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View of St. Peters from the inside of Castel Sant’Angelo

by Old Testament Professor Carol Bechtel

When I arrived in Rome on New Year’s Day, I had no idea that the Coronavirus would arrive in Italy two weeks later. Although the first case was not diagnosed until late January, we now know that it was making itself at home in the north by the middle of the month.

It’s safe to say this is not the sabbatical I expected. But in view of the human and economic devastation world-wide, I’m not wasting too many tears over that. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in the final scene of the movie Casablanca: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of one little person don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Part of what I am learning is how to adjust to God’s curriculum. I had an excellent plan for this sabbatical, but God, evidently, had a different one. So, rather than rail against my own dashed expectations, I am attempting to lean into some new learnings. As someone with Reformed roots, I remind myself daily to trust in the inscrutable providence of God.

One of the ways Providence seems to be at play is through my Bible study blog. I have been writing weekly installments on my personal website for over two years. But in mid-March I began a series called Roman Roads. I bill it as Bible study that offers “one person’s perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.” Part of what propelled me to write the series was the realization that Italy was about two weeks ahead of the USA in terms of the pandemic. This has given me a unique (and providential?) opportunity to anticipate the questions and feelings of my readers back home.

Although I had planned to work on a book about refugees, it has proven impossible to interview people because of the lockdown. So instead, I have been working on a Bible study curriculum on Sabbath. This seems like an appropriate topic for sabbatical, but it has left me longing for all the things that characterize a true Sabbath celebration: friends, family, worship, feasting, and communion with God in creation. While some have argued that the lockdown is a kind of enforced Sabbath, I do not find it either restful or rich in the ways I just described.

Courtyard view from Carol’s Rome apartment

I originally wrote this in what is literally a writer’s garret—a two-room apartment at the top of an ancient palazzo near the Pantheon. At the end of May I was fortunate to “flee like a bird to the mountains” west of Turin. It has landed me in another kind of writer’s garret, but since it’s on the side of a mountain, it has a room with a stunning view.  I hope to return to the U.S. in early July.

Know that I love and pray for you all. And I hold a special place in my heart for this year’s WTS graduates. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart again, “Here’s looking at you, kids!”

Photos were taken before the lockdown. Prior to mid-May, Carol was only allowed outside her apartment for short walks to the store and back.

 

 

By David Stubbs

Professor of Ethics and Theology

 

Last year I was given a treasured gift: time off from teaching and administrative work in order to devote myself to research and writing. My main project was writing a book called Temple and Table, and my wife Lynn and I decided the best context for that work would be in Rome.

I contacted the Waldensian Theological Seminary in Rome (If you are an Italian Protestant, you are probably a Waldensian). The dean of the seminary, Fulvio Ferrario, opened the arms of his institution, offered an apartment we could rent, and kindly helped us navigate the mysteries of Italian bureaucracy to secure a visa for our time there.

What a rich context in which to research, write, and live!

Snapshot 1: Typical Research Day

My day would begin with a commute by foot of about 25 minutes. After breakfast, sometimes shared with the students at the Waldensian seminary, I’d walk across the Bernini Bridge of Angels with its view of St. Peter’s Cathedral, past the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain to the “Greg”—the Pontifical Gregorian University. The Gregoriana is a world-renowned center of learning with deep resources. I would often pop in my ear-buds and study Italian on the way, or simply take in the sights and sounds of Rome. Once I arrived, I would check my backpack into a locker, bring my books and computer with me, and find a desk alongside about 200 other people, mostly Roman Catholic men and women from around the world, and get to work.

When lunch time came, some days I would find Johannes, a kind, bearded, grey-robed Austrian monk in his 40s working on his Ph.D., who became my friend. We’d grab lunch at the café and talk about American or Italian politics, Roman Catholic youth ministry in Austria, what it is like to be a monk, the finer points of his work on the theology of Aquinas, or my own project.

Back to work, then home at 5—when Lynn and I would meet with our Italian tutor, Marta, or explore some new church, museum, or Roman ruin before dinner at 9pm. When in Rome…

Snapshot 2: Churches Coming Together

Every few weeks a group called “Churches Together in Rome” would meet. Pastors, priests, and lay leaders from the English-speaking churches of the city—spanning from Pentecostal to Methodist to Roman Catholic—created this group and regularly gather for fellowship and projects. They invited me to join them during the year. During our meetings, we read and talked our way through the ecumenical document, From Conflict to Communion, a commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, written jointly by Lutherans and Catholics. On some weekends, I worked side by side in an ecumenical garden with Russell, a Franciscan monk doing important work for the order in Rome, and Dana, an Anglican priest.

Dana English (Anglican priest), David, Richard Burridge and Meg Warner of King’s College London, and Lynn Stubbs.

What a gift to be part of this group, talking with these brothers and sisters from so many different backgrounds, seeing in one another signs of hope of the healing of the deep wounds of division within Christianity …right there in the epicenter of the Roman Catholic Church.

Snapshot 3: Immersion

I often tell people that as you walk the streets of Rome it is as if 25 centuries of history are constantly whispering to you. It shapes your imagination. It shapes the conversations you have with people. Part of my writing project involves trying to understand more deeply how the early Christian church imagined what was happening as they celebrated the Eucharist together. Physical evidence of that is found in the catacombs surrounding Rome and in the beautiful mosaics that decorate some of the oldest surviving Christian church buildings in the world. Experiencing those places while doing my work was a deeply moving and formative experience.

David with Rev. Dr. Tim and Angela Macquibin. Tim is the leader of Churches Together in Rome and head of the Methodist Ecumenical Office.

Writing about the Eucharist while experiencing contemporary Roman culture was also formative. I felt the divisions within Christianity and ecumenical possibilities in a new way, watched from afar the growing divisions within the United States, saw firsthand the refugee crisis that affects Italy more than most countries, watched the papacy of Francis and the growing secularism of Europe unfold at the same time, tasted the beauty of a carefully prepared Roman meal, saw what Protestantism means in a place where it is a minority, and shared meals and conversations with refugees, monks, deans from English universities, ambassadors from Nigeria, ecumenical delegates, and artists in residence. Rome is a global crossroads and was an immensely fertile ground for contemplating what the central meanings of Eucharist have to say to us today.

Rome was a gift, a wonderful place in which to do my work. I have nearly completed my writing project, Temple and Table: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Eucharist (forthcoming from Eerdmans), and I have high hopes that it will be a helpful contribution to the church and academy. But Rome also worked on me. It broadened and deepened my understanding of Christianity and the place of Protestantism in it, of the Eucharist, and of this chaotic but lovely world that God created and continues to hold in his hands.

David Stubbs teaches ethics and theology at Western and is available to share more about Temple and Table in churches and other settings. In his book he identifies five central meanings of the Eucharist and draws bold lines of connection from the Jewish Temple to the contemporary church. He also offers a series for churches, “Walking in the Way: Christian Ethics for Everyday Christians.” Contact him at 616-392-8555, x124.