One of the traditional “Religious” customs that we still maintain in the Oratory is that of formal dinner, when we eat our evening meal together in silence while one of the Fathers serves and another reads to us — from Scripture, the Roman Martyrology for the following day, from the life of St Philip, and then from a chosen book. There are no rules about what kind of book this might be: we have had biographies (saintly and otherwise), books about history, spiritual books, travel books, even one entertaining story of citrus fruit. In this way our minds are fed while we feed our bodies, and we get a chance to read books that we might not otherwise have the time or inclination to read ourselves.
The Fathers have just finished a fascinating book about the artist and architect Bernini, whose creative genius and papal patronage in the 17th Century built much of the Rome that we know, love and admire today. One of the most interesting accounts in the book was how Bernini took the obelisks, those tall needle-shaped monuments brought from Egypt by conquering Roman Emperors, and “christened” them as Christian monuments, placing them in the squares in front of the major basilicas of the city as markers for pilgrims. Structures which once adorned the entrances of pagan temples were made to serve the same purpose for Christian churches, dedicated to Christ and topped with a cross.
The obelisk in St Peter’s Square probably witnessed the martyrdom of the Apostle himself. The obelisk from the Circus Maximus was moved to the Piazza del Popolo. The obelisk near the old papal palace of the Quirinale was brought to Rome by Diocletian, and used to stand in the Mausoleum of Augustus — its twin graces the piazza in front of St Mary Major. The largest obelisk in the world can be found by St John Lateran, the “mother and head of all the churches”, and came originally from the tomb of the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III. The Dominican church of the Minerva, known and loved by our own St Philip, has its own obelisk, originally carved in Egypt six hundreds years before Christ, and used by Domition for his Temple of the goddess Minerva. Bernini created a marble elephant on whose back this obelisk was placed, with its bottom facing the church (he did not like the Dominicans…).
This recycling of non-Christian monuments was nothing new in the history of the Church. Our great basilicas in Rome were modelled on ancient civic buildings, and in fact the Pantheon, dedicated to Our Lady and all the Martyrs, was once the Temple of All the Gods. The bronze doors of St John Lateran once hung in the Senate, and saw the assassination of Julius Caesar. Even our theologians took the wisdom of ancient thinkers and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and used it to explain and understand Christian belief.
The Church has always taken what she finds to be good and beautiful and brought it into the service of Christ, whether in music, art, architecture or scholarship. While there is much in our tradition that has to do with renouncing “the world”, we also believe that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” (John 3:16). Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved. When Truth is united to the goodness and beauty we find in human society, and when human achievement and skill is directed towards God, there we can see Christ and the workings of his grace. That is how St John Henry, in the Idea of the University, described the spirit and mission of St Philip: “He preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.”
That is how grace works in us, what holiness really means. To become holy is not to become something altogether new and different. Baptism, and God’s redeeming mercy in the Sacrament of Penance, does not change our personalities, our gifts, and our circumstances, nor erase our histories. God’s grace, his friendship, perfects nature, it makes us more our true selves. Who we are is consecrated to him and used for his service, in wonderful and sometimes unexpected ways. That is not to say that God doesn’t sometimes have to move us from one place to another, or chip away that which is not good for us or which keeps us from him. Prayer, penance, fasting and almsgiving are some of the chisels and hammers that grace uses, and when we are united to Christ in faith, and crowned with his Cross, then we too can be monuments to God’s glory.