Monday, June 24, 2013

I rest in hope

In the Basilica of Santa Croce, I stood before the graves of Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli. I saw Giotto's 14th-century frescoes of the life of St. Francis, and I even saw a bit of robe said to have been worn by that merry Jongleur de Dieu. These monuments struck me like the tocsins of cathedral bells, but in all of beautiful Santa Croce, it was the conjugation of verbs that moved me most.

Most of the foreign languages I have studied --Latin, biblical Greek, Old English--are "dead," and so I am not used to encountering a language I know outside of a book. But in Italy, the walls whispered to me. Words, incised in marble or hammered into gold, surprised me at every turn. I find Ecce ancilla domini over that doorway, and something shakes the dust off my high-school Latin, tumbling me into a beloved chapter from Luke's Gospel. Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.

In Santa Croce, the tombs were speaking. Rich panels of marble paved the floor of the nave and transept, memorializing a body and soul at rest. Mostly they told me that so-and-so was buried here, many spoke of resting in peace. The ornate graves sang of the mighty artists and thinkers who had done so much to the glory of God. Of all these voices of the dead, one quickened me more than all the others.

 vixi in deo · quiesco in spe · resurgam utinam in caritate √¶terna

With much of the Latin I saw in Italy, I struggled to hear clearly, to gather words into the ordered hope of a sentence, but this inscription seemed to cry out in the quiet of the church: I lived in God; I rest in hope; I will rise again in love everlasting.* I lived, I rest, I will rise. Settled, carved in stone, yet moving through past, present, and future with the rhythm of a living breath.

Common hope in a foreign land. Cradle-truths from a half-forgotten tongue. Baptist girls are not accustomed to treading on tombs -- most of our churches don't even have their own graveyards. When I entered Santa Croce, I looked at the monuments of the Greats and thought, I am here to revere the work they have done. But no. The dead said, we are resting here in hope. Walk on us, climb over us, read, recite, and pace over our words, polish them to transparency until the grace blinds you in its shining. Come join us in the floor of the church. Listen to the faithful sing and step over you. Rest here, and rise in love everlasting.

* Before publishing this entry, I checked with some scholar-friends whose Latin skills are sharper than mine. They suggested a few other  translations, including the lovely possibility that the final clause should be, "would that I might rise to everlasting love." However, others argued that my (simpler) translation is actually more likely, since the tomb is medieval. I am choosing to include the text as it came to me in the moment, but I make no claims that it is a perfect translation.  

1 comment:

  1. Very beautiful, Bethany. It's amazing how powerful even the grammar of a language across the centuries can be! Your title caught my attention because I was talking to my Greek Orthodox colleague today, and she was talking about their Easter traditions. They keep the Easter vigil (by candlelight) in the graveyard, praying for resurrection over the graves of their departed loved ones. She says her husband (who did not grow up Orthodox) was frightened by it at first, thinking they were calling the dead out of their graves at the moment. At the end of the service (I think), they repeat the ancient words of the church over these graves: "Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed" (in Greek). Common hope indeed. In my mother tongue: "Wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ / das du fur uns gestorben bist..." (We thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, / that you have died for us...")