A Brief Pilgrimage

For a Catholic, the whole experience of Rome ought to be a pilgrimage. Here are the shrines sacred to the memory of the martyrs who shed their blood for Christ, here are the churches built over the tombs of the saints.  To visit these places is to see the historical foundation upon which that most extraordinary religion, the Catholic Faith, is founded. And it is truly the most miraculous thing in the world, for how else could it have survived so long, grown and triumphed even in the midst of terrible persecution, heresy, and schism? The witness of the bones of God’s holy ones bears out the claims of the Christian. To visit these sites is to actually see for oneself the reality behind that long litany prayed in the Roman Canon; to see in truth where Peter and Paul lived, died, and were buried. The closer one is to the saints, the closer to Christ. In Rome, this means a lot of walking.

I had the opportunity today to visit Tre Fontane, the spot outside own the ancient walls of Rome where Saint Paul was beheaded under the reign of the Emperor Nero. After the Christians were blamed for the great fire that swept Rome in the early 60’s A.D, a great persecution broke out in which many of the faithful were martyred. This brings to mind, of course, the image of young virgins being thrown to ravenous lions for the blood-crazed amusement of a demonized  Rome, which is true. But St. Paul, being a Roman citizen, received the somewhat more sanguinary means of execution by decapitation.

Tre Fontane is name after the site of his martyrdom. According to legend–often more truthful than many historical books–his head bounced three times, so mighty was the executioner’s stroke, and where it landed a natural spring was opened up. Whether this be true or not, I do not know for certain. But I do know that it is a tradition reaching far back, and that there are indeed three springs on the spot. Furthermore, the miraculous is to be accounted for. On this basis, therefore, three churches have been constructed in close proximity to each other. Each represents a different stage in history and architectural development. One is a medieval basilica dedicated to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, one is a Renaissance central-plan church dedicated to two young soldier-saints, and the last is a Baroque fusion of the previous styles built over the Three Fountains.

Trying to find this rather obscure spot was somewhat difficult, but myself and my two companions were finally able to do so–but only after asking for directions several times. It is built on the grounds of a Cistercian abbey–hence the connection with Saint Bernard–and is located in the Eur area of Rome, the region where Mussolini began his dream project of refounding an imperial city built on Fascist principles. Consequently, the faux-neoclassical fusion of ugliness that defines 1930’s architecture surrounds the hallowed ground of the Catholic Faith, and it is only after one makes his way through such a spiritual wasteland that the charming stone abbey comes in sight.

Entering through a gateway onto a long gravel road flanked by avenues of Roman oaks and plane trees, the first notable feature to see is a great statue of St. Benedict, the grandfather of the Cistercian reform and founder of Western Monasticism. He brings a forefinger to his lips, cautioning holy silence. The first words of his famous Rule: “ausculta, o film mi” are inscribed below his feet.

Passing by the saint’s likeness, the road turns in a leftward bend to face the old abbey gatehouse, as trim and pleasing an edifice as one would like. No old and well-chosen porter greeted us, but the spirit of the Regula Benedicti lingers about the place. Beyond the vault of the main gate is a little green with a forked path leading to the churches, at the intersection of which is a statue of the Madonna. To the right is a stone wall with a fontinelli that gushes out the purest, cleanest water anyone could wish for. Like the chosen men of Gideon, we weary pilgrims drank directly from the font’s nozzle. Afterwards, we entered the basilica. It is typically Roman in conception: a long nave with side aisles that is intersected by a narrow transept and ended with a semi-circular apse. This creates the cross shape that one finds in most traditionally built churches.

The church is dark (good) and silent (better). The holy water fonts have little fish carved into them, and on the piers are a series of frescoes showing the Twelve Apostles. There is a series of windows just below the roof, which are properly called fenestrated. These are pierced and allowed for natural light, unlike the stained glass of Gothic churches. The roof is wooden, with the red clay tiles found all over Rome; and the walls are built of a light brick with a reddish tinge. A rood screen separates the laity from the religious, and a wooden choir surrounds the high altar. Four side altars fill the transept, which is narrower than many basilicas, and one reserves the Blessed Sacrament.

