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The Door Swings Open: Threshold

  • MARGARET VISSER

The church stands with its back to the road. It turns away, quietly guarding its secret. 


visserFor more than 1,350 years it has stood by the road, and around it once stretched open fields and vineyards. The massive brick walls and towers that encircled the city of Rome were clearly and unforgettably visible, cutting across the landscape to the south.

If you arrive today, say by bus — a two-kilometre ride from Termini Station — you will have to cross the busy road you came on, from the bus stop near a fountain captured in stone. Acqua Marcia is inscribed on it, in memory of Rome's first important aqueduct, constructed in 144 b.c. Within the last hundred years or so, the view from here of the city walls has been blocked as the area became first a suburb and then a fairly central district of modern Rome.

Having reached the pavement opposite the bus stop, you look through an iron gate with a walkway leading to a closed door under a porch. To the left of it stands the brick back of the church and its medieval tower — not by any means a spectacular tower, but a strong and graceful one nonetheless. The building not only conceals what it contains, it also marks the spot.

To find an entrance to the building, you can take a small descending side road on your right to a break in the wall on the left; this gateway is invisible from the main street. Or you must walk along the pavement, as I did the first time I came here, and brave a small porch with an arch on columns and a painting over the door, at number 349 via Nomentana; it lets you into a solid medieval monastery building with yellow ochre walls. Once you have crossed into the precinct, you must traverse a courtyard, then walk through the vaulted space that supports another medieval tower, and enter a door on your right. You find yourself at the top of a broad staircase, forty-five steps in all, descending into the church. You realize, with a shock, that the church floor is deep down; the building is much higher inside than it looks from the street. For almost a millennium, until the year 1600, the church was half buried. Only its upper level rose above ground.

The floor level is the same as one of the levels of the catacomb into which the church has been built. These narrow tunnels, with graves cut one above the other into their earthen sides, snake out underneath all of the area hereabouts. There is another much larger catacomb almost adjoining this one; its entrance is just a street block away. The entrance to a smaller, uninvestigated warren has also been discovered. The thundering main road outside, carrying the bus or car you arrived in, passes over a section of the catacombs. There are thousands of graves — in 1924, 5,753 of them had been counted — and several kilometres of tunneling, not all of which has yet been explored.

A single grave among all the rest gives its name to this catacomb and to the church sunk into it: the grave of Agnes, a twelve-year-old girl who was murdered in 305 a.d. She has never been forgotten; the building remembers her.

Personal Epiphanies

The word "remember" comes from the same Indo-European root as "mind." And the English word "mind" is both a noun ("what is in the brain") and a verb ("pay attention to," "care"). When one has forgotten, to remember is to call back into the "attention span," to recall. Attention is thought of here as having a span — an extension in space. Forgetting, on the other hand, is like dropping something off a plate, falling off an edge, not "getting" it, but having to do, instead, without it. Remembering is recapturing something that happened in the past; it is an encounter of now with then — a matter of time. Buildings — constructions in space — may last through time as this church has lasted. Such structures can cause us to remember. Their endurance, as well as their taking up space, may counter time and keep memory alive.

This particular church reminds us of Agnes, who was killed by having her throat cut almost 1,700 years ago. But like any church, it recalls a great deal more. One of a church's main purposes is to call to mind, to make people remember. To begin with, a church sets out to cause self-recollection. Every church does its best (some of them are good at this, others less so, but every church is trying) to help each person recall the mystical experience that he or she has known.

Everyone has had some such experience. There are moments in life when — to use the language of a building — the door swings open. The door shuts again, sooner rather than later. But we have seen, even if only through a crack, the light behind it. There has been a moment, for example, when every person realizes that one is oneself, and no one else. This is probably a very early memory, this taking a grip on one's own absolutely unique identity, this irrevocable beginning.

I remember myself, walking along a narrow path in the Zambian bush. The grass was brown and stiff, more than waist-high. I was wearing a green-and-white checked dress with buttons down the front. I was alone. I said aloud, stunned, "Tomorrow I'm going to be five! Tomorrow I'm going to be five!" I stopped still with amazement: fiveness was about to be mine! I had already had four. The whole world seemed to point to me in that instant. The world and I looked at each other. It was huge and I was me. I was filled with indescribable delight. I took another step, and the vision was gone. But it's still there, even now, even when I am not recalling it.

