Last Days in Rome

After approximately 19 hours of travel, fortified by Chick-Fil-A and Jamba Juice. I’m still not quite ready to process my semester. So all I have is this baby step:

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My last evening in Rome was made up of a series of firsts: the Cupola of St. Peter’s was conquered. Chocolate-drenched gelato from Frigidarium was digested, as was a drink at  Scholar’s. Then, because my fellow gelato and drink digesters had not planned our time well, I finally ran along Via dei Fori Imperiali, right past the Colosseum  In a floor length skirt. Because we were going to be late for the school-sponsored pizza dinner. Luckily, we made it, despite my purse breaking mid-flight.

After dinner, a large group of merry students made their way back up Via dei Fori Imperiali, taking silly photographs posing as famous statues we studied in Art & Architecture: everything from Bernini’s Apollo & Daphne (with help from a bystanding tree) to the classic Venus Pudica. Once we hit the bars, the group broke into bar-hoppers and cigar-seekers. Not particularly interested in spending money (or smoking a cigar, for that matter), I used my powers of persuasion on a few girlfriends to accompany me in my continued mission of firsts: a coin was tossed into the Trevi Fountain (and my camera decided to capture the moment and make it artsy-fartsy), merriment was made in Piazza Navona (read: heads were dunked in Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi), and I played my harmonica on the steps of Sant’Ignazio.

Sunday, May 5, I wandered about Rome for the last time. I teared up as I turned my back on St. Peter’s Square, prayed at St. Catherine’s tomb at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and listened to the organ at San Luigi while I admired the Caravaggios, and wondered at the Pantheon. I didn’t let my solo-ness stop me from sitting down in a sea of couples for lunch in Trastevere. “Solo?” asked the waiter. “Solo,” I confirmed. The church count for the day soared into the double digits.

Last Day in Rome

Needless to say, it was a triple gelato day.

Hello, America. Hello summer jobs, Youtube, letter-writing, family, frisbee, barbecue, home cooking, and coffee with old friends. Hello organic chemistry, library books, Spotify, driving, Cardinals baseball, and making myself romesick by looking through photographs on Facebook for too long. 

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The Antidote

“So how do you measure the worth of a man / In wealth or strength or size / In how much he gained or how much he gave / The answer will come, the answer will come to him who tries /To look at his life through heaven’s eyes” -“Through Heaven’s Eyes” Prince of Egypt

All semester, I’ve just felt lonely. Why, when I look at such great things, surrounded by such interesting, beautiful people, do I feel so lonely, I asked a friend in an email. It just goes with the territory, she explained. Seeing new things just makes you feel lonely. Don’t worry about it too much.

But the loneliness plagued me everywhere I went, and I couldn’t shake it. It latched on for dear life and wouldn’t let go. I traveled to the far ends of Europe, to Barcelona, to Berlin, to Delphi…and it tailed me all the way. Go listen to Mike Posner’s “Save Your Goodbye” and maybe you’ll get an idea of how this loneliness both hounded me and haunted my thoughts.

Giving up plugging into my mp3 player for Lent gave me a lot of pure, unadulterated time for thought while sitting on the class trip buses shuttling us around Greece for ten days, and instead of not worrying about being lonely, I grappled with it. The typical, “Oh, I feel so small and insignificant when I look at Grecian vistas and the Parthenon and the Mediterranean Sea because they are so big and so great and I am not,” lent me little satisfaction. I don’t feel humbled or insignificant or small. I feel lonely and too complex for my own articulation and entirely alone in the vastness of the universe. I’ve read about this rapidly expanding universe and how much it contains and how complex it is. I felt like that. I felt like the universe, expanding to absorb these experiences and their greatness. I felt like the universe, utterly incomprehensible. I felt like the universe, containing so much stuff but so much emptiness as well.

Sorry to get all angsty, I’m just trying to convey how difficult a loneliness it was.

I kept grappling with it through spring break, through 12 silent train rides through Austria and Germany and mountains. The loneliness and I trudged through Holy Week, too. And then I found it, the answer. I found the antidote to my loneliness.

If you only get to do one thing in Rome (granted, I still haven’t been to Villa Borghese), go straight to the Vatican Museums (grabbing some melone gelato on the way, because that’s important, too). In the Pinacoteca, in the Leonardo da Vinci room, drink in the sorrow Bellini portrays in his painting, Lament over the dead Christ. There is the suffering and the haunting and the loneliness and the helplessness. Mingle that image with the other breathtaking works of art: Laocoon and Sons, the Belvedere Torso, the Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice Amphora, the Raphael frescoes in the Stella della Segnatura. Let the portrayals of the struggle of human activity remind you of your own struggles. Then let the Sistine Chapel convince you your struggling is worthwhile.

