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Rome. The word evokes history’s longest-lasting empire, so long no one agrees exactly when it started or ended but a full millennium. A civilisation but also brutal and corrupt as all empires are. Or, as a word it also means the church that flourished through persecution by the empire to partnership with it and eventually in some ways succeeding it: the ‘catholic’ or universal church. Like empires global churches also fall into the self-contradicting pitfalls of power. Walking through Rome as a tourist or a pilgrim is like visiting an exhibition of moral teachings on the seductions of controlling others and putting ideas and ambitions before people. And, as we have been noticing several times in these Lent reflections, the interlacing of good and evil is inescapable in anything human beings do or aspire to.
Rome is an architectural jumble of exposed layers of architectural history, temples, forums, ancient shopping malls, stadiums that hosted mass sadism and churches that honour mystics and saints. It is a beautiful chaos overlaid by a fully alive modern city, capital of a member of the G7, restaurants and bars, luxury good stores and cheap trinkets, cars, buses, tourist buses and clicking iPhones. It is a multi-channel swirl of landscapes and soundscapes. This is obvious but as Wittgenstein said, ‘the aspects of things that are most important are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity’. We can fail to see something precisely because it is before our eyes.
Yesterday I spent most of the day yesterday in the Benedictine university of San Anselmo. The rhythm of life that S Benedict lived and taught after he had run away from his studies in Rome in the 6th century because of the low morals of the school is lived her daily while students from around the world come to prepare for their later work in life. In the evening I met with a wonderful Italian Buddhist group whose journeys wove both traditions.
The obvious feeling as I leave today is of the rise and fall of all things, empires churches and of each of us. At the end of an era things fall apart, centres cannot hold and this includes ideas themselves which once animated great institutions. Our present time is also experiencing a great dissolution. Some fight to prevent it. Others, led from behind by a growing proportion of contemplatives, look to see how what must be discarded and what midwifed into something new and untried.
Jung said that to give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation. The new time is also time-free when we see the eternal newness of the now. This perception, the result of continuous metanoia prevents us from collapsing into the collapse. We see it is chaos but still a beautiful one.