At the Basilica de Santa Croce in Florence, I lit a candle for Balthazar. I hadn’t necessarily planned to make a thing of it, but Jasper liked the ritual and insisted on doing it everywhere we went. At first I was afraid he would burn himself, so I lit the candles, but he wanted to perform the ceremony all by himself: drop the coin into the slot, light the taper from an already-burning candle, light the new candle, blow out the taper.
We made our way across Italy lighting candles in churches: Cortona, Pienza, Montepulciano, Siena, Arezzo, Rome. I can’t even remember how many candles we lit in Rome. We lit tall thin white candles held in place by clamps and others that we pressed into sawdust. We lit short squat candles and inserted them into a row of others exactly the same. We spent way too many euros trying to get an electric candle to light up in Sant’Andrea della Valle, a church so opulent it was disconcerting to learn that it was designed and decorated by a now-obscure cadre of architects, sculptors and painters, a kind of Baroque B Team. At the top of the Spanish Steps we placed a candle sheathed in yellow into a tree of other candles in brightly-colored holders.
Sometimes we said a few words. Sometimes we were standing in front of a Baroque painting of the Crucifixion and sometimes we were standing in front of a 14th century Madonna and Child and sometimes we were standing in front of a sculpture of some martyr I’d never heard of. It didn’t matter. We asked Jesus or Mary or Saint Margaret of Cortona, patron saint of hobos, to take care of Balthazar.
I did not find God in Italy. Ironically, quite the reverse. But lighting candles was a way to include Balthazar on the trip, and asking for a blessing was a way to talk about him. There was someone missing, someone who would have been fifteen months old, sitting in my lap for ten hours from Portland to Amsterdam, bawling and kicking the seat in front of us. I didn’t cry about it, but it felt good not to pretend, at least in the safety of our three-person nuclear family. As a result I imagine no child of two atheists has ever had more candles lit for him in Catholic churches ever.
Before we left for Italy my father lent me The Swerve, a National Book Award-winning non-fiction work by Stephen Greenblatt. I didn’t know before I left how apropos a choice it would be, but if ever there were a book that would serve as an antidote to relentless Christianity, this was it.
The Swerve is about the Roman poet Lucretius’s book On the Nature of Things. Lost for centuries, it was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, a papal secretary and a hunter and collector of ancient manuscripts. Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose philosophy was so threatening to Christianity that it was suppressed and slandered for centuries. Yet Lucretius’s poetry was so beautiful that even a papal secretary felt compelled to copy and disseminate it. As a result Epicurus’s ideas were returned to Western civilization almost two thousand years after they were written.
I can only give the barest summary of Epicurean philosophy, but here is the gist: Epicurus believed that the universe is made of atoms, invisible particles that are eternal and infinite in number, with a hidden code to their arrangement. All of these particles are in motion in an infinite void. As such, it has no creator or designer. Everything comes into being because of small, unpredictable shifts in movement which Lucretius termed the swerve. The swerve is the source of our free will.
Further, Epicurus believed that the universe was not created for or about humans. The soul dies. There is no afterlife. Death is nothing because instead of proceeding to heaven or hell, like every other thing in the universe made of atoms, we return to our essential form and are reconstituted.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions, said Epicurus. The highest goal in human life, he felt, is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, but delusion.
Like most people I always equated Epicureanism with gluttony. If the highest goal in human life is the enhancement of pleasure, wouldn’t you just lie in bed and eat sixteen Cronuts a day? In fact, Epicurus eschewed worldly striving, but lived abstemiously because his idea of pleasure was highly moral and austere.
If everyone had followed Epicurus we would not have St. Peters or Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. But would quite so many people have been tortured and murdered in God’s name?
Understanding the true nature of things generates, according to Epicurus, not sadness or loss, but deep wonder. I’m with him on that. Isn’t the world beautiful enough, magical enough, just as it is?
Walking from church to church I couldn’t help but think of E.M. Forster:
“A young girl transfigured by Italy,” says the novelist Eleanor Lavish in A Room With a View. “And why should she not be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!”
Of course I’m not exactly a young girl, and it wasn’t the transfiguration one might have expected. That line is also from the movie, not the book, though in the text the sentiment is implied. Still funny, though. And resonant. Turns out I am an Epicurean. And I found out in Catholic Italy.
Christian Rome is a crust that has formed over an ancient pagan city. It was never completely obliterated or hidden. Unlike America, in which the animist traditions which predate European settlement have mostly vanished. That there could be another way, a non-Christian way, that once, thousands of years ago, some people lived without Jesus and were happy—what a relief.
I used to feel guilty and sad about the loss of my Christian faith, but reading about Epicurus in Italy made me feel as if I had left a stuffy, cluttered room and stepped into an open meadow.
Or, in the words of Morrissey, “There is a light and it never goes out.” You don’t have to be a Christian to believe that. You don’t have to be a Christian to light candles.
In Arezzo we lit two: one for Balthazar and one for the couple who were getting married in the cathedral while we were there. Jasper spoke of his hope that they would have a long and prosperous marriage. Then he asked me what prosperous meant. At the end of the marriage ceremony, as the organ began to play, he wrinkled his nose. “This sounds like divorce music,” he said.
In Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome, he took to saying “The brightest star is Balthazar,” as if he were practicing for a poetry slam.
We are stardust. Billion year old carbon. We are golden.