May was an eventful month to say the least. The Photographer graduated, with honors, after two long years of hard work, and before his new job started in earnest, we jetted off to Rome. This was a trip we’d been planning and saving for, with one degree of seriousness or another, for nearly five years.
If there is one thing that’s sorely needed after two years of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone, it’s perspective. Rome offered it in abundance. There are still stone roads that date back to the years before Christ. Some of Rome’s original aqueducts still supply the city with water. There are any number of churches that are built on top of older churches and temples. Very little of the ancient ruins in some areas has actually been excavated, which begs the questions, what else is underneath us, still to be discovered?
C.G. Jung once described a dream in which he was exploring a house. As he descended to the ground floor, then down into the subterranean levels, he discovered more and more primitive dwellings. We had a similar experience visiting Basilica St. Clemente in Rome, a 12th century church built over a 4th century church built over a Mithraic temple, built over a Roman home. The story goes that in the 1800s, a monk living in the church could not sleep because he heard the sound of water running. He convinced the other monks to start digging, and eventually the church below was unearthed. It took quite a bit more time for the discovery of the temple, and after that, the Roman home, into which water was still running, the very same water that was keeping the good monk awake.
The Photographer and I were so amazed by this place when we happened upon it early in our visit that we arranged to return for a tour. Our tour guide told us a bit about the ancient Mithraic rites, and the idea that Mithras was born to a virgin on the 25th of December, which led some to speculate about a relationship between Mithraism and Christianity, while others accused Mithraism of parodying Christianity.
Throughout our visit, we kept hearing about how Christianity ultimately tried to stamp out Paganism. Guides pointed to the evidence: Crosses placed on top of Egyptian obelisks, for instance. I saw this evidence a bit differently. The obelisks were still there. They were not taken down or torn apart. The pagan temples below the churches, with some exceptions, were not ransacked or destroyed. The Mithraic space below Basilica St. Clemente was actually remarkably intact.
What is the difference between destroying and replacing something or building on top of it? Everything.
Photo by Allie Caufield
An image on the top level of the Basilica illustrates the point beautifully. At the base of the cross there appears to be a plant. This is actually the Tree of Life, from the Garden of Eden. An apocryphal story I wrote about here details the mythological relationship between the tree and the cross. The idea is that the story of Christ grows out of the story of Adam.
Similarly, the story we live now grows from these ancient ideas. It isn’t just in the technology, the aqueducts and roads, it’s in our very foundational ideas, so fundamental to our worldview we cannot fathom life without them. It’s quite literally in our foundations, underfoot, the mortar on which we’ve built our current reality.
It makes sense at key points in this story we live now to go back, go below, and touch base with that foundation. I can think of no better way to start to the Photographer’s new journey, and our new journey together, than this.