Italy. It sounds so romantic. Oh wait, did it ever dawn on you--like it did me this week--that romance and romantic come from the word Roman? Whatever is Roman seems romantic. I think that's why so many of us want to go to Italy. It is so Romantic.
When I was in college a friend of mine was leading a Bible study. For some reason now lost to me, he asked the group for a definition of "romantic". I was there with my girlfriend that night, so when the subject of romance came up, everybody looked at us. Then she looked at me. "Yeah, Buddy," her eyes asked, "how 'bout it?" I stalled and tried to run a misdirection play--look, a bird--but it wasn't working. Pretty soon everyone realized I didn't know how to define romantic. My friend the Bible study leader eventually helped me out. Romantic, he said, is when something is ideal or idealistic. Romance is about what is ideal.
Right now that's funny to me because I've been in Italy a few days. In some ways it is highly romantic. Donna and I--yes, she was the girlfriend at that Bible study--arrived first in Venice. Venice is perhaps the most romantic city of Italy. (Think gondolas and gelato.) It is rather ideal. There are no cars, no car horns, and no car smog. People walk a lot, often together. They sit outside and eat gelato. The TV shows are all in Italian, so although they sound very romantic, you can't figure what they're saying. You might as well have a conversation. That's romantic too.
But the funny side is that Venice is no more ideal than my town or yours. They have pigeons. Lots of them. Have you seen the damage pigeons can do? And I'm not just talking about dropping bombs on unsuspecting romantic passers-by. Apparently Friday was trash day in our Venice neighborhood. People left plastic trash bags tied on their doors somehow. Very romantic. And pigeons somehow figured out how to open some of those romantic trash bags. Soon there was trash everywhere.
Besides the pigeons, there's the walking. Where's my car when I need it? They do have streets, but they are only for walkers. They are interrupted every hundred feet or so by a footbridge so pedestrians can walk over another canal.
I did like the gondolas. And the vaporettos that masquerade like buses on the grand canal. Very cool.
I liked the churches too. That's why we came on this trip--to see churches. We wanted to experience what the architects designed into these houses of worship. We wanted to experience the awe of looking up into the domes of the cathedrals, to see the story of the Bible told in mosaics of gold and beautiful colors. We found that the architects not only helped us look up toward God, but also down to the floor, for the floors were some of the most interesting parts of the churches. The Basilica of St. Mark, Venice's most impressive church, had the most impressive floor, a fabulous, colorful marble mosaic. Other floors contained the bones of past priests and past benefactors of that particular church. The churches were very busy with art.
I wish the churches were busy with people. We didn't get to every church in the city. And we only got to one on Sunday. That was the day we planned to join a church for worship. We knew it would be Catholic, which we are not. We knew it we would be in Italian, which we don't speak or understand. And that's understandable. The problem is--and the most non-ideal situation in Venice is--that the churches are full of art but not full of people.
I'm not the judge of the church in Italy. And many people have written well about the decline of the church in Europe. So I don't need to write a ton about it. I came on this trip because I love the church, even the churches that express their faith in Jesus differently than I do. But I do wonder about the church in my own country, in my own town, the church I serve. Rick Steves, the well-known travel writer, without irony calls the churches we saw "the best museums in Venice". That is not ideal. A museum is a repository of the past. A church should be the story-tellers of the present and the delivery system of hope for the future. That's the ideal. A church that can be that is a romantic church. May that kind of romance never leave the church I serve.