The other churches are interesting structurally, although their interior decoration–with a few exceptions–is somewhat gaudy. The nearest to the basilica, Scala Coeli, is built in a Greek-cross plan constructed over an ancient Roman prison cell. The other, called Tre Fontane, is a Baroque church which fuses the basilica’s length with the central-plan as its transept. This church contains the three miraculous fountains, and also features a painting of Saint Peter’s execution, probably done by a student of Caravaggio because of its strong chiaroscuro. In addition, there are two exquisitely carved high reliefs panels set near the main doors that depict the martyrdom of the two Apostles. The attention to detail, especially the emotional tension captured in the figures’ positioning, is very striking.

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The Basilica of Saint Peter

How is one able to begin describing the greatest church in all Christendom? The sheer enormity of its scale and detail would easily fill a hundred pages or more, not to mention its ancient and venerable history as the seat of the Apostle’s successor. With such considerations in mind, it seems doubtful to attempt a sketch of Rome’s highest boast. Even so, I shall try my hand at it, although in such a way that it presents to the imagination those features deemed pertinent to an understanding of the basilica as a whole. They include structure, sculpture, and embellishment.

Saint Peter was crucified upside down, and it follows that the church dedicated to his name should have the same form as the instrument of martyrdom. The crossing of the long vaulted nave and transept–following the traditional circular arch of Roman architecture–marks the spot of St. Peter’s tomb and the current high altar. The pendentives of the intersection support a fenestrated drum, which in turn support a oglival dome that rivals the Pantheon’s in circumference. This dome unlike the Pantheon’s is suspended over the earth and not fused to it. This signifies both the otherness of God and the inability of man to gain salvation except through grace. The piers supporting the superstructure of the dome and nave vault double as an ambulatory leading to the apse, freeing the space between for nearly twenty side altars, including two enclosed chapels. The apse is actually behind the high altar itself, which in turn occupies the space directly over Saint Peter’s tomb, a sort of deck that rises over the recessio holding the Apostle’s relics. The apse, along with the windows in the dome and interspersed along the length of the nave lets in the natural lighting typical of all Roman churches. The effect of such lighting is further accentuated by the use of sculpture that takes advantage of the interplay between light and shadow: chiaroscuro.

The great piers of the nave and transept have many niches in them, and all these are filled with the figures of the Church Triumphant; huge marble sculptures of the Saints and Popes reminding one of the seriousness and greatness of the Catholic Faith, while at the same time providing examples to imitate. These statues are nearly all Baroque in style, with dramatic gestures, clear use of contrapposto, and deep folds of carving that bring out the use of shadow. Their scale is overwhelming, but because of the harmonious proportions of the church this effect is lessened. The four huge statues adorning the four central piers are only gigantic when one is directly below them, and the same is true for the sculpture in the apse.

The latter is a masterpiece of Bernini, whose genius in designing and completing Saint Peter’s outdid even Michaelangelo’s design. It depicts the entry of the Holy Ghost over the Chair of Peter, employing the method of bel composto to create its total effect. The amber stained glass of the apse erupts into bronze rays as the white dove signifying a new Pentecost flies over a suspended throne, while beneath the four Doctors of the Western Church–Saints Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose, and Augustine–gesture upward in awe. No one could fail to be impressed by this work, and it holds huge theological implications for the power and office of the Pope: the Vicar of Christ on Earth granted infallibility, the successor of the Apostle who was given the Keys of Heaven. The theme of Divinely granted authority is also found in the embellishment of the basilica, especially in the gold-bordered letters running along the length of the whole structure. These read in Latin and Greek the words of Christ: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church”. The glory of the Apostolic office is given fitting expression a tangible way through beauty; but it is a grand and triumphant beauty, in keeping with the gravity of the office of ruling the Church of Christ on earth. Thus the embellishment of Saint Peter’s is expressed in marble and bronze, with Corinthian piers and the solemn, stable Roman arch. The whole ceiling is deeply coffered, while in the pendentives supporting the dome the Four Evangelists are seen immediately below figures of the popes, the saints, the Apostles, and Our Lady that adorn its interior. All these figures, as well as the great paneled scenes behind the many side altars are rendered in mosaic.

