Millions tuned in on Easter Sunday to see Andrea Bocelli’s concert from Milano’s Duomo. Italy’s famous singer belted out familiar tunes such as “Amazing Grace” and “Panis Angelicus” to an audience spanning the globe. Beautiful as the performance was, the first anniversary of Notre Dame burning, my memories of the Duomo, our present circumstances under quarantine, and hopes for the future drew my focus to the cathedral itself.
Cathedrals are works of art, made by human hands. Cultural critic Walter Benjamin described art as having an aura, a term reminding us that art does not exist in abstraction. It always exists in a particular time and place that is impossible to replicate. Behind every painting, song, and cathedral is a story not only of its makers but those who have interacted with it from various distances and at differing times.
The Milanese Duomo tells the story of generations of artisans who labored over the cathedral for nearly six hundred years. It is a testament to the patient faith of people who knew that they would not see the fruits of their work in their lifetime. Faith became art and art then housed faith. If the stones of the Duomo could sing, we would hear a canto containing centuries of prayers amid plague and health, war and peace, and famine and abundance. Echoes from the stony vault of time reverberate sonorously into our present day. I hear the cries of separated lovers and worried parents, the sick begging for health, the unemployed asking for work, and the anxious pleading for peace.
Not just art carries a history. As individuals and communities we encounter art at different times and places in our earthly journey. The Duomo became a marker in my own life of faith, and as I watched the concert, I returned in my mind’s eye to the Easter Vigil that I spent there six years ago.
I had arrived in Milan the day before and didn’t know a soul. On the way to the Duomo, I felt terribly lonely and was second-guessing my decision to take a few days to travel alone in northern Italy before meeting up fellow pilgrims in Rome. I carried the grief stemming from the untimely passing of a friend two weeks before. Vocational questions abounded as her death prompted me to consider my own finitude. Where was God in all of this?
Yet, when I walked through the portal of the Duomo, I felt a sudden reorientation in my deliberations and anxieties as my senses became filled. Tall pillars ascending to heaven and the crypt tombs of saints descending to muddy earth. An octagonal baptistery of living water. Marian murmurings in a foreign tongue but a familiar rhythm. A weighty presence filled me, and I suddenly saw my life as a thread in the tapestry of humanity that hung from the spire to the foundation of this church. Faces unseen and voices unheard made their presence felt. Feeling connected, I interiorly knew that I had a place and home, drawn into this strange communion of the living and the dead. My interminable solitude was a mere illusion—a revelation of sheer gift.
Now, the Duomo again means something different. My memories of a crowd crammed together in silence, pregnant with paschal expectation, and the faces of joyful catechumens contrasted with Bocelli and his accompanist, serenading a cavern of grey emptiness. In the six years separating my last trip to the Duomo, my faith and understanding of myself have changed. New commitments, new joys, new heartbreaks. And yet, one temptation remains. To think of myself as alone as I was on a Saturday six years ago stumbling through a Milanese piazza. If I forgot everything that happened, everything that I experienced at that moment in the Duomo, wouldn’t that be the ultimate betrayal of both God and myself?
I don’t think I’m alone in this temptation to forget the places and people who shape our narratives. COVID-19 measures have perhaps triggered the worst of some of our fears. Space becomes distances measured in six-feet increments and time bracketed with befores and afters. We can barely articulate the questions emerging from the depths of our hearts. Are we abandoned? Does anyone genuinely care for us?
Perhaps the key to answering these questions involves a return to the memories of graced moments. A gesture like Bocelli’s helps me to remember. I see a different reality when I see a man with limitations sharing what he has with the world. I feel myself in communion with others. I long for an encounter with the Other who makes its face known to me in others. I remember that I have a past and I feel called to find renewal once again in the event that anticipated and launched the solemn enterprises of cathedral-building and hymn-singing. It’s the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The Other came to me with a human face and told me that I mattered, no longer forsaken.
Isn’t this the ultimate pop culture message? The One who informed the imagination and hearts of the artists of centuries-long gone is still with us today in the companionship that we offer each other. Desperate as things may seem, we can all find ways of being generous with others and receive their gifts. In doing so, we weave new tapestries of belonging and generate the creativity to live through this crisis. May the day come soon when we can once again greet the familiar with fuller hearts and eyes dazzled at the brightness of a communion that we never dreamed possible.
Photo by Alex Vasey