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Starting Point

Reflections on movies, falling and starry Roman nights


Not too long ago I attended a wonderful series on the biblical meaning of Sabbath. For most Christians, Sabbath means a weekly time of rest or putting things down and taking it easy. For most of my life, I never questioned the meaning of such apparent wisdom. God, in his concern for us, asked that we set aside time to refresh our weary spirits and bodies. Sabbath spoke for itself.

The woman who gave the lectures suggested that God wants something more from our rest. He wants us to let go, to abandon our plans and controls over the movement of creation and to rest in the awareness that he is the Creator. Sabbath is a willingness to trust. It invites a radical shift of control from our designs to those of God. This is then quite different than setting aside a day to take it easy or be “holy.”

Some years back, I was in Rome. It was not an easy time in my life. I had abandoned many long-range plans. I had no idea what was coming down the proverbial pike. Many things were shifting inside and outside of me and my instinctual compulsion to make more plans was in constant overdrive.

I was staying with a friend, Dick Liddy, in that beautiful city. He was then spiritual director of the North American College, very near the Vatican. One evening he suggested that we take in a movie. He told me of a theater in the Trastevere section of the city, within walking distance of the college. So, we began our walk on that warm summer evening, across a bridge that spans the Tiber and on into Trastevere.

The theater was in a plain, very old building. As I remember it, the outside walls were cream stucco and there was a small poster affixed to the front wall with a placard of the movie then showing. No glitz, no neon, no parking lot.

The inside was small and comfortable. We found seats and sat down.

It was very warm. I mentioned to Dick how warm it was and he said, “Just wait.”

The movie began, though I cannot recall what it was.

Not long into the movie, I heard strange sounds above me. Something like a release of a latch, followed by a whir and grinding.

The roof was moving. It was being opened. I looked up in amazement. Dick turned to me and said “Roman air conditioning.”

Suddenly there was a cat’s unmistakable snarl and with that a cat fell from the moving apparatus above us. It must have been enjoying the evening when the floor began to shift beneath its feet, uh, paws. In it fell. I could not see where it landed but am sure it survived. Cats fall into the darkness very well.

And so we enjoyed the rest of the movie beneath the stars over Rome. I kept glancing up through the open roof, at the beauty of the night sky.

That was over 20 years ago. And as things turned out, my life moved ahead, though I am still learning to take things a day at a time.

I still tend to make long-range plans. I remember that night in Rome with warmth and fondness. I think that I learned something about how God raises our eyes and hearts to the vast beauty of God’s love, God’s stars, God’s providence.

I still make plans. My heart is full of road maps. But every now and then, the roof above me opens wide, and along with some delightful surprises that fall into my life, I am given a glimpse of such vast and mysterious things. And I then take to heart the meaning of rest, of peace.

That Roman night was always there, just above what I thought was a ceiling that never moved. I sat in the theater, with a good friend and my worries, probably gazing at the screen and watching the movie with a blend of worry and desperation. Then the roof opened and a cat fell in, the stars shone above, and I found my spirits lift.

Sabbath is a day to know that the sky can open.

What a wonderful night it was.

What a wonderful life it is.

Life. Like a movie theater in the universe in which the sky once opened, and eternal life jumped in.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His latest book is Be Gentle, Be Faithful: Daily Meditations for Busy Christians (ACTA Publications, 1999).

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000