September 14, 2008
To What Purpose?
On my first afternoon
after I got settled at a monastery, I decided to go out for a walk. The “full
on” glitz here is different than much of the rest of the country. The atmosphere
is much different.
Yet, I was completely
unprepared for what I saw. I did have one short conversation about Rome with someone before I left the US. He said it was his “favorite city in the world,” and he mentioned how
old it was. The first thing that hit me was that the typical stunning Italian
architecture is on display at every turn.
A short walk down the
hill and over a gigantic wall I saw a dome that I was pretty sure was Saint Peter’s Basilica. A few blocks later, the signs confirmed it and I felt a small tingle down my spine. It hit me that for almost two thousand years countless people great and small, some household names
and others anonymous, had given their lives to God and toiled in this spot. Many more had made pilgrimages here (like
I did) in order to pray on it..
I left Vatican City for another day. I didn’t
feel “holy” enough for some reason. I bought a map and wandered on. I walked over a bridge lined on each side by impressive looking marble statues. Across the Tiber River loomed an ususual big circular castle.
It wasn’t long
before I realized that this was Assisi times 10 to the nth
power. What I was observing was an ancient city that has been inhabited by hundreds
of millions, if not billions, of souls. As you walk across its cobblestone roads
Rome seem eons old; you begin to see building after building that have stood the test of time, and then you realize that
there is an incredible spiritual energy to this place.
During a short walk
that barely scratched the surface of maybe one-twentieth of the city core I was floored.
Fountains containing elements from antiquity adorn beautiful piazzas. First,
I encounter a square with a large Egyptian style obelisk. I passed church
after church, some built by or dedicated to various popes and cardinals. I
entered one (Sant’Andrea della Valle, essentially overlooked for hundreds of years) to pray briefly and read a sign
that said that several saints had begun their ministries there.
I had long since abandoned
the map as I strolled through tight Medieval alleys and expansive square after ancient square, vaguely looking for one where
I knew that I could get a bus back to the monastery.
I started getting the
Holy Spirit as I approached a square that was several levels below street level because it’s so old (Largo di Torre
Argentina). Ruins of Roman temples were visible partially in tact. I could imagine Paul or Peter walking in this exact spot along these very streets almost two thousand years
ago. Perhaps, silently praying that those who worshipped here would one day know
the one and only true Living God, or maybe openly debating pagan priests about the merits of the gospel.
I thought, given the
magnitude of their task (the salvation of humanity), how disappointed they must have been when they were martyred, despite
their miracles and successes. Yet, in a mere three hundred years, Rome had a Christian emperor and was well on its way to becoming Christian. We don’t always see the fruits of our labors, but we must have faith that the
Lord will reap for His kingdom.
The next thing I knew,
the street opened up and before me was a colossal marble fašade adorned with untold numbers of beautiful carved stone sculptures
and bronze statues. I stood before the Piazza Venezia. I was staggered by the shear magnitude and age of it all. It
must have taken untold centuries and untold man hours just to begin to construct this lovely city. But, I was already wondering, “To what purpose?”
I made my way through
Via del Gesu (Jesus Street) back toward the Vatican. Then,
I stumbled upon the Pantheon, an in tact example of a Roman pagan temple built by Emperor Agrippa before Christ was born. It is now a church. For a city that was
supposed to be half shut down with people on vacation you wouldn’t have know it by the throng there.
Some evangelical Christians
question being involved with anything pagan, such as the Pantheon. They assume
that there is something spiritually unclean, perhaps something satanic or involving witchcraft, about such places or people. Of course, their concerns are not without merit.
Can such a place ever be truly consecrated? One might also easily question the grandiosity of the church’s
overall building program.
I recall one of my
first encounters with a Jehovah’s Witness after being saved. It was in
a laundromat in Columbia, SC. I disagree with most of the witnesses’ doctrine, although I can understand their
thinking in arriving at some of their conclusions. This woman told me that the
Three Wise Men (really "kings") who worshipped Jesus and presented Him with gifts at His birth were pagan because they were
astrologers. The Law of Moses banned astrology (literally soothsaying, sorcery,
divination and witchcraft), and its practice was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 18:9-14,
Leviticus 19:26, 31, 20:6, 27 and among
others). The Holy Spirit told me that she was right, in this one case.
However, she missed
the main point: at birth, Jesus Christ was already converting pagans.
Thus, it follows that
the Roman Catholics were actually following in Jesus’ steps by converting ancient pagan worship areas and making them
churches. To consecrate and sanctify a place, or a person for that matter, that
had been committed to sin, is the heart of the gospel. There is Old Testament
language that calls for destroying such things, and the early church did sometimes burn marble, crush it, and use what was
left as mortar. On the other hand, one sense of the Hebrew word for “destroy”
in the Old Testament is to completely devote something to the Lord.
Herein lies the purpose
of all of this sumptuous and luxurious materialism that is Rome;
a city destined to be ruled by those who followed in the footsteps of the Apostle Simon Peter.
It’s interesting that much of the marble from the non-Christian temples was taken and used to build churches. What a powerful symbolic statement. During
the time of the Apostles, Rome was “the world;” and it was said that “all
paths lead to Rome.”
It was one of the most powerful empires in history and many of its precepts were admired by the US’s Founding
Fathers and adopted in our constitution.
The purpose of Rome was to convert it to Christianity.
Peter and Paul both knew and never lost sight of it. If this opulent,
materialistic, self serving empire could be redeemed then the entire world can be.