First of all, let's get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It's alluring, but complicated. It's the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or in the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.
Beppe Severgnini, La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind
We have spent the largest chunk of my sabbatical in this enchanting land. Three cities in three weeks: a truly trinitarian experience. It is safe to say we are both weary and in love; perhaps an apt description of the people we have encountered here. Italy is easy to romanticize, of course. It is also easy to see how troubled she has been, and for so long.
"Italian cities have long been held up as ideals, not least by New Yorkers and Londoners enthralled by the ways their architecture gives beauty and meaning to everyday acts."
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
It's true. Somehow, merely walking to catch a bus or grab a cup of coffee has seemed filled with depth for us here. We know that it's ridiculous, yet you feel it in your bones at each cobbled street, old building or faded awning. It probably makes sense to feel it in our bones, in that it is a country of old bones, both in the fallen empire of Rome and in the still living, but clearly ailing, Roman Catholic Church. But, wow, are they beautiful bones. As we walked through the ruins, cathedrals, markets, basilicas and piazzas, the awe was inescapable. So many works of art over so many years in so many places. You almost want to get lost, to wander off the trail, just so you can discover a treasure that others may have missed.
"Bring the wind to the city
Let it weep in the empty streets
At the tomb of the unknown race
Skyscrapers and windmills
White crosses and pyramids
Every hand tries to leave some trace."
Mark Heard, Waiting for Dry Bones to Dance
I found myself saddened by what can seem to be a testament to what has been lost. Particularly with the churches. Most still serve as houses of worship, and you find pilgrims in prayer at all times during the day. Yet they seem primarily to be museums, lonely shells of bygone glory that tourists are enamored with but are rarely brought to their knees. As I considered my reactions to this, I had to face the reality that I was not only observing, but also projecting. Am I not the very same, a relic to a once young and vibrant faith?
"What remains of a love poem
Long after the ink is dry
Yellowed paper and silent mouths
A bit of skeletal passion
Bleached relics of wasted youth
Hanging on like desert flowers
I am alone and I’m
Waiting for dry bones,
waiting for dry bones,
Waiting for dry bones to dance."
Mark Heard, Ibid.
A bit of my history. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, baptized and confirmed, but like many young churchgoers found my spiritual hunger satisfied in a different pasture. I encountered Jesus anew through Young Life and evangelical churches that so often attract young adults. I became very theologically conservative in college, but began to be challenged in my narrow thinking by attending seminary. Still, I stayed in the evangelical tradition for years, though as I matured, I began to wince at the cracks in its own armor. The more I got deep into leadership, the more dissatisfied I became, and the more I began to hunger for a faith that could encompass a broader world view, particularly in the areas of justice and artistic expression.
When I was given the opportunity to direct the Grunewald Guild (https://grunewaldguild.com/). The Guild is an art & faith community that extends open arms to all seekers. It reacquainted me with more people of other traditions and gave me a freedom to be more creative and expressive. As such, I found it more & more challenging to reconcile myself to the very conservative theology of our local church, just a short bridge walk away from the Guild. That bridge, in fact, became for me a metaphor for my life, trying to live in two theological places, appreciate both, and bring them together in my life in some creative way.
I failed. My local church body became increasingly conservative, and (in my view) closed to how I could minister within it. I became increasingly frustrated and impatient, and in the end was unable to stay involved or continue to be open to a future there.
When the position at St. Andrew's House became available, it answered our prayers to be a part of a faith community that we could embrace more freely. But we had to leave a community we loved, and still love, to do so. In my heart, I am still both evangelical and ecumenical. I strive to appreciate and be informed by all traditions of the greater Church, without being overly encumbered by any. But there are times, and especially at this particular time, when I question if my bones have become too dry, just like the Church.
And yet, just as Italy remains alive with the flesh and blood of its warm people, great food and incredible geography, there is hope that the Church (and I) can see our dry bones dance again.
Every now and then I seem to dream these dreams
Where the dead ones live and the hurt ones heal
Touching that miraculous circumstance
Where the blind ones see and the dry bones dance
And I'm gone, gone, gone
Carried away by the midnight wind
And I long, long, long
For a world without end
The kind of thing that I've never seen
but in my dreams.
Mark Heard, The Dry Bones Dance
For my wife and I have become truly in love with this land, its people, and its history, dry bones and all. We hope to be back before long. In fact, we've made dear new friends with the leaders of a sister Episcopal retreat center, Santa Maria a Ferrano (http://www.santamariaferrano.org/).
It is located in the stunning hills of Tuscany, east of Florence, and it celebrates art, community and creation care in a 1000-year old church building. Talk about getting the dry bones to dance!
Dan Oberg, Director