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Divinity Students Discover Contemporary Lessons from Italian History Tour

As part of the Duke Divinity School course "The Church in Italy: Early and Medieval Christianity," 11 students toured sites of historical and theological importance in Italy.

Duke Divinity School is one of the 13 United Methodist seminaries supported by your generous contributions to the Ministerial Education Fund.

The course, which is co-taught by Beth Sheppard, director of Divinity Library and associate professor of the practice of theological bibliography, and Meredith Riedel, assistant professor of the history of Christianity, included studying archaeological remains of Mediterranean daily life in the early church period. The course also included the study of the art and sacred architecture of the medieval period, and modern aspects of a Roman Catholic country. The itinerary included Portus, Ostia Antica, Naples, Capri, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Ravenna, Venice, and Milan.

"The pagan wealth and lavish lifestyles of Pompeii and Herculaneum punctuated by human remains recorded a society frighteningly  close to our own," said one Divinity student. "It gave me pause to consider how our own pursuits of pleasure, desire and acquisition, as well as our quest for security and secure livelihood, might distract us from seeing catastrophic disaster before it ends our own way of life. I wondered how we might live if we understood just how fragile and temporary our lives are."

    Mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Students noted the beauty of Capri with the violence of the emperor Tiberius, the extensive wealth and culture that existed alongside the poverty in the ancient world—and today, and the art and architecture inspired by Christian worship. "In St. Cecilia's I became aware of the stark contrast of the awe and encouragement the veneration of the saints was meant to inspire yet how opposite the character of lives and society seemed to be outside the walls of the church," said another student. "How effective were the stories, really? And by extension, how effective are ours, as American Christians, affecting the society outside the walls of our churches?"

In a final reflection, a tour participant noted: "My most profoundly spiritual experience during our visit to Rome was walking through the catacombs. Even through my claustrophobic moments of panic I was impressed by a sense of walking where faithful believers had been laid to rest and felt a sense of connection to the longer, broader, historical, global believers. I could see why chapels were made within the tombs—not because of the popes, per se, but because of the martyrs and children and poor. I felt honored to be counted among those who cared for the lowly and were willing to give even their lives to be faithful. I felt a part of something bigger than I've ever felt a part of before."

Divinity Magazine, Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC

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