Encountering Divinity, and the Failure of Language

The photograph above captures a moment of very special significance for me, yet I hardly know where to begin, or where to end, in describing it.

It was our first day in Rome, and my husband Adrian and I were both feeling overwhelmed by the city’s chaos, noise, dust, and busyness. I’m not sure what we expected from Rome, but what it revealed to us on that first day had put us both on edge. We snapped at each other whenever our patience wore thin, which was happening a lot that day. In the afternoon, I had arranged for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. I think we were both relieved to get out of the hot June afternoon sun, off the frenetic streets of Rome, and into the storied walls of the Vatican.

We began to relax a bit once we were inside. We enjoyed the many beautiful and ancient paintings, murals, frescos, and statuary on display inside the museum. I began to get a sense of the way Rome’s history had, for almost two millennia, been interwoven with the history of the Church. The idea of a unified Italy didn’t exist until more recently, and back then the Church itself was a military power to be reckoned with. When Michelangelo at first refused the Pope’s request to return from his home city of Florence to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, the Pope threatened to lay military siege to Florence and compel him to return by force.

I liked imagining the stormy relationship between those two mighty men, the world's most powerful religious leader and the world's most powerful artist. Michelangelo yielded to the Pope’s request to paint the Sistine Chapel, but it was a mark of his own status and power that he could get away with painting many nude scenes on the ceiling of the holiest chapel in Christianity, including one panel that depicts God’s back side and His uncovered glutes. What other artist in the 16th century would have even thought of painting God’s back side, let alone exposing His glutes, and survived with his head still attached to his body?

Perhaps he survived because the Pope still needed more from him: designing and building St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest Christian church in the world, with its massive dome that dominates the Roman skyline. Because of the Basilica’s placement within the Vatican state and the square projection of the massive front portion of the cathedral which blocks the view of the dome from the square, Michelangelo’s work is best appreciated either from elsewhere in Rome, at a distance, or from inside the Basilica itself, where one stands directly beneath his architectural work in all its majesty. (Is there anything this man could not do perfectly? Sculptor, painter, architect, unrivaled master of every form? How is that humanly possible?)

That brings me to the photograph above, and to the moment it depicts. The rest of our Vatican tour, including the Sistine Chapel, had been impressive and memorable, but relatively devoid of emotion. Which makes what I am feeling in this photo all the more difficult to explain. The moment our tour group rounded the corner and walked through the doorway into the interior space of St. Peter’s Basilica, a deep emotional current seized control of me, and held me in its grip for the next 20 minutes. My jaw gaped, and I was surprised to find a steady stream of tears rolling down my face. The words of our tour guide coming over the earphones faded into the background, along with the presence of hundreds of other tourists and pilgrims around me. I simply stared up at the dome and the ceiling of the cathedral with dumbstruck awe, overwhelmed by a flood of emotion I could not name or explain. A gravitational force pulled me towards the center of the cathedral, and I wandered away from our tour group, making my way towards the space beneath the dome. I must have looked a sight, this lone man slowly ambling forward, staring up with tears streaming down his face, seemingly lost in a trance. Adrian took this photo of me from behind, as he was watching me and sensed I was “having a moment.”

I am at a loss to explain what it was that I felt in that moment, what prompted my tears to flow for 20 minutes and my mind to go as blank and silent as if I had been struck by a hammer. I am not a Catholic or a Christian, but if I were, perhaps I might call it something like being touched by the Holy Spirit or sensing the presence of God. As someone who looks at things from more of a Buddhist and yogic point of view, my thinking mind — when it eventually kicked in again — began to chatter about past lives: I’ve stood here before, I was a priest, yada yada yada. But that’s all just chatter, the mind’s feeble attempts to manufacture explanations for a powerful experience that is perhaps best left unexplained. And that’s just what the thinking mind does: it sullies the purity of experience with all its conceptual elaborations. Any attempt at explanation pales next to the experience, just as any logical explanation of musical technique fails to convey even one iota of the actual experience of listening to music.

Among the hundreds of other tourists and pilgrims inside St. Peter’s Basilica that day, I didn’t see anyone else stumbling forward with tears streaming down their faces. I was the only one. Whatever it was that I experienced, it was uniquely directed to me in those moments. I didn’t expect this experience, or ask for it: dumbstruck, overwhelmed with shock and awe, and crying tears of gratitude. A moment of grace. For 20 minutes, I glimpsed a form of sheer majesty that shattered the walls of my ego and left me utterly exposed and raw; and in that empty space, with my heart torn open and my chattering mind silenced, I had a wordless intuition of the presence on earth, expressed within the form of what man hath wrought, of something that I can only characterize as divine.

But, again, ”divine” is just more language, another conceptual label, and nothing I can say with words can really begin to touch the experience. This is the curse of being a writer: knowing that words will always, always fail you, but being bound to use words, nonetheless, to try to convey the meaning of experience.

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, designed by Michelangelo.
The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, designed by Michelangelo.

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Dennis Hunter, RYT-200, is a meditation teacher and the author of You Are Buddha (2014) and the forthcoming The Four Reminders (2017). He lives in Miami with his husband. Through their Warrior Flow school they lead workshops, international retreats, and teacher trainings. Follow Dennis on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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