Saturday, April 07, 2007

Emerson in Rome, Easter, 1833

From the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson
April 7, 1833

This mornng the Pope said Mass at St Peter's. Rich dresses, great throngs, lines of troops, but not much to be said for the service. It is Easter & the curtains are withdrawn from the pictures & statues to my great joy & the Pope wears his triple crown instead of a mitre.

At twelve o clock the benediction was given. A canopy was hung over the great window that is above the principal door of St Peter's & there sat the Pope. The troops were all under arms & in uniform in the piazza below, & all Rome & much of England & Germany & France & America was gathered there also. The great bell of the Church tolled, drums beat, & trumpets sounded over the vast congregation.

Presently, at a signal, there was silence and a book was brought to the Pope, out of which he read a moment & then rose & spread out his hands & blessed the people. All knelt as one man. He repeated his action (for no words could be heard), stretching his arms gracefully to the north & south & east & west -- pronouncing a benediction on the whole world. It was a sublime spectacle. Then sounded drums & trumpets, then rose the people, & every one went his way.
This passage shows Emerson's great skill as a writer. He writes not for us but for himself, yet with a clarity and economy of words that's enviable.

He's in Rome during his first European tour and he's loving the liveliness of the city and the beauty of its works of art. He had no bent for Catholicism, any more than he had for other doctrinaire -isms: New England's native Calvinism and Unitarianism included.

The Pope is Gregory XVI, an autocratic defender of the independence of the Church against incursions by European states and pressures from Europe's democratic revolutionaries of the 1830s.

In Rome at the same time, but ironically, not at this Mass, was John Henry Newman, English author and later a convert to the Catholic faith. About the same age, he was in some ways like Emerson, in others very different. He was traveling in Italy for much the same reason Emerson was: to "recruit myself" in his words. Both were independent and original thinkers who wrote powerfully and were to be venerated for their wisdom. Both believed strongly in what Emerson would call self-reliance. However, the one was inclined to skepticism in matters of faith and the other to mysticism. One was cerebral and the other sensual. The one liked paintings, sculpture, and architecture; while the other loved music. And of course the one was indifferent to and the other quite drawn to the mysteries of Catholic faith. In letters home, Newman wrote at this time: "As to the Roman Catholic system, I have ever detested it so much that I cannot detest it more by seeing it; but to the Catholic system I am more attached than ever. I fear there are very grave and far-spreading scandals among the Italian priesthood, and there is mummery in abundance; yet there is a deep substratum of true Christianity. ... On the whole, I am much offended by the picture galleries, and am amazed how men of any religious profession and clergymen can admire them."

{John Henry Newman. Source}

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