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Taizé European Meeting, Rome, New Year’s 2012-13
In the cathedral, she lights a candle with a long yellow taper,
her back to us, invited intruders on her three-year old grief.
The church corner is dark, save for the glow of each votive
that flickers with the remembrances of souls still loved.
Around us, St. Ignatius (for whom the brother had been named)
lives yet on the walls and ceilings, perpetually caught up
in acts of service and penance.
On the ceiling he floats, suspended
before the welcoming arms of a heavenly Jesus
surrounded by saints in red and gold and blue.
The brother lived on too, of course,
after the accident, after the phone call on a New Year’s Day.
He lived on, but not in this life.
He is one of those saints now in red and gold and blue,
and we – the saints below – stand behind her in this old Roman church
as she remembers and prays and, turning, smiles a soft smile
through her tears, and the three of us walk out of that old cathedral
which has, for my friend,
been a sanctuary.
The day after we sit, side by side, knees up close to our chest,
on the hard tile of San Giovanni in Laterano.
There are saints here too, though of a sturdier build.
They don’t float so much as tower, chiseled eyes
staring down from within their niche security,
atop plinths themselves taller than the huddled masses below.
Our backs rest against one of these stone giants –
Bartholomew or Paul or John or whoever –
and we sing, quietly, with the other pilgrims:
“Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus.”
Beside me, he is crying.
It isn’t until later that I learn why.
He is crying because he is different and can no longer deny it,
attracted to the wrong sort, an outsider now in his own small family of saints.
Under the unflinching eyes of Bartholomew or Paul or John or whoever,
he wonders how he will be welcomed and received,
by the saints below,
by Jesus in his heaven,
by the saints above in red and gold and blue.
When the prayers end, we do not smile or speak
as we creak ourselves up off the cold, hard tile
and escape the stares of those stone saints,
leaving behind this place
that has, for my friend,
not been a sanctuary.
He tells me all of this as we wait for the bus
that will take us outside of the city
to the catacombs.
Here we walk on the soft earthen floor of this vast maze of tunnels
where niches in the walls also once held saints,
though of less lasting composition than those in the cathedral.
And yet the art on the walls – not Ignatius but an ichthus –
reminds me as it reminded them:
these saints live on, too.
We are hushed in this place,
my friends and I.
Not for grief or fear,
but in holy awe,
as we softly tread our way through the cool air and warm light
thrown by sconces upon each carved bed of rest
that makes this place, for every saint,
a final beckoning hall