“This is the end of my old ways, dear Christ!
Now I will hear Your voice at last
And leave the frosts (that is: the fears) of my December.
And though You kill me, (as You must) more, more I’ll trust in you.
For though the darkness and the furious waters of that planting
Seep down and eat my life away
Yet my dark night both eats and feeds me,
‘Til I begin to know what new life, green life springs within my bones.”
~ Thomas Merton
Ah the churches of Rome! Here I am, trodding for the second time the worn, disjointed, unsettled paved streets of the eternal city, with one thing in mind: visiting and admiring some of its most beautiful basilicas, churches, chapels, oratories… It is said that there are about 900 churches in Rome, so the choice is wide and elegant. One thing to remember here: this place is the cradle of Christianity and hosts the Holy See of Catholicism, a religion to more than a billion people in the world. The sheer number of tourists and pilgrims is huge and many want to see the Vatican in their lifetime, with its most famous Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum of the ancient Roman Empire, or the Trevi Fountain. I have just come from a retreat in the mountains of Umbria, and I wonder what will touch me here, after this week of thinking and meditating on the non-dual nature of experience.
“I am the light of the world.”
What strikes me most here, is not the gigantism and wealth of the most famous basilicas, nor the beautiful art that you will find hidden in the innermost corners of many churches: Raphael, Caravaggio, the Baldacchino and Ecstacy of Saint Teresa of Bernini, the Pietà and Moses of Michelangelo, the frescoes of Gaulli and Pozzo. No, something else touches me profoundly. It is the utter simplicity of the churches all around, sometimes barely noticeable amongst the other buildings. Of course, some of them have elegant forms and an abundance of statues, but nothing like the great cathedrals that we find in other places in Europe, with their majestic architecture and exquisite, chiselled arches and buttresses. No, the churches of Rome are somewhat blending into the rest of the urban landscape, and yet. Yet… Dare you enter in any one of these, dare you pass the simple, unassuming door and you will know what message is waiting for you. The splendour! The sheer beauty, spaciousness, peace that unfolds here before you! The most important is never without, it is within. We all have our various, different, somewhat banal appearances to show to the world, but inside is the heart, is the space of consciousness, the real beauty and meaning, the real thing we should all aim for. This is my first teaching here, my very first humbling, and this is due to happen again and again. Every time I enter a new church, a new hidden oratorio, I am faced with this essential truth of living.
“The kingdom of God is within you.”
In every church a story. On the walls and the ceilings, in the paintings and the statues, in every little corner a story is said. Sometimes repeated in every church, like the many happenings and events in Jesus’ life, his father Joseph, his mother Mary, his disciples. Sometimes specific to a church, like the story of the saint to whom the place is dedicated. But all these stories are in the background, withdrawing themselves in favour of what is in the front, what is first and most important. The splendour, the peace, the beauty, the awe. All our stories seem to occupy the front of our lives, and they do most of the time. We are overwhelmed by them, concerned about them, we are drawn towards them and often drown into them. And yet, if we take the time to look and observe carefully, we will see again and again that our stories are for the most part just superficial thoughts running in the background and repeating themselves like an old worn out record. They are marginal to what is essential but rarely seen, namely the deafening presence and peace of consciousness, this vast space like thing, the supreme ‘I am’ that is foremost to all our stories, however important or trivial they may be. This is what we are.
“I AM the Lord… there is no God beside Me.”
Visiting so many churches, I have come to notice a small element in the decoration that repeated itself again and again, everywhere, to the point of becoming, to me, the most important and essential figure of all. It is a discreet but haunting one, often placed in the most strategic places, and takes the form of a dove. Just a dove, with its wings spread. In the Christian iconography, it represents the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the threefold aspect of the one and only god, the famous Sat, Chit, Ananda of Indian philosophy. In the language used during my retreat, that would be Being, Knowing, and Peace, the threefold aspect of the one consciousness. Thomas Merton gives here a wonderful description: “In the Father the infinite Love of God is always beginning and in the Son it is always full and in the Holy Spirit it is perfect and it is renewed and never ceases to rest in its everlasting source. But if you follow Love forward and backward from Person to Person, you can never track it to a stop, you can never corner it and hold it down and fix it to one of the Persons as if He could appropriate to Himself the fruit of the love of the others. For the One Love of the Three Persons is an infinitely rich giving of Itself which never ends and is never taken, but is always perfectly given, only received in order to be perfectly shared.”