Bellini’s Lament over the Dead Christ

Nothing can prepare you for the Sistine Chapel. My mind was quite literally blown apart; I had been meditating on loneliness so long, it had become a pattern of thought, and the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo’s genius ripped it to shreds:


As I ignored the calls of “No foto” and “Silenzio” and drank in the colors and the emotion and the story, I saw the universe. Michelangelo & Co. depicts salvation history: from God forcing apart light and dark, to the creation of Adam, to the fall, to the flood, to the narrative of Jesus Christ’s life, all the way into the future and the end, depicted in The Last Judgement fresco that spreads across the wall behind the altar. There I was, somewhere painted into the soaring, beautiful figures. Before I had felt unable to articulate my struggle with loneliness. Good thing Michelangelo used his paintbrush to articulate THE human struggle 500 years ago, and I could now clearly see that I am part of something bigger. I matter. My actions, like those of all the characters on the ceiling, like those of everyone surrounding me in this sacred space, echo in eternity.

Part of The Last Judgement

And that’s The Antidote. I’m not alone, because I’m a part of this epic and all epics that insist upon the importance and weight of human actions. Mattering trumps the loneliness. But it’s more complex than that; the fact that I matter means the loneliness that is a part of me also matters, via uniting the suffering of loneliness with the sacred suffering of our Lord. No longer are reminders to “Offer it up!” marked as condescending or annoying; they are reminders of The Antidote.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” Catholicism is like a mountain; it gives you a chance and a direction. Even better than a mere mountain, it gives you the means as well: a wealth of knowledge, sacraments, heroes in the form of saints. To top it all, the Church insists that climbing the mountain is what I was made to do, and it is vitally important. I get to help others learn how to struggle upwards. I get to struggle with purpose instead of aimlessly.

“No life can escape being blown about / By the winds of change and chance / And though you never know all the steps / You must learn to join the dance” -“Through Heaven’s Eye’s” Prince of Egypt

Ash Wednesday with Benedict XVI

The announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation from the papacy came right after class on Monday, and the following wait in the lunch line was about as loud as I’ve heard it here. To be in Rome for this historic occasion!

On Ash Wednesday, as the Pope prepared to celebrate his final public mass, many of my classmates and I staked out a spot near the beginning of the line at St. Peter’s, studying for the looming Western Civilization test. Two hours after we joined the line, security was opened up at 15:30, and we scrambled to keep up with the wave of people. The other Maria claims her feet weren’t on the ground for parts of the rush into the gates. I believe her.

Sitting on the right side of the altar, in the middle of the pack, I flipped through the mass booklet, took a nap, and when the lights in St. Peter’s were turned on, gazed at the lit up basilica. (Usually, there is minimal lighting in the church.)

The entrance procession began a little after 17:00. I spotted Cardinal Burke, the last archbishop of St. Louis, and then the Pope came into sight, standing on a moving platform. The last time I’d seen the Benedict XVI was when he visited the U.S. in 2008, at the youth rally in Yonkers, NY, and the decline in his health was apparent, but his voice throughout the celebration of the Mass remained strong.

Right before the end of Mass, Cardinal Bertone, the Pope’s right hand man, addressed the Pope. Despite the speech’s Italian delivery, he was clearly thanking the Pope for all he had done in the past 8 years of his pontificate. At the conclusion, we gave Benedict a standing ovation that seemed to go on forever. With all 10,000 occupants applauding, it sounded as though rain were falling inside. It was all very poetic.

After stepping through the Porta Sancta, the great doors that create the middle entrance into St. Peter’s (usually only opened during a Jubilee Year), I managed not to get trampled for a second time, and made the mad dash back to campus for dinner.

I apologize profusely for the lack of photographs…I forgot to bring my camera in the excitement of the day.

Happy Stupid Birthday to Me

I had big plans: my birthday was the first Friday in Rome, and there was no class and no other orientation obligations of any sort. So what if an 8am class was scheduled for Saturday? My grand plan looked something like this: go into Rome for a morning run with one of my guy friends (who’s a part of the running club back at school), freshen up back at campus, then head out to take Rome by storm.

Remember what I said about flexibility…first, a scavenger hunt was reschedule to Friday afternoon because of weather. I quote myself: “I’m not doing some stupid scavenger hunt on my stupid birthday.” Then, class was rescheduled to Friday morning.

