Saturday, October 30, 2010

Describing Death: An Early Halloween

Well, I've been really putting my immune system through a lot. 23 hour days working on conference planning, extensive travel across time zones, inconsistent food choices and eating schedule... the list goes on. Therefore it wasn't very surprising that when I got up at 4:30 am in the morning to catch a 6:00 am train from Ravenna to Rome, the starts of a cold that I had been fighting since I left the country blossomed into a full blown experience of death.

I tried to balance seeing what I wanted to see in Rome with taking care of myself, but the synagogue and the catacombs came first. Perhaps I didn't have to push myself quite so hard since both days were plagued by rain and fridged temperatures but I saw what I wanted to see... down to the very last church that housed Michelangelo's Moses with Horns!

So when I got to the airport on Tuesday, October 26th, I was sick.

Because of the way that the air currents work around the world, it takes a good deal longer to travel from east to west, than west to east. My trip over to Italy had taken about 8 hrs. I had watched a movie, read, worked on a paper, and slept quite a deal. The trip was tolerable and I arrived in Italy in not bad shape.

The trip home consisted of an 11 hour transatlantic flight. None of the movies worked. The cabin temperature peaked at what felt like 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The women behind me refused to let me put my seat into recline and when I was the last person to be fed for dinner (on the entire plane) they had run out of entrees. On top of all this I was feeling miserable and sick.

At one point, I started to laugh.

Imagine what it would be like if our spirits were still conscious after our death. Waking up underground in your coffin, your spirit could converse with other spirits lying around you, but you couldn't really move around. On a hot summer day, you could feel the heat and stank of the people around you while all the spirits complained to one other. There wouldn't be much to do, no movies or entertainment. No, you'd just be sitting around trying to pass the time and complaining about what there was to complain about.

Basically...? My plane ride was an experience of death after life. And not the heaven kind. I spent a good deal to time mulling over this parallel I was drawing and laughing at the people around me who played quite conveniently into my day dream.

In the end the air stewardess was my saving grace. She brought me some magical Italian cold medicine that stopped my coughing and helped me sleep for a few hours. She also found me some cheese and crackers and brought me cup after cup of mint tea. I snuggled into my little coffin like seat and closed my eyes to the world. 11 hours later we touched ground and I have never in my life been so thankful to get out of a plane!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The darkness of Rome

During my last two days in Rome, I visited the Jewish Synagogue and a few more Christian catacombs. The Jewish Synagogue provided a short by excellent tour outlining the history of Judaism in Rome. Jews in Rome immigrated from the Holy Lands and unlike other places in the world do not fall into the normal camps of Ashkenazi & Sephardic. Although all the Synagogues in Rome are Orthodox, I didn't see many Orthodox looking Jews walking the streets. Apparently the Jewish Ghetto, which housed all the Jews in Rome during the 2nd World War (and therefore was a place of great violence), is becoming popular among young people and very trendy. I find it interesting, especially in thinking about systematic oppression, that those Jews who were able to hold on to their property throughout the horrors of WW2 are actually reaping the economic benefits today. If only that could be said for other minorities!

That catacombs, continue to amaze me. My tour through the southern catacombs was not much different in content than my tour of the northern catacombs (Priscilla). In style though, the tour guide was much more engaged and enthusiastic about his job and... well, there were almost 50 people being shuttled through very small spaces (different than the solo tour I had before!)

The catacombs on the Appian Way are much more extensive than the ones up north. I learned that the volcanic dirt becomes hard like cement when exposed to moisture. These catacombs were desecrated by invaders and then abandoned by the Christians... a long time ago, maybe 5th or 6th century? (Apparently they were completely abandoned in the 10th c.) Then they were rediscovered in 1578 and the remains of many martyrs and popes were transferred to the Vatican. Since the invaders were not polite in their grave robbing, many of the bones can not be identified. I think its pretty quick thinking on behalf of the Vatican to come up with the philosophy that if a bone of a saint or martyr touched a bone of someone else... then they are both holy.

I was telling this story in class and a friend of mine reached over and touched her head to mine... saying "Now I'm blessed!" **that got me laughing!

The trip to Italy was great. I got sick in the end and I'm still fighting the cold. More about my plane ride in the next post!

Sunday, October 24, 2010


For the last two days, I traveled to Ravenna, Italy to see the famous mosaics. These mosaics were featured in one of my books for class and I was able to attend a lecture by one of the authors this summer. I've been taken with the mosaics and what they represent theologically... but my silence these past few days has been due to some deeper thinking. I am thankful to my professors who have been pushing me to think beyond what I read in order to find my voice.... perhaps that voice will come out (at least on theological things) in my other blog:

But for the purpose of this entry, let me relay some stories. After my date with Priscilla I made my way to the train station where I deviated slightly from my path to walk into an Italian McDonald's. Oh yes.. Micky D's are everywhere and tailored to suit. Folks looked at my strangely as I carefully examined the menu without buying anything. Gelato Blizzards? Burgers with slabs of mozzarella cheese and pesto? wow...

