Last Stories from Rome: May 22
May 22, 2010
Before I tell you about our last days in Rome, I need to write that my good friend, Geoff Haskell died yesterday in Pleasanton, California. He was diagnosed last July with stage four colon cancer, had surgery, and has battled the cancer since then. He died on Friday, May 21 in the morning, with his wife Kendra by his side. Geoff's children, Emily and Matt (9) and Kate (10) were able to walk with Geoff till the very end. Please pray for Kendra and their children, that God would be gracious to them and remind them of his constant presence. Amy and I will be flying to SFO to lead the service and return to Italy. It will be a privilege to honor Christ and Geoff in his service.
Geoff and I met when he was 15 (about 20 years ago) when he was dating Kendra and visiting our senior high fellowship at Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church. Geoff came to faith shortly thereafter and I had the opportunity to baptize him, hire him as an intern then senior high director after graduating from University of Arizona, then marrying him and Kendra, and preaching at Geoff's ordination service in Plano, Texas. Kendra was in Amy's first small group in 1990 and they have remained friends ever since. Geoff and Kendra were living in Pleasanton and impacted so many through their ministry and community involvement in the schools and their neighborhood. We will miss Geoff.
Thursday and Friday this week took us a little deeper into Rome's historical and religious layers. We visited the Church of San Clemente, just south of the Coliseum. Three layers of this church, including a pagan temple, a fourth century church home owned by the family of Roman consul and martyr Titus Flavius Clemens, who was one of the first among the Roman senatorial class to convert to Christianity. Clemens allowed his house to be used as a secret gathering place for fellow Christians, the religion being outlawed at the time. Part of this structure served as a second century basilica and a first century mithraeum (is a place of worship for the followers of the mystery religion of Mithraism). The top level is the current church of San Clemente built just before 1100ad. The museum takes you down to the lower level where Father Mullooly discovered in the 1850s a church built in the Middle Ages. It is now in the custody of the Irish Dominicans.
The current church above has beautiful frescoes from Massolino on the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was beheaded for her faith in the 300s. The medieval mosaic altar with lambs reminded us of the Santa Maria en Trastevere Church. The floors are made of ancient triangular tiles found in Rome, placed in small, geometric patterns.
We visited the Church of St Peter in Chains, the church known for Michelangelo's Moses in the Mausoleum designed for his patron Julius II and of course, for housing the chains of Peter on the altar. This is the Moses with what look to be horns, but actually demonstrate the radiance of God's glory in Moses' face. Michelangelo supposedly included a self portrait in the stern Moses' beard.
We ate in again on Thursday night with fresh fettuccini and pesto we bought at our local store, a little salad, salami and olives and we were set. It was excellent! We sat out on our 6' by 6' patio that faces the interior of the building and enjoyed a candlelight dinner. One of the sabbatical practices is letting go and simplifying: for example, four months in a 21" roller bag. This has been our experience in this little flat. A kitchen 5 by 10 feet, with a 6 foot long counter top including a sink, under the counter refrigerator and oven with a gas stove top. Above the sink there is a drying rack in the cabinet, and the dishes drip dry to the sink below. This has been perfect for buying just what we need, one day at a time. The patio gave us a little outdoor space to pray, eat and read.
After dinner we went back to the Sant'Egidio Community at the Church of Santa Maria en Trastevere for the vespers service. That night was a special prayer service for peace, so there were many more people, maybe 400 people. After the usual responsive liturgy in song, the pastor read about the transfiguration in Matthew 16 and preached a short homily on peace over violence. Peace is one of their core values, backed up with prayer and dialogue for conflict resolution. After the homily, a reader began reciting different countries of the world while the congregation and the choir sang Kyrie Eielson in a beautiful and simple chant. We prayed for African nations, Northern Ireland and Ireland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. As the names were read, tall candles were lit and placed in the large prayer candelabras normally used in the side chapels for personal prayer requests.
