I just returned from my annual trip to Rome (which is why there haven’t been any blog postings for a couple of weeks). In fact, I’m still not quite back on Chicago time. The trip is actually a course I teach on early and medieval Christianity in Rome, so we spend a lot of our time exploring the earliest evidence of the ancient Church, much of which is underground. Anyway, it’s always fun to go back to Rome, but this year something struck me more than ever before – not about the city itself, but about the attempt to travel to Rome as a pilgrim, not a tourist. That is, it goes by so fast it can be hard to appreciate it while you’re there.
It takes a long time to plan this trip. The itinerary is very detailed, and a lot of work goes into making sure we show up at places when they’re going to be open. But I never mind working on it, because it builds the anticipation for the trip. In fact, working on the itinerary for Rome is something I look forward to, and I enjoy being able to put other things aside and get out the maps and the books about Rome. So after putting so much work into it, and after a whole a year of anticipation, the day finally arrives and I get on the plane, pop a couple Tylenol PM, and when I wake up, I’m in Rome. But then, less than two weeks later, it’s over and here I am back home already trying to pick up the pieces of having been gone for two weeks. Hundreds of emails and piles on my desk are the cost of all that pizza, pasta and gelato. Long story short: it came and went, and now it’s over. Time flies.
One of the sites we always visit in Rome is a strange little place called the Capuchin Cemetery. It’s not really from the early Church, but if you go to Rome, you just have to see it. It’s a Franciscan burial ground made up of earth from the Holy Land, which includes a series of chapels decorated entirely with human bones. Apparently a couple hundred years ago, the friars ran out of room for new burials, so they started digging up the older bones, and then they used them to create elaborate decorations for the chapels – from sculptures to lanterns to patterns on the walls that would look like wall paper if seen from a distance. So now you’re wondering… WHY? I think there are two reasons. First of all, the use of human bones to create something of “artistic beauty” (go there, and you can judge for yourself) is meant to convey the message that life triumphs over death, and that the power of God can raise old bones to new life. But there is also a Franciscan vibe (going all the way back to Francis himself) that uses what we would consider macabre to remind us of our mortality, and to encourage folks to get right with God while there is still time. The last chapel in the cemetery includes a sign, which says something like this: What you are, we once were – what we are, you will be. The bones themselves are speaking to the viewers who, until that moment, thought they could stand apart from what they were watching, as if the dead friars weren’t watching back. But then you can’t escape being reminded that one day you, too, will be a pile of dry bones. Maybe that day will come sooner than you think. In fact, one of the motifs in the decorations made entirely with human bones is the shape of an hourglass with wings. Time flies.
So here it is June 1st. Summer is here (and if you know me, you know I hate winter and any season adjacent to winter). So… finally… summer. But in Chicagoland, summer is way too short, and I fear that before I have a chance to really appreciate it, it will be gone. Time flies.
What’s the point? The point is that God is patient, but time is not. God is not a party crasher (or a wedding crasher), and if we leave God out of our lives, God will patiently wait for us to choose to include him by our own free will. In fact, all those things we want to do, and know we should do – those things will wait in the wings forever, but there will come a day when it’s too late. So how will you make the most of this summer? My prayer is that you and I will use it to do something that will outlive the summer, something that will have lasting value. Perhaps even something that will outlive us.
P.S. If you want to join next year’s Rome trip – you do not have to be an enrolled student to join us. Anyone over 21 is welcome. Here’s a link with more info:
P.P.S. I did not get into the catacomb of Novatian, but I am one step closer to getting the required permission. Next year just might be the year…