This was a mystical experience. As such, one of its characteristics was that in it my mind embraced a vast contradiction: both terms of it at once. I was me and the world contained me, but I was not the world. I was a person, but I wasn't "a person" — I was me. A mystical experience is before all else an experience, and beyond logic. It is concrete, and therefore unique. It is bigger than the person who experiences it; it is something one "enters."

People have always, apparently in all cultures, conceptualized the world as participating in, or expressing, or actually being a tension between a series of opposites: big and small, high and low, same and different, hot and cold, one and many, male and female, and so on. Societies of people can have very idiosyncratic ideas about what is opposite to what: a culture can find squirrels "opposite" to water rats, oblongs "opposite" to squares, bronze vessels "the opposite" of clay ones. Anthropologists dedicate themselves to finding out what such classifications could mean; the answers they give us usually show how social arrangements are reflected outward upon the world, and determine human perceptions of how nature is ordered. One result of a mystical experience, therefore, can be a profound demystification.

For no sooner has a culture organized its system of contradictions, than the mystics arise. They steadfastly, and often in the face of great danger, assure their fellow human beings that they are wrong: what appears to be a contradiction in terms is merely a convention, a point of view, a façon de parler, no matter how self-evident it may appear. These are people who believe and convince others that they have been lifted out of this world and have seen a greater truth: the opposites are, in fact, one. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus can say, "The way up and the way down are the same." Or: "Step into the same river twice, and its waters will be different."

Such mystic realizations (up and down are one, sameness and difference coincide) have to keep occurring, both for the sake of truth, and for the necessity of realizing that neither our senses nor our thinking faculties have access to, or are capable of encompassing, everything. ("The last proceeding of reason," wrote Pascal, "is to recognize that there is an infinity of things beyond it.") For all the outrage and bafflement with which the pronouncements of the mystics are greeted, we remember their words; in time we learn to appreciate and value them. In our own day, physicists have been talking like mystics for some time: expressing physical reality, for example, as conflating space and time, or declaring that waves and particles (lines and dots) can be perceived to be "the same." The rest of us are only beginning to take in what they are saying.

From the point of view of the person experiencing them, privileged moments — those that allow us to see something not normally offered to our understanding — do not last. Regretfully, necessarily, we cannot remain in such an experience. We move on, into the practical, the sensible, the logical and provable, the mundane. But after one such glimpse of possibility, we henceforth know better. We know what it is to experience two or more incompatible, mutually exclusive categories as constituting in fact one whole. We have seen both sides of the coin, at one and the same time. An impossibility — but it has happened. We may bury this experience, deny it, explain it away — but at any moment something could trigger it, raise it up, recall it. Because it has happened, and cannot unhappen.

One of the consequences of having had a mystical experience is a sense of loss. If only it could have gone on and on, and never had to stop; if only the door would open again! One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in life is that we cannot bring about such an experience, any more than we can make it last. Sex can remind us of it because, like a mystical experience, sex is ecstatic, overwhelming, and delightful; it feels bigger than we are. Drugs can also make us feel as if we're "there" again. So people pursue sex and drugs — experiences they can get, they can have. This other thing, this greater and unforgettable thing, this insight, is not anyone's for the asking. It comes (it always comes, to everyone, at different times and in different ways), and there is no telling what it will be or when or where, let alone how. You can't buy it or demand it or keep it. It is not a chemical reaction, and there is nothing automatic about it.

A mystical experience is something perceived, and it calls forth a response. But you are free to turn away from the vision, to behave as though it never happened; you are free not to respond. (This is something I have had to learn: when I was almost five there was no question of not responding.) The invitation cannot be made to anyone else but you — and not even to you at any moment in your life other than the one in which it is made. I shall never be five again, so no other mystical experience I have will ever again be that one. I shall never again wear that green-and-white checked dress; it is very likely that the path through the brown grass has disappeared. What I have left is the enormous memory, and the fact that it has enlarged all of my experience ever since.

Now a church (or a temple or a synagogue or a mosque — any religious building) knows perfectly well that it cannot induce in anyone a mystical experience. What it does is acknowledge such experience as any of its visitors has had, as explicitly as it can. A church is a recognition, in stone and wood and brick, of spiritual awakenings. It nods, to each individual person. If the building has been created within a cultural and religious tradition, it constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thousands of mystical moments. A church reminds us of what we have known. And it tells us that the possibility of the door swinging open again remains.

