The best moments in life frequently occur when we lose all track of time. Instagram, the social media photo phenomenon, helps us keep stylish track of these experiences. Rozann Carter, having recently returned from the "Eternal City," reflects on these photoframed glimpses of heaven and what they have to say about the the real "eternal" city.
Rome is known as the Eternal City. The adage originated from an imperialistic assumption that this axis of scientific, societal, militaristic, and artistic achievement would never crumble, that it would be the center of the world for as long as the world existed. Tibullus, Ovid, Virgil, and other heavyweight ancient poets—trusted, almost prophetic voices in the ancient world— all referred to the city in so many words.
We all know the end of that story. Rome fell. The Eternal City eventually took its place among other temporal civilizations, one in a long line of collapsed, sacked, shells-of-their-former-glory cities of men. Eternal? Um. Oops.
However, that classification, from what I have experienced, still rings true in a different way. Rome is “eternal” alright,” but in the paradoxical, snapshot sort of way that characterizes all of the most ethereal moments in life. To explain this is to talk around what eternal really means.
I went to Rome with my cousins last month for a few days. It was their first visit, and because I had studied there during college, they asked me to be their tour guide (twist my arm). Between tours of ancient ruins and gelato stops, from perfect cappuccinos to breathtaking ventures into one-on-every-block masterpiece churches, within the glow of perfect sunrises reflecting off of the façade of St. Peter’s and the vintage sound of a street corner accordions, it occurred to me: Rome is filled with moments of which I never seem to tire.
We all know those moments. Just think about the season that kicked off a few weeks ago: that familiar feeling of walking outside the first brisk morning in September, the unmistakable smell of leaves burning and apple cider steeping, the feel of a sweatshirt on the first day when you really need it. These snapshots of Fall seem to lift us out of the day-to-day, where we sometimes feel trapped in the timeframe of our linear lives. They are inexplicable experiences that give a taste of something beyond.
I took Father Barron’s class when he taught for a semester at Notre Dame. One day, I approached him after class to talk about eternity. It was a concept that I could not grasp, but when I captured some fleeting glimpse of what it meant (i.e. what the implications of living forever -even in heaven- were), I was terrified. Why? As I explained my fear to Fr. Barron, he clarified (and I paraphrase): “You are unnerved because what you are thinking about is actually unending time, which is hell. Heaven is the absence of time. We cannot comprehend it here because we are temporal beings, but we can experience what it is like. The moments in your life when you are least aware of time passing, when you are wrapped up in a rousing conversation, when you witness something truly beautiful, when you completely forget yourself? Those are the nearest you can get to heaven here on earth.”
Rome, then, approaches the eternal insofar as it is filled with these forgetful moments of beauty in all realms.
Lately, however, in reflecting upon that Roman holiday with nostalgia, it seems that there is a difference between ”recognizing” and “pursuing” these experiences; there is a caution that accompanies the “best things in life” as we most stereotypically define them. Our experience of eternal moments like those I have described is tainted when we make our lives about creating them. Capturing these eternal moments and consistently attempting to reproduce them can become an addiction. The problem is, “addiction” implies a false god. How could seeking out and celebrating the “good” be harmful or idolatrous? -When our grasping of the heavenly on our terms becomes a chasing after indulgence and comfort to the point that they begin to define the limits of our happiness. Comfort and indulgence as an effect are wonderful: as the ultimate objects of our affection, not so much.
It’s a pleasant, seemingly harmless addiction, but one that keeps us trapped in the lukewarmness of a gratified life. It’s the beauty of the Instagram philosophy gone wrong, a moment-by-moment capturing of moments, when there is a whole picture that needs to come into focus. Moments can numb us into a very small life if they are not, like everything else in our lives, properly ordered. They need to be the icing on the cake rather than the cake, itself.
Eternal moments are paradoxical by virtue of the fact that they exist on a spectrum. The refinement of our appreciation for true beauty mimicks the ascent from distracted prayer to contemplation: any prayer is good, but the prayerful experience can be perfected. By degrees, this refinement makes the experience of heaven-on-earth ever more poignant, more real, more palpable. The greater degree to which we submit to Christ’s definition of beauty, the less we are attached to and controlled by the lower expressions and the more nearly we can live in heaven here on earth.
And what is Christ’s definition of beauty? He displays it on the cross.
That makes my Italian cappuccino seem a little less "ultimate."
Rozann Carter is the Creative Director at Word on Fire.
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