Thursday, March 14, 2013

rege eos usque in aeternam

“If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable... we must be content to creep along the ground, and can never soar.” 
--John Henry Cardinal Newman

Why did Peter deny Jesus? 

When you sit in a café near Piazza Navona, most of the questions you expect to be along the lines of: "How are you?" "Come va?" "Seen any good movies recently?" 
I recommend bypassing small talk to perform a heart dissection on one of the most fascinating men in ancient history. 
That strange little fisherman, rather stupid and simple and full of bravado who ended up being the first leader of the church that just elected her 267th pontiff. 
Who was this man? 
And whatever made him deny the man who he loved and who ended up selecting him to lead his church. 

That morning,  I brushed the question aside with a breezy: "Hmm, well isn't that an interesting question! Definitely food for the thought." 
 I had spent the evening before stuffing myself with Italian pizza, and my sights were set more on gelato than Galileans. 
 Enter Santa Maria in Traspontina,  one of five hundred fifty bajillion churches in Rome (super accurate numbers provided by our expert on the ground reporter aka moi).

Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few churches in Rome (in this particular instance, "quite a few" is a euphemism for "on every street corner"), and so, also unsurprisingly, the churches often begin to resemble one another, and they all fade together in a kaleidescope of chiesas that makes it difficult to remember how to distinguish between them. 
Usually, however, there are distinctive features that makes each of  them unique in their own way. Ignatius of Loyola has the fabulous faux-Dome. 
San Luigi dei Francesi thinks it's Versailles. 
Maria off of Piazza del Popolo boasts not one, but two Caravaggios and San Dorothea in Trastevere has murals upon murals of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Down the road from St. Peter's Santa Maria in Traspontina, is slightly dwarfed by its neighbor--the largest basilica in the world.

But her hidden treasure is a collection of some of the most beautiful Stations of the Cross you have ever seen. As I walked through the church, praying each station, I noticed something interesting: Christ fell three times. Peter denied him three times. Interesting. Maybe there was something to this question. 

 When he first denies Christ, Peter is in the crowded, heated square where Christ is being persecuted.
His lord and master, best friend and trusted mentor is being beaten and spatten (a new word for a new era of the church) upon. 
Peter's first reaction is fear. He needs to separate himself from the victim. 
"Who, me? Of course not. Of course I don't know this man." His instinct for self-preservation satisfied, Peter exits stage right in a rush. 
As he leaves the courtyard,  he bumps into a servant maid--a simple young girl--not a threat at all. She asks him: Didn't you know him
Did he, Peter must have asked himself. Did he really know this man?
Maybe in that moment, Peter came to that awful realization all human beings face at some point: that moment when you realize that your world is not as rock-solid as you had hoped. Maybe he felt he had been deceived, and his house had been built on sandy shale instead of marble.
Heartbroken, Peter responds: I do not even know this man. This man, who he had so confidently and courageously acknowledged to be the Son of God was being prosecuted like a common theif. This isn't how the story was supposed to go. 

Finally, when, for a third time, Peter is asked if he knows Christ, his goat is quite gotten. 
He curses; he swears. 
Salt can only be rubbed in our wounds so many times until we decide to snap, because we can absolutely take no more. 
The only thing that hurts more than the initial shock of pain, are all the chafes and gibes we endure, that remind us of the original hurt. The off-hand comment that causes us to bite our tongue, in order to abort our cry of pain mid-gasp; the poorly-timed joke that makes our stomach lurch; the innocent question which we would rather cut off our left hand than answer. 
One can only endure the fear, the pain, or heartbreak for so long until one will snap, explode, or break in anger. 
And then it is finished. 
And before we know it, we have denied the only thing we knew.
And then the cock crows.

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