I’ve only been inside once. I keep missing the one hour window that it’s open each day, often by just minutes. It’s only open between 6 – 7 p.m. on weekdays. Other times I arrive during the middle of the Rosary and I’m too embarrassed to join late so I don’t go in.
The sanctuary is at the end of a narrow passageway, built into a small archway among curving cobble streets and terracotta walls. The wrought-iron gate leading to the passageway is always locked, except for that one hour. Behind the gate is peace. I know it is a frame of mind that I am after, a feeling-state that I can access on my own, but somedays, especially if I am feeling frayed, it’s easier to find it in a physical place.
The one time I arrived on time, when churches and chapels in Rome had just reopened to the public after the Lockdown, someone had beat me to it. He was sitting right next to the door, as if he had barely managed to slip into an overly crowded room, finding but a sliver of seating to perch upon. There was nobody else in the tiny chapel. It wasn’t a race but he had arrived first and though I had the right to go in (two people were allowed in at a time) it didn’t feel right. Through the glass paned door I saw him sink deep into prayer, melting into his worn and oversized wool blazer. Concerned that the rusty hinges would startle him I waited outside. I was also concerned about Covid. It was early in the easing of safety measures and vaccines were just being rolled out. I didn’t want to infringe on his moment of devotion nor did I want us to share germs.
Returning to pray here had lived on my 2020 list of “things I want to do once we are free to roam again.” The shrine to the Madonna dell’Archetto, or Madonna of the Little Arch, is actually a church. Santa Maria Causa Nostrae Letitae, the Cause of Our Happiness, dazzling and gilded in gold, is a deceptively small single nave church, the smallest in Rome. It is a tiny jewel of such bright serenity that the first time I walked in I wanted to close my hand around her and place her at my heart like a piece of polished citrine, letting the golden warmth spread. There are multiple miracles attributed to her since she was first painted on majolica in 1690 and placed under the arch, that then became a shrine, that then became a chapel, that then grew into a church in 1851. Reportedly in 1796 she moved her eyes, even shed a tear, causing a series of Madonelle in Rome, the street shrines to the Virgin Mary, to do the same. The power of her posse!
Holding his brow in his right hand his mask mouthed silent words. I gazed at the Madonna through the glass, her gentle face framed by a light blue robe. I was getting tired of standing. I wanted to go inside. I wanted to be alone with her. Personal prayer is limitless, there aren’t allotted minutes, and he was taking his time. I wondered if, like me, this man had been counting the days to return here to pray in quiet, in presence of this Madonna. Soon others would be joining for the group prayer. As if sighing in relief, the row of spindly potted plants in the passageway rustled with the late Spring breeze, and that’s when I realized that I had finished praying. My prayer for that day was one of action, of quiet action; it was about giving someone else space. Of holding space for another in silence. I whispered a thank you and quietly turned back disappearing into the winding streets of Rome. It was enough to have been there at all.