in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Fifth Sunday of Lent: St Paul Outside the Walls - Arbor poma gerit...

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus
had already been in the tomb for four days.
Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away.
And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary
to comfort them about their brother.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming,
she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever you ask of God,
God will give you.”
Jesus said to her,
“Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him,
“I know he will rise,
in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

John 11

One of the great pleasures of working in Rome at this time of year is to be able to nip over the road when I have a break to take part in the daily life and liturgy of one of the four great Constantinian basilicas of the city: St Paul Outside the Walls. Unlike its three famous sisters: St Peter's, Maria Maggiore and St John Lateran, St Paul's is somewhat neglected by the tourists. A little way out and partially destroyed by a great fire in the 19th Century many guidebooks demote it to the B-list sights of Rome. What a mistake! For here are some wonderful treasures which can be enjoyed without the hassle (and often expense) of the inner city churches. I just photographed it from the Tiber at sunset, the first migrating river birds have arrived - all the trees are full of blackcaps and cetti warblers (no nightingales yet though). Set amid the marshes and riverbirds this feels like the right place for the execution and burial of St Paul - far away from the  city with the outcasts and the poor (today the river marshes are still a magnet for those rejected from central Rome).
 One of my favourite artworks in the Basilica is the 12th Century Paschal Candlestick by Nicola d'Angelo and Pietro Vassalletto which I picture here. It must stand over 12 foot high and with the massive candle in place that it was made for (the basilica sadly doesn't seem to furnish it with one nowadays) it would have been an impressive sight in the Middle Ages. The decoration, conceived in the quasi-Byzantine Southern Italian style is a thing of joy and beauty- and in its strange contradictory decoration seems to me to encapsulate this 'turning point' in Lent when we prepare ourselves for the path to Calvary.
 Quite startlingly, the first thing we encounter at the base of the candlestick

are griffins, rams, lions and sirens who support a swirling, almost Celtic, maze of dragons and beasts. What are we to make of it? Every time I look at it I see here a representation of the unconscious desires that I have talked about over the last few weeks. These are John of the Cross's 'undirected appetites' - the forces of anger, sexuality, desire and envy that we all have - left to themselves they are also the forces of destruction. And just above them we see their consequences - the trial and destruction of Christ by Pilate, Herod and the other representatives of 'the world'. Yet, half way up the candle stands Christ himself - in the mandorla of resurrection/birth transfiguring and transforming the chaotic forces of the unconscious into the beautiful gentle light that is the paschal candle/resurrected humanity. As with Lazarus being drawn out of his tomb of death, the candle draws us upwards, through the redeeming love of Christ to the thin pale light of Easter morning.
It is a difficult object to photograph and draw, and every time I visit I make the effort. It is even more difficult to write about. But around the base is a Latin inscription which I think sums up not only the Vigil of Lent/Holy Week but this whole process of transformation of desire that I have written about in the past few weeks:

Arbor poma gerit, arbor ego lumina gesto;
Porto libamina, nunto gaudia,
Sed die festo surrexit Cristus,
Nam talia munera praesto...

As the tree brings forth fruit, so do I bring forth light
Bringing gifts, announcing joy
And as on this day Christ rose again
So do I announce this benediction

 From now onwards, after the resurrection of Lazarus, there is a sea-change in the feel to the church's liturgies... we now have our faces resolutely turned to Jerusalem, Calvary, Christ's ultimate humiliation and his subsequent triumph. I look forward to journeying with you on this road in the next couple of weeks.

Happy Lent!


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