In the early 2000s, Chris Alar was enjoying the good life. He was living in…
There are two types of experiences that we all seek on summer vacations: something new, in which we find excitement because we’ve never done it before, and the tried and true, in which we find comfort and enjoyment in reliving past experiences. Some people lean toward the former; others, to the latter. Yet no one, no matter how much they may regard themselves as a thrill-seeker, ever truly goes all-in when in the pursuit of the new.
Human beings are creatures of habit, for good and for ill. A desire for ritual is built into the very fiber of our being. Back in the late 1970s, the parish in which I grew up introduced a “folk Mass.” The traditional hymns that we all knew so well were replaced with a mimeographed collection of songs that were nothing if not new, and in the beginning, every folk Mass featured a different selection of those songs. By the mid-1980s, every Mass became a folk Mass, though the guitars gave way to the organ and piano. And by that same time, the number of songs in regular rotation had been reduced — though not through conscious effort — to 10 or a dozen.
A new ritual had been created, and 40 years after the folk Mass was introduced, that ritual is as set in stone as the old hymnody ever was. Priests at my home parish may come and go (and many have in those 40 years), but the St. Louis Jesuits remain.
I don’t intend this as a slight against my home parish (even if I would like, just once, to visit my parents and to hear the familiar strains of “The Church’s One Foundation” or “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” in the church of my youth). Human beings are, as I said, creatures of habit, and all ritual responds to a need that lies deep in our souls.
I had the privilege of spending a week in Rome in June, attending the first International Days for Catholic Literature on behalf of OSV. My wife and I first went to Rome 19 years ago, during the Great Jubilee in 2000. Amy couldn’t come with me this time, but during the day and a half that I had free, I wandered the streets of Rome and made a point of taking pictures of all of the places we had gone together.
It’s no surprise that the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps and St. John Lateran and St. Peter’s Basilica are all still standing, but there was something comforting in finding that every family-owned restaurant we went to in May 2000 is still open, and that the menus haven’t changed. In the Piazza Barberini, in a space no bigger than a closet, the shop selling Italian silk ties is still there, and six years after my last visit, the proprietor recognized me again, just as he had in 2013 when I had visited for the first time since 2007.
In 2000, everything in Rome was new to Amy and me, and we rushed about trying to fit in as much as possible in the three days we had. Today, I’d rather revisit the places I’ve been, recall my past visits and deepen the experience.
Ritual, it is true, can turn into a rut, and most of us have had the experience of being on autopilot at Mass, reciting the Gloria and the Creed and the Our Father by rote. But repetition also allows us to approach an experience again with fresh eyes.
When I walked the streets of Rome in June 2019, I was no longer the man who walked those same streets in May 2000 — or rather, I was, but I was also something more. Kneeling in prayer at Santa Maria in Trastevere, climbing the Scala Sancta on my knees — these experiences mean more to me now than they did the first time, and they will mean more to me next time, if, God willing, there is one.
That, and not the incessant pursuit of the new, is what it means to be human.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.