We stood in the customs line at Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport. A sign said E.U. citizens to the left. Visa holders to the right. Everyone else in the middle. We were in the middle—and longest—line.
Ahead of us stood a young Korean American couple. They were chatting with two middle-aged women who were just ahead of them. I did what you do in lines when your bored. I eavesdropped. I soon gathered that the couple and the two women had only met at some point on this trip. The women were headed on a celebrity cruise. They’d left their husbands home so they could “have a good time.”
The couple were coming to Rome to get married. The young man’s family owned a restaurant in San Francisco. He never said, but he easily could have worked in Silicon Valley. The reason they’d chosen to get married in Rome was simple. Some time back they’d visited and loved it. Since their families had never been there before, they thought it’d make for a perfect wedding location.
The brunt force of the big, wealthy world into which we were about to step walloped us upside the head. Ten hours before, we were standing in lines surrounded by people who made one-tenth of what we make, if not a whole lot less. Now we were standing in lines surrounded by people who made ten times what we make, if not a whole lot more. We’d gone from being counted among top wage earners to being counted among the bottom.
That realization quickly led to a revelation. These past four years have forever changed the way we view… well… everything. At some point along the way the curtain was pulled back, and all we see now is the man behind it, a man desperately turning his nobs, pulling his levels, yelling into his microphone, and making the whole show lurch forward one special effect at a time.
International flights, touring the Eternal City, staying in hotels that cost per night what our friends make in a month, eating artisan pizza baked in a wood burning oven on a street of black basalt stone across from a 2,000-year-old coliseum—it’s not that we don’t appreciate such things. It’s not that we don’t enjoy them. But they’re forever different now. It feels like we see through them. We see them for what they are. There’s no magic in the bricks of the coliseum. They’re just really old pieces of kiln fired clay. There’s nothing mystical in the air in Rome. It’s just the same combination of nitrogen and oxygen like it’s always been—the same as wherever else you go on this old earth of ours. The basalt stones beneath our feet cannot speak, and if they could, they’d have no deep secrets of the past to share. Mostly they’d just recount boring anecdotes of the millions of people that have stepped on them over the centuries, living their quotidian lives, going to work, running errands, on their way to make enough to put food in their children’s stomachs. Yeah, OK, so maybe Leonardo stepped on one of those stones centuries ago. Turns out he was just a guy trying to keep his head above water in this big and broken world just the rest of us.
We sat outside the Pantheon—a massive structure built in the 2nd century A.D. that still boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome—go Romans—and know what we saw? We saw the beggar woman carrying her paper cup from tourist to tourist in search of coins. Was she a fake? Maybe. Did she really have as many children as her sign said? Maybe not. In that moment, it just didn’t matter. She was not having a good time getting all those looks from all those tourists. Life is hard. Even for those who live every day in the shadow of world famous 2,000-year-old temples in a place as glamorous as Rome, Italy.
We enjoyed the Pantheon. It’s an engineering and historical marvel to say the least. The dome is as high as it is across, and an enormous oculus in its middle drenches the colored marble walls in dazzling light. It’s just that we saw it for what it was: a really old building in a really old city in which living, breathing human beings—human beings hand crafted in the image of an eternal God—eek out rather ordinary, rather un-glorious lives one day at a time. Just like we all do.
We can’t say for certain we’re happier with our new perspective. A little magic is nice from time to time. The ability to pull the curtain closed and just enjoy the show—isn’t that at least part of the reason why we watch movies and read books and go on vacation in the first place? To escape?
It’s then we realize that we must learn to trust in an even deeper magic, a magic from “the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned,” as Aslan called it. The magic in which we must find relief is not a magic that conceals what truly is, a mere illusion accomplished through smoke and mirrors and run by a man behind a curtain. It’s a magic that can confront head-on the worst of this world and swallow it up in glory, not to the destruction of the evil but to its redemption and transformation into light brighter than the light that shines through the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome. Such magic is no mere drug-induced, altered state of consciousness designed to numb the scenes to reality. It’s a magic so strong it can actually alter reality and create not merely the sensation of hope but true and lasting and eternal hope indeed.
One day the Pantheon, the Vatican, and the coliseum will be melted by fire. They’ll be unmade and then remade by the one who made their atoms in the first place, but this time for eternity. We don’t hope in the magic of 2,000-year-old buildings intended to act as painkillers to the reality of the brokenness around us. We hope in the magic that one day those 2,000-year-old buildings will be swallowed up by buildings not made by human hands, buildings that will last forever in a city whose streets will be paved with gold.
We enjoy the scenery here. We’re supposed to. It’s good to do so. It’s just that we continue to look past it to what it points to: the hope of the eternity for which our souls were designed. We don’t claim to see 100% clearly, but somehow these past four years have begun to bring a lot of things into a previously unknown focus. And we will never see the same again. We’re trying to be thankful for this sight, even as we call others to open their eyes, too, and see through the magic of smoke and mirrors to the deeper magic of eternal hope. May God grant us all even clearer sight yet.