Not finding God in Rome

At Christmas in the Eternal City, a seeker of truth discovers that sometimes the answer you don't get is the one you need. Zachary Karabell journeys to Rome at Christmas in a quest to find God -- and receives an unexpected reward.

Published December 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

We do strange things when we're 19. We stay up all night and point to it as a virtue. We see just how far a cocktail of booze and caffeine can take us. We become passionate about the plight of homeless kittens, and names like Sxren Kierkegaard acquire totemic significance. And some of us try to find God, and we look in all the wrong places.

At least I did. Frustrated by the lack of religion and the dearth of spirituality in New York City, and animated by a peculiar mix of the Bible, Freud and the New Age, I went off in search of God in one spot where everyone said He'd be on a day that everyone said He'd be there: Rome on Christmas Eve. Now, I suppose I could have gone to Bethlehem, or Jerusalem, but I'd had enough of my ethnic Judaism and wasn't interested in plowing fields that felt fallow. Rome was where the church was. Rome was religion, and the pope was the conduit. It didn't matter to me that I wasn't Catholic. It didn't even matter to me that I wasn't Christian. I thought that God was non-denominational, and I thought that it would be easier to find Him in Rome than in New York.

Maybe it was something about the Vatican. About that fey art history teacher in high school who lovingly lulled us with slides of Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel, of Bernini and his St. Theresa of Avila and her not at all subtle sexual delight at finding God. About Bernini's 1660s redesign of St. Peter's Cathedral and of the surrounding square in the highest style of the High Baroque. About the pomp of the Catholic Church and the seductive power of bishops, cardinals and popes. The vestments, the gold, the ceremony and the solemnity. And of course the mystery of the sacrifice and the sacrament. All of which I could idealize without the slightest bit of reality encroaching.

My knowledge of the church was blissfully free of any experience of the church. I had studied the papacy and read the history of the early church fathers. I had lingered over the Gospel and the words of Christ, just as I had read the Bhagavad Gita and the Torah and the Dhammapada and the Analects. They were all paths to the holy, and on Christmas Eve, 1986, my path led me to St. Peter's Square and to a group of Carmelite French nuns who took pity on me and got me a precious ticket to midnight Mass.

Even at the time, it seemed surreal. The nuns milled around St. Peter's Square in the late afternoon with the intensity of Yankees fans pouring off the subway in the Bronx. Told by the Vatican guards that there were absolutely no tickets for midnight Mass, I must have been drifting despondently, because one of the nuns, all alert eyes and a piet`'s compassion, tugged my sleeve and whispered, in French, "I can help." It took me a moment to realize that she was holding a ticket in her hand. "One of the other nuns fell ill," she explained. "Would you like her ticket?"

Five hours later, I sat surrounded by a pack of wimples under the gilt dome of St. Peter's. They spoke excitedly among themselves, and the one who had given me the ticket offered a running commentary of the proceedings. The nuns gasped, hands over their mouths, eyes wide, when the pope appeared. It was as if I were at a rock concert, starring John Paul and the Cardinals. The pageant lasted for hours. The cardinals processed. The pope blessed. Children from around the world brought offerings to the papal seat. Music was played. Frankincense was dispersed. Then the pope spoke, solemn, humorless. He spoke in many languages, and I understood none of them.

The ceremony seduced, but it did not move me. This was the church, and I was looking for God. And I didn't find Him there. Perhaps He would come, soon. Perhaps during the holiest of holies. It was time for communion, and I hesitated, and stayed in my seat. I couldn't bring myself to approach the priests in their ornate vestments, surrounded by nuns, and take the body and the blood.

The next morning, I resolved to go all the way.

I would eat the wafers, sip the wine, experience the Eucharist miracle of transubstantiation. After all, it was Christmas Day. It was Rome. And all the restaurants were closed.

And so I started to wander through the city, from church to church, Mass to
Mass. A cup of espresso at the pensione near my hotel, and then into the
frigid day. It was cold for Rome, even in December, with temperatures below
freezing. I expected the ancient metropolis to be like a more intense version
of New York or Washington at Christmas, with people buzzing happily about and
the sound of holiday music trickling through the air. But Rome was oddly
subdued. Few people roamed the streets, and those who did were clearly
heading in a very specific direction. Christmas Day was not a time for idle
strolling. The Romans had a purpose: to get to church and then get home.