After the service a woman named Paola approached us. Her friend, Cecilia, whom we met the previous time, told her about us and she wanted to meet us. We talked about the mission of Sant'Egidio and her participation (with Cecilia) since high school. What attracted her to Sant'Egidio was the simple call to live the gospels by praying and working. "We just pray and work," she said. She particularly likes to visit the elderly and take them out of the city for vacation, since they don't have money to go themselves. She shared how a few years ago leaders from an African nation found reconciliation by spending a few months here in Rome with the community seeking reconciliation. It changed the lives of 1,000,000 people. "We find we have more in common with each other when we talk together and seek peace." We told her a little about what we are doing to tutor Hispanic kids and build houses in Mexico. We exchanged emails and she asked us to stay in touch.
"This is a good thing," I said pointing to the 100 people standing around after the serve talking together. Those conversations spilled outside of the church into the piazza where people were having dinner at an outside café. This is good; prayer and fellowship that continues outside the church can change the city.
Friday we took a series of buses to the Via Appia Antica. We walked the road from the last bus stop that led to the San Sebastian Gate of the roman walls built by Marcus Aurelius in the second century. The museum gives access to several levels, including the walkway directly above the gate where you can look back toward Rome and down over the Appian Way. The stones were cut from the quarry, transported to walls with oxen and wheels and lifted to the wall using pullies and calipers. W The walls are 15 to 20 feet thick with rooms, walkways, windows, stairs and towers.
Walking the rest of the way to the San Callisto Catacombs is a bit treacherous because of the buses, cars and mopeds speed along what once was a one lane road with little room between the white line and the ancient wall for pedestrians. This is the same road Paul travelled into Rome in Acts 28:15, and this is also the road Peter took on the way out of Rome, before he saw the Lord who told him to return to Rome. The Domine Quo Vadis church marks the spot he saw the Lord and returned to Rome to be martyred.
The grounds of the catacombs are so peaceful, a nice break from the crowds and traffic of Rome. The catacombs are impressive: three layers of underground cemetery built between the first and fourth centuries for Christians to bury the dead. "Cemetery" literally means dormitory. Believing that Christians only sleep before the resurrection, they refused to use the more common term "necropolis," which means "city of the dead." The 500,000 bodies were laid into the soft volcanic rock like bunk beds. Popes were also buried here, but mostly women and children. On the wall there are still names, descriptions and drawings that mark those buried here. (The espresso from the machine was also impressive...)
This was a time of persecution, so Christians could bury their dead publicly, but their worship was outlawed and had to be done in secret. These catacombs have served as worship venues since they were built. Services honoring the dead were held right there in the catacombs and therefore frescoes depicting scenes from Jesus' life (baptism, Good Shepherd, Last Supper), as well as Jonah and the fish representing the resurrection, are painted on the walls. This art encouraged Christians during persecution that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, he has overcome death, he is the good shepherd and not one of his sheep will be lost. One byzantine fresco of Jesus has his open hand (looks like "stop" sign), which means he wants to talk to us, and his other hand holds the gospels, which is truth. The letters around his head represent the words "Jesus was, is and is to come." Again, words of encouragement to the early church. The woman guiding us spoke in very practiced and broken English and made the point very clear that this is a holy place, that it represents hope for the universal church: never give up, never surrender, because we have hope in Jesus. We ended at a place where services have been held for 1800 years; all different denominations echoing the voices of those who died in times of persecution. We packed our bags this morning and headed off for the bus stop at Chiesa Nuova, not 100 yards from our flat. We ran into the Special Olympics of Rome, right there in the piazza in front of the Chiesa Nuova. It was a basketball event sponsored by the Nike Factory Store. I spoke with the emcee, a volunteer, the head of Special Olympics in Rome for 25 years and the volunteer family director. We also met a couple from St. Louis--Bob and Laurie, who have been living in Rome and trying to get their special needs daughter involved in Special Olympics. Bob works with Boeing and the Italian Air Force. They love Italy, but have found it difficult to get connected with their daughter. Their son is in culinary school. The head of Special Olympics gave us a gold medal with the pledge in Italian, and a lapel pin that says Special Olympics Italia.
We're transitioning today to Spello, a small village on the road between Spoleto and Perugia. This will be a very different experience. No metro, no Coliseum, just this beautiful medieval town in the Umbrian hills. I'm hoping to spend time walking to Assisi, exploring St. Francis' life, reading books for our class in June and water color painting some of the beautiful countryside.