Audiences: Church and Theatre

Memory, in a church, is not only individual, but also collective: the building is a meeting house for a group of people who agree with each other in certain important respects. They come together to express solidarity, and they do this by participating in an intensely meaningful performance known as a ritual.

The closest relative of a church is a theatre, where people also come together to witness a scripted performance. There is a stage in a church, and seats for the audience; in both theatre and church, people come in order to live together through a trajectory of the soul. They come to be led by the performance to achieve contact with transcendence, to experience delight or recognition, to understand something they never understood before, to feel relief, to stare in amazement, or to cry. They want something that shakes them up — or gives them peace. Successful drama, like a well-performed ritual, can provoke an experience of transcendence: through feeling, for example, two contradictory emotions at once. Aristotle spoke of katharsis — purification — as the aim of tragedy. Catharsis, he said, is achieved by undergoing two opposing movements of the soul — pity (feeling for, and therefore drawing close) and fear (longing to move out of the danger's range) — at the same time.

In a theatre the audience is the receiver of a play, and essential to a play. At an ancient Greek drama the audience was indeed part of the spectacle. The form of the theatre, a huge horseshoe shape, ensured that this was so. The Greek theatres that survive today allow us to imagine what it must have been like, sitting in a vast crowd of fellow citizens with everyone spread out in full view, in broad daylight, fanning out to embrace the round dancing-floor below them. Actors say that an audience can draw out of them their best performances, just through the quality of its attention, its intentness.

A theatre is like a church — not the other way round. "Church" or "temple" is the main category, and "theatre" a division of it. Historically, drama grew out of religious performance (and never entirely left it) in a process wherein the play gradually separated itself from the crowd watching. The distance between watcher and watched is essential to theatrical experience. ("Theatre" comes from Greek theatron, a place for viewing.) People come together in a church, however, not to view but to take part. The word "church" comes from Greek kyriakon, "house of the Lord"; it is a place of encounter between people and God.

It is perfectly possible to be moved at a spiritual level at the theatre; one can open oneself and be brought to mystical insight, as Aristotle showed us, through attentive watching. (Such experiences, however, can occur anywhere, at any time — indeed, they seem to prefer arriving when we are least expecting them, at times and places we would be least inclined to call "appropriate.") But a performance in a church is permitted to involve people to an extent that the theatre traditionally avoids. People come to participate in it, to join in, and then allow the realization to enter them and work upon them. The whole point of the proceedings is to help them change the orientation of their souls, even though they are also confirming the foundation of their beliefs. They have come to meet, to make the ceremony, and to respond, at a level that may include but goes well beyond the aesthetic. But a church can go on "working" even when there is no performance and no crowd. A person can come into a silent church in order to respond to the building and its meaning. This can produce an experience as profoundly moving as that of attending a performance. The same thing cannot be said of visiting an empty theatre.

Meaning and Response

A church like Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura (Saint Agnes outside the Walls) vibrates with intentionality. It is meaningful — absolutely nothing in it is without significance. Even if something is inadvertently included that has no meaning to start with, a meaning for it will be found, inevitably. A church stands in total opposition to the narrowing and flattening of human experience, the deviation into the trivial, that follow from antipathy towards meaning, and especially meaning held in common. Meaning is intentional: this building has been made in order to communicate with the people in it. A church is no place to practise aesthetic distance, to erase content and simply appreciate form. The building is trying to speak; not listening to what it has to say is a form of barbarous inattention, like admiring a musical instrument while caring nothing for music.

The building "refers" to things beyond itself, and it deliberately intends to be a setting where spiritual knowledge receives explicit recognition and focal attention. Sometimes the meanings are highly specific and complex; for the sake of clarity they may even be explained in inscriptions. Other meanings are more general: the nave is "like a ship" (which is what "nave" means), or windows let in light (a symbol of God). But these meanings also engage in intricate play among themselves, arouse further associations, and end up offering some of the most complex meanings of all. And always — silently, intently — the building points at once both to the individual's own inner being and to the things commonly done in the company of other people in the church: the place where "the Word" is read, for example, and the site of baptism, or Christian initiation. The altar table is usually given centre stage, for at the heart of Christianity is a shared meal, together with everything meant by sharing a meal.

Contemplating all these meanings, even when you are alone in a church and there is no performance going on, is intended to help focus your mind and soul. You go into a church to exclude the extraneous, to get away from noise and distractions, to go back into yourself and take a good look at what is there. You go because you want to restore and enrich your relationship with God, by participating in a religious ceremony, by praying, or by just sitting alone in silence. All of the church's "language" exists to help you do this, to get your mind humming and to make you receptive.