Unlike the side altars set against the interior walls of the basilica, the high altar is freestanding. It is located, as has ben stated, directly at the crossing of the nave and transept over the tomb of Saint Peter. Impressive for its size, the high altar is made even more grand by the great bronze baldacchino of Bernini. This huge edifice employs twisting columns which support a suspended canopy that culminate in the familiar sphere and cross that also can be seen surmounting the basilica’s dome. The serpentine columns are blackened bronze with gold inlay, and contain the same passionate Baroque splendor of the basilica’s sculpture.

The beautifully complementary proportions and embellishment of Saint Peter’s creates the illusion that it seems smaller than it truly is. In fact, the basilica is very much like the one in whose honor it was built and whose successor holds the same office today; for as soon as one begins to closely examine the scale of either, he quickly becomes overwhelmed by the immensity of what he finds.

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The Piazza Navona

The early spring breeze blows a little more freely in the Piazza Navona than other piazzi in Rome owing to its peculiar elongation, hearkening to when its original use as a chariot course built by the Domitian. In fact, there are little stone placards set into the piazza’s walls that are inscribed with the emperor’s name. Piazza Navona retains the stadium shape it was initially built with, lending itself to its decidedly Baroque style. This typifies one of the essential features of Roman architecture, a continuation with the city’s whole past adapted to modern life. The layout of the piazza is typical for Rome: a central space open for public exchange and leisure dominated by a central church and surrounded by buildings which double as shops  on the ground floor and apartments on the floors above. The central space in turn features three fountains, one at each end and one in the center. They serve the practical purpose of providing fresh water to the piazza, but also add to its aesthetic quality.

The two furthest fountains depict sea scenes from classical mythology that concern the god Neptune, or as the Italians say, Nettuno. One shows the coming of the god, who is surrounded by conch-blowing, wild-haired minions; the other shows his triumphal victory–trident in hand–over a sea monster. On either side of the sea deity are his rearing horses, and each corner of the central-plan fountain alternates between a mermaid and a cherub struggling to control a small dragon. Although these sculptures are well done, the central fountain is the grandest of the three. Designed by Bernini as a tribute to Pope Innocent X, the central feature of the Piazza Navona is the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It depicts four figures that represent the major rivers of each continent known in the 17th century, and supports a huge obelisk peaked with an olive-branch bearing dove, the symbol of the pope’s familial coat-of-arms. The fountain is a really impressive work, although there are some strange things about its symbolism, like an armadillo at the feet of the figure representing the Americas, and the figure of the Nile River with a covered head–perhaps alluding to its unknown source?

The fountain’s obelisk serves both a symbolic and practical purpose. It is symbolic because it points upward to God and is a reminder of the Exodus–since obelisks were originally Egyptian–and it is practical in that it serves a focal point for pilgrims visiting the piazza’s main church, Santa Agnese in Agone. Although there is a small Renaissance church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the church dedicated to the Virgin martyr takes of place. Its concave Baroque facade is flanked by two bell towers that sound the hours, and the crucifix affixed to the top of its blue dome overlooks the entire piazza. The coexistence of sacred and profane space in a single area is a sign of how the Romans traditionally see life: something that has its source in the temple, in God, and which radiates outward into even the everyday affairs of life.

In the Piazza Navona there are everyday affairs aplenty. In the center of the open space street vendors hawk various goods, mostly aimed at the many tourists who come through the piazza only long enough to snap a quick picture of the fountain. These are interspersed with the locals, who amble about the piazza leisurely, relax on a bench enjoying the soothing sound of the fountains, or chat with friends over one of the restaurant tables that form a ring around the entire piazza. Interestingly, it is food that forms the bridge between public and private life, not to mention friendship. As soon as one looks upward from the restaurant canopies he sees all the signs of private life in the floors immediately above: an elderly man in a yellow shirt, resting on a window sill as he looks out at the crowd below; a working class mother taking in the wash that had been hanging out in the sun to dry, and so on. These vignettes, together with the soft earth tones of the piazza’s buildings provide a charm that softens the dramatic tension of its Baroque features.

