Many years ago I found myself in Pisa for the day. Yes, the Pisa of Leaning Tower fame—the tourist Mecca (it’s sort of like going to Verona) you do it cause it’s there and you can take your photo in front of a real folly—you know, the been there done that photo album photo op—pure cheese. As you can imagine, I didn’t go for the tower. Or for the cathedral next to the tower.
I went to see the Camposanto or cemetery building. The Camposanto is one of the very few gothic structures in Italy. Cemetery buildings aren’t common either—but when there is a water table problem you like to bury your noteworthy dead in sarcophagi above grade instead of in the floor of the cathedral—so you build a temple to store your dead. It’s a long rectangular building enclosing a garden courtyard with a colonnade of gothic stone arches with a simple tracery. Its spare simplicity has a sort of modern sensibility to it—just enough detail to give it scale and interest but not so much that it becomes a cacophony of masonry gingerbread (like the cathedral).
But what I did not know about was the baptistery building. From the outside the Baptistery looks like a round version of the cathedral, a gussied up Romanesque structure. Inside it’s just a simple circular Romanesque building withsome dim light filtering down into the room.
But as I stood there sketching the interior that day a funny thing happened, an Italian started singing in his big tenor voice. I was surprised anyone would sing in the baptistery after all it was stone and circular with a dome roof all acoustical no-nos. Amazingly, it was beautiful —the sound filled the space in a rich harmony that lifted you up. It was a startling and joyous experience all in one.
I imagine that for Cleopas and his companion the journey to Emmaus was in many ways much like my journey to Pisa. What they saw, heard, and discussed was similar to my experience—it was all within the realm of what they expected. But their journey became remarkable when the stranger who joined them did a simple thing— broke bread. They came away startled and joyous too. Of course we all know that the take-away is that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. But I wonder if there isn’t also another subtle takeaway and that is for us to be open or ready to embrace the unexpected; to be surprised and find joy in it.