Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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April 24, 2024

Dear Friends,

 Kate and I had a wonderful vacation. Thank you for giving us the time and opportunity to make this trip. Making this trip has stirred much reflection for me. I’m left wondering about why we hurry and rush and what the sources of that urgency may be. I’m left wondering about the role of beauty in our lives be it found in art or nature or food or friendship. I’m left wondering about how we shape culture and how culture shapes us. I’m left wondering about what inspires awe and what we take for granted. Obviously, I’m not going to tackle all of this (or really any of this) that philosophers and theologians have pondered for millennia in 500-700 words in a weekly email. But, I will share a story from our trip that leaves me incredulous with both joy and sorrow.

 We stayed on the south side of the Arno River around the corner from the Piazza Santo Spirito which is presided over by the Basilica of the same name. The current building was consecrated in 1481, but the history of the church in that place originates with the Augustinian order in around 1225. It was an active church with a monastic community that included monks and nuns from its inception. Today, the piazza is a bustling place with both tourists and locals, daily markets, restaurants, and merchants. And the Basilica, from which the neighborhood takes its name, is a little drab and rundown, not getting the attention enjoyed by the more famous Basilica of San Croce or the Duomo of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Flower. It is austere and beautiful with priceless frescoes and paintings, famous tombs, and side chapels. For two Euro, one can go into the Sacristy in which hangs Michelangelo’s earliest known work, a carved Crucifix, the figure upon it far more closely resembling an adolescent boy than a 30 year old carpenter. In Michelangelo’s defense, he was only 17 or 18 when he carved the piece, and it is always so easy to render Jesus in our own image. The place was quiet and calm and beautiful. The folks visiting were reverent and respectful, appreciating the sacredness of the space regardless of their personal traditions.

 As we were leaving, a couple of the remaining brothers of the order were beginning Low Mass (in this case that means no Communion) for the evening. Kate and I sat and listened as two monks sang the service for a half dozen or so people in the pews with them. I still marvel at them. It didn’t matter that only a few were gathered or that the world seemed to be passing them by just outside on the piazza. They were and are the church, and one of the ways the church has been, is, and will be in the world is worshipful – always glorifying and acknowledging God first. A piece of me (the greater piece of me) was proud of and humbled by them in their utter reliability and confidence. There was no falderal, no band, no fiery preaching, no manipulative emotional appeal, no altar call. They just sang and prayed and listened to Scripture. I was moved by how normal it was for them. This is their normal life. Praying. Singing. Scripture.

 I was also terribly saddened. Why weren’t there more people present and participating? Why was this beautiful, austere, holy place so drab and a little shabby? Why does the church in all places seem to be flailing or failing? Those questions are honest reflections as well. They are questions with LOTS of different answers. Our attention spans are shorter. The church has been weaponized and watered down. The church’s history both long past and most recently is littered with manipulations and abuses that mar her integrity and credibility. The church has such an inconsistent relationship with science and other fields of scholarship that our worldview is no longer taken seriously. I could go on, obviously. I, for one, would rather list the problems and our faults and flaws rather than simply lament the church as “no longer relevant.” I prefer that course because those two monks and the half dozen folks ARE absolutely relevant whether the prevailing culture knows it or not.

 The Basilica stands overlooking the neighborhood, its very presence a witness to God’s presence in and love for the world. Inside, on behalf of all of the rest of us, the hurried and harried and distracted and self-absorbed, a few sing and pray and read and listen with no fanfare or applause, always pointing to God first. If only we were so wise and resolute.