A reflection from my recent Rome pilgrimage.
The building that houses the rooms of St. Ignatius, in Rome, where he lived the last years of his life, is adjacent to the great Jesuit church Gesu.
The rooms are wonderfully spare, with whitewashed walls and stone floors and low, wood-beamed ceilings. When you walk upstairs you see the simple wooden desk where Ignatius wrote and the simple wooden chair where he sat. Light comes through small, latticed windows.
Gesu is completely different. You walk in and the Baroque is exploding everywhere, angels and saints and colors and clouds billowing and rising all the way to the great dome in the center, every surface emblazoned and curlicued.
But here’s what a guidebook says, and I think it’s completely wrong: that Ignatius would have been “embarrassed” by Gesu. By the contrast.
As if our own taste has to be everybody’s.
As if it’s not possible for a person to like more than one kind of thing.
I don’t know, but I loved both Gesu and the rooms, equally, and I think Ignatius would have loved them both, too, as I think he imagined faith and the life of faith as various and complex and available to all kinds of moods and shifts in light and shadow, day-to-day and moment to moment.
In “On the Inconsistency of Our Actions,” Ignatius’s contemporary Montaigne observes that anyone who looks inside himself will find every possible emotion and taste, conflicting and changing depending on the moment and the occasion, and so we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be consistent and shouldn’t judge others for their lack of consistency. We should accept it all.
“I give my soul now one face, now another . . . bashful, insolent; chaste, lascivious . . . I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly.”
I think Ignatius knew this, too. I think we all do.
What’s depicted on the ceiling is the Triumph of the Name of Jesus, the forces of the Counter-Reformation vanquishing all the heretics, the bodies of sinners twisting and spilling down, and that’s a little troubling, I admit. But the general effect is of clouds boiling and angels and saints looking on in splendid, fleshy exuberance, and I think I liked it because of its energy, its sense of confidence and invention, and because it was all of a piece, because the whole church was billowing and exploding, and within a clear, logical structure, the nave and the transept and the apse in a clear progression, without distracting side chapels. It was like Vivaldi.
And on the floor of the nave there’s a large, floor-length mirror, tilted at an angle so you can stand and look down and see the angels and the glory and the clouds on the inside of the dome above you.
And of course, you see yourself, too, whoever you are.
In the background, high above, the billowing and the boiling, the Lord with His trumpets, but in the foreground, a man, say, in late middle age, white-haired, in a polo shirt, a little tired, maybe, a little sweaty, but stopped for a moment and really looking, looking down, deep into the bottom of the mirror.