It is also supposed to help you keep in good spiritual shape. For one of the central tenets of Christianity is that belief and love and trust and insight, like mystical experience, are given to you. You can't cause a gift such as belief or trust or love — whether felt or received — to be given, although a longing for what is called "grace" will surely be satisfied. Only, when the gift comes, you have to be ready. (Longing for it is part of being ready; Christians say even that to long is already to have received.) It is entirely possible to be so distracted that you don't notice the gift at your doorstep, or to be in such poor shape spiritually that you do not recognize or cannot accept what is being offered. God comes "like a thief in the night." (Notice that in this biblical simile, when God "breaks in" the person is thought of as like a house, a building.) All that a human being can do is be vigilant, notice what is happening, and then respond. A church is there to remind you, to teach you to pay attention, and to awaken the poetry in your soul. It gives you exercise in responding.

Transcending Contradictions

Churches, if we let them, put us back in touch with our mystical experience. At a simple yet eloquent level, they are always bigger than we are, offer more than we can take in. Look forward at the altar, say, and you are missing the crucifix, the rose window, the door behind you. Look at the ceiling and you are leaving out of account the floor, let alone the crypt below it. It is normally impossible to grasp all of a church at once. A church is bigger than I am, but it also represents me. Its plan is the plan of a human soul — and often, indeed, the plan of a human body: head, arms, and torso.

Churches orient us. The word "orientation" means literally "turned towards the east" (oriens in Latin means "rising," and so where the sun rises). It is a word derived from church-building: many churches attend to the symbolism of the sun and its movement across the sky, having been built to conform with that cosmic pattern. But "orientation" has now come to mean any direction. A church knows where its centre lies, and what direction it faces; having direction is always part of its meaning. The French word sens, which signifies both "meaning" (sense) and "direction," captures the conflation of the two ideas. The direction-ful and meaningful church is an invitation to travel, to stretch our souls and embrace the movement that time imposes upon our lives. Churches express time — but in terms of space.

The use of space to "mean" time and movement is a church's way of preparing the visitor for its final objective, which is to point to infinity or the transcendent, where the oppositions perceived by our human senses are resolved, and all is understood to be one. The Christian religion is itself founded on a vast contradiction; the habit of conflating opposites is indigenous to it. To begin with, Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both God and human. It is an idea outrageous enough to have kept them argumentatively occupied for two thousand years.

Some have thought Jesus was only a man, a very good person; some that he was human until he was baptized by John, at which point he became divine; some that he was never human at all but only appeared to be a man. To preserve the paradox and prevent the exclusion of one of the opposites, the institutional Church kept condemning such ideas — many and ingenious were their formulations — as heresies. (The word "heresy" is from Greek haireo, "I choose": heretics are people who choose to believe what they like, regardless of orthodoxy; who bend beliefs to suit themselves. "Orthodoxy," on the other hand, means literally "thinking in a straight line.") But in a sense there is always heresy, simply because Christians cannot — not easily, certainly not constantly, perhaps never — get their minds around the enormity of this central contradiction.

For well over the first thousand years of the Church's history, it was the deity of Christ that was emphasized — not taught as being exclusive, but still used as a lens through which to see things from a "Christian" point of view. Christ was Pantokrator, the "All Powerful One," solemn and just, tranquil in his triumph because he had changed the world forever, and very male. Today, that has changed. Christians tend, at least in the West, to think of Jesus in his human aspect, as intensely human as it is possible to be, and as compassionate as the gentlest woman; some can scarcely fit his divinity into the picture. God himself (that is, Christ, as Christians believe) is known to be suffering, even helpless in the face of the evil that humankind has freely chosen to commit. It can be hard these days to feel that God has "the whole world in his hand."

Neither of the two one-sided visions is truly Christian; the Church has always said so. But the Church itself has almost never been able to get it right, except as a formula that it formally upholds. (The "formulas" of the Church are radical and, to those who believe them, inspiring. What the Church as an institution actually does, however, only occasionally rises to the level of its beliefs.) It is absolutely essential to the Christian message to accept that Christ is both God and human — and that equally, simultaneously, and always. It is indeed impossible to get one's mind around this paradox, yet that, and nothing less, is the crux (a truly Christian word) of everything in Christianity.

