For weeks before our semester was to begin I made bite-sized preparations to keep my stomach from gnawing itself sick with nerves. Even before I boarded a plane, let alone landed in the beautiful and immense Eternal City, I was in danger of being overwhelmed by all that three months abroad entails. The experience, I could tell already, was something that had to be taken in steps: socks one week, a tooth brush the next, travel checklists printed off the Internet, graduating up to things as exciting and terrifying as exchanging currency and packing.
Of all our guides and mentors, Dr. Connell has become something of the Gandalf to our Fellowship, if only because he has spent the most time literally walking us through the city. After giving us clear (though entirely disconcerting) bus instructions, he meets us every Tuesday and Thursday morning at a designated spot, gives a vague idea of what we will see that day, then rushes off in an apparently arbitrary direction until we find it. In between destinations he may stop suddenly to point out caffes, fountains, restaurants and shops, all beloved by students of semesters past.
This baby-step approach carried all the way through to the villa, where our class reunited and found our Rome-legs. Our residence director, our professors, even the cooks at our new home were all on board to orient us to city life. We had guides and training wheels, tips and tricks, advice, wisdom and clear instructions. Still, at any moment we were in danger of succumbing to all that threatened to overwhelm us: our very first class excursion into the city included both a pick-pocket’s attempt to rob us (noticed, miraculously, by one particularly savvy classmate) and attendance at a ceremony to honor St. Ignatius of Loyola at the Gesu Church.
As our professor narrates the tour, we attempt to master the art of jogging while writing. My notes tend to look like pigeon scrawl, stopping abruptly as I come face to face (sometimes smack in the face) with our destination: any one of the ancient and artful churches scattered in Trastevere. We’ve seen a great many- St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Lorenzo, Santa Maria Della Scala, Santa Sabina, and, of course, St. Peter’s Basilica- but Santa Maria in Trestevere (in a piazza of the same name) has been adopted as our rendevous hub for class and extracurricular outings alike. It is conveniently close to the tram line, with a distinguishing facade and portico mounted by statues of four popes, positioned as if arguing out where to find the best panino in Trastevere.
Outside of class, the church is the backdrop for a night in the piazza or a sunny day reading by the fountain. During tours the church becomes a world unto itself, where we are awed by the ceiling, amazed by the mosaics, floored by the floor. Dr. Connell always stops us at the doors, emphasizing the importance of doors before we cross them, the thresholds between the sacred and the profane. He reminds us at every opportunity of these details, drawing our attention to nuances we would otherwise miss in awe of the whole. Sometimes it seems he’s taken every church in Rome apart, piece by piece, stone by stone, tile by tile, then piled them back together in time for tour. With his red laser pointer he moves our eyes up to the coat of arms above the doors.
Santa Maria in Trastevere bears Pope Benedict XVI’s seal: red, white, and gold, the papal colors, a crowned Moor on the left, St. Corbinian’s bear on the right, and a scallop shell on the bottom portion. Dr. Connell explains each symbol with an anecdote, ending with the scallop shell, as he calls it, the pilgrim’s shell. He tells us a story of St. Augustine, at the time he was writing his treatise on the Holy Trinity, when he saw a little boy on the beach digging into the sand with a scallop shell. When Augustine asked what the boy was doing, he replied that he was going to put the ocean into the hole. The boy’s intention reminded Augustine of his own endeavor and the immense task of explaining the mystery of the Holy Trinity in a treatise.
We enter then into sacred space and our tour progresses.
There is an importance to doors: doors are the physical entryway, but also the beginnings of an undertaking, a venture into something sacred and profound. In this semester, we as a class have begun something also profound, the first steps on our journey as student pilgrims. So much has happened in this month since we first visited Santa Maria, things both beautiful and bizarre; trying to describe it all would be like trying to scoop the ocean into a hole with a scallop shell. That is why there is an importance to steps, to taking things bit by bit. I could talk about so much more, about the Italian-English pidgin we use to haggle at Porta Portese, or the day native Italians stopped to ask us for directions. I could talk about ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or weaving through the tunnels beneath Ostia Antica, or the sunrise over Piazza Garibaldi this morning on our way to the final audience of Pope Benedict XVI. I could talk about all those things, and I will, exactly the way we are living them: by taking everything in stride.