Planning a piazza is a difficult thing, because there must be a sufficient integration between its aesthetic beauty and its function as a public gathering place. For instance, what sort of building materials ought to be used? If there is public art, of what sort ought it to be? Fortunately, the organic nature of Roman culture, which adapts and duly proportions what already exists keep the architect from slipping into one of two extremes: a gaudy over-embellishment or a utilitarian wasteland. In the Piazza Navona, one can see how the foundations laid by the ancient Romans were adapted to the needs of everyday life, while leaving room for the artistic development that culminated in the Baroque. The lesson of the piazza is something that modern city planners ought to emulate, because it restores order and beauty to life in all its spheres. The Piazza Navona successfully integrates these elements, chiefly through its masterful articulation of space.

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On A Wall Plaque, Or The Victory

Trevi Fountains

One of the chief advantages in traveling abroad is a refocus in sight. By this I do not mean a literal sharpening of the visual faculty, but the development of a keener perception, of an observant mode of looking at things perhaps more carefully and considerately than before. Features of even commonplace objects take on a deeper significance because they are seen in a new way that understands the order and beauty in them. This is true on the aesthetic level, but also true on the historical, cultural, and dare I say it, the spiritual level. To borrow from my own experience, I have had the opportunity to study abroad in Rome, Italy for the duration of three months. Midway through my semester and looking back on all that I have seen of the city, I can honestly say that even a month in Europe is one of the most formative and beneficial experiences a young person can have.

Traveling the streets of Rome opens one’s eyes to see things in an entirely different way, such that those who are open to wisdom experience a mental whetting: the development of aesthetic taste brought about by an encounter with beauty and the exercise of critical judgment prompted by both practical and philosophical problems. Not that everyone who visits a foreign place has the same sort of impression. Some people travel for the sheer pleasure of it, often superficially experiencing the richness of the place they visit. In my opinion, there ought to be a deeper purpose to travel, a different sort of intention if one wishes for the fullness of experience than just vacationing. In short, the idea of a pilgrimage.

Now a pilgrimage need not be a religious venture. To be sure, there lies its origin and essence, but for our purposes a pilgrimage is any journey undertaken with an intention that aims at bettering oneself and not merely sightseeing. The last may be part and parcel of the total experience, but is not necessarily the main purpose of the trip. A pilgrim undertakes vows to see such and such a place which holds a sacred meaning for himself. That is the main purpose.

To take yet another example from my own travels. There is in Rome a hill called the Janiculum, which was once an ancient road leading into the city, and from its base to its summit is a deeply significant place. Somewhere along its course Horatius Cocles held off the Albans in a desperate last stand, and in the nineteenth century another equally famous battle was fought. It was for this reason that I decided to take the tram to visit the hill. At the summit one sees a commanding view of the whole of Rome, gradually revealed as the sun rises over its domes and cupolas. In the center of a traffic circle is erected a bronze and marble statue commemorating one of the foremost leaders of Italian unification: Giuseppe Garibaldi. He, together with Mazzini, are hailed as the greatest patriots of the Risorgimento; the last bloody swathe sweeping out in the spirit of Revolutionary France. Yet the edifice dedicated to his memory held little interest for me. Instead I walked a ways down the long slope over the cobblestones and came to a small church.

Here, in an obscure corner of the building’s exterior was a placard which might have otherwise escaped my attention. Its salvation came from its obscurity, and the perception that had gradually been developing from my experience of the city. Here was a truly noble monument, though not worked in the medium of a conquerer. The simple stone inscription was commemorated to those troops of the indecisve Napoleon III who died defending the last temporal rights of Pope Pius XI, fighting to the last man. This was really the great struggle on the Janiculum, a struggle between two contending ideals: the spirit of the Enlightenment embodied in Garibaldi’s rebellion, and the ancient Catholic spirit which until 1793 had informed the moral vision of Europe.

The heroism on both sides is certainly worthy to be commemorated. Yet who had the greater victory, I wonder? I would be tempted to say Garibaldi, had I not noticed the small plaque on an old church’s wall. It is often the little known heroes, hushed up in what passes as history books who are overlooked. With traveling, however, the awarement of details enables one to paint a greater picture of the whole affair. This is an awarement that arises from having the right spirit in travelling, not merely content to whisk past the greatest sights, but to really scrutinize even the small things that seem obscurely unimportant. Such an ability demands great attention, discernment, and results, I think, in a greater self-understanding.