A related contradiction is even harder to embrace. God is perceived on one hand as infinite, immense, the creator and sustainer of a universe, the universe whose unimaginable size we are only now beginning to discover; and on the other hand he is believed to be present in every single detail of his creation, to know and hold dear every atom, every speck of dust on every star and planet, to care about every blade of grass, every insect, every human being. To see Christ as both divine and human is to grasp two terms of a contradiction. God's spanning of one and many, huge and minuscule, this instant and always, here and everywhere, omnipotent and vulnerable is even further beyond human imagining — although mystics tell us that in privileged moments they have "seen" this truth. The profoundly Judeo-Christian idea that God is not a theorem or a pattern or a necessity, but a person — an I — takes us even further from common sense. But that is not all: Christians believe that this person ("I am who I am") is the root of love, and eternally loves us. It takes only two words to say the most mind-boggling article of Christian belief there is: God cares.

"I It Am"

On May 8, 1373, a young woman lay dying, and she experienced God. She later recovered and lived, and wrote down what she had been shown when she met God, in a book called Revelations of Divine Love. Julian of Norwich received sixteen revelations in all; after the account of the last one she wrote: "Some of us believe that God is almighty, and may do everything; and that he is all wise, and can do everything; but that he is all love, and will do everything — there we draw back." No matter how horrendous the world's sufferings, no matter how triumphant wickedness looks, God revealed to Julian that "Sin is behovable [that is, necessary or inevitable], but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

God opened the series of revelations to Julian by showing her the universe. "And he showed me . . . a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, 'What is this?' And the answer came, 'It is all that is made.' I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, 'It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it.' "

In the twelfth revelation God spoke to Julian in words I shall quote in Julian's original English with its high disdain for consistency in spelling: "I it am, I it am; I it am that is heyest; I it am that thou lovist; I it am that thou lykyst; I it am that thou servist; I it am that thou longyst; I it am that thou desyrist; I it am that thou menyst; I it am that is al; I it am that holy church prechyth and teachyth the; I it am that shewed me here to thee."

"I it am that thou menyst," God said: "I am what you mean."

The Way Down: Initiation

There is another way to approach the church of Sant'Agnese. Instead of entering from the via Nomentana, you can take the narrow descending road, via di Sant'Agnese, to the right of the church and enter through the gateway a little way down on your left. You will find yourself in a small piazza. Before you is the façade of the church. By the closing years of the sixteenth century, the building was almost a thousand years old and urgently needed to be restored. The walls were covered in weeds and creepers, wrote Costantino Caetani, who described the work subsequently done; clearing the greenery away meant disturbing the habitations of "serpents and other nasty and poisonous creatures." What is now the front of the church was dug out of the earth — many tons of earth — and we shudder to think of the archaeological damage done. The fabric of the building was then strengthened, the walls cleaned and painted, and the three doors, a big central one and two smaller aisle doors, were created in front at the present ground level.

Today, these doors serve as an alternative entrance or exit. They receive solemn use every year on Palm Sunday, which is "olive branch" Sunday in Rome, where people traditionally carry their own symbol-laden olive instead of palms. The congregation exits from the front of the church and walks in procession, singing, across the little piazza and along a path lined with trees and shrubs to the round church of Santa Costanza nearby. They are recalling Christ's entry into Jerusalem riding on an ass, and his welcome by crowds triumphantly waving branches. It is one of the strategies of religious ritual to make one place "become" temporarily another, for the purposes of reenactment. Santa Costanza's, as the goal of the procession, "becomes" Jerusalem, and then Calvary, where Jesus was put to death.

But in order to enter the church of Sant'Agnese, it is best to take not the front doors pierced through the façade of the church when it was excavated, but the original entrance, the ancient passage down. This broad, well-lit marble staircase was created during the early seventeenth century. For many centuries before that, however, it had been a dark and slippery descent, with worn, steep, uneven steps. People must have slithered and groped their way down, holding onto each other and steadying themselves against the walls of the tunnel. Many of those who walked or rode out of the Nomentan Gate in the Aurelian Walls of Rome and along the via Nomentana to visit the shrine of Agnes never undertook the tunnel entrance. There is a gallery above the colonnade in the church, often referred to as a matroneum or "gallery for women," which provided an alternative to the dark passage.