After that cultural experience I jumped on the train to Ravenna where I had four hours to myself to write in my journal, read some books for school and gaze absently out into the darkness. Once I was in Ravenna... well, I couldn't find the hostel. It was dark and I thought that I had come out on the other side of the train tracks. So I took a right when I should have taken a left and I ended up circling. I tried to convince myself that inside my sense of direction knew where it was taking me but the next morning when I retraced my steps I could only laugh.

So around 11 p.m. still completely lost, I decided that my sanity and safety were more important than the 50 euro it would take to get a hotel room and therefore I settled in for the night. It was a simple Italian Best Western (yeah... there's the American influence again!) but the complimentary breakfast was out of this world. I ate better that morning that I have in weeks, feasting on croissants, cheese, fresh fruit, juice, good coffee and tea.

With a better map, I found the hostel in about 20 mins of walking out the door of the hotel. I dropped off my stuff and went back out to find the mosaics. I saw two sets of mosaics that first day including what was the cover art of my book. I was proud of myself for navigating the public transportation and not getting lost. Friday felt like an accomplishment in many ways

Saturday though... was different. I did get to see the rest of the mosaics. That part was fabulous. But it was cold and rainy and down right nasty. The night had been restless and noisy so by the time 4pm rolled around, I slumbered back to the hostel and crashed. I woke up a few hours later but my nap made my night difficult. Waking up at 4:30 am to catch a train back to Rome didn't help either. By the time I made it back here to Rome, I was sick.

So I'm lying in my hostel bed, in a very nice all women's hostel, trying to take care of myself with liquids, sleep and rest. Yes, and a few school assignments have popped in too. Regardless of this minor set back though, I got to see the Jewish synagogue today and I'm headed out tomorrow to see more catacombs before flying back to the State on Tuesday.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Date with Priscilla and some Skulls

This morning I toured a variety of churches. I got to see the Capuchin Crypt with the bones of 4,000 friars elaborately used as a massive church decoration. I also stood in front of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa in the Church of Saint Mary of the Victory. I wandered into a few other churches and walked through the Baths of Diocletian again. My plan today was to stay around the Termini train station so that I could hop on the train at 5:30pm to ride to Ravenna. The churches I saw today was my first part and then I was thinking of going to the National Museum.

However, since today was remarkably cool and beautiful, I couldn’t get myself to spend the next few hours inside. When I looked through my guidebook I found that the National Museum had many interesting things to see, but I felt a bit done with looking at bits of marble and stone. So I sat down with the map and contemplated my afternoon. I really want to see the Jewish Museum which is south of where I was, but that would be open next Monday when I’m back in Rome (when most of the churches are closed). The Appian way and the two famous catacombs nearby were even farther south of where I was sitting. I needed something that was within an hour’s walk…

That’s when I came across a small description in my guidebook. I was about to toss the book away, taking from it the pieces I thought I’d need when I returned to Rome, but not wanting to carry it around anymore. So I went through the book page by page to make sure I had gotten everything out of it that I could. There, amongst the endless detail of north Rome was a small paragraph about a different catacomb… the catacombs of Priscilla.

Now Priscilla was mentioned by name in Acts 18:1-2 “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew names Aquila, native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” Priscilla was thought to be one of the first female leaders of the Christian movement. An Aquila and Prisca are mentioned throughout Paul’s letters to Rome and Corinth as well as his second letter to Timothy. There is a good chance that while in Rome, Aquila and Priscilla gathered Christians nearby for worship.

However, the Priscilla of the New Testament is not the Priscilla that these catacombs are named after. Since Priscilla was revered name among the Christian community it was passed down through the generations. The catacombs that I saw today were built in the 2nd century and used throughout the 5th. In 155 A.D. there was a Priscilla who joined Montanus in the declaration of continual revelation. This declaration was deemed heretical by the church although famous people like Tertullian thought highly of Montanus’ theology.

The tour was informative but rushed. I had gotten there during the lunch break and spent some time writing while I waited for the nuns to come back. When they did, the tour guide insisted that I wait until there was a large group. A few more Americans came in to the convent and then a group of 25 Germans. Our little group was bypassed in favor of the larger group and directed to another tour guide. The other two Americans got fed up, demanded their money back and left. The nun chewed out the tour guide who had orchestrated the mess and I ended up getting a tour again by myself. Although, this time the tour guide did not like me and wanted the whole thing to be over as soon as possible.

