God Deserted Me At The Vatican

Evie M.

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Photo by Berto Macario on Unsplash

During my junior year of high school, my parents decided to treat me to a surprise. The two of them had come together to buy me and my boyfriend, Spencer, a two week Italian vacation.

In a month, we’d be jetting off to tour of all of Southern Italy’s greatest hits. The school produced a trip every year, and mom and dad thought it would do me good to see what the world had to offer.

The morning of our departure, we met at the Fresno Airport with about twelve other students. Our rag-tag team included a few teachers roped into being chaperones. Mr. Hall, a cheerful Canadian who taught Driver’s Ed, lead the troops.

He did his best to coral us all into one organized mass. Running behind, we raced toward our gate, our bags trailing like wild kite tails in a sudden gust.

Fortunately, we all made it in time for a hasty boarding on our Lufthansa flight. Nineteen hours later, we landed at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy. We grabbed our bags, filed outside, and found ourselves dropped in the middle of another universe entirely.

Miniature, multi-colored autos zipped along the pitted, narrow streets. Grand, greying cathedrals towered casually over the walkways. Passers-by littered the pavement, walking with their heads down, immune to their splendor.

In the mammoth shadow of Mount Vesuvius sat a McDonald’s with a snaking cue, the true crown jewel of the city.

“All right, eh,” Mr. Hall shouted over the commotion around us. I strained to listen. His cartoonish accent made him near impossible to understand. “We’re gonna go get some food there, eh, then we’ll head to the hotel.”

After a twenty minute wait, I paid for a chocolate milkshake. Instead, I received a melted, watery mess with a pubic hair garnish.

Terrible. With a huff, I tossed the cup into the nearest trash can. Dinner would be soon, and we all were allotted one breakfast and dinner as part of the package.

My hopes were soon dashed when, after checking in to the hotel, we sat for our promised meal. A watery poultry dish had been heaved onto our waiting plates. In comparison to the fine cutlery and silk tablecloths, dinner seemed almost comical. Still, a meal was a meal, and after a long, ragged day, we were grateful.

Amidst squeals of laughter, the Spanish teacher, Mr. Gonzales, entertained our crowd. After a touch too much vino, he paraded around the tables donning a pair of googly-eyed glasses produced from his pants’ pocket.

Soon, the amused giggling died to polite chuckles, and several of us excused ourselves. Together, we slipped from the hotel and across the street to a liquor store, excited to be of drinking age.

Many spent their allowances on a bottle of authentic Absinthe, including Spencer. I chose a carafe of Lemon Cello. The mild, candied taste made me feel light.

The next morning, we woke to a courtesy call from Mr. Hall.

“Time to get up, eh,” he said, his voice clear and unbridled by sleep. “Meet at the lobby in twenty.”

Seeing Rome was an experience I long waited for. We would have the privilege of visiting The Vatican, one of the mightiest footholds in religious history.

This was a priceless, lifetime experience. Unless, of course, you bought the tour. Then, it was included in the set price of $1200.00, a steal for such a lifechanging moment.

Our group met for a breakfast of thick, dreamy Cioccolata Calda and churros. As we nibbled on the sugary treats and sipped at our cups, Mr. Hall made an announcement.

“Go wonder around a bit, eh,” he said. “Meet back here in two hours. Then, we’ll head to The Vatican.”

“Do you want to get some pizza?” Hannah, a pretty, hazel-eyed girl of seventeen bounced over to Spencer. “Dinner last night was gross. Let’s go out.”

“Sounds good,” Spencer agreed. She turned to me then after a beat, my status as an afterthought obvious.

“Sure.”

With our bodies tight knit, we set out to find a local pizzeria that peaked our interest. All around, alien life exploded.

Street vendors called out to us from dingy, neon carts, offering flowers. They whistled at Hannah, handing her a sample from their bouquets while purring: “Bella, bella, vuoi una rosa?”

A hulking man in a gladiator’s costume stood to the side, twitching his biceps. He handed me a pamphlet, and pointed to the crumbling ruins of a great coliseum behind him.

As I stared at the ominous structure, I imagined the aged stone washed crimson with blood. The blood of martyrs and warriors torn to ribbons by wild animals, both human and beastly in nature.

“Are you coming?” Spencer asked, giving my hand a slight tug.

“No, I’m not actually,” I replied after a pause. “I’m pretty wiped out. I’d like to go back to nap for a few hours. I’ll see you later, Spence.”

I trudged back to the hotel as Spencer walked away with Hannah. Side by side, they chatted and chirped merrily until they rounded a corner and became no more.

The hotel wasn’t far, and soon, I found myself in my room, pulling back the thin comforter on the king-sized bed.

My mind continued to return to the coliseum as I invited distant dreams to come play. I thought about the Christians, those who died to show their ultimate faith and love for a higher power.

I envied them, what I wouldn’t have given to possess such devotion, such trust. It’s not that I did not believe in God, no, its that I had a constant thirst for evidence.

I had yet to come face to face with the divine, but in a few hours, I would have my moment.

Where would God be if not inside one of the purest structures in the world?

Asinstructed, students began trickling into the hotel lobby as our departure approached. Once accounted for, we set off. We bumped along the worn roadways in our budget tour bus, and my eyes grew heavy. Lulled by the gentle whispers caught on the air conditioner’s breeze, I drifted into an uneasy sleep.