This upper gallery is at the level of the road, as can be seen from the street outside. There is a gate in the low wall along the street and a walkway leading to a door with a porch over it, near the apse. We saw this walkway and entrance earlier, as we approached the church from the bus stop. The entry from the street directly into the gallery was created in the seventeenth century, and probably replaced a much older one. Originally, there were other entrances into the gallery, both in front and on one or both of the long sides of the church. People would enter the gallery and stand looking down into the church, and they could move around the gallery on three sides of the building. They could not get down from there into the church itself, but they did avoid taking the downward passage in the dark. It may well have been that women usually preferred the gallery to the tunnel.

The passageway itself is considerably older than the present church, which was built in about 630. The lower parts of the left-hand wall of the stairway is of the fabric known as opus mixtum, which dates it to the fourth century. It led down, as it still does, to the catacomb and the burial place of Agnes, now resting underneath the church. The Christian meanings of the tunnel are superimposed upon the universal symbolism of grottoes and caverns: of the black hole that is a gateway to dreams and visions; of night, sleep, and death; of Mother Earth, who knows all things past, present, and to come, but who speaks indistinctly and in riddles. People who need to see the way ahead may find it by first visiting their fate or destiny, in depth and in darkness. Which, in a sense, is what we do as we descend the steps into Sant'Agnese's.

This, too, is what Aeneas did, at the behest of the Sibyl of Cumae, when he set out, accompanied by his faithful friend Achates, on the last stage of his journey to find and found this city, Rome. Virgil describes the visions Aeneas was granted in the underworld: sit numine vestro, the poet prays,

pandere res alta terra et caligine mersas.
(O Chaos and Phlegethon, oh broad silent tracts of night! Permit me to tell what I have heard; allow me through your aid to unfold secrets buried in the depths and darkness of the earth!)

And then Aeneas and Achates begin the descent, in one of the most famous lines — its unbearably slow rhythm and its beauty are untranslatable — in the entire Aeneid:

i¯ba¯nt o¯ bscu¯ ri¯ so¯la¯ su¯ b no¯cte˘ pe˘r u¯ mbra¯ m.
(On they went dimly, beneath the lonely night and through the dark.)

This is the dark, we would say today, of the "unconscious," where the secret of each person's own destiny lies hidden. We must make contact with this darkness; it has a great deal to teach us. It does this in dreams, whose night-enclosed, enigmatic messages we must take care to hear and comprehend. In the seeming "death" of sleep, we come in touch with the roots of life.

It is one of the central paradoxes of Christianity that in order to live, we must first die. It calls us to choose the transcendent, which involves looking away from ourselves and turning outward, towards others and towards God; only then can we know what it is to be fully alive. "Anyone who saves his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it." One poetic image for this idea is the seed: it must die in the dark, leaving its protective and initially nurturing husk behind, in order to rise and live. Going down into the earth, especially by a dark passage, is a symbol at once of death and rebirth, and of the search for and openness to "unconscious" knowledge. Once such knowledge is comprehended, we must bear it with us out of the place of encounter when we leave. For a church calls us always to exit afterwards, to rejoin the world outside.

In the early thirteenth century the ancient passage down into Sant'Agnese's was given lighting by means of "transenne" (the plural of Italian transenna, literally "netting"): pierced stone screens, set into the walls at intervals. Two very small stone screens were found in the top left-hand wall of the passage in 1950; they can still be seen encased in the wall outside. They must have provided very little light. Windows in early Christian churches were often transenne, with the holes separating the stone strips sometimes filled with thin, translucent sheets of selenite or alabaster. The transenne have simple geometrical designs — a common one consists of arching shapes suggestive of waves of water — and wherever these stone screens survive they give dim rippling or starlike lighting effects to church interiors. Such screens, without fillings, were also used for parapets, like the ones now fencing in the gallery in Sant'Agnese's.

At the time when the passage was provided with transenne, there were thirty steps down; they were covered in thirteenth-century cosmatesque (marble mosaic) decorations. At the bottom of the steps were massive bronze doors at the entrance to the church proper. By the late sixteenth century these doors had been stripped of their ornaments and presented a lamentable appearance. But there was plenty of bronze left: in 1587 Pope Sixtus V had the doors taken away and melted down. The bronze went to make the statue of Saint Peter that now stands on top of Trajan's Column, and the statue of Saint Paul, now on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. Today, tall glass doors fill this space; they date from 1884.