The first church, in an alley off the Piazza Navona, was a somber place, with
a sparse choir of anemic-looking singers and hundreds of worshipers huddled
as if under some oppressive weight. The priest intoned his sermon with nary an
inflection. I had no idea what he was saying, though it was impossible not
to catch the occasional reference to Christ and Mary. But I knew that he was
as distant from the spirit of his words as we were from the day 2,000
years ago that we were purportedly celebrating. This time, though I had never been
baptized, though I could feel the nascent hostility of the congregation to the
notion that someone like me would take communion, I walked forward to receive
the wafer and the wine from a dour-looking priest. I kept my eyes down and my
thoughts quiet as I exited the church.

Next it was on to the Pantheon. There were no services there at that time, and so I made
my way in the direction of haunting guitar music that emanated from a nearby
building. I stepped through a partially open door and into another church, but this one
was at best a distant cousin of the first. Red warmth suffused the space;
candles were everywhere; the crowd was young and the light danced over faces
dappled with ease and joy. The priest was charismatic and exuded an unspoken,
almost feline religiosity. He was at peace with God, and he felt Him there. No
choir, but a young boy sang accompanied by a classical guitar, a sound of
purity and beauty. And this time, when I took communion, I stared the priest
in the eye, and we smiled.

I was beginning to feel lightheaded as I meandered to the next Mass. It may
have been low blood sugar, but I was convinced that I was having a reaction to
the wafers and the wine. As I stopped on the street and leaned against a
house, I could feel a radiance pulsing through me. I didn't know it at the
time, but many people have confessed to feeling different after communion,
confessed to a certain buzz, to a feeling of fullness. At the same time, I felt
uncomfortable, unsure about just how much I was violating the sanctity of
Mass. I believed that I was entering into communion in good faith, literally.
I was honestly seeking, and though I had not confessed and received
absolution, I was less concerned about how I might look in the eyes of a
church to which I did not belong than about how I would appear in the eyes of a God whose presence I
yearned to feel.

As I walked north to the Piazza del Popolo, I managed to grab a small sandwich
at some cafe that was mysteriously open and completely empty. I ate quickly,
even efficiently, for by this point I was very much on my journey, and this
was only a rest stop. I wanted to get to Santa Maria del Popolo, a small
chapel adorned with two magnificent Caravaggios and some work by Bernini. I
arrived a good hour before the Mass, and stared for what seemed like an hour
at the Caravaggios, with their rich patina of dark and light. The tiny church
was cold, and deserted. I sat in a pew near the front, and an old lady walked
in and knelt behind me. And then I closed my eyes.

To this day, I'm not sure whether I had a vision. Whatever one calls it, it
was wordless and transporting. I had come to Rome drawn by some need. I had
come because I had read about the lives of hermits and mendicants and monks,
and I wanted to know if that should be my path. Anachronistic, yes, but real.
That search for the divine, for connectedness to the Other, resonated. The
lives of St. Francis, of Buddhist monks high in the Himalayas, of the Essenes
out in the Negev Desert, haunted me.

And in that moment, it seemed that I was told not to pursue that path. It
seemed that I was told to stay in the world and not flee to a life of solitary
contemplation. It seemed that I was told that there were other paths, other
ways, ones that I had not thought of and had not tried, ones that few had
written about and that I had not read. And then it was over, and I opened my
eyes, and the woman was still praying behind me and the church was filling up
and Mass began, and once more and for the last time, I stood and went to the
altar and took the wafer under my tongue and felt it disintegrate slowly.

To this day, I cannot with any certainty say what happened. I do not know if I
was spoken to. I do not know if I experienced anything other than my own
wishes amplified by too little food and too many communion wafers. I do know
that I have never gone to Mass since. I do know that I left Santa Maria
del Popolo and returned to Paris, where I spent a week with the woman I would
eventually marry and divorce. I do know that I made my way back to New York,
back to a modern world where God is rarely spoken of, where Christmas is a
time of family and presents and food, where the spirit is muffled by the
endless flow of noise and movement, and where people seek meaning in many
serious and silly ways. I do know that I kept trying for some years to find
God in a place where He was, trying to experience the ineffable in a temple or
a trance, in the ecstasy of drugs, in the struggle of a marriage.

And I do know that as I emerged, past the Caravaggios, into the twilight of
Rome on Christmas, I had found what I wasn't looking for. I had found where
God wasn't, and that was the first step.

By Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

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