Inside the Basilica

There are only a handful of places I can find God.

In the quiet, intricate miracle of nature. Sometimes, fleetingly, between the lines of soul-mirroring written word. Always, deep in the eyes of children reaching out from foreign, unfamiliar places to drown any creeping lonely of my solo travels in a sudden smile, a nose wiggle or a ‘Hey, Chocolate!”

Never in churches.

At my all-girls Cape Town boarding school, we’d do our bit to save our souls every Sunday.

Dressed uncomfortably, compulsorily, in our school uniforms, we’d hurry towards the church whose denomination was closest to the strain of faith our parents had ticked on our application forms and sit shivering in the pews.

Butchering hymns, giggling through benedictions, wondering if there’d be cake.

But only if we didn’t write the whole thing off  altogether. If we’d quiet the promise of certain hellfire and brimstone and take our chances with the neighbourhood busybodies hastily identifying us loitering around the shops by our school uniform before calling the headmistress to chastise her wayward heathens.

I never felt God there or in school assemblies. Those bi-weekly battles against brazen boredom that always began and ended with a prayer, a blessing or a hymn.

A few times, maybe, I felt God at choir. Singing Gustav Holst’s ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’, ‘May the Road Rise Up to Meet You’ or as a child squeaking through ‘Immanuel’.

I was about 14 years old when I returned home from boarding school to find *Maria praying in tongues.

She’d invited me over to her house next door much in the same way she’d done since we were five years old but this time we didn’t make awful, too-sweet microwave cakes or guffaw through a game plan for pilfering our neighbour’s guavas.

Neither were we alone.

About four girls stood in a circle in her bedroom. They looked me up and down as Maria took my hand and led me to join the circle where they start to pray coherently enough before their words began to run backwards.

Or sideways.

Twisting and turning into something that sounded guttural, bogus and possessed.

I didn’t find God in Maria’s prayer circles and I found less and less of Him after she died.

Never in churches.

Many years later, I’m standing at the edge of Rome, looking out over the Vatican’s bridge of angels and I know Maria would be happy I’m there.

She always hoped I would find God the way she did. In cathedrals, prayer circles and tongues.

Once, the first time I visited her in hospital, she urged me to stop reading Harry Potter. The witchcraft, the words and the wickedness would damn my soul and again –  finally – she urged me to join her in the house of the Lord.

She went a little easier on me before the end.

Stopped inviting me to church, criticising my reading list and simply relaxed into letting me talk about my serendipitous, unorthodox life without the finger-pointing, patronising, hell-threatening judgement that often seems so integral to being a Christian.

I think of Maria in the Sistine Chapel as I peer up at Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’.

I’m deep within Vatican City, sardined into a room with a hundred other people, heads tilted toward the ceiling where some of the most famous paintings sprung from documentaries, art history classes and Dan Brown movies cover the entire altar wall.

Christ and his mother Mary, Saint Peter holding the keys to heaven, Charon with his boatload of the damned.

I don’t realise I’m crying until I notice a drop of moisture on the back of my hand and I don’t notice the world hasn’t actually gone silent before I hear the chapel guards calling out in irritation.

“Silence. Silencio. Shhh. No pictures. No video.”

We stand there about 5 short minutes before we’re pressed to move on. Out of the chapel, into the light and towards St Peter’s Basilica.  A massive Italian Renaissance church built on a sprawling city of the dead including St Peter’s tomb.

Inside, the papal altar brings me to my knees.

Directly under the dome of the Basilica, something seems to call from the church’s heart of gold framed by a bronze, Baroque canopy so, entranced,  I walk towards the pews at the very back where I pray, fervently, uncharacteristically, and on my knees.

There is no sound.

No breath.

No gibberish.

No harp.

But suddenly, there he is…


Powerful, present, petering away even as I grasp to keep him but, for once, precisely where Maria said he would be.