Leaving the United States always make clear our paltry notions of history and tradition. In America ‘tradition’ is something we did as a child, or perhaps, if we are very engaged, something our grandparents did. In recent fights over church polities and policies, denominations in the US use terms such as ‘unity of the church’ when they refer to an organization – their denomination – that was formed in the early 1980s.
In a place like Italy, even your average church on the corner of some obscure street in town, will likely understand their tradition to extend back some seven or eight hundred years. This vast sense of time changes one’s perspective on so many things; and there is constant reminder this different view, for ancient time is written in the very stones and contents of the church buildings themselves.
The picture below is of the incredible cathedral in Florence. This current building is the ‘new’ cathedral, the planning for which began in the late 1200s. Yet the amazing marble exterior of the church is only just over 100 years old, being finally completed in 1906. This is the fourth exterior of the church.
One of the things we learned about the cathedral is that there have been so many changes to the interior and exterior of the building over the centuries, as theology, aesthetics, materials, disasters, and just general wear, have come and gone, that they have built a huge museum whose entire collection consists solely of items that have come out of the church over the years. This collection is so massive that it constitutes the second largest collection of Christian religious materials in the world.
These changes in church decor consist not only of what might be considered obvious things like statues, paintings, and alter adornments, but apply even to items like frescos – painted plaster walls – which, when there is a desire to portray the stories of the faith in a new way, are peeled off the walls (I’m really not sure how this is even technically possible, but we saw them, so I know it can be done), and plastered onto new walls in the museum or some other building around the city, to make way for the next set of wall adornments.
I believe that this vast sense of historical time can provide valuable spiritual lessons. When every stone in your church has been replaced at some point in the church’s history. When you gaze upon the sanctuary and see a mix of art that spans half a millennium, as well as parts of the building that are cracking and falling apart, awaiting the next round of renovation, I believe you can begin to not only experience a sense of spiritual detachment, but also a deep sense of humility at one’s own smallness and the vastness of the universe and God.
Sweeping perspective can also allow us to be less anxious about the present problems of our day. When we were in the church whose photo I posted on FB yesterday, which dates to the 900s, I imagined a conversation between someone from that community and someone very distressed about our current world. ‘Yes, times are challenging now,’ would come the reply, ‘the plague of 1386 was very hard too, half the city died, and we found our way through that. We will move through this as well.’