In the middle of an older neighborhood in the heart of northern Indiana lies a quiet, narrow street lined on both sides with older homes in various stages of decay. Almost obscured by two deciduous trees with intertwining branches is a secluded-feeling 1912 “prairie style” home with an open floor plan—a style that became synonymous with Frank Lloyd Wright, its biggest proponent. Although this house was designed by South Bend’s famed architect Roy Shambleau, to my untutored eyes the frontal façade made me think it was a Wright, with its row of windows on the second story and its boxy symmetry, its wide overhanging eaves, its modesty and earthy colors. The prairie style home was an innovative design with which Wright openly sought to wield his influence in the reconfiguring of family life by facilitating the flow of people and activity from room to room, doing away with partitioned and insular spaces while creating a less private and more interconnected child-friendly environment. Wright felt that the prairie home, set back from the street with a smaller front door and private-feeling windows, would serve to help protect the modern family from the threatening evils of society.
The first time I stepped out of the in-laws’ borrowed Chevy Trailblazer and onto East Wayne Street it was wintertime, and I didn’t notice the house, left exposed by the barren trees in the front yard; rather, I was immediately distracted by the sharp, yeasty smell of a nearby ethanol refinery and the biting chill in the air. My husband, who grew up in nearby Mishawaka, was taking me to a used bookstore called Erasmus Books that day, which was owned by Philip Schatz, a schoolteacher, and William Storey, a Notre Dame faculty member. “Erasmus was famous for rediscovering the great literary classics,” explained Schatz once in a local news story about the “downtown gem.” I had no idea that I was in for a double treat of touring a neat old house, with a wood floor that creaked when I walked on it, and perusing well-preserved and invaluable reads that I might add to our family library. An open floor plan is also perfect for filling up with bookshelves and wise books to wander through, it would seem–a different take on Wright’s vision of protecting the modern family from the threatening evils of society, but potentially one even more effective.
In the “Kid’s Nook” I found a book for my oldest son about Pompeii. It was not in fact a “classic”–it was one of those “Step-Into-Reading” kinds of books, but I bought it anyway. I wanted to introduce my son to the tragic natural disaster that once filled my own young mind with wonder when a professor told me about his first-hand experience visiting it. What had captivated me was his description of the museum-like preservation of the details of daily, first-century life. Even food was discovered seared and saved by the eruption’s intense heat and heavy ash: a bowl of fresh eggs sitting on a kitchen counter; 85 loaves of bread still in a bakery oven, all stamped with the customers’ identification; charred melon seeds, chick peas and lentils; jars of chestnuts, almonds and walnuts; a bowl of charred olives.
At around noon on August 24, 79 A.D., the eruption of Mount Vesuvius started with a violent earthquake as its top exploded. In a letter to Tacitus, the famous Roman historian, the Roman author Pliny the Younger described the cloud of ash, pumice and stone which followed: “…its general appearance can best be expressed as being like a pine rather than any other tree, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches.” So many of the inhabitants of Pompeii died trapped in their houses because of the rapidity and force with which the hot ash plume collapsed upon the city, crushing roofs and making escape impossible. Many who decided to flee to the city gates were either trampled by the crowds, overwhelmed by the thick and hot volcanic ash and noxious sulfurous fumes, or fatally pummeled on the roads by the hot bits of pumice and charred stones which fell from the sky. The moment of death for many of these poor souls was frozen in time, as subsequent rain turned the ash around their corpses into a kind of concrete. Thanks to the foresight of modern archeologists, who, upon discovering human-shaped cavities when excavating the city’s ruins, filled the hollow spaces with plaster, today we can see what Romans of the first century really looked like and how they behaved in the face of death.