In 1590 the entrance passage was given "many windows." Some decades later the thirty steps were removed entirely and the present staircase built. In the process a great many finds were made in the earth under the steps. Out of the soil came ancient Roman marbles, including a number of statues, among them the Drunk Old Woman and Heracles and the Hydra, now kept in the Capitoline Museum, a Youthful Augustus in the Vatican Museums, many burial urns, and a magnificent rock-crystal vase. In addition there were eight out of a set of ten large bas-reliefs in white marble. They depict GrecoRoman myths, and date from the early days of the reign of the Emperor Augustus. These are kept today in Rome's handsome Renaissance Palazzo Spada, in a part of the building now belonging to the Italian government; visitors who want to see them must seek permission. It is well worth making the effort, however, for they are masterpieces of Hellenistic art; it is rare nowadays that works as fine as these should be so little known to the general public. Many of the statues and other works of Roman art found at Sant'Agnese's were taken to Palazzo Verospi (now the Credito Italiano bank) at 374 the Corso, where Shelley once lived. However, they appear to have been dispersed before 1804.

A shrine to Agnes was erected between 352 and 366 a.d., and it stood for three centuries before this church was built. The frontal and sides of its altar were rediscovered when the staircase was repaired in 1884, and they are now on the right-hand wall of the passage down. A bas-relief on one of these slabs shows a young girl praying, her hands lifted in the manner that was then usual for prayer. She probably represents Agnes herself, depicted thus about fifty years after her death. This is one of the most moving objects in the entire church; we shall have occasion to consider it again. Very close by, also now set into the passage wall, is a large, handsomely inscribed marble slab, describing in fourth-century Latin verse the death of Agnes. To this, too, we shall return later.

It is clear from the number and quality of these discoveries that in and around her family's private burial ground, where Agnes' body was laid and later given a stone altar and a small shrine, there were rich pagan Roman tombs and villas, perhaps even a temple or two. The superb columns used in Santa Costanza's (they are second century in date, while the building itself is fourth century), as well as those in the church of Sant'Agnese, are from Roman temples, and perhaps found locally.

By the early seventeenth century uncomfortable dark passages were certainly not in vogue. This was the baroque age, the era of light and of glorying in human creativity and skill. The symbolism of rebirth, of going under water or under earth, and there receiving supernatural vision and new life, still found powerful expression in Church liturgy, but in architecture people preferred to celebrate order, clarity, dignity of bearing, processional pageantry, and an airy grandeur. So Cardinal Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici and later Cardinal Fabrizio Veralli (the church complex is hung with several armorial shields for each of them) undertook to provide modern Roman Christians with a "new, improved" entrance to the ancient shrine of Saint Agnes, and replaced the medieval staircase with the present one.

The old cosmatesque steps, no matter how uneven, and also the dimness, would have pleased me more. However, I think that the methodical thoroughness of the modern science of archaeology has provided the initiatory passage into Sant'Agnese's with something even better. The experience of descending in scarce light — catching one's breath in wonder as the beautiful church opens out after the turn to the right at the foot of the steps — is still there, although reduced in intensity. But we now also have scraps of marble set into the walls on either side as we go down, whose meaning must enormously enhance any experience of descent into the church. These are fragments inscribed in Greek and Latin, pieces of tombstone from inside the church itself, and from nearby early Christian burials and the catacombs.

Many churches in Rome display their fragments of inscriptions in stone in this manner. Once they have been recorded, these finds are presumably of little importance for archaeologists; being unspectacular, they would merely gather dust in museums. At the places where they were found, however, they constitute a poignant memorial to the people for the enrichment and inspiration of whose lives each church was built. The scraps and segments at Sant'Agnese's are, in fact, sorted and placed in some order upon the walls (they were "systematized" in 1974), but they are fragmentary enough still to look random, scattered, like pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle awaiting completion, and then decipherment — perhaps in the final coming together of everything, at the end of the world.

Words can be made out: names, many of them Greek, and slices of messages: "To sweetest Epaphroditus" (his name means that he is dedicated to Aphrodite, but he died a Christian); Abilia; Statius; Eufrosine and Decensia who were "buried in peace with the holy martyr." Susanna, whose inscription was set up by her husband, Exuperantius; Honorius, Alexander, Evodia, Phoebe, Terentia Chryse, Abundantius the Acolyte, Inportunus the Subdeacon. The priest (praesbyter) Celerinus; a stone for Emiliana (HEMILIANE), "sister of the priest Celerinus," is still in place in the catacomb. Melior Iunior rediit "[who has] returned home" to God; Aelia Isidora, Paul, Marcellina, Furius, Euphrosyne, Victor (BIKTΩP), and Assia Felicissima Sucessa, all of whose sibilant names survived.

