Sunday 31 May 2020

Blog Post, 31 May, 2020. "Touching Jesus"

I recently entered the Prince Edward Arts Council and Quinte Arts Council’s second annual “Wind & Water” writing contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “Memory”.  

My submission, “Touching Jesus,” was a memoir based on an experience I had in Rome in 1972. Recollecting that carefree Roman holiday was a delight, especially in the context of the current pandemic. I also thoroughly enjoyed the actual writing – a useful, creative experience, including the editing. In our household, we call editing “Alice Munro-ing”. (Both Bill and I are great fans of Alice Munro’s lean, focused writing.) 

Many thanks to the Prince Edward Arts Council and Quinte Arts Council for this opportunity, with special thanks to the judges, Kelly S. Thompson and Dorian Widling.

Bill also submitted a piece to the contest, “At Peace...A Memory,” which was shortlisted by the judges. It is both beautiful and insightful – I hope you will have the opportunity to read it.

Although “Touching Jesus” didn’t get short-listed, I am pleased with the result. I hope you enjoy reading it. The photos at the end reflect the last day of an exquisite bouquet of tulips that graced our home recently.

Touching Jesus

Part A 
Flashbacks  to 1972

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City 
(Sunday, May 21, 1972, Feast of the Pentecost)

Michelangelo’s famous sculpture La Pietà  was severely damaged today when a disturbed Australian geologist, Laszlo Toth, attacked the sculpture with a hammer. Shouting, “I am Jesus Christ – I have risen from the dead!”, Toth struck the sculpture fifteen times before being forcibly restrained by Robert Cassilly, a visiting American sculptor. The figure of Mary suffered most of the damage: her left forearm was destroyed; one of her eyelids was chipped; and part of her nose was knocked off. Chips of marble flew during the attack, with bystanders grabbing most before members of the Swiss Guard could intervene...

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City 
(Friday, May 26, 1972)

Laszlo Toth is being examined by psychiatrists to determine his state of mind during the feverish attack on La Pietà. So far, no charges have been laid. After a public appeal, most of the marble chips removed by onlookers after the attack have been returned for use in the eventual restoration. Mary’s nose, however, has not yet returned...

Part B
The Memoir of a Glorious 1972 Trip to Italy, 
in Two Contrasting Movements

First Movement – The Coming-of-Age Narrative 

So picture this: I was a naïve kid from Prince Edward County who wanted to see the world. A bad case of itchy feet and irritable home syndrome. I’d been born in the County and attended school there for thirteen years. Then I went to university and teachers’ college before short-circuiting my way back to The County for my first teaching job. After three years, I got restless and started plotting escape routes to the wider world. Which is how I ended up heading to Australia, having sold my car and cashed in my teachers’ pension to finance the one-way flight to Sydney, where a teaching appointment awaited me. 

That was 1971, the beginning of a life-long love affair with Australia. Part of that love affair was a mad-crazy – and totally  unrequited – crush on a cute Sydneysider who barely knew I existed. Rather than actually confess my feelings, I fled Australia after less than a year. (Bravery in the ways of the heart was not my strong suit.) 

Which is why, on April 2, 1972, I boarded the SS Guglielmo Marconi, a sleek Italian liner, for a 29-day voyage to Naples via Cape Town. With the unfinished Sydney Opera House receding in the Marconi’s  wake, I headed out on the next adventure. My plans after arriving in Naples were vague, but they involved exploring Italy until the money ran out and then flying back to Canada. 

Which brought me to Rome in May, 1972. I had studied (and loved) Roman history at university and knew enough Italian to bluff my way through most encounters. And high-school Latin helped decipher the lettering on ancient Roman ruins. 

And what a glorious time I had! I was totally smitten with the energy, the architecture, the food, the wine – even the crowded buses. For someone who was accustomed to the sluggishness of Picton and the sedateness of Sydney (boy, has that changed!), life in Rome was a revelation and an inoculation against any form of joylessness. 

I did everything the typical tourist would do: climbed the Spanish Steps, visited Hadrian’s tomb, wandered the Circus Maximus, tossed three coins in the Trevi Fountain, made friends with feral cats in the Coliseum, marvelled at the Pantheon...and walked untold kilometres in total rapture. My very special Roman Holiday.

Second Movement – The Spiritual Gift. 

So, this is where the mood changes. We are now leaving Kansas. 

Stick with me.

The peak experience of my time in Rome was visiting the Vatican, an encounter that still elevates me to tears. I am not a Roman Catholic, preferring the sturdy directness of my Quakerism. However, I was swept up in the grandeur and superhuman scale of everything that I saw that day – the basilica’s magnificent dome, the fabulous Bernini altar, the vastness of St. Peter’s Square, the unexpected intimacy of the Sistine Chapel, the infinity of the Vatican Museums. They collectively provided me with a sustained emotional high. I even climbed to the very top of the dome – the cupola – to look down at the roof of the basilica and the welcoming arms of the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square far below. 

One searing memory of that day occupies a treasured niche in my soul: seeing Michelangelo’s La Pietà. The visual impact was stunning. La Pietà’s    humanity – the profound depiction of a mother’s love and grief for her dying son – was beyond measure. The adjective ‘breathtaking’ does it no justice.

And, most memorably for me, I saw La Pietà  three days – three days! – before that mad Australian geologist took a hammer to it. This realization still leaves me speechless. 

You see, before Laszlo Toth’s descent into his personal hell, La Pietà  was totally accessible to anyone  who entered St. Peter’s Basilica. La Pietà  simply sat there, in all its pristine, unshielded glory, against a wall near the entrance. 

You could simply walk up and touch it. 


Which I did, in an experience that remains beyond time and measure. My fingers still recall reaching out tentatively to touch the cool Carrara marble of Jesus’s leg. 

And, in a contradiction that defies logic, my fingers also felt warmth – WARMTH! – at exactly the same time. 

Coolness. Warmth. Beginnings. Endings. Alpha. Omega. 

All there in one light touch of Jesus’s body. His Mystery made human. 

And His Mystery remains human. 

And totally unfathomable. 

When I try to give words to my faith in God – clumsily, haltingly to be sure – I fall back on the sense memory of my humble fingers on that spring day in St. Peter’s Basilica. What my mind and my soul cannot fully comprehend, my fingers take delight in having experienced directly. 

And then – and then – Laszlo Toth took his murderous hammer to that wondrous sculpture three days later. 

This fused experience – my revelation + Toth’s desecration – endures as a primal source of both joy and grief. Each element reinforces and illuminates the other. The contradictions implicit in my experience of La Pietà  dwell also at the heart of Christianity itself – in all its glorious ambiguities, paradoxes, and inconsistencies.

Coolness. Warmth. Beginnings. Endings. Alpha. Omega. 

Larry Tayler Photography
Belleville, Ontario, Canada    

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