“In Him we live and move, and have our being.”
So here we are with the little dove, white, pure, innocent, peaceful, whose importance in the churches of Rome cannot be denied. You can see the little figure above the pulpit, ready to come down and illuminate the priest’s sermon. You see it above Bernini’s Baldacchino in Saint Peter’s Basilica. You see it in countless other places, reminding you of its presence and everlasting importance in your life. But above all, you see it right in the middle of the main, highest coupole at the centre of the church. The value and potency of the Holy Spirit mustn’t be overlooked, for it is here represented with golden rays all around, followed by a few golden rings, and another larger ring of gold, and angels all around. Even god and Jesus have been portrayed in the margin. The most important place of our lives is when we allow awareness to ‘fall’ upon us. Can the message be clearer than that? Nothing is more important than the spirit, or consciousness. It is again eloquently emphasised by Thomas Merton: “The full stature of man is to be found in ‘spirit’ or pneuma. Man is not fully man until he is ‘one spirit’ with God.”
“I am the way and the truth and the life.”
The words Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost well define the airy, unsubstantial, empty nature of consciousness. In Hebrew, the word for ‘spirit’ is the same one than for wind, or breath, and by extension for spaciousness. This is what we so obviously meet in these churches, the spacious, aerial aspect of the ‘spirit’. Another quality for the spirit, for consciousness, is to be solid, indestructible, like these basilicas are. They have crossed and braved many centuries, a quality that comes close to eternity. Rupert Spira describes the nature of awareness as being “open, empty, spacious, luminous, ever-present, indestructible“. Is it not here a perfect definition of the feelings we encounter when standing in these marvellous churches? And what about the awe we experience in front of these immense spaces, does it not give us a taste of the infinite? Or on the other hand, does it not make us sense the intimacy of the presence of god, how close the spirit is in its incommensurable vastness?
“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.”
Another very instructive point is that the many synonyms for ‘airy’, in the dictionary, includes the cheerful, peppy, vital, active, exquisite aspects of existence. There is a mysterious sense of joy and happiness emerging every time you enter in one of these roman churches. Maybe this is why so much beauty has been incorporated as an essential part of these places. It had the function to convey the joyful side of existence through the splendour. What would be so special about experiencing spaciousness, eternity, infinity, luminosity if we didn’t find in them the happy, joyful, peaceful, the fulfilling and the loving? These are the fruits waiting for us when we turn within. In the Christian faith, it is said that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. And the gifts – charisma in Greek – are “wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude (strength), knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord”.
“The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Do not tell me that the churches of Rome are austere, remote, aloof places, not open to life experiences. It is true that they speak outrageously of suffering and begging. But this is just a background story. For the rest, what riches and abundance! They are tantric places I assure you! Most churches I have seen are literally covered with decorations, in one form or another. Marble, exquisite patterns on the floor or altars, bright colours, splendid bas-reliefs, extraordinary mosaics, trompe l’oeils, candelabras, paintings and sculptures everywhere representing men, women, animals, angels, entangled in all kinds of life situations… Life is exposed in its most varied, rich, and craziest forms. All participate in a prodigious dance, and yet, not overwhelmingly. The essential is again preserved. Our life is a rich tapestry too, and we mustn’t be afraid of its profusion, nor should we shy away from participating in its many entanglements and conflicts. They are not essentially us. The churches of Rome show us the way: in spite of all possible stories and profusion of conflicts, thoughts, feelings, and the deep suffering and turmoil of life, consciousness prevails and holds it all dearly. When everything is consciousness’ substance, it all returns to us with riches of love, peace, joy, beauty, awe, silence. Not to be searched in the complexities and recesses of existence, but here, now, in the foreground, blatantly exposing itself in our face. We are walking in the maze and complexities of street life, we pass through a simple door – the door of I Am? – and… Yes. Wow. Ok. So this is it.
