Thursday, September 29, 2011

A surprising gift of music

One of the classes students have an opportunity to take here in Rome is called "Culture of Food and Wine in Italy." I don't have quite enough details to defend this class for its academic rigor despite its name and fun subject matter, nor to confirm your suspicions that a class that sounds so ... tasty could possibly be rigorous.

However, the professor of that class, together with the local staff here at CEA in Rome pulled off a phenomenal event last night, which I wanted to describe here. Apparently, most semesters, they have a Renaissance themed dinner at the beginning of the semester. But this year, Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the "Risorgimento," the unification that established the nation of Italy.

So, they served us a five-course meal, gathered from the various regions of Italy. They also arranged, for our entertainment, some dancing and some singing which focused on 19th century works. The dancing was very good--folky and fun. But the singing ... the singing featured soprano Carmen Petrocelli singing various 19th century arias. Now, we had gathered in the entry foyer of our villa for this, and this woman's voice filled the space like nothing I had ever experienced before.

This was one of those moments when you know you have been given a real privileged opportunity to experience something phenomenal, and it was wonderful to feel that wave of recognition sweep across the whole room. I, like the students, had come up from dinner not quite sure what this "entertainment" would be, and speculating on whether it would be worth it to stick around for it. But once Carmen started singing, there was no question. You could feel the whole room drawn to rapt attention, focusing and just trying to take it all in. It is a wonderful thing to be a skeptic in a skeptical crowd, and to find all doubt expelled from the room in a single musical note.

It was a wonderful, surprising gift to get to hear such a phenomenal vocalist in our own little campus community.

Monday, September 26, 2011

First weeks

We're now into our fourth week of classes here, and we've had our first gathering of our PC/CEA program community--a dinner gathering at my apartment last Thursday evening. I think that it's fair to report that we are all feeling two things, to various degrees. First, we are all feeling excited/thrilled/blessed/lucky to be in Rome for a time and to be surrounded by so many opportunities for learning, adventure, new experiences, and fun. Second, we are also all struggling a little with being so far from home, friends, family, and all that was so familiar to us, and with learning new ways of doing so many things.

All of the PC students (together with several from other schools) are in my class, "New Testament in the Eternal City." In addition to some exciting reading and lectures to give some background to reading the NT, we've had some pretty exciting site visits. We got a bit of a sense of the history of Rome, especially its history at the time of the NT, by visiting the Roman Forum, the Imperial Fora, and the Capitoline Museums.

We also made a visit to the Basilica of San Clemente. For those who don't know it, this incredible church not far from the Colosseum is home to some exciting excavations. The Irish Dominicans have served this parish since the 17th century. In the middle of the 19th century, Fr. Mullooly, OP, noticed a hole and sort of picked through it, to discover another church below the one that is here. The serious excavations began, and they have since unearthed not only a church from about the 4th century that the current one was built above, but also the rooms and streets of houses at a level beneath that, dating to about the 1st century. It was a great opportunity to introduce the students to the important possibilities of archeology, and the layers of Rome.

The other great thing about the church at San Clemente is that its history and its artwork offer particular windows into the great Christian story that we are studying this semester. St. Clement himself was, of course, an early bishop of Rome. He was exiled to work in the mines in the Crimea, but when miracles kept happening around him and people kept converting to Christianity, more drastic measures were taken. He was martyred by being strapped to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea. More than seven centuries later, when a body was found strapped to an anchor, Sts. Cyril and Methodius were entrusted with the mission of travelling to Rome and returning the bones of the saint not simply to Rome but to San Clemente. Since Cyril died in Rome on that same trip, Methodius asked that he be buried near Clement's remains. The students got to hear these stories in this very place.

We also spent a while looking at and talking about the "Tree of Life" mosaic in the apse of San Clemente. (See the pictures and reflections at this great Dominican blog.) This incredible mosaic centers on a crucifix, but the entire thing is filled with the winding (almost vinelike!) branches of a huge tree. The cross, it seems, is the Tree of Life, and it touches and encompasses all of salvation history--all of history, in fact. Particularly because we are in Rome, martyrdom is a major theme we are attending to, both in terms of our reading of the NT texts and in terms of our site visits. We talked about the doves and the sheep in this mosaic--the peaceful submissiveness of these animals, even as the doves in particular rest on the cross--it offers this very curious promise of the Cross as the source of life and of peace. Particularly in this place, where there is a consciousness both of the sacrifice of so many Christian lives and a sense that such sacrifice strengthened and nourished (rather than shattering) the faith of the early Church, this was a powerful mosaic to reflect upon.

I'll be trying to update the blog at least weekly, with reflections on Rome, on my class or the program, in hopes of giving the PC community a sense of the program over here. If I'm lucky, I might even be able to offer you a guest post from one of the students occasionally.