“Pompeii…Buried Alive” soon became a nightly request for bedtime reading by my oldest son. He also became very curious about volcanoes in general. During one of our regular trips to the library, I discovered the National Geographic video “Mountains of Fire” which follows the work of French married couple and volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. While watching the beautiful images of volcanic eruptions up close, my husband, children and I were mesmerized by the power of nature—in awe at the way new landforms are created by the terrifying, fiery forces of the earth’s innards. Also, it was amazing to see the Kraffts’ utter lack of fear in the face of death, a daily reality and ultimate risk of studying and filming active volcanoes. In the short video below Maurice nonchalantly remarks, “Even if I die tomorrow, I don’t care.”
At the end of the documentary, we were saddened to find that the Kraffts, united by their love of volcanoes, were tragically killed together on June 3, 1991 while studying the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan, when, a full two miles from the summit, a fast-moving pyroclastic flow engulfed them and 41 others within seconds. Maurice Krafft’s peaceful resignation about the possibility of his own death still troubles me a bit, especially because it seems grounded not in any faith in his Creator, but only in the contemplation of the beauty of His creation.
In 2005, during one of our family vacations in the Chicago area, we went to the Field Museum and were pleasantly surprised at the coincidence that a travelling exhibit called Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption was currently there. It felt morbid and eerie at times being surrounded by charred bones and the real plaster casts of contorted corpses from the city’s ruins. On the other hand, it was just incredible to see a real frescoed wall from the archaeological site, mosaics, statues, coins, scrolls, housewares, jewelry, tools, and other amazing artifacts on display. In particular, I remembered closely examining one statuette of the god Mercury; under it, the placard read something like “A woman fleeing through one of the city gates was found clutching this gold-and-silver statuette of fleet-footed Mercury, the god of safe passage.” When I read this detail, I realized that this nameless victim of the eruption was hoping and praying that Mercury would help her escape the city alive. For me this would be like holding a rosary or a miraculous medal, calling upon Mother Mary’s aid in an hour of dire need.
Even though Romans worshipped false gods, this Pompeian woman is living proof of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts: that “all religions bear witness to men’s essential search for God” (CCC 2566). On May 11, 2011, the Pope cited this same passage during his general audience at the Vatican, stating further that
Man is religious by nature, he is homo religiosus as he is homo sapiens and homo faber…the image of the Creator is imprinted in his being and he feels the need to find a light to give an answer to the questions that have to do with the profound meaning of reality; an answer that he cannot find in himself, in progress, in empirical science. Homo religiosus does not emerge only from the ancient world, but he crosses the whole history of humanity…To this end, the rich terrain of human experience has witnessed the emergence of different forms of religiosity, in the attempt to respond to the desire for plenitude and happiness, to the need of salvation, to the search for meaning. “Digital” man and the caveman alike seek in religious experience the ways to overcome his finitude and to ensure his precarious earthly adventure. Moreover, life without a transcendent horizon would not have complete meaning, and the happiness to which we tend, is projected toward a future, toward a tomorrow that is yet to be attained. (Zenit News)
The archeological site of Pompeii confirms the fact that Romans surrounded themselves even in their homes with beauty in the form of art depicting gods, myths, and religious practices, not a merely “horizontal” display of their own wealth, but a confirmation that
Man bears within himself a thirst for the infinite, a nostalgia for eternity, a search for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and truth, which drive him toward the Absolute; man bears within himself the desire for God. And man knows, in some way, that he can address himself to God, that he can pray to him. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of history, defines prayer as the “expression of man’s desire for God.” This attraction toward God, which God himself has placed in man, is the soul of prayer, which is cloaked in many forms and modalities according to the history, time, moment, grace and finally the sin of each one of those who pray. In fact, man’s history has known varied forms of prayer, because he has developed different modalities of openness toward the on High and toward the Beyond, so much so that we can recognize prayer as an experience present in every religion and culture.
Prayer is the universal human experience, and the dead woman at Pompeii clutching her Mercury speaks to us from beyond the grave, under the ashes, across the centuries. I feel a kinship with her—she may have been praying to a false god, but she was praying at the hour of her death.
The sterile prayerlessness of complete secularism seems to me to be a modern invention—worse than praying to false gods.Share on Facebook