Travelling in an age of lost reverence

  • September 8, 2011

ROME - Given the perpetual chaos of the Eternal City, visitors might be surprised to learn of the strict regulations governing the tourist mecca known as the Spanish Steps.

According to a sign, it is forbidden under Article 14 Regolamento P.U. to “shout, squall and sing” anywhere on the elegant 18th century outdoor stairs linking the Piazza di Spagna and the Church of Trinita dei Monti.

It seems a case, however, where ignorance of the law is no abuse. I have never, in numerous visits to the area over the years, witnessed anyone shouting or singing. As for squalling, not even the drafters of Article 14 Regolamento P.U. could have imagined a greater lack of it.

What tourists who visit the Spanish Steps do is what they seem to do everywhere else they go: have themselves photographed, self-conscious and impatient, in front of the site of their latest inattention.


G.K. Chesterton, in his great book Orthodoxy, said the chief virtue of travel is that it is “very narrowing” because it focuses our attention on the wonder of where we do not belong and so prepares us for the even greater wonder of home.

As much as it might sound like heresy to say Chesterton was wrong, he died before the world became a shopping mall. He could not have anticipated travel becoming just another consumer commodity marketed as analgesic amusement.

It is not the trite snobbishness of an old traveller to argue that the greatest wonder of contemporary travel is seeing the oblivious faces of people milling around this historic monument or that guide book must-see.

The issue isn’t them not knowing anything about the particular place or thing they are visiting. That is a simple issue of knowledge, local or historic. It is a question of why they are there beyond the brute fact of being able to say that they were. That is a matter of existence and, more, purpose.

I have been telling the story for the past year, for example, of a  group of people from Chicago who stood behind me at Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica talking about the weather in Chicago. Two of them began to dispute the detail of whether the temperature was 101F or 103F when they left for Rome.

My initial reaction was an annoyed desire to amend Article 14 Regolamento P.U. and prohibit “pointless chatter about the weather” to existing bans on shouting, squalling and singing. The more I think about it, however, the more I see it as more than transient distraction caused by slipshod manners.  

Here were people with sufficient intelligence and capacity to travel across two continents and an ocean, standing in one of the greatest places of faith on the planet, before one of the most sublime pieces of art in human history, a depiction of the turning point of history: the crucified Christ held in the arms of the Mother of Sorrows.

They responded by speaking, that is thinking, in trivialities. Their actions spoke volumes about their incapacity to ask themselves why there was any need to speak at all. Such a failing goes far beyond the breach of any particular protocol. It violates the heart of what American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor taught us is “the habit of being.”

For human beings, after all, the habit of being is inextricably bound to the requirements of purpose. Our “what” is indivisible from our “why.”

Whatever we do, we must know — or at least be prepared to ask — why we are doing it and, critically, why we are doing it there and not somewhere else.

The loss of sense of place that leads to an exchange of banalities in a place such as St. Peter’s — really, that leads to any unnecessary speaking at all — has as its first cause the loss, so common to the age, of reverence. By reverence, I don’t mean just a kind of formalized behavioural restraint. I don’t mean obeying the sign that outlaws squalling. I mean reverence as that which, in our habit of being, opens us to silent wonder.

Given the perpetual consumerist chaos in which most of us live our lives, it is perhaps not surprising that we need to be reminded such places of reverence do still exist. What should catch our attention, once the analgesic amusement of travel wears off, is discovering them not only in front of the world’s great monuments, but on the steps leading to our own homes.

(Peter Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

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