By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
In the heart of Rome stands Piazza Venezia, a chaotic traffic circle in front of the gaudy Vittorio Emanuele monument, home to Italy’s tomb of the unknown soldier and dubbed “the wedding cake” by American tourists for its dazzling white marble. To the east of this monument stands a drab brown building, Palazzo San Marco, originally built to house cardinals serving the basilica next door. Given its central location, Mussolini employed the palace as his office building, and made many of his speeches to the Italian people on the balcony overlooking the piazza. Today, it houses a national museum, and virtually all the main bus lines converge on the stop in the congested piazza directly beneath Il Duce’s balcony. For four splendid years, I passed through Piazza Venezia virtually every morning and afternoon on my way to and from school, usually braving the cobblestone street on my bicycle.
Given what I have just said about this piazza, you would probably not consider it a likely location to discover what the poet T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.” I do not recall how I learned about a tiny chapel behind a door at the bottom corner of the big brown palace, just steps away from the bus stop’s incessant cacophony and fumes. Since traffic was a life-or-death matter for a monk on a bike, my only concentration was on surviving the vicious lane-less road, so a friend must have informed me – I certainly did not see any outward sign that would have attracted me to it.
Yet after locking up my bike at a sign pole, I would push open the door, walk in gingerly…and be able to hear my breath, thanks to an astoundingly effective vacuum-sealed door. It might as well have been the wardrobe leading me into Narnia, so utterly different was the quiet world within from the hustling world and whirling bustle without. After passing through a small foyer with two side altars, I would emerge into a simple white-walled chapel, perhaps with pews for 40 people, and genuflect on both knees. Already visible from the doorway, the Blessed Sacrament stood tall on the altar, encased in a humble gold monstrance. At least two nuns of some order unknown to me would be holding vigil constantly, and a slow but steady trickle of adorers would find refuge here from the street, if only for a few moments of adoration.
This chapel, called “La Madonella di San Marco,” was an oasis of Eucharistic peace for me, a spiritually lush retreat in the midst of frantic and frenetic Rome. The book of Exodus speaks of a darkness spread so thick over Egypt that one could feel it; I would venture to say that the silence of La Madonella was so thin that one could hear it. In fact, I still call its silence to mind when I need to remove myself from the realm of noise and action. I will always link this quiet chapel, hidden from all kinetic energy, with the following lines of Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday”: “And the light shone in darkness and / Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled / About the centre of the silent Word.” No better lyrics to the Eucharist, urban or elsewhere, could be uttered.
I do not know why I wanted, or needed, to move gently down memory lane just now in the hope of retrieving this sentiment of silent gratitude. Perhaps what moved me to pass you through the door of La Madonella was a desire to share my experience of a still point, hoping that you would have one of your own to console you. What they would have in common, I suppose, is the slaking of a thirst for beauty, the satisfaction of a hunger for the fleeting moment in which you know that Love has clutched at your heart, and embraced you with a silent certainty that you are both home and journeying toward it. That is the grace of the still point, a portal in time uniting you to the timeless Lord of life.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.