Originally published on Nov 2014
It was ten years ago one autumn night in Vancouver. On the way to the local sports centre, I started praying for my ministry after graduation from Regent College. It was then that I ‘understood’ what I was to do. Simply: to tell the stories of past Christians, so that those in the present would be motivated in their walk with God. Most of you know what happened after that – I completed my PhD in Patristic studies and returned to teach Church History at BGST. Since then, I have had many opportunities sharing the stories of ‘heroes’ I love – Augustine, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom and the like, and the privilege of seeing students encouraged by the wisdom of these forefathers.
Last month, this story-telling vocation took on a new dimension as I led, for the first time, BGST’s Church History Tour to Italy. The group consisted of 25 participants from 9 different churches – Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelical Free and Brethren. It was truly an inter- denominational group! The 10 day trip would take us from majestic Rome to the idyllic medieval town of Assisi, the birthplace of the Renaissance – Florence, the romantic waterways of Venice, and finally to the place where Ambrose converted Augustine – Milan!
As God would have it, our first learning point came on Day 1. Before the tour began, my chief worry was that someone would lose his/her passport. And someone did… barely 3 hours after we landed (shortly before lunch)! As you can imagine, I spent much of the day contacting the local embassy, emailing Singapore’s immigration authorities, and communicating with the local police via Google Translator (at 9 pm, in a far-off police station!). In the midst of this frenzy, one thought gradually emerged. It occurred to me that we often spend a lot of time worrying about future uncertainties. Yet, when the fears do transpire, we discover that there is no point worrying anymore. What remains is simply to trust God and to do what is necessary. In retrospect then, much of our fears and worries are much ado about nothing! In case you are wondering, the Singapore consulate worked incredibly fast and X had her replacement passport in hand before lunch the next day! (The consulate also told us that X was the 41st Singaporean to have lost her passport in Italy this year… so be careful when you visit Rome!)
Thankfully, the rest of our journey was not so eventful. In Rome, we visited the Vatican Museum, the Galleria Borghese and learnt to differentiate between Classical, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque Art. More importantly, we also spent time reflecting on the role of art in Christian devotion, and marveling at the creative gifts that God has endowed upon men such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Bernini!
After Rome, our next stop was Assisi, a quiet, scenic town lodged on a hill, overlooking beautiful plains. It was here where Francis of Assisi embraced a life of poverty and started the Order of Franciscan Friars. And his influence reverberates till this day, reminding us that a simple lifestyle is often necessary, if we are to keep our focus on and love of God.
Two hours up north is Siena, hometown of the medieval mystic, Catherine. Siena was the place to tell the story of the Black Death (1349). This was because her cathedral still bears the wounds of the plague – a new wing that was left unfinished after half the city died in the plague.
Not far from Siena was Florence, home to some of the greatest Renaissance artists (Michelangelo and da Vinci). Florence’s Uffizi Gallery now boasts of the largest collection of Renaissance paintings in Europe and is a wonderful place for the study of medieval bible interpretation (as given in Renaissance Art). It was here also where we discussed the rise of humanism in Europe, a movement that not only gave rise to Renaissance Art and modern science, but also the Reformation!
Ravenna was next on the itinerary. While small in comparison to Florence, the city was once the Western capital of the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire. Its brilliant mosaics in the San Vitale Basilica, especially those of Emperor Justinian (below) and his wife, Theodora, still bear witness to this past glory. This was also the place where we explored the ups and downs of Byzantium: the impact of Islam, monastic spirituality, and the devastation brought about by the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
This brings us to our next stop: Venice. It was from here that the Fourth Crusade set sail for Egypt. The Crusaders never reached their destination, however. Sidetracked in Constantinople, they meddled with domestic politics and ended up sacking the whole city! This sounded the death knell for Byzantine capital, which eventually capitulated to the Ottomans in 1453. Even now, we can see the spoils from this sack in San Marco Basilica: the Bronze Horses of Constantinople (below)!
After a short digression to Verona, Lake Como and the Fidenza shopping outlet, we arrived finally in Milan. By now, one would think that we have seen every single possible type of church building. Well no. The Milan Cathedral (below) took our breath away.
It also did a good job reminding worshippers that we are but mere creatures before the Almighty God! Featuring Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the church (below) was rebuilt continually from 14th to 19th centuries. It was completed only in 1805, just in time for Napoleon’s coronation.
The highlight for me, however, remains San Ambrose’s Basilica, the final resting place of Ambrose of Milan (340-397). This was also a suitable context for us to reflect on Ambrose’s legacy and that of his protégé, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) probably the most influential theologian in the West, for both Protestants and Catholics.
On the whole then, this has been a wonderful trip and a blessing for all, both lecturer and participants. The fellowship was heartwarming! We were also touched by the Christian love and care shown by the participants– by the way they watched over the elderly, how they helped one another with their luggage and the tremendous patience they showed one other and for the occasional logistics hiccups. This is an encouraging start and has wet our appetite for more trips ahead. If church groups are interested, there is a possibility of organising a similar tour in early November 2015. Until then, I will just have to wait for my Gelato!
DR. LAI PAK WAH
Principal of BGST and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology.
A graduate from BGST himself (Grad Dip CS) and Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Dr Lai completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in Christianity in Late Antiquity, that is, the history, theology and spirituality of the 2nd – 5th C church fathers (Patristic Studies) with particular research on John Chrysostom. He has also published The Dao of Healing: Christian Perspectives on Chinese Medicine. Previously, Dr Lai was a full-time lecturer at the School of Business, Singapore Polytechnic, and engaged in investment promotion work with the Singapore Economic Development Board.