When we arrived, hordes of sun-burnt tourists with bulky cameras stood gathered. The line to enter stretched along the graffitied concrete walls.

We exited the bus and stood in line with the rest waiting to pay the admission fee. My group gasped and sighed with cameras flashing as they admired the grand church.

I found myself hypnotized by a crude, disturbing depiction of a Swastika, dribbling a trail of chipped, red paint. It sat in the middle of the wall with the caption: “Viva Hitler”.

My heart ached as it ping-ponged behind my rib cage. We were almost at the door some fifteen odd minutes later. I was about to witness one of the great wonders of the world, to have a true religious experience of my own.

Once our fare had been paid, we filtered inside. A collective gasp rippled through the crowd as we gazed up and around the immaculate space.

Walls of carved marble adorned with looped, tangled tracings rose to the ceiling. They dripped and dazzled, their outsides lined with a generous coating of gold leaf.

A soaring backdrop, sky blue and triumphant, announced itself on the wall before us. The tapestry displayed a hyper-realistic epic, a battle between the heavens. Angels sounded golden trumpets and raised their fists as smoking demons rose from the pit.

At the age of sixteen, I found myself, humbled and miniscule, in the center of the Sistine Chapel of Vatican City.

The crowd around me began to explore the cavernous space. Some even wept, and one fell to her knees, arms raised to God.

I waited for my own body to buckle, for the flood of tears and God’s warmth to overwhelm me. Instead, I sensed a vacuum had opened within me, and I experienced what it is to feel less than nothing.

This discomfort ran deep. I was a shell, stripped of the all-present peace, a satisfaction akin to sleep with a belly full of food.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Spencer asked, spinning in a slow circle for a panoramic view.

“Yeah, yeah it is.”

Visually, it was miraculous. They had done the impossible, built a terrestrial palace for God himself, but he was not there.

Aswe moved along the gaping corridors, a chill ran through me. The more beautiful the gilded marble and shining trappings, the colder the air became.

Paired two to a station, young men stood guard at the entrance to several halls. Adorned in puffed pants and plumed caps, they whispered to each other. I shuddered as we approached a roped off exit. I tried not to imagine the centuries of secrets they shared between them. Not all of them could be pleasant.

Our group was herded out into a wide, circular plot, St. Peter’s Square. Citizens bustled around the cobble stones dressed in muted clothes of brown and grey. A throng of tourists weaved into the puddles of locals, cameras raised.

Many of them stood beneath a vast balcony with wickets of chiseled stone. Rigid, their necks craned to fix their eyes on the terrace.

“Wow, I think we’re about to hear The Pope speak!” Said Hannah, who had recognized me amongst the pulsating crowd and sidled up beside me.

Indeed, we showed up in time for the Papal Audience. A hush fell over us all as our visit came to a crescendo. Clothed in shimmering robes of gold and white, an elegant man glided onto the promenade and the people erupted. Pope Benedict XVI himself.

He addressed the crowd in his native, musical tongue, his chants echoed by his audience. A prayer for the masses. With mouths agape and saucer-like eyes, the spectators listened with rapt attention.

Many bent a knee on the rough flagstones, rosaries in hand. Even those who did not understand the language paid their respects. They bobbed their heads and shushed their fussy children, hands folded before them.

My weariness reached its peak, and a powerful urge to leave charged through me.

If this holy man was the chosen mouth of God, why did they worship as if he was Him in the flesh?

Anhour later, the tour ended, and we filed back onto the common streets. My peers swelled and bubbled with enthusiastic conversation.

“Do you want to see the pictures I took?” Spencer asked, and I shook my head.

I had taken photos of my own, but I spent most of the tour in a daze. I did my best to appreciate the art, the majesty, but I could not shake the ill-boding pit in my gut.

In the end, I came back to the world with the answer I sought, but not in the way I intended. I expected to find God behind the walls of Vatican City, but I thought wrong. I did not see what was always by my side until it had twisted to smoke.

If God wasn’t here, where could I find him again?

“Let’s find some pasta,” said Spencer, and we made our way down the grubby streets.

We wandered for a while, soon finding ourselves strolling hand in hand on a bridge along The Tiber River. I released myself from his grip and meandered over to the railings. With a deep breathe, I gazed out over the glowing green waters.

The entire trip, I hadn’t taken a moment to appreciate how fortunate I was to have such an experience. I was so fixated on The Vatican holding all the answers I sought, I didn’t realize how amazing it was to be in one of the most romantic countries in the world.

In the stillness, the wholesome touch I’d known all my life returned to me, and I knew then, God’s hand had found my shoulder again.

He was there, walking amongst the people in their daily lives. I heard his call from the lambent sky overhead. One that now reverberated in my ears, out and through my limbs.

“You good?” Asked Spencer, as he came from behind to wrap his arms around my waist. We waited for a spell, drinking in our surroundings.

“Yeah,” I said, turning to plant a kiss on his cheek before taking off down the walkway. “Let’s eat.”

Spencer broke out into a light jog as he worked to catch up with my quickened pace. It was tourist season, after all, and the restaurants would all be packed.

We would have to hurry to find an adequate table during the lunch rush. An unexpected, but very welcome, visitor would be joining us that afternoon, after all.

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