By Katie Morrison

As a foreign student in Europe, you can be sure I’m eating my way through both the culture and the gelato. As a Christian in Europe, you might think my interest in ancient religious artifacts and famous churches would be off the charts. Italy especially is overflowing in historical religious richness. Field trip after field trip, our group shuttles into churches, each one more daunting and impressive than the last; and I overhear my classmates say, “All this is fine, but I’m sick of churches!” Unfortunately I have found myself in the same boat. I was bored. How could these structures inspire me without my thoroughly researching their history in advance like a complete nerd?

One of my Italian classes actually helped quite a bit.

During the first quarter, I took a course on the relation between state and church, beginning with the Roman Empire and continuing until current relations. The facts I learned were not new but they sounded fresh and poignant considering where I was re-learning them.

I learned about the original birth of Christianity, the split between Eastern and Western Europe and religion’s role in those power swings. I learned about toleration and persecution, about revolutions and religious reformations. I learned about Italy—especially, about the constant unbreakable bond between the state and religious powers. Despite Italy’s relatively recent separation, or more aptly dubbed “cooperation,” of church and state, their national  budget still dedicates eight percent every year to the Catholic Church.

Knowing some history of the politics, I started viewing the churches a little differently. I would see the intricacies and grandeur and wonder who paid for it all. I would think about who sat in those wooden pews and prayed for peace. I would imagine these churches in their prime, before the cordoning ropes and “do not touch” signs, and how the walls themselves told stories that didn’t need to be explained on Wikipedia.

At the end of January, we visited Ravenna, a city filled to bursting with mausoleums, museums, churches and mosaics. My favorite was the Basilica of San Vitale, finished  in 548 A.D. The vaulted dome ceiling is painted with muted colors, depicting nature and angels supporting a crown containing the Lamb of God. The presbytery, illuminated by two levels of three-pane windows, is coolly colored. The gold and teal mosaic catch the light and shimmer. Outside the basilica was the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. One room and dimly lit, every inch of that structure glistened in faint candlelight. It was entirely made of mosaic detail, something unheard of in American churches.

And that is the main difference I see between American and European churches. Everything here is physically dramatic and distracting. Your eyes can never rest in a European church. They are drawn from paintings to sculptures to vaulted ceilings. It’s overwhelming! Yet despite the churches having historical status and importance, they still function as places of worship. It’s always refreshing to see worshippers in the middle of such a visual production: a young man with hands clasped, an elderly couple huddled together on a pew, spiritually renewing and quietly living.

That’s something I will try to bring home with me, the attitude of slowing down and appreciating things. Yes, I will notice the glaringly obvious beauty of a church, which is many centuries old or the beauty of a nice day. But instead of just seeing and moving on, I will try to imagine the his- tory. I hope to see the slower things, the softer beauties in life and focus on those.

Katie Morrison writes from Florence, Italy. She was RMC communication intern in 2015.