Visiting the centre of the Catholic church in Rome changed my mind about Christianity in rather surprising ways. Before coming to Rome, a few things came to mind when I thought of Christianity:
- Molestation of children
- Bible stories about baby murder
- Judgement and hellfire
- Glorification of a human sacrifice
- Emotional manipulation
As you may have guessed, I’m not a fan. Let’s just say I had a bad experience growing up.
Of course all these negative views remain, but Rome has introduced me to another side of Christianity and I feel I’ve learnt a thing or two.
1. Christianity in guru form
When I was in India, I visited an ashram where the guru was considered to be God incarnate. People went crazy over her and it could easily be seen as a personality cult. When I visited St Peter’s Square on Sunday morning to see the Pope give his blessing, I wondered if it would be similar. Would people cry and scream over the Pope? And if so, why?
Well, the Pope was greeted like a rockstar. Emotional followers waved their handkerchiefs and shouted their adoration.
Why do humans feel the need to put religion onto a particular person and devote ourselves to them?
Perhaps it’s because big theological ideas about an almighty God are not digestible on their own. Maybe putting a face to a faith makes it more relatable and engaging. Just as the face of one starving child will inspire more charity donations than a page of statistics, a loving and serene face inviting us to meet with God will interest us much more than a holy book.
Perhaps it gives us hope and inspiration. If another mere mortal can attain higher consciousness or special connection to God, maybe we can learn something similar, maybe its something we can aspire to.
This idea is also seen in the plethora of saints in Catholicism, and they each represent something different. For example you pray to St. Peregrine for Cancer victims. The idea that a person is there to help us when we encounter a particular trouble in life is certainly a comforting one and people obviously like to believe in it.
These sacred figures act as role models who inspire and help us to be better people. I could certainly use more of that in my life. Do you have a role model that inspires you?
2. Storytelling through art
Similar to the way a face makes an idea more relatable, telling a story in a visually beautiful way makes it so much more powerful. The Catholics know that we’re bored easily and we need pretty, colourful pictures to keep us interested to bring those black and white Bible stories to life.
When you look at Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel (above), you can see the glorious arrival of Jesus and the divine world. You see the damned going to hell and the believers ascending to heaven. Michelangelo is reminding you of the heavenly world to come. He’s giving you hope of a world with no more tears and pain. For unbelievers, he’s warning you of the despair and hellfire that awaits.
It’s a beautiful and mesmerising piece of art, despite its horrific message.
Does the secular world tell stories in a beautiful and interesting way? Of course. We have our movies and TV shows and modern art, but perhaps they do not always have such a clear application to our lives as The Last Judgement.
Let’s make more secular art that inspires us to live kind and adventurous and interesting lives! k go.
3. Philosophical Architecture
It’s impossible not to feel tiny and insignificant when you’re inside St Peter’s Basilica. It’s the same feeling of awe that you have hiking through rugged mountains or looking at the stars on a clear night. You are a small and insignificant drop in the ocean in the big scheme of the universe.
Although this feeling may be used by the church to encourage worship and awe of God, that’s not the only way of interpreting it.
When you visit such an inspiring place, your problems seem small. Your achievements seem small. Your self-centred-ness and your ego disappears. Your endeavours to control and plan every tiny detail of your life is shown to be futile. Is your own life really so important? Or is it part of a bigger story of humanity (and the universe)?
Look up into the huge dome of the basilica and be mesmerised by how small you are, and how amazing humanity is for creating something like this.
4. Humanist Christianity
The highlight of the vatican for me was Raphael’s art. I have always felt a special connection to his piece The School of Athens, which depicts my beloved Aristotle and Plato debating about the relationship between the divine and the worldly. It’s a fresco interested in the knowledge, truth and wisdom that existed centuries before Christianity. Seeing it in a place dedicated to Christianity seemed interestingly contradictory to me.
The School of Athens is one of the four frescos in the same room that are each dedicated to Raphael’s four spheres of the human intellect: poetry, law, philosophy and theology. Theology aside, it was interesting to see these humanist qualities recognised amongst the frescoes of Bible stories and Popes. It recognises that meaning in human life comes from a variety of areas, and can be expressed in a variety of ways. Arguably, it acknowledges that there is life and meaning outside of theology in things like music and law.
I’m a huge fan of this Renaissance way of seeing value in human qualities and activities. There was a curious thirst for knowledge and I’d love to see more of that from modern Christianity.
5. Symbolic Rituals
My family background is in no-frills protestantism, where we have some rituals such as communion and baptism but these have nowhere near the pizazz and flair of Catholic rituals.
Oh the costumes, the candles, the confessions, the head shoulders heart thingy, confirmation, the old nuns in their adorable pinafores, remembering particular saints on certain days of the year. The colourful pantomime drama of all the rituals seems so much fun.
More seriously, these practices act as markers of different times of our lives, giving constant reminders of religious ideas and intertwining faith with everyday life. We can remember to be kind when the day of a kind saint arrives and we can contemplate the idea of sacrifice during Easter.
These moments provide opportunities to evaluate our lives and ponder how we can become better people and cultivate goodness. Moments like these would be valuable whether or not one is religious.
So although I haven’t completely changed my mind about Christianity, being in the heart of Catholicism in Rome showed me a new side of a religion I know so well. I’m not about to convert, but maybe it can inspire me to be a more effective storyteller through art, or to create rituals and symbols as signifiers in my own life. Either way, to live a more interesting and meaningful life.