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A Visit to Scavi

I had the opportunity to go to the Scavi yesterday, the part of Saint Peter’s which is underground and forms the foundations of the Constantinian basilica. Because it was an Ember Day, I made it to Mass as well. The gates of Saint Peter’s open at approximately seven o’ clock, and I got in just a little while after they were unlocked, stopping to help a doddering Czech gentleman up the stairs. He mumbled something in English about the necessity of the sacraments for a clear conscience. Not sure whether he was a coot or a saint, I patiently nodded until he paused. Then I went in for Mass. Unfortunately, I didn’t wait long enough for the Extraordinary Form priest to come out of the sacristy, and ended up at one of the many side altars hearing a mediocre German liturgy. As Cardinal Newman said, one can always wait for something better.

Still, I heard Mass. Afterwards I had a while before the tour began; so I circumabulated St. Peter’s square for an hour. I probably gave the impression of someone suffering from dementia, because most people don’t walk around in piazzas. I did however keep warm. Walking without anything to really think about becomes dull rapidly; so I went to Santo Spiritu, the church where the famous Divine Mercy portrait is hung after it was commissioned  at Saint Faustin’a behest. It was quiet and dark, two things churches ought to be. I stayed there until the tour began. Split into two groups, mine being the latter, our tour began later than expected. Still, I did get free breakfast out of that, and got to see the Swiss Guards again. Their history and long-standing loyalty to the Holy See is impressive. For example, the story of the outnumbered Swiss Catholics valiantly defending the Pope from the onslaught of German mercenaries–the fanatical Luterani–in 1527 during the sack of Rome is a stirring tale. It makes one’s blood stir on the Feast of St. John Before the Gate (May 6).

Anyway, our guide led us down under the new Basilica. Descending several ramps and stairs, we came to a narrow door with a pointed top, from which emanated the musty smell of old stone. This was the beginning of the excavations of Pope Pius XII, who discovered a huge Roman mausoleum under the Vatican Hill. There, under Bernini’s great nave, we passed many ancient tombs, some with fantastically carved sarcophagi. It was explained that those which marked D.P. were Christian. “D.P.” signified depositio, the burial practice anticipating the resurrection. It is interesting to see how the architectural form of Roman tombs actually influenced certain features of churches, most notably the altars with their apse-like alcoves. Fundamentalists and other anti-Catholics like to rib the Faith for being Christianity with an accretion of paganism. Of course, such claims are not entirely unfounded, but the wrong terms are used. It is not an accretion but a beautiful incorporation of man’s natural religious expressions in the worship of the One True God, the Three-In-One. The Catholic Faith handed down through the centuries and enlivened by the Holy Spirit is not a thing that is foreign to nature, but which builds on it through grace, perfecting the imperfections of fallen man by the redemption of all creation in Christ. So it should be natural that there should be common features that are given their highest form, even in the external things of worship: candles, bells, incense, altars. This is the great beauty of the Catholic Faith: it unified both inwardly and outwardly, the great Sacrament of the Mystical Body of Christ renewing the world.

But I digress. As we continued our way through the stuffy gloom of the tombs, I got to see a rather fine early Christian mosaic of Christus Sol Invictus, Christ the Unconquered Sun. This mosaic is worked in yellows, browns, and whites. It depicts Christ as an Apollonian figure, smooth-faced, riding a chariot of triumph while rays of light shine from his head signifying divinity. Around him on a field of gold tesserae curl green vines, symbols of the Eucharist. On the side of the mosaic is a little image of Jonah being thrown to the whale, the famous “Sign of Jonah” that represents the Resurrection of Jesus, spoken of in the Synoptic Gospels.  I saw this image in art history texts, but to see it in person was a real privilege.

Some ways after seeing the mosaic, we were able to enter the chamber where the Trophy of Gaius was found. This is the spot where St. Peter’s remains were buried, and which Eusebius of Caesaria speaks of in his history. In that hallowed hollow where the holy bones of the Fisherman lay we prayed, and afterwards passed through back into the bright day.

Non praevalebunt horrendae portae infernae sed vis amoris veritatisque aeternae.