It was great to be underground again. When I return to Rome after my little excursion I intended to see more of the layers. There are 13 km (x0.6 for the number of miles) of tunnels that consist of these Catacombs and many graves that have never been open. Some of the oldest Christian art is in these tunnels: Jonah, the phoenix, the feeding of the 5 thousand, the three boys in the fire (Book of David), doves and olive branches. Never a picture of the cruxifiction… again, Brock and Parker seem to be right.

For more about the theology of Paradise that I’m reading about in Brock and Parker’s book Saving Paradise and my theological musings of the churches that I’m visiting feel free to glance at my other blog:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The intimacy of St. Peter

I walked quite a distance today. My tour guide from yesterday (in apology that we couldn’t see more of the museum because of the physically impaired people on our tour) told me about a rare opportunity to tour the excavation sight of St. Peter’s tomb and the other tombs that are beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. After my tour yesterday, I found my way to the right office and the man gave me fifty reasons why all the tours for the next year were booked. “But I’m only one person.” I pleaded, “If there is just one cancellation can you fit me in?” After a bit more prodding, the man relinquished that if I came at 1:00 p.m. the following day and only if there was a cancellation… I could get in.

So this morning I played my cards right and while the rest of the world was listening to our dear pope give his weekly address (remember I attended the canonization, so I got the long version on Sunday) I got into the Vatican in under ten minutes. The ticket person quickly convinced me I was the right age for a student ticket and I spent a glorious morning touring the many hall of the Vatican. I got very lost at points but found my way eventually to the Raphael rooms and the art of de Vinci. After elbowing my way through the Sistine Chapel for a second time, I took off once again in search of the excavation office.

Now let me explain, when there are 100,000 people in St. Peter’s square attending a weekly event, the Swiss Guards cannot be persuaded by anyone (not even a cute American girl) to let new people onto the square before 1:00 p.m. But as I noted before, I had to get to the excavation office, which I only knew to be accessible by the square, by (or preferably before) 1:00 p.m. What’s a young theologian to do?

I got some pizza and sat down to wait. Worst thing that could happen is that they would let me in at 1:00 p.m. and I wouldn’t make it to the excavation office on time. So… let me think… I found myself staring at another portal off to the side of St. Peter’s Basilica that was guarded by Swiss Guards. Now this portal didn’t lead onto the square but it did lead in the general direction of the excavation office. Finishing my pizza, I walked up to the guard and smiled my big American smile. After briefly explaining where I needed to go and demonstrating that I knew where the office was, he let me inside the Vatican without so much as a bag check.

From then on out, things were easy. I went to the office, got my ticket, joined a group and traveled two stories underground to view the massive excavation that occurred during WW2. Now there are many stories here and I won’t go into those details right now, but I did find it fascinating that the entire excavation was done secretly and under the cover of darkness. The pope at the time didn’t want Hitler to find out what was going on least Hitler demand to acquire what was found. It turns out that Hitler never set foot in the Vatican…ever!

So I got to hear the stories, I got to see the tomb and a few of the bones of St. Peter. The end of the tour brought me into St. Peter’s Basilica once again and it was quite rewarding to have seen a little of what was underneath all the gold and the glamour.

What next? Well since I had been down into the belly of the beast, it made logical sense to head up to the tip of its nose. I walked up over 550 steps to the inner part of St. Peter’s dome and then to the cupola. It was well worth the exertion. Although I took quite a few pictures, I also spent some time on each of the levels just sitting in silence, sitting in prayer, and listening beyond the river of people around me. The day was beautiful.

Thank you St. Jerome

Seeing Leonardo De Vinci’s St. Jerome was striking. It was different than all the other paintings that surrounded it in the gallery. His face was contorted, old, and very real. There was a fierce sense of contemplation and faith portrayed between the lines of his face.

St. Jerome was an odd man. He was tormented by sex and punished himself by not washing for days. He forced himself to study Hebrew and Greek when the pleasures of the world seemed tempting. Yet he was good friends with many women and helped a few of them found monastic houses in Jerusalem. His biggest claim to fame was his translation of the Vulgate which in retrospect perhaps was not the most accurate of attempts.

