By Donna Orsuto
Objectively Rome is hot in these days.
The temperature hovers around 100 degrees Fahrenheit each day and there is no rain on the horizon anytime soon.
This year, the water supply in the city is alarmingly low, the buses are barely running, and part of the Metro (Roman subway) has been closed for maintenance.
All this makes life extremely difficult for people who have to work in August. The unrelenting heat is a big concern, especially for the elderly and the homeless who populate our city and who do not have the luxury of air conditioning. Most people are on vacation and organizations shut down, including some of the soup kitchens….
Yet, these weeks, I discovered that Rome still has something beautiful to offer — free of charge!
The snow came, as it always does, on Aug. 5. Not everywhere, but at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Granted it was fake snow, but nevertheless in the sweltering evening heat and humidity, a crowd stood in the basilica’s square to listen to a beautiful concert and watch the magic of snow in August.
The context is the legend of the construction of St. Mary Major, the biggest basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary. During the pontificate of Liberius (35-366), a childless Roman couple made a vow to donate their riches to the Virgin Mary. It became eminently clear to them how they were to honour the Mother of God, when snow fell atop the Esquiline Hill one hot Aug. 5. The couple donated funds for the basilica to be built on the spot where the snow had fallen.
Though this legend may not have any historical base, it doesn’t matter at all. Just last Saturday, the snow machines were in place, the music played and the snow fell. Basta. Yes, it may sound a bit silly, but what fun to be there!
For a more solemn “snowfall,” one can attend a solemn Mass at the basilica on Aug. 5, and see firemen throw white rose petals from the open rooftop into the Borghese chapel at the “Gloria.”
On Sunday, I went for “a dive into prayer” (“Un tuffo nella preghiera”) offered by the amazing Augustinian nuns of Santi Quattro Coronati. This vibrant and youthful community organized four consecutive Sunday evenings with St. Augustine as our companion. The evenings focus on Augustine’s teaching on desire, interiority, beauty and friendship respectively.
The hot and humid basilica, with four fans blowing and all the doors open, was chock full, with young and old, for the three hours of prayer. Even the auxiliary bishop for the central region of the Diocese of Rome was there.
The sisters had thoughtfully arranged for refreshments in the cloister for the fainthearted, so people could have a break, if necessary. The prayer, this week, included sung vespers, silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a thoughtfully prepared collection of texts from St. Augustine, interspersed with Scriptural readings on beauty accompanied by Taizé chants. The evening ended with Compline. Sublime.
Another Roman surprise occurred on the Feast of St. Dominic. I got up really early that day to get a walk in before the sun started beating. I had taken a bit of time beforehand to pray and to remember many Dominican friends on this feast day. As I headed out, I did not have a clear plan of where to go. I just wanted to take a walk. I headed past the Coliseum and walked towards the Circus Maximus, because this is where the runners and walkers tend to head.
Instead, I decided spontaneously to take a detour and go to the Aventine Hill, and I headed up towards the Church of Santa Sabina.
Suddenly, I made the connection: St. Dominic lived at Santa Sabina! I popped in for a what I thought would be a short prayer. Instead, I found a small group praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I decided to stay awhile. Then the Dominican Friars arrived for morning prayer and Mass. So simple, so beautiful! What a privilege to be there in that special place, on that special day.
I will admit that I had a moment of concern while I was at Santa Sabina, in that I was a bit too sweaty and not exactly dressed for the occasion. But then I remembered Father Timothy Radcliffe once writing about Jordan of Rivalto in the 14th century, telling people not to be too hard on the friars if they are bit “grubby”. He said, “It is part of our vocation: ‘being here among the people, seeing the things of the world, it is impossible for them not to get a bit dirty. They are men of flesh and blood like you, and in the freshness of youth; it is a wonder that they are as clean as they are.’”
So in that spirit, I stayed and prayed with the Dominicans, and it seemed that St. Dominic himself were there, hovering over us, interceding with us in that beautiful space, for the city and for the whole world…
Just ordinary August days in an extraordinary city!
Donna Orsuto is the director of The Lay Centre and professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University.