“I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
–C. S. Lewis
The lay Pontifical student’s life in Rome is woven with more questions than our veins are with cappuccinos. When did I become more comfortable with men in collars than with men who have not taken a vow of celibacy? Have I fulfilled my “humiliating-moments-in-the-Italian-language” quota for the week? Why does the small chapel in our library smell never of incense, but always of apples? Was the reason some saints had the gift of bilocation so that they could make it to all of their pontifical classes? Why is night the only time when Rome becomes truly radiant? What is the sad story of the widowed barrister who works in the local bar, where coincidentally one can find the best coffee in all of Rome?
And what on earth was God thinking when He called me here?
The reality of living in this city cannot be condensed into classes, language, delicious food, beautiful architecture, and the historical and tangible affirmation of our Faith, all neatly and benignly suspended about us. Rather, these elements, along with our passions, our insecurities, our talents, our friendships, our love for our families back home, and everything that makes us who we are, clash into one another at every moment with a celestial violence that leaves all of the pieces lying in ruins at our feet.
Yet, such is ultimately the destiny for all of us, whether we live in the Eternal City or the backwoods of West Virginia. It is not enough to simply acquire accurate knowledge and good habits; these alone, while giving us means by which to identify truth and to follow the motions laid out by it, simply do not have what it takes to lead us all the way to the very heart of the matter. True fulfillment of our humanity comes, rather, by surrendering ourselves to the reality that Redemption demands that we must first be devastatingly destroyed. It is not simply a purification of our poor habits and worldly attachments; it is an actual death to ourselves, our entire selves. The calling to take up the Cross is not only a call to suffer; it is a call to die, for it is only through death that we can become who we truly are. “Love, as mortals understand it, isn’t enough,” says C.S. Lewis. “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country; but none will rise again until it has been buried.”
But though, in the process of being rebuilt, we feel the pain of the nails being driven in, and our beams pulled apart, those of us who are called to be pilgrims in this city are surrounded by constant reminders that what we are being reconstructed into is a palace for our Father to live in. This is the special gift of being called to live in Rome, for here is the only city on earth where we fully witness the majesty of our faith in such a way as to not only give us courage to strive for Heaven, but more importantly, joy in the knowledge of what is waiting for us when we get there.