I went to Rome recently for a meeting, and arrived a couple days early to catch up with some people and see some sights. As I walked with a Chilean Marist Brother through the old city, I recalled a particular scene from the 2000 film Gladiator when the city of Rome is introduced for the first time both to the enslaved fighters and also to the viewer.
What the movie captures so well, and what I perceived clearly walking alongside the Coliseum and other ancient edifices was the way that the physical structures of the city served to project the power of empire upon all foreigners who entered the city walls, whether captives, diplomats, or merchants. As one character in the film says, “I didn’t know men could build such things.”
The feeling of being oh so small in the presence of something grand is a powerful experience. While one can also be wonderstruck by tininess, I think it is easier to get used to the smallness of an ant than the massiveness of a giant redwood. Yes, we marvel at the smallness of things that we normally see in larger forms, such as an intricate engraving on a grain of rice. In contrast however, the awe of beholding the truly grand is not just that it is so large, but that it reminds us of our smallness that many of us had long forgotten.
Humility is the spiritual gift that accompanies this feeling of smallness. It reaches its fullest form when accompanied by the awareness of our having received unmerited loving care: “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place—What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?” Humility and grace conspire to teach us how special and beloved we are even in spite of our failings, fragility, and littleness.
It is possible that one might have a similar experience when gazing upon the works of human hands. During this trip to Rome, I was particularly taken by Bernini’s statue of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which quite literally took my breath away when I finally saw it in person. While I was greatly moved though, it wasn’t through the experience of the mysterium tremendum that I get from contemplating Mount Rainier or ocean depths.
Instead, I have become suspicious of buildings and monuments designed by people to instill a sense of insignificance in others. Is the goal truly to impart the perception of smallness that is humility wrapped in grace? Or is it much rather to impart the smallness of humiliation, that my human powers matter nothing compared to the might, power, and wealth of another?
These were my thoughts when I was walking alongside the Coliseum, but I confess they were also my thoughts when visiting the interiors of the major basilicas of the city. Under Constantine, Rome became Christian. However, in many ways Christianity also became Roman (and is still trying to recover today). I found myself repeatedly wondering which churches were truly built to glorify God and which were built to glorify their human patrons. This doesn’t make the structures somehow bad: they are still architectural and artistic marvels, testaments to history, and surely serve to bring many people into prayer. However, do these buildings primarily point toward the divine, or do they still lead us back to wonder at human initiatives? Perhaps there is a room for both/and, if we focus on the God-given human powers of the muscles that hefted stone and the creative minds that engineered the structures and produced the various ornamentations rather than the wealth or political will that orchestrated the process of construction.
I often joke when I receive compliments on my cooking. If somebody tells me that I made some good chicken, I will say that God made the chicken; I just put the ingredients together and heated it up. Are the great buildings of this world, whether they be churches, palaces, or office buildings, truly that much different from my chicken parm?
Lest we forget, humans were only the builders who arranged the materials together. God is the Creator from which the materials came.
The theme of humility versus humiliation and words of builders and workers call to my mind the great hero of American folklore, John Henry. This, week’s “ear candy” tells part of his story as sung by a real life American hero, Paul Robeson. As alluded to toward the end of this week’s post, when we look at the things people make, I think it is very important to reflect on who is actually doing the work. To that end, this week’s “brain food” describes how prisoner labor, typically compensated at a rate of $0.87 per hour, underlies the low cost of many items, including furnishings purchased by some churches. What is the world that we are building each day, and how do we choose to do so?
Ear Candy: “John Henry” by Paul Robeson
Brain Food: “Who Build Your Pew?” by Will Young
Come back next Saturday for a new post!