern empire while serving as a Gothic king. Attempting to bring harmony between the indigenous Romans and the Goths, Theodoric established laws ranging from land rights to Christian worship.

dsc_4163_0346I had read Theodoric’s edicts back home, but now I wanted to see the churches, what Christians in the sixth century would have seen. Entering the center of town, Piazza del Popolo, I saw a Venetian palace; just when I thought I had left Venice behind. Continuing on, I visited the Church of San Vitale, the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, and the Arian Baptistery. Simple red brick for the exterior, each building stood in a gentle silence away from the din of a multitude of tourists.

Upon entering I could see that the eastern iconographic influence was more than evident: stunning mosaics of Christ’s baptism; the eastern Roman emperor Justinian; Mary with an infant Jesus holding a pintsized scroll; saints; martyrs; angels; and, in some scenes, a cleanly shaven Jesus sporting a Roman toga. While Venetian artists worked on the mosaics for San Marco in the 13th century, these mosaics were created by Byzantine artists nearly seven hundred years earlier. These were perhaps the earliest examples of medieval Christian art.

dsc_4169_0340Being accustomed to Catholic churches with white walls, a single crucifix, and rows of wooden pews, these sites were a breath of fresh air within ancient walls. Large open spaces, walls glistened with millions of small tiles, angels and saints surrounding me, how could I not feel in communion with others? What was a newly baptized person to think emerging from the water only to behold a ceiling mosaic of Jesus being baptized? A shared unity, I would imagine, between the newly baptized two, and coming into the body of Christ. How about images of prophets and apostles worshiping Christ? Would the faithful see themselves as adoring Christ together with their spiritual ancestors?

Nearing the end of my trip, thinking back at the cities and churches I visited, the mosaics at Ravenna struck me with something new. I couldn’t help but think of some contemporary spiritual writers promoting the practice of applying ancient stories to our lives today, taking select narratives as tools for coping with contemporary angst. Or showing how the past is meaningful simply because of the demands of today.

dsc_4259_02502But perhaps all this was backwards. Could the converse be true? What if I applied my own life experiences to those same ancient stories, bringing my present into the past? Could the demands of today be meaningful because of the past? Would that newly baptized neophyte fifteen hundred years ago be thinking, “Jesus’ baptism has meaning because I am being baptized today?” or “My baptism has meaning because Jesus was himself baptized”?

I would like to think it was the latter.

At that moment language, distance and time were transcended, where the sacred brings the past and present together; where, as every experienced traveler knows, one person encounters another. I find that the best travelers immerse themselves into their destination. While gazing at the same mosaic depicting John the Baptist, a personified river Jordan as an old man, and Jesus at the center of it all, I cannot help but think that my spiritual life today is at its fullest when shared with others.

Kohl Glau is the new Associate Editor at Soul’s Code.  His academic training is in theology, religion in late antiquity, and he speaks, reads and writes Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin and German.  He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies and certificates in Jewish and Medieval Studies from Arizona State University.  He is completing his M.A. at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

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3 Responses to “When in Rome: My Thanksgiving Pilgrimage”

  1. You have a fine way with words. Makes me want to mount the wings of dreams and travel with you. Happy editing

  2. Thank you for the powerfully visual experience through your words…
    Big Love,

  3. Kohl,

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us. You said, ” . . .my spiritual life today is at its fullest when shared with others.” I believe one of the most basic drives we have as humans is the drive for mutual connection. I imagine sharing your spiritual life with others meets that need. Immersing oneself in the culture of another local is truly the only way to travel. I too have fond memories of people watching while sitting in piazzas in Italy and at café tables in Aix en Provence, while immersing myself in an intensive French language course. I like to let my system absorb the energy of a place and that takes time. Although not Catholic, I still cherish lighting candles in the Duomo in Milan and ascending the stairway to the glorious roof overlooking the expanse of the city. Happy travels!