The painting itself was incomplete. St. Jerome’s face and body were completed but his outstretched arms were simple sketches; the lion at his feet and the background were sketches too. Therefore as I looked into the picture, my attention was brought immediately to St. Jerome’s face. The lines and the shadows changing as I walked past. What is it about this painting that captured my attention? Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio are monstrous artistic neighbors. Yet, this little odd twisted man drew me into a world of question and doubt. St. Jerome did not experience Christianity as the glorious play by play of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Raphael’s Ascension; nor did St. Jerome experience Christianity as the passionate darkness of Caravaggio’s paintings. I don’t quite know what drew me into and rooted my feet in front of the work for several minutes. Perhaps it was simply the feeling of standing in front of the genius of one of my favorite people in history… I thank Leonardo de Vinci for such a gift.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Vatican and Basilicas

Today I took a tour of the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and three other Basilica's in the city of Rome. My tour guides were fantastic ( and thus marks the end of my formal tours) but the other people in my group were elderly and slow. I didn't get to see as much of the Vatican as I wanted so I'm heading back there tomorrow. The rest of my day was fantastic because the elderly couple got tired and bailed. I hope they got the rest they needed and I'm totally in the debt for leaving me with a guide all to myself. I have a long day planned for tomorrow, but hopefully I get to put up some pictures and musings.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why I’m Obsessed with Christian Persecution

I can’t say I’ve figured out why exactly I’ve become obsessed with Christian Persecution. When asked by my History of Christianity Professor to write an essay for my midterm about it, my essay of 500 words took off. My notebook became full of charts and comparisons. My books are still open and scattered on my floor back home.

Perhaps it is the fierce loyalty that accompanied these Christians. They believed in something with such fervor that they gave up their lives, their children, and their communities. Until Christianity became a state religion under Constantine and persecution ended, Christians did not fight for their religion. They felt that it was a stronger witness to suffer and die than to fight. Is there anything in my life that I believe with such strength? Family, community, friends… are all things that come to mind, but if it came down to dying for someone I love, could I do it?

Ironically I’m sitting in a youth hostel filled with incredibly privileged people who are traveling the world. We are all extremely independent and if I can project, extremely selfish… hmm.

Perhaps my obsession is rooted in a childhood where such a sacrificial faith was revealed. Today I found myself on the set of Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. My father showed me a film of Shaw’s work when I was a child and it became one of my favorite stories. For those of you who are unfamiliar. Androcles is a Christian of the Roman Empire who when out hunting one day stumbles across a lion who is caught in a snare. Being the good Christian that he was, Androcles risked his own life to free the lion. Once free, the lion runs off. Roman persecution of Christian increases as the years go by and Androcles finds himself among those who are to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum in front of thousands of spectators. When it is Androcles turn to face the beast, the lion turns out to be the same one whom he saved years ago. The two dance across the arena and scare the people of Rome by dancing throughout the bleachers.

Two things first: Where was Andocles from where he would have encountered a lion on a hunting trip? And secondly, Christians weren’t killed in the Colosseum (or at least according the tour I took today there isn’t any archeological proof) but they were killed though in similar fashion in other parts of the Empire. So regardless of these two things, which as a child were non-issues, I returned once again to the story of Androcles and the Lion as I walked around the Colosseum.

The Colosseum wasn’t the only place today that invoked my interest in Christian persecution. Many of the Roman Emperors that I studied also have monuments in Rome dedicated to their glory. Over and over as I heard the Roman history of my tour, the parallel history of Christianity reveled brutality, corruption, and horror. A bit of my history essay accompanied with pictures from my day:

1st Century

In 64 A.D. Emperor Nero, while away from Rome, was called back because a fire had broken out and consumed the city. Although Nero opened up his palace (below) to people displaced by the tragic fire, rumors spread quickly that Nero himself was responsibility for the fire; people thought he had set the fire to improve his reputation. Nero needed a scapegoat on which to blame the fire. Christians were a new minority and therefore were targeted.

Ironically this backfired on Nero and four years later he committed suicide to escape the persecution by his own citizens. What follows is a year of four emperors and the Colosseum is begun to appease the disgruntle population. Nero’s palace and pool are deconstructed to create the arena and when the Colosseum was opened, ten years after construction had begun, a bronze statue of Nero, almost the height of the Colosseum, graced its entrance.

Persecution in the form of mass inquisition and execution did not appear until Emperor Domitian. Domitian did not care much about the Christians at the beginning of his time as emperor but for some unknown reason he became convinced that they were dangerous and turned to persecuting them. At this point there was still little distinction between Jews and Christians so both communities suffered under Domitian. It was during this time of persecution when the Book of Revelation was written. Consequently Revelation has a distinctly negative view of Rome which can be contrasted to a more positive opinion of Rome that can be found in some of Paul’s letters.