At the bottom of the passage on the left are slabs set at right angles to the wall. These are opisthographs: slabs with pagan inscriptions that were turned over and reused for Christian graves, such as the one for Valentina. They are set like this today so that both sides of the stones can be read. Upside down and in Greek is the stone of one of the men who dug out the catacomb: Petrus Fossor, Peter the Digger. Thomas "cum Agni" got himself buried, perhaps by paying a fee to a digger, close to the grave of Agnes herself; the plaque found might indeed be a contract with a digger rather than his actual funeral stone.

Aelius Heliodorus was only a small child when his earthly life ended. His family engraved PRT on his stone, which means pax refrigerium tibi, "peace and delight be to you." By juxtaposing a sign for Christ with the word deo (God), Valentinus seems to proclaim — in rejection, it has been suggested, of the Arian heresy — that Jesus was not only human but also God. Publius Aelius Narcissus, buried with Aurelia Phoebilla, brings to mind the family addressed by Saint Paul in his letter to the Christians at Rome: "Greetings to . . . those of the family of Narcissus who are in the Lord's fellowship."

In 1901 during an archaeological dig behind the main altar in the church, a tombstone was unearthed that says (it too is encased now in the passage wall): "Here rests in peace Serena the Abbess (abbatissa), who died at the age of 85." The burial date given (in our method of calculation) is May 8, 514 a.d. This date generated great excitement at the time of the find because — given the advanced age of Serena at her death — it meant there was a convent of nuns at Sant'Agnese's as early as the fifth century. This would be the oldest known convent in Rome, and this tombstone remains the earliest known reference to an abbess. Previously, the earliest record of a convent on the site had been three hundred years later, when the Liber Pontificalis says that Pope Leo III donated a silver box (canistrum) in about 806 to a monastery at Sant'Agnese's. There is scepticism about the meaning of the Serena slab among some scholars nowadays. Perhaps, they say, she was not really an abbess, or at any rate not what we mean by an abbess. Perhaps she did not live at Sant'Agnese's, although she was buried in the church. But there it is: the stone speaks, and it is we who must make sense of it.

There are many more people, many more stones: most often the name is broken off, the message incomplete. The pieces of slab and their inscriptions talk, remember, pray. Many of them are in Greek, the rest in Latin: not our languages, but still we could figure out the meaning of each one, if only we had all of the words. The stones set into the walls stand for thousands more, rifled tombs, broken marbles, lost fragments. As we go down to the church, they whisper to us in a confused murmur of voices. They are, as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, "a cloud of witnesses." It is profoundly moving to open oneself to the memory of all these ordinary people who preserved and passed on our traditions to us. Who were they? How did they live? What did they look like? What would I have in common with Melior Junior, or Decensia, or Exuperantius?

A twenty-first-century Christian, after having thought for a moment, can reply: everything that is most important. A modern person would certainly find these predecessors strange, their customs exotic, their attitudes often baffling, their courage at times impossible to imagine. Yet at the deepest level, Christians today believe what they too believed — that with Jesus Christ the world changed forever. Modern Christians want to keep the great insights alive, and wish they could live according to ideals they share directly, profoundly, with these people. Certainly, there have been enormous cultural changes. There are new ideas, new circumstances; the Christian Church has developed and grown. Terrible things have happened, crimes committed often in Christ's name, enormous heroism shown, repression and struggles to regain liberty, decline and renewal. Fidelity and confidence have fluctuated, while vast amounts of knowledge, both factual and spiritual, have been lost and gained during the many centuries since these stones were engraved. And still Christians are one with these dead. They accept the same commitment to love and transcendence of self, belong to the same lineage, can still stand with them, under the same roof.

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Acknowledgement

visserMargaret Visser. "The Door Swings Open: Threshold." chapter one from The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2000): 7-26.

Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights Reserved.

The Author

visser1smvissersm Margaret Visser writes on the history, anthropology, and mythology of everyday life. Her most recent book is The Gift of Thanks. Her previous books, The Geometry of LoveMuch Depends on Dinner, The Rituals of Dinner, and The Way We Are, have all been best sellers and have won major international awards. In 2002 she gave the Massey Lectures on CBC radio, subsequently published as the best-selling book, Beyond Fate. Her books have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. She divides her time between Toronto, Paris, and South West France. 

Copyright © 2000 Margaret Visser
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