In the summer of 1987 I did a hitch-hiking pilgrimage from England to Jerusalem staying in monasteries along the route. As I headed East across Northern Italy the monks told me I really had to stay at the ancient Benedictine monastery of San Georgio in the Venetian lagoon. However, when I arrived I was told it was impossible to just turn up and ask for a room as it had been in many of the monasteries. It was simply too grand and too famous and too many tourists and too few monks to look after people.
So somehow or other I made may way to a convent in Venice where they ran a hostel for students. I didn’t know anyone, but a young American Dominican seminarian be-friended me. He was spending a year in Venice conducting tours of the mosaics of San Marco. The idea was that it would help to evangelize the tourists. So he gave me a personal tour. We spent hours traipsing around the whole place, studying the mosaics and soaking up the atmosphere. The mosaics tell the story of salvation through the Old Testament and I could suddenly see as I hadn’t seen before, the unity and beauty of the history of salvation–and it all came to a beautiful fulfillment in the Catholic Church and the holy Mass.
We discussed the history of the relics of St Mark still housed there, and I began to see the connections. Here in Italy, not far from where Peter and Paul had met their death, were the remains of St Mark–brought there from Alexandria. It was possible.
But the clincher was Mass in San Marco on Sunday morning. The choir was high and invisible in the ambulatory on the clerestory level. It was a high solemn Mass with music by Gabrieli who had been composer and organist at San Marco. Suddenly all of it came together–the music, the architecture, the history, the friendship, the art, the sanctity of St Mark and there was a surge within my heart. Not only was the liturgy and music and architecture beautiful and ancient, but through these things I connected with something greater.
It is no mistake that all the wise teachers of the past have insisted that truth and beauty and love and goodness are part of the same greatness. This beauty, truth and goodness exist in many places and I had experienced it in my Evangelical upbringing, in the glories of the Church of England, but here was something greater.
It would be another eight years before I finally came home to Rome, but that week in Venice was one of the stepping stones alone the way.