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Neque Hic Vivus Neque Illic Mortuus

Last Wednesday was the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday. This is the day which marks the start of the season of repentance and renewal, a temporary withdrawal from the world into the desert with Christ. On this day, the faithful are marked with ashes, signifying the mortality of man. “Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou salt return” intones the priest who distributes the ashes after first sprinkling them over himself. These ashes remind us of our mortality, the greatest effect of Adam’s sin. At the same time, they also are a sign of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Saint Paul says that “if we have died with Christ, we can also hope to rise in Him”, and it is this hope that leads us to accept the bright sadness of Lent. T.S. Eliot’s great poem Ash Wednesday expresses this idea of renewal well, drawing on the traditionally liturgy and hymns for the day as an imaginative source. For Romans–at least, for Roman Catholics–Ash Wednesday shows that there are two strands to life, and one of them is to recall death. Philosophy, says Socrates, is a kind of meditation on death, because it seeks the eternal and is confronted with the mortal. In the same way, the season of Lent is a reminder that as good as this beautiful life is, it is but the antechamber to Heaven, our true good.

I received my ashes at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims. Unlike the smudge mark on the forehead that the faithful receive in the States, the Italians receive ashes on their heads, just like clerics. As the celebrating priest sprinkled the black powder over my hair, a line from the Melkite memorial liturgy came to mind, a beautiful summary of what Lent is all about. “We go down into the dust singing alleluia, alleluia, alleluia”.

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On Watching A Parade

Apse of Santa Croce

I love The Canterbury Tales, most of all because of the pageantry that Chaucer opens up with in the General Prologue. The steady stream of pilgrims, a motley crew if there ever was one, are as full of descriptive color as any medieval tapestry. What appeals to me the most, I think, is the parade-like quality of the poem. The reader gets to see all these wonderfully drawn characters with all their virtues and follies as a single great procession heavy with richness, pomp, and splendour.

I had a similar experience a few Saturdays ago, when I witnessed the Carnevale parade in Rome. Carnevale literally means “farewell to meat”, and is the time just before Lent begins. In France, as well as in Louisiana, this culminates in Mardi Gras. But in Italy, Carnevale is largely a children’s holiday, equivalent perhaps to our Hallowe’en. Its parades are grand affairs, one last public flourish before the season of penitence and spiritual renewal begins. One thing that struck me about the parade was the spectacle, a sort of showing off of civic pride. The costuming of the paraders was a tribute to the whole of Roman history, from a squadron of legionaries leading captured “Gauls” behind them in triumph, all the way to the farmers of the 19th century. The parade is a kind of symbolic representation of the entire order of Roman civilization and culture that the modern world is founded upon.

Vah

I think there are two aspects to parades that make them so great: 1) they’re playful, and 2) they’re solemn. A lot of people, I think, tend to dismiss parades as something smacking of silliness or childish extravagance. They’ll maybe watch (at a distance), but they certainly lack the wide-eyed eagerness of children who enjoy every minute of it. This attitude is often motivated by being overly self-interested. It ignores the values represented in the parade, because the person who dismisses parades has the feeling of superiority. These are the symptoms of that malady that affects so many today: the illness of grownupishness. Grownupishness is a callousing of the spirit. It varies, but in generally people who have it tend to have a distaste for anything outside of their own selfish desires. Things such as parades and other public rituals are ignored, because they embarrass them. The Mass is especially repugnant. In general grownupishness can be described as the opposite of childlikeness, and stifles wonder, the antecedent to worship.

Now parades are distasteful because they are out of the ordinary, because they are true examples of real leisure. Above all, parades are distasteful because of their inherent playfulness. Grown men and women don costumes with the same solemnity of children. The paraders’ costumes and roles that belong to another time, that are part of a spectacle, a procession, a ritual and symbolic act rare in our world of expedient pragmatism. This is why we need parades, and why I love them. They make us childlike by the delight produced in beholding the wonder-filled spectacle. They remind us of the virtues we ought to imitate. They are outside of ourselves, unlike a protest. It seems to me that one of the features of a healthy civilization is the public expression its values through sensible forms: art, literature, public institutions, and even customs such as parades. They are able to develop a community through the celebration of a united vision of the good life in its various aspects. Parades are, like flowers and a thousand other things that don’t seem to have any practical use, a sign of life over-flowing its rim, life in abundance.

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