2nd Century

In the 2nd century, persecution of the Christians has become a normal part of political positions. Pliny the younger, a governor of a region of what is now part of Turkey, was required as part of his political position to persecute Christians. He did some of his own research in inquiry of Christian crimes and discovered that the Christians were not committing any crimes. He inquired to Emperor Trajan, about the required persecution, who replied with a 2nd century version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The state would not ask people if they were Christians but the state would persecute Christians if such religious identity was revealed or discovered. (The forum of Trajan below)

Therefore the method of persecution changed from the 1st century but the results were similar. Regardless of the new policy, many Christians were persecuted and executed. Christians who died as martyrs often took the opportunity to publicize their teachings and their faith. Ignatius was one of these Christians and his writings are still part of foundational church writings.

3rd Century

Under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus, the motive for Christian persecution changed. Rather than persecuting Christians because of rumors of uncivilized behaviors and social crimes, or because of established state policies, Septimius wanted to unite his extremely large physical territory under the worship of Sol invictus. This was a political motive and faced with consistent Christian resistance (and consequential martyrs) Septimius worked at a merging portions of Christianity with pieces of paganism in order to convince more Christians to join the state religion. This syncretism continued through the rule of several other Emperors and after a while the state lost interest in persecuting Christians altogether. (Triumphal arch of Septimius Severus --> )

In the second half of the 3rd century, persecution regained popularity under the rule of Decius. Decius wanted to restore Rome to classic Roman paganism. Decius thought that the problems of the empire, which included political, economic, and social turmoil, were direct effects of a country that had lost its true religion. Therefore rather than persecuting Christians for immoral behavior, or for disobeying the state, or even for fragmenting the empire, Decius persecuted the Christians as an appeal to the Gods. He hoped to restore the empire to the good graces of the Olympic house.

The methods also changed. Decius was not interested in people dying for their faith and making the Christian community stronger. Decius wanted people to return to the ancient religion. Since it had been over 50 years since persecution had resulted in mass martyrdom, the Christian communities were unprepared for the new imperial decree to worship the ancient gods. The result was that many people recanted their beliefs in fear, while others worshiped in secret. Although the persecution of Decius was brief, it caused a lot of problems within the Christian communities as those who recanted tried to return to the Christian faith. The Christian community then had figure out a way to deal with it all. (Remnants of the Temple of Zeus, the Pantheon- dome and alters, which was a Temple of all the Gods)

Constantine was at the end of a lot of fighting over the throne. His arch (the last of set of pictures below) is one of three triumphal arches still standing that people would have to process through after victory in battle. There is little that is Christian on this arch, but it stands for many as a symbol of an end of an era and the beginning to some of the downfall of Christianity.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

When in Rome

Well here I am! My flight got in around 8:00 a.m. this morning and I booked it to the train station. There were some very nice people on my flight that I had befriended in the Kennedy airport who let me cut in front of them in the custom's line. Then the custom's officer didn't even look at my passport when he stamped it, because he was was too busy telling me that a beautiful girl like me was bound to love Rome!

The train from the airport was late... the first train broke down and around 9:30 the train finally got moving. I got to the Travesare station around 9:50 with 10 minutes to spare before the Canonization stated. A quick taxi ride landed me close to St. Peter's square but I wasted another 10 minutes going to the wrong entrance. Finally, 15 minutes late, my water bottle was confiscated and I was finally in St. Peter's square with almost a million people. Since I had not arrive in time to honor my ticket, and therefore have a folding chair to sit in, I stood with the thousands of people filling the square and listened for 2.5 hours as the mass rolled on in Latin, English, Italian, and French.

The mass was beautiful. For what ever reason, when the communities of each of the sainted people ascended the steps of St. Peter's and placed a cross on the alter that was set up outside for all to see, I teared up. Smaller reminder to those of you who don't know, I'm not Roman Catholic. Yet this small act of ritual solidarity to a small group of people who tried to make their world better through their belief in God was touching. The Australian/Scottish saint's people put a wooden cross on the alter... the guy dressed in a kilt placed a set of flowers and then nudged them to the right place with his cane. Even the Vatican can be a place of humor. *smile* We got to see a bunch of nun's and bishop's yawning and checking their watches too. Regardless of all this, the ceremony was beautiful and it was breathtaking to be in St. Peter's square with so many people.

There were TV screens on which to see the pope and the deliberations of the mass. However, after taking a bunch of pictures, I had to remind myself that the experience of being here in Rome was beyond the ability to take pictures. To be present at this ritual, and be present at the physical local of great religious history was in itself an experience to be felt and not so much documented. What I share with you are a few of the pictures that I took, but about an hour into it I put my camera away and sat down on the cobble ground of the square. I closed my eyes and listened to the music of the ceremony, the prayers to God, and the solidarity of the people of the world.