The Pantheon: originally a place of prayer to all the gods, now a Christian church.
Read: Lamentations 1:1-4
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people…. (Lamentations 1:1a, NRSV).
When my husband and I arrived in Rome at the beginning of January, the city was full of people. Our daily walk took us past the Pantheon, and every step was a fight for real estate. Personal space was a pipe-dream. Tourists of every nationality posed smiling for selfies. Beggars dared us to make eye contact. Restaurant staff tempted us toward the tables lining the piazza with clever conversation starters. (“Welcome, newlyweds!”)
Now, in the second week of Italy’s coronavirus lockdown, the Roman Holiday is clearly over.
The tourists disappeared in late February. The restaurants closed in early March. Just before my husband went home in mid-March, we had the piazza pretty much to ourselves as we walked past the Pantheon on our way to the grocery store. Or at least we did until a French television news crew ran us down begging for an interview. “Why are you still here?” they wanted to know.
It was a good question. My husband did go home last week, but the timing of his return was as per our original plan. (“Not everyone gets a sabbatical,” he teased with an eye-roll.) But what a sabbatical it is turning out to be.
So, why am I still here? My emotions tell me to “bail,” but logic urges the opposite. I have a strong network of friends here, and their generosity makes it possible for me to stay. They are, in fact, urging me to stay for my own safety. That may sound absurd in a country upwards of 53,000 cases of COVID-19, but only 2% of those are in this area of Italy. My Italian friends are right. I am safer locked down in my little Roman apartment than I am on a series of planes that will take me to a country which is, frankly, unprepared for a pandemic.
Yesterday, as I trudged past the Pantheon, this phrase from Lamentations popped into my head. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people….” The scholar in me says that I should be careful about taking the verse out of context. The image originally referred to Jerusalem—broken and bereft after the Babylonian conquest. But the pathos of the image is still apropo. As I watch the news from the USA, I suspect it will soon be an apt lament for many American cities as well.
The stories you have heard about Italians singing from their balconies are true. The other day as rounded the corner of a narrow Roman street, I found myself in the middle of an impromptu piano recital. The neighbors were all leaning out of their windows smiling. And when the young pianist finished her halting rendition of the Italian national anthem, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. “Brava! Brava!” they cried.
The tourists may be gone, but the Italians are still here. And the heart of Rome is still very much alive.
There is still one beggar in the piazza. He smiles at me whether or not I give him a coin. His presence reminds me that we are all beggars right now—pleading with God to make eye contact.
Ponder: What made you weep this week? What made you laugh? What gives you hope?
O Christ, the healer, we have come
to pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored
when reached by love that never ends?
From every ailment flesh endures
our bodies clamor to be freed;
yet in our hearts we would confess
that wholeness is our deepest need.
In conflicts that destroy our health
we recognize the world’s disease;
our common life declares our ills.
Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?
Grant that we all, made one in faith,
in your community may find
the wholeness that, enriching us,
shall reach the whole of humankind.
This prayer is a hymn text by Fred Pratt Green. Listen to a musical setting of it here: O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come
© 1969 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Introduction to the Roman Roads Series
As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!