Beauty so ancient: My semester in Rome

“Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new.” When reflecting on my semester studying abroad in Rome, Italy, these words of St. Augustine come to mind. Not only do they aptly describe how living in Rome sparked my own love for beauty, but they also remind me of my experience volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity at San Gregorio that semester.

There, in the midst of the Eternal City, across the street from the Circus Maximus and Colosseum, my classmates and I had the opportunity to care for those suffering. No longer tourists, we tapped into the life of the city, and in doing so we encountered the paradox of evil and sadness in the midst of beauty.

At first, this shocked and even troubled me. For the past few months, my classmates and I could scarcely contain our joy while making this ancient city our home—reveling in the fact that every drain cover bore the emblem SPQR, that we stumbled upon centuries-old churches while trying to find a good restaurant, that we could now name the types of columns we saw on the streets and the tile designs on basilica floors. How could one call this place home and not desperately love life? Even amid the ghostly ruins of the Forum or the haunting beauty of the Capuchin Crypt, all I felt was intense joy in living.

It was not until my experience with the Missionaries of Charity that I truly understood the words of St. Augustine. When we had discussed this passage a few days before in philosophy class, this ancient beauty seemed to me none other than Roman beauty— dusty churches laden with saints’ relics, St. Peter’s bronze toe rubbed smooth by centuries of pilgrims, cobblestone paths worn by gladiators’ sandals, words of a dead language resurrected in prayer. “Surely this is ancient beauty,” my lovestruck mind thought, so deeply infatuated with Rome.

Yet now, I could not help but wonder if perhaps this beauty so ancient might not run the risk of becoming beauty so jaded. To be sure, I could see the ruins of Rome and call it beauty still; though ancient, it was all new to me. However, could I really claim that if I, too, had spent nearly a lifetime here, I would not take it for granted as well?

Perhaps this is the unspoken goal of studying abroad: not only to guide your encounter with beauty so ancient and see it as new, but also to learn to rediscover late-loved beauty in places already familiar. While we are so steeped in the splendor of the Eternal City, we should not be content merely to sing the praises of Rome, as have so many others before us, and leave it at that. Perhaps, to follow the thought of Josef Pieper, another philosopher we studied, rather than favoring this specific city as exceptional, this experience should bring us to affirm creation as a whole and sing alleluia in praise of its Creator, the source and summit of all beauty.

Photo By Braden Collum – Unsplash

But even as we begin to most fully realize the grace of our own transfigurations by ancient beauty—an experience made incarnate to my classmates and me on top of Mount Parnassus during our 10-day excursion to Greece—we still must eventually come down the mountain, a fact I was slowly beginning to accept as I neared the final days of my semester. Yet rather than dread the descent, we should learn to embrace it; after all, in falling in love with the Eternal City, perhaps we might be finally be able to see traces of truly eternal beauty, even in the humble places we call home.


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Photo (right) of Mary Katherine exploring Rome.

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