Thomas Whately wrote in 1770, "A monument of antiquity is never seen with indifference." I am not one to seek out the famous, the grand duomos and palaces of Italy. I take pleasure in seeing them. I am in awe of their beauty and marvel at their sense of history. Knowing that someone great and powerful, Michelangelo, perhaps, or Galileo, stood in the very same place I now stand, provides me with a personal connection to history. It's something I can feel, really feel deep inside. But I found that the more humble a place was, the more deserted it was, the more I was drawn to it. Alone, and in silence I could so strongly feel the presence of the past. I was alone, yet not alone.
My husband went on morning walks the days I was teaching. One day he ambled down a small country road that ran behind Pienza, the small town we stayed in. Along the walk, he discovered a tiny chapel, a yard of very large chickens and a small cemetery. The following day, after class, I took off alone to follow the road he said ran parallel to the town's main road. Well, he took the high road and I took the low road. I didn't realize it though, because I also came to a chapel and my road also turned from paved to dirt as his did. But I never did find the chickens or the cemetery. I was so disappointed that I was not finding the cemetery, but there was a reason for my taking the road less traveled. I found what I was meant to find and I knew it when I saw it. But first, let me tell you about the chapel.
The door was open, the chapel empty. Light poured through the west window as the sun was beginning to fall. This chapel had no frescoes, no ornate altar or fixtures. It was a place for prayer, for forgiveness, for contemplation. The locals knew what it was. Tourists were most likely welcome but not expected. There was no sign, no identification. The carving over the door looked pre-renaissance, Etruscan perhaps. I think this was a pieve, a baptismal church, because over on the right wall I discovered the only text in the church ~ a most ornate fixture, carved in marble. I recognized only the word 'baptism' which was actually a necessary clue, as the ordinary, worn wooden box under the sign certainly did not look like any baptismal font I have ever seen. Before and after visiting this humble house of God, I had seen so many grand and ornate duomos, basilicas and chapels. Their sheer size, soaring ceilings and necessary hands-off policies has the effect of making you feel like a visitor, just another tourist.
It was hard to connect to my own sense of spirituality in those magnificent shrines to faith. Here I felt genuine sacredness. Those that worshipped here in the past, or even now, knew that the path to the sacred does not require golden treasures, finery or extravagance. It's something that can be found anywhere, even along a country road.
I felt so safe. If you have been reading my blog you may remember the entry when I wrote about not feeling safe walking in the woods near my home. Yet here I was alone in a foreign country, along a deserted country road, feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere, yet at the same time, exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt more at home and at peace than I had in a long while. The peacefulness of the place had settled within me.