“You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is one thing to notice the true and foremost nature of our experience, but there is one thing that gets in the way. It is our suffering, which is nothing else than the sign that we have taken ourselves to be an entity separate from others, the world, and experience. This is where the biggest symbol of these churches comes to help. Its importance is such that I have often failed to notice it: the cross, symbol – if any – of the Christian religion. Placed on every church’s highest tower, on every altar, held by countless people in countless sculptures and paintings, it is the instrument of Jesus’ crucifixion. What meaning does it carry for ourselves, for our normal everyday life? It says something like: Our difficult and painful feelings must be met fully, not pushed away. When you invite and accept your deepest feelings of suffering, you are being resurrected, you are being saved and you then shine in that which was always here at hand, but unnoticed: the space of consciousness. So, that’s right, if you totally embrace your cross, it is likely that you won’t notice it, it has disappeared in the landscape. Jeff Foster wrote: “The symbol of the cross points to that which cannot be crucified. … The instrument of your torture, the thing which once threatened to break your spirit, eventually becomes your salvation, even wakes you up, to presence, to gratitude, to the miracle of creation. When we turn to fearlessly face apparent darkness we may discover only undivided light.” Through the death of Jesus, it is shown how consciousness, the Sacred Heart, love itself, is always ever present, and how the love of God, the gift of consciousness, precedes the body and the world, and gives its loving substance to every thing and every experience.
“And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am.”
The churches of Rome have put Mary, Jesus’ mother, as the symbol of life itself. She is everywhere, here wearing a golden crown, there with a crown of twelve stars, here crushing a snake with her feet. It is said, in the Catholic faith, that she is the mother of god, that she is filled with grace. She is called All-holy, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady Undoer of Knots. The fervour towards her is such that she is represented as the equal of God or Christ. The feminine is often a hidden aspect of our experience. It runs the show humbly, from behind, taking in everything, our darkest feelings, our worst experiences, transmuting them in love itself. There is something all-encompassing about Mary, and incredibly potent. When everything is given its proper room in life, when we bow to the potency of ‘what is’, then life reveals itself as the very fabric of love. This life giving force has been well understood by the people. You will find her in countless streets of Rome, depicted in small shrines on the walls. She is the life at its truest and humblest.
“No man comes unto Me save the Father within Me draws him.”
Back to my small hotel, I like to spend some time in the lovely terrace adjoining my room. The night is gently falling on the city and I am once again drawn towards a statue at the top of a nearby tower. It is a crowned Mary, with a lamp in front of her, constantly lit. I think of this week spent among the churches of Rome, and meditate on their abundance and richness, how this has been for me an exemple of the more inclusive aspect of consciousness, which not overwhelmingly, brings to itself all possible manners of experience. To bathe for a moment in this temple that is Sistine Chapel, amongst the exquisite mosaics of Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, or walk under the profusion of the immense fresco in Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola is an invitation to feel the love and beauty that lies in the midst of our experience, with all its stories and vicissitudes. This is the invitation repeated many times, as we stand in these spacious – and precious – altars of life. Mary standing above the eternal city seems a wonderful protector and guardian of its nine hundreds churches, as well as the living bustle of its manifold activity. Hail Mary, full of grace.
Text by Alain Joly
Photos by Elsebet Barner & Alain Joly
Read this text by Jeff Foster: ‘The Nonduality of the Cross’…
– ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ – by Thomas Merton – (New Directions)
– ‘Collected Poems’ – by Thomas Merton – (New Directions)
– ‘The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love’ – by Jeff Foster – (Sounds True)
– ‘Presence‘, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira – (Non-Duality Press)
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