Okay, cool. Guess I’ll just go into Rome, convince people to hang out with me instead of scavenging, and stay in the city later. Nope. The Roman transportation workers go on strike every once in a while, just to remind everyone what would happen if they aren’t paid or whatever. And they decided Friday, January 25, was the day to do just that.

So, great. At least school was providing transportation in and out of the city for the scavenger hunt. My team was easily persuaded to go off and not scavenge; I tried gelato and saw St. Peter’s with my glasses. I did the whole look at the ground until you get to the middle, which was fantastic. St. Peter’s in detail. For my birthday. What.

St. Peter's: Please note the glasses.

St. Peter’s: Please note the glasses.

We explored some more churches along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, including Santa Maria in Vallicella, Sant’ Andrea della Valle, and Il Gesu.

Barocci's The Visitation. My art history professor is cited on the Wikipedia page for Barocci, and I saw her exhibit on the altar piece painter at the St. Louis Art Museum over winter break, where my Barocci obsession was ignited.

Barocci’s The Visitation. My art history professor is cited on the Wikipedia page for Barocci, and I saw her exhibit on the altar piece painter at the St. Louis Art Museum over winter break, where my Barocci obsession was ignited.

Basilica di Sant' Andrea delle Valle has my favorite altar pieces so far, depicting the martyrdom of the apostle Andrew. He's being crucified on the left, his death is the center, and on the right he is being taken down. Expect to see a lot of altar pieces here...it just blows my mind how someone can paint something in a space so big.

Basilica di Sant’ Andrea delle Valle has my favorite altar pieces so far, depicting the martyrdom of the apostle Andrew. He’s being crucified on the left, his death is the center, and on the right he is being taken down. Expect to see a lot of altar pieces here…it just blows my mind how someone can paint something in a space so big.

A beautiful image of our Lady I found in Sant' Andrea della Valle, called "Madonna della Purità." It's a copy of another painting that can be found in Naples.

A beautiful image of our Lady I found in Sant’ Andrea della Valle, called “Madonna della Purità.” It’s a copy of another painting that can be found in Naples.

The ceiling of Il Gesu is so detailed they have a mirror so you can study it better. It was pretty dark, so I'm planning on coming back during the day.

The ceiling of Il Gesu is so detailed they have a mirror so you can study it better. It was pretty dark, so I’m planning on coming back during the day.

I did get to go on the first run of the semester, too, early in the morning before class. The run up the hill was awful. My stomach was complaining (probably all the celebratory brie cheese from the night before), and the road was not built for pedestrians: no shoulder, no sidewalk, and uneven ground. It ended up being more of a walk. On the way back down, though, the sun streamed over our shoulders, lighting up the valley below. The running felt like flying instead.

I love how much light matters. I’ve seen the Colosseum and St. Peter’s by both day and night, and that got me thinking about how other sights change depending on the lighting. I can’t wait to start studying paintings in art history, how the masters play with light, and to see Il Gesu by day,  and the Trevi Fountain by night.

I ended the day with an Italian beer, sitting in the lounge of the dorm. It was a little stupid, but mostly good. Most things are, I guess. The day, not the beer. The beer was all good.

The First Few Days

It’s been over a week since I packed up my bags, following the most meticulously made (mmm, alliteration) packing list I’ve ever created and hopped a flight to Rome. The packing list paid off: I was ten pounds under on my checked bag. Running every day leading up to the flight paid off: my restless legs didn’t show up. Normal legs all the way. Even the best laid plans, however, have a funny habit of falling through, and that has been the number one lesson of the first few days: flexibility. Perhaps not one of the virtues named by Aristotle, but a virtue nevertheless.

Ten pounds under, baby!

Ten pounds under, baby!

The first 24 hours went without a hitch. I slept through most of the flight, my slumber only being punctuated by short periods of wakefulness which only lasted long enough to see someone really liked Liam Neeson; every single movie featured him. Jet lag didn’t hit all that hard, and I spent the first day in Rome alert and excited. I say “in Rome”, but the campus is technically ten some-odd miles south of the city of Rome. We tell taxi cabs “Due Santi”, meaning “Two Saints” because there’s this well dating back to the time of the apostles on campus in the vineyard. The story goes that Saints Peter and Paul met here on their respective ways into Rome. The well is this large mouth interrupting the rows of grapevines, and reminds me of the treasure cave in Aladdin. Y’know, with the tiger opening his mouth and to get to Robin Williams, Aladdin just strolls right in?

