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Touring the Vatican

It was around that time I started Spin, the music magazine that, though not dedicated solely to hedonism, was open to the argument that it was not altogether a bad idea. When people found out I was an active churchgoer they were invariably shocked. Which, in the beginning, shocked me, until I realized that I wasn't fitting either stereotype—rock-and-roll editor or religious person. I was both. More accurately, I was striving to be either in any kind of meaningful way. One Sunday in the early eighties, I stopped by my father's house in Manhattan, and he asked me where I was coming from. I told him I had just been to mass. "That's good," he said, "one of us has to go." He sounded not quite sad, but resigned, like a man suddenly remembering a land long ago left.

Faith is not meant to replace reason, but is for those things which reason cannot explain, said St. Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, faith—that leap into the unknown and unknowable—is the price of admission for any religion. The embrace of mystery is both humbling and liberating, embodying as it does a recognition that there is more to life than the literal. But at the Vatican, the physical grandness of the Church can feel awfully literal, and indifferent to the ineffable value and emotional nourishment of my faith. Indeed, as I walked through the Vatican's spectacular halls and gardens, I didn't get as much a sense of the glory of God as the glorification of the planet's alpha church. I was glad to have seen the art and precious objects on the walls, in cabinets, and even on the ceilings, but all that beauty did not, in my mind, honor the humble Christ so much as flatter the vanity of the institution.

I did have a profound spiritual experience, but it came three weeks after my visit to the Vatican and hundreds of miles to the south, in Sicily. There, on a backstreet in Palermo, on a pole and behind glass, lit by three electric candles, I saw an icon of the face of Christ in his agony. The street was dark, soundless, still, and Christ was frozen in eternal suffering and mystery, and I realized it is the preservation of mystery, not answers, and humility, not exaltation, that allow us to live with our imperfection and fears.

For library and museum information, and for visiting hours, see www.vatican.va.


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