Spring Break in Rome: With Thanks to Monsignor Shea

By the time you read these words I will be walking the streets of Rome with my favorite person in the world.

Over the years I have written fairly frequently about my daughter. My reason for doing so was that she was having a typical Great Plains childhood in a town the size of Mott—growing up with daily access to a family farm, 4-H, cheerleading, the Christmas pageant at church, driving a grain truck during wheat harvest, the local loudmouths denouncing the Federal Government while waiting for their USDA deficiency payments. You know, rural life on the Great Plains.

Since she went off to an eastern university I have written about her less, because her experiences now are less meaningful as a window on the Great Plains, which is my principal subject. I frankly doubt that she will ever come back, except for holidays and burials. In her short lifetime she has witnessed a hardening of the spiritual arteries of rural Kansas (let's pretend it is only Kansas), and she never took to the windswept bluffs and the seasonal rivers of the plains the way her mother and father each did. Ah, but I had the greatest mentor in the world.

Sometime back in October, she called me from her dorm room and said, "I want to talk about Spring Break." My heart sank. Film loops of the 1960 "classic" Where the Boys Are had instantly begun to run through my head—and they were at the innocent hijinks end of the Spring Break spectrum. What if it's Girls Gone Wild in Fort Lauderdale, Cabo, South Padre Island, Jamaica, Aruba? The dreaded and deadly Aruba! But then she interrupted my nightmare reverie with, "Dad, if you are free during those dates would you take me to Rome for Spring Break?"

I doubt that she could have spoken any other sentence in the world that would have pleased me more fully: Rome, Spring Break, Papa. I cleared my schedule. We booked tickets. She chose the hotel.

Nerds Gone Wild.

There are so many "must see" sites in Rome—things you must see every single time you go—that there is never much time for the scores of second tier attractions, and the thousands of third tier attractions, any one of which would be the most important cultural destination in North Dakota or Montana, if Caesar Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) or Pope Julius II (1443-1513) had happened to have built them here. There are only a handful of inexhaustible cities on earth, and Rome is at the top of the list: Rome, Paris, London, Vienna. . . If you went to Paris once a year for the rest of your life, you would never be able to conclude, "Well, I have now seen everything Paris has to offer." Rome, if anything, is even more inexhaustible. Our plan is to walk ten miles a day, maps and apps in hand.

It is her first trip to Rome, my fifth.

My daughter has been studying Latin in a curriculum so rigorous that its sends me reeling when she calls at 11:30 p.m. to ask me about a passage in Catullus or Ovid. So our primary interest—this trip!—is classical Rome and Renaissance Rome, though she has also expressed interest in visiting a museum dedicated to Goethe, and the graves of the English poets Shelley and Keats. The only thing I have insisted upon is that we see as many of Bernini's statues as possible. If it is possible that there is a sculptor greater than Michelangelo, I believe it is Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Virtually our first stop will be Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

I cannot imagine going to Rome and not seeing the Sistine Chapel no matter how many times you have seen it, no matter how frustrating the crowds are, or the guards who are trying to manage those crowds. Or Michelangelo's Pieta, the exquisite sculpture of Mary, the mother of Christ, holding the broken body of her son. Such works of art—there are literally thousands in Rome—are among the greatest expressions of the human spirit on earth, equal to Hamlet and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Parthenon and Dante's Inferno. They are also among the greatest expressions of humankind's spiritual hunger. To see them is to ache for human possibility.

This time, I get to see these things through the eyes of the person whose soul I am most invested in of all the souls on the planet. In the old days I would be leading her from painting to statue to tomb to ruin to mosaic, promising gelato as a dividend for just one more cultural stop. Now she will be leading me to places and works of art she has been reading about in her university core curriculum, and explaining their significance (or their significance to her) while I stand beside her filled with pride and double wonder—wonder at the things we stop to observe, and wonder at the young woman observing them. This happened last spring when my mother and I went to New York for Easter. We three went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and about half an hour into the experience this young sprout said, "Dad, Grandma, I want to show you my favorite Monet." And off we marched into another room. It was one of the supreme moments of my life. I stood next to her as she explicated the painting, looking a good deal like National Lampoon Vacation's Clark Griswold when he is blinking off tears of sentimental family love.

Back home in THIS paradise, my mother and I spent two summers back in the mid-70s wandering around the badlands of North Dakota for a project she was doing with a grant from the ND Department of Public Instruction. She interviewed 50 ranchers and cowboys. I took the photographs and ran the reel-to-reel tape recorder. We camped half a dozen nights in places she did not really want to camp and we cooked camp stews on a wee stove together at the end of remarkable days adrift on scoria roads. That was almost forty years ago now, yet for both of us it remains the very center of our relations of mother and son, and whenever we need a dose of renewal in our friendship, we hearken back to those days of miracle and wonder.

The Pantheon and St. Peter's 2014 will be one of our dad-daughter centerpieces forever, I hope.

A week ago I had the honor of dining with Monsignor James Shea, the president of the University of Mary. He served me a simple dish of exquisite subtle pasta that he put together effortlessly while he offered wry advice about places to linger and places to eat in Rome. We are so fortunate to have Father Shea in our midst, for as long as we can keep him. His learning, his grace, his vision, his boyish life-affirming out-loud laugh, his belief in the spiritual traditions of Rome and the spiritual possibilities of the northern Great Plains, make this a better, richer place to live. He is also our premier guide to the Eternal City.

"Parte di ampio magnifico Porto." c. 1751. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.