The Mountain and the Church

As a young boy, I recall watching a documentary on the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It told the tale of the regional devastation from the ash that buried everything nearby, including the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Interestingly, the film relayed the story through the lens of the modern city of Pompei, following various families as they went about their daily lives there, connecting them to their ancestors through each ordinary piece of their own experience. One scene in particular has stayed with me since: a crowded procession led by Catholic priests through the streets of Pompei on a religious holiday, ending with mass in a large church.

Many years later, I found myself in the ruins of Pompeii. I was visiting Italy for a few weeks, and was staying in nearby Naples. I had taken the train down earlier in the afternoon and spent many hours wandering the old city, with its history rising out of the ground to meet me. Few places have spoken to me of their ancient existence like these ruins. Artwork and artifacts of daily life still lingered everywhere, and buildings stood proudly against the assault of the mountain and of time. Ironically, the force that had choked the town in a cloud of fury had also preserved it against the slow decay of time. Its destruction birthed its immortality.

My day in the old city had come to an end, and I made my way back to its living counterpart. The train didn’t depart for a few more hours, so I had time to spare for wandering the streets of this city too. I soon began to understand why the filmmakers had chosen to tell the ancient tale through scenes of a living, breathing town: the two stories were the same. The architecture differed by style and centuries, yet both served the same function of integrating the life of the community within and through itself. The religious objects were unique to their period, but their presence no less apparent. Here I heard and smelled the very things I had imagined just hours before. Here I saw the same faces that had been peering out at the world on the day of Vesuvius’s eruption, full of life and joy and curiosity.   

After an hour or so, I rounded a corner and came upon a beautiful church. It was plain to see it wasn’t the same church from the film; that mattered little. Images from my young mind flashed into my head as I crossed the square. Words from the mass and organ music spilled out the open doorway and drew me inside. When I entered, I was moved to see and hear the town as it worshiped exuberantly, partaking together in the devotion that ever weaves its common life together. As the service reached its end and the last sounds of the organ and liturgy faded, I watched as they filed out and gathered joyfully at the steps of the church. I turned and followed them.

Standing there in the doorway, looking out over this community gathered in the shadow of the church under the shadow of the mountain, sharing gifts and kisses, passing babies and knitting their lives together with laughter and love, I was connected to them, to the families of old Pompeii, to my own family across the Atlantic that had once lived in this same region. This communal life is my heritage, passed down to me through countless days like the one that now unfolded before me. Here in Pompei I was home.

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