I picture him as a tall Texan, his outsize appearance easily eclipsing everything in sight, save only the immense shrine that he and a busload of tourists have come to Rome to see. And then, throwing up his hand at the end of an exhausting exploration of the world’s most beautiful basilica, I hear him asking the expert guide the one thing he’s come all this way to know:
How much does it weigh?
I love that story. In fact, I imagine him wandering endlessly about the Eternal City in witless search of answers to all sorts of endearingly absurd questions. The Coliseum, for instance, about which he would surely want to know, “Why wasn’t it finished?” Or the Pantheon, whose opening in the ceiling would have utterly mystified him. “What’s the point of a dome unless you’re going to close the freaking thing?”
As a species of reductionism, however, revealing the mindset of a man for whom the merit of anything can best be measured by the ton, it is priceless. One thinks of C.S. Lewis skewering that fellow in one of his books because, in surveying the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, he can only imagine it as raw material for cornering the salt market. Reductionism, as someone once said, is the sin of seeing the pearl as the oyster’s mistake.
Certainly that gaping hole at the very peak of the Pantheon—all twenty-seven feet in diameter of it, left wide open to sky and stars above—was no mistake. Its very emptiness reveals the pearl beyond price. It is nothing less than a window on transcendence, through which the human spirit is free to take flight. Here was the first pagan building to be baptized by a newly Christianized Rome, a temple once dedicated to all the gods of antiquity, from whom it was believed that light would stream through an opening hundreds of feet above the floor to illumine the hearts of men. What a vivid and instructive symbol of the uniquely human struggle to surmount the limitations of space, to breach the awful frontier of time, in order to heed the heart’s desire never to acquiesce in the face of death. Like a lance pointed toward the infinite itself, it evinces that most basic and necessary need of all, which is to lay hold of God himself.
Go and ask the saints, they will tell you at once that here is the deepest desire of all. And like a mark seared upon the soul, it can never be effaced. Neither time nor circumstance can undo the hidden imprint of our belonging to Another. Even if one were to take oneself to Hell, there to howl in an anguish of absence forever, one would still bear the image of the One who intended me from all eternity for himself. His possession of me is nothing short of my salvation. How else are we to understand the pain of loss unless God, out of an incomprehensible depth of love, had destined all of us for the happiness of Heaven? Hell, then, is the horrifying result of man’s resistance to a truth already inscribed in our being; its refusal amid the precincts of the damned must therefore be a source of unimaginable torment. Augustine, in a famous passage from the Confessions, reminds us of this fundamental and inescapable fact. “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee.”
The fact that each of us is meant for God, that none of us will find lasting fulfillment apart from God, is not the result of a sudden bolt from the blue. Nor was it necessary that we be given this special sunburst from the heavens above, inasmuch as the natural trajectory of a man’s life already urges him along the highroad leading to God. What else is man but a pilgrim in search of a shrine, of a place where, to paraphrase the poet Eliot, prayer having once been valid, I may kneel in supplication and worship. Hence the perversity of those who persist in denying this profound invitation to cast ourselves into the arms of God.
Between the desire and its consummation, however, there falls the shadow. We simply do not have the native equipment to succeed in scaling such heights. Like a blind beggar fallen down in a ditch, we may espy the presence of the hidden staircase but, alas, we cannot without grace grope our way out from the darkness toward the mysterious ladder of light.
It is precisely here that the overwhelming miracle of Christianity breaks into the darkness of our world, revealing in human history an Event entirely in excess of any human possibility or expectation. God himself enters the human story in order not merely to share the stage on which you and I live and move, but to sanctify and redeem the whole sordid and complicated mess we have made of the play. I who heretofore have had to struggle and strain to reach even the outskirts of the Mystery, am all at once absolutely astonished—ambushed even—by the Mystery itself, whose dramatic and unforeseen descent into my brokenness is able not just to staunch the wound at the heart of being, but to rescue the entire world from all the hellishness of which it stands condemned.
The hole in the ceiling has suddenly become the opening enabling God himself to squeeze through. Isn’t this the place where the most palpable difference between religion and Revelation is to be found? That while it is natural for me to aspire to God, to that condition of ideal intimacy with the One who made me, mere religiosity will never be enough to complete the quest; it may launch the rocket into deep space but, wanting in the fuel of divine grace, it can never effect a rendezvous with God on the other side. Nevertheless, the human spirit thrusting itself toward the unknown God is what makes us human, and who among us would wish to resist so natural a gravitational pull? In that splendid depiction of The School of Athens by the artist Raphael (whose remains, by the way, are in the Pantheon), we see the figure of Plato pointing his finger majestically to heaven. There is the place we long to be, our true and lasting home. Yet in the absence of God’s answering response to the heartfelt cry of eros, revealing a divine largesse poured out upon the world, there can be no hope whatsoever that our own poor hearts, lifted up by sheer force of will, could possibly succeed in their conquest of eternal and divine life. Even Plato could see that in order to cross so great and absolute a sea of being, one would need to call upon the gods themselves to build the bridge. But there are no gods, and so the bridge will never be built.
Only the one and true God can save us now, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who not only built the bridge across so infinite a span of sea, but sent his Son in the form of a Child to be that bridge. Pontifex Maximus, we call him. And so thanks to a singularly daring and entirely unexpected feat of divine engineering, the climax of which is God’s enfleshment as man—the Christmas miracle—you and I are at last able to reach out and touch the face of God. The very roof of the world, you might say, has been breached at last; not by pagan architecture, but by the very Architect himself, to whom we turn before every Holy Communion to ask:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Triumph of Christianity” was painted by Tommaso Laureti in 1582. It depicts in the foreground a statue of a pagan god knocked off its pedestal and in pieces. In its former position is a crucifix.