The location has its pros and cons. Pros: the peacefulness of a more rural campus, amazing vistas from the vantage point of my room. Cons: We arrived on Saturday morning. I didn’t get into Rome itself until Sunday morning.

View from my dorm window

View from my dorm window

The wait was worth it. Sunday morning broke early and chilly and rainy, and we were up before the sun was up to get breakfast and bus into the city for mass at St. Peter’s. Unfortunately, this is where we get to the best laid plans fall through part. The early morning departure meant I didn’t have the presence of mind to remember my glasses, and I experienced a slightly blurred first impression of St. Peter’s that, while being impressive, awe-inspiring, and all the rest, was still slightly disappointing.

St. Peter's in the morning

St. Peter’s in the morning

Then we were led on our first walking tour. We stood outside the Pantheon, but couldn’t get inside because of mass. Also, this group of men dressed in military-style clothing was jumping about outside the entrance, playing a variety of instruments. Someone said it was a procession, some people said protest, so I’m still not sure. If it was a protest, it was a very happy sounding protest. Trevi Fountain was more impressive than I was expecting, especially considering the sheer number of fountains you see on in a traipse about Rome lasting a few hours. For the Romans, it was a sign of power to show their ability to waste water, so they built lots of fountains. Because of time constraints, we couldn’t throw our coins over our shoulders. The Roman Forum was my favorite part, because our tour guide, a priest living and teaching in Rome, told us all these stories about the different ruins.

Protestors? Procession? They just woke up and felt like playing in front of the Pantheon?

Protestors? Procession? They just woke up and felt like playing in front of the Pantheon?

A small part of the crazy Roman forum

A small part of the crazy Roman forum

So goes the first few days. I hope I never get used to this.

Rome Eve

As a Catholic, Eves are a big deal. Some feast days command so much importance they consume part of the previous day. As a kid, eves mean anticipation. It’s almost Christmas! It’s time to hold candles at the Easter Vigil! As myself, eves are the point at which everything that is about to happen starts to wash over me. I’m last-minute like that.

Papa

On Christmas Eve 2008, my grandfather, affectionately called “Papa” (that’s him above), passed away after a brief battle with cancer. Christmas Day, I made a very important decision regarding my vocation and the bigger picture of my life. I am convinced that Papa had something to do with it…he gained graces through his suffering, or he had a word with God on heaven’s doorstep, I don’t know.

Fast-forward to Rome Eve 2013, my great aunt passed away. Great aunt Kate, if you’re reading this, please have a word with God. I’m not making any huge decisions tomorrow, but I am embarking upon something I know must be desperately important, and I don’t want to miss anything. I want all these events, people, places, adventures, & misadventures about to take place to take a hold of me and possess me with all their truths.

I recently finished reading John Green’s Paper Towns, and I still haven’t had time to process it, but what kept ringing through my head was this thought: Please don’t let this not change me. This is too important a thing to just be consumed; it demands that I grapple with it. So it goes with Rome. Now I have this image of myself in a boxing ring, under the spotlight, circling the center, eyes locked with a three dimensional Italy.

Please keep my Great Aunt Kate & my family in your prayers. Me too, seeing as I’ll be spending some time flying over a rather vast body of water.

Edit: I say tomorrow, but I am writing this so late that it’s already The Big Day.

A Letter of Intent

I, Maria Buckner, am embarking upon my first international adventure in a week. When I say study abroad, people ask the courtesy question of where? and I say, Rome, and I gush about how excited I am, and then I make some vague claim that I will try to keep in touch.

This is where the magic, I hope, will happen. In order to soak up the world, and squeeze every last drop out of my semester in Rome as I can, I need to write, and this is where I will do a majority of it. So, welcome, welcome to all newcomers to Climb Ev’ry Mountain. I’ve been here since April of 2012, off and on, quietly, anonymously soaking in the world.

Now, as you can see from the first line, I have gone public. And my intention is to post once a week. I followed a lot of the blogs of classmates who went last semester, and posting was sparse. Understandably so, seeing as the University of Dallas Rome program does not have time or room for fluff. My schedule involves 15 credit hours, a volunteering gig tutoring Italian schoolchildren in English, and a work-study job. Other priorities include running/hiking/walking/generally moving, deepening my interior life & growing in my faith, and being a good friend. Actually climbing a mountain over there might be cool, too. But this blog isn’t fluff, and hopefully my roommate & fellow blogger, Allie Sue Goes Abroad, will help hold each other somewhat accountable.