Oh the Places You’ll Go: Florence, and Durham

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I’ve been to Florence twice. I hope to go again – I think? Both times it’s been congested with flat out too many tourists… People love the Duomo, with its fantastic dome built by Brunelleschi in the 1420s – at the time the largest dome in the world, barely topping the Pantheon in Rome, which had been the largest for 13 centuries! I love Ross King’s book about how the dome came to be. You can climb its 463 steps – I lose my breath just recalling it!

But the church in Florence that I think I love more than the Duomo is Santa Croce. Just days after Lisa and I were there in 2017, a tile fell from the ceiling and killed a 52 year old tourist! There’s so much to gawk at in this place, primarily (for someone with my tastes) the burials. In this one church, we have the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli (doesn’t sound that holy, does he?) and Rossini. And there are monuments (at first I was fooled into thinking they too were buried there) to Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, the scientists Fermi and Marconi, and Florence Nightingale! (though British, she was born in and named for the city!).

I came, though, looking for St. Francis. He’s buried in Assisi, of course, but the greatest artist devoted to showing us his life, Giotto, painting some astonishing frescoes right there in the Bardi Chapel of Santa Croce. Most tourists just glide right by, the chapel is so small, and seemingly insignificant next to the tombs of civilization’s greatest heroes. But I love Giotto’s work here, especially the scene of Francis having just died, his closest friends in grief and yet in praise of God. Lovely stuff.

Such paintings imprinted the eternal souls of such saints, like Francis, into the mindsets of those who came to church for worship, inspiration, comfort and direction. I love the fact that, back in those days, the greats were buried right inside the church, not just outside in a cemetery, but actually under the floor, or in sarcophagi right on top of the floor. You see this in churches all over Europe. I recall my first visit to Durham Cathedral, and finding the tombs of the Venerable Bede, the church’s greatest historian ever, St. Cuthbert, and St. Oswald.

I love it that these saints are literally in the church, in the floors and walls, in the basements – reminding us that whenever we worship, we do so not merely with the people who actually show up that day, but with saints who’ve frequented the place over years and decades and, in the case of medieval cathedrals, centuries. We aren’t alone. We have extraordinarily good company when we worship. At Christmas, we sing “Sing, all yet citizens of heaven above.” Indeed. Due to the miracle the only God’s amazing grace might provide for us, our predecessors in the church and palpably if mystically and mysteriously present with us in the room, praising God, joining us in worship, and even urging us forward to higher depths of adoration and commitment to our God.

We are even one with people like Galileo and Machiavelli. So, first: Galileo. You may know the story, that this brilliant scientist, by looking closely at God’s good creation, noticed that the earth isn’t really the center of everything. It’s not even the sun. We move about the sun, and the sun itself is in motion around something even larger, our galaxy – and even Galileo couldn’t fathom all we know now about our universe and our place in it! He was called on the carpet by church authorities for daring to suggest that the earth moves… He loved Jesus, and the church, and so he stood before the stupid, irrationally rigid, yet powerful authorities and recanted – but then, according to the legend, as he exited the room he whispered, “But it does move,” meaning the earth really does move around the sun.

I love this moment. The Church, getting things so very wrong, fearful of any slight change in thought, unable to catch up to how our faith might embrace the latest and truest knowledge that God-given and God-inspired humanity might discern, errs so terribly.

And then we find Machiavelli, his very name hitched to an adjective, “machiavellian,” meaning “cunning, unscrupulous.” How is he buried in such a great church? But then, how are any of us incorporated into God’s extravagant work of grace and mercy that constitutes the historic convening of saints and sinners in the marvelous, surprising kingdom of God?

I am moved by theologian David Ford’s lovely thought on Jesus’ words that “In my father’s house are many rooms” (or “mansions” as the King James Bible worded it): “‘My Father’s house’ might be unimaginably capacious, and even those most at home there might meet many surprises – especially other people they do not expect, but also dimensions of truth and life.”

Could it be that, as I gaze on Machiavelli’s tomb, so close to Michelangelo (who prized holiness above all else, and felt holiness was the key to his art), and around the corner from Giotto’s fresco predating them both of St. Francis’s death, I realize how amazingly “capacious,” roomy, spacious, and generous God’s grace really is?