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Veritatis Splendor

"Keep your eyes fixed upon Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith" --Hebrews 12:2


Pope Benedict XVI before our Lord

And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.
Each of us is the result of a thought of God.
Each of us is willed,
each of us is loved,
each of us is necessary.
There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.
~Pope Benedict XVI, Homily April 24th, 2005



Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Day in Pompeii

We all know the story - Mount Vesuvius blows its top, an Italian village is covered in the flow of ash and debris, and 1800 years later some archeologists uncover a perfectly preserved city including the eerie "shadows" of people who were caught in the eruption and couldn't escape, ending up covered by the ash themselves.

But there's a lot more too it than just that I've discovered. Through this upcoming Sunday, Epiphany Sunday of all days, the Science Museum here in St. Paul is hosting the A Day in Pompeii Exhibit. I put off going because, well, it is a little expensive ($24 I think for non-museum members, including the Omnitheater movie "Greece", which is also worth your time) and I thought I knew all about Pompeii anyway. But, I had an opportunity to go last weekend with a few friends and wow, it's worth your time too.

For starters, for Christians this is an intriguing exhibit, because it helps us to see the historical context and timeframe of the eruption - beginning on August 24, AD 79. That's only c.40 years from the time of Christ's death and resurrection, and within the estimated range of dates of the Gospels being written - meaning that at least John may have still been alive. Christianity has not yet "taken off" in Italy, apparently, as there didn't appear to be any trace of Christian influence. Yet, you can tell from the artifacts and frescoes that survived that there was indeed a culture that, though pagan, was at the least, striving to be "noble" pagan. You could tell that, given some time and a few good preachers like Paul, the people may very well have become Christian. Of course, they weren't given time, but a lot of other Italian towns like Pompeii were -- and we all know what happened to them! Pompeii, I would argue, gives us as modern Christians a very unique glimpse into the pagan Italian culture immediately (historically speaking) prior to the advent of Christianity, and therefore provides us with a marvelous bridge between the Roman/Greek philosophies and religions and our own understanding of the fulfillment of these "precursors" to God's fullness of Revelation.

On a more human, emotional, level this exhibit is worth our time because it is truly capable of touching us, and placing us in relationship, with more of our brothers and sisters in the Lord. They never, perhaps, were able to hear of the saving message of Christ, but they were also created in the image of God with an immortal soul, like us. In seeing the eight "bodies" that are presented to us, I found myself praying for their salvation, and for all those who perished in the eruptions. The top image of this post shows the one that I was most touched by - a young boy, huddled in what they believe to be a "gymnasium". There are others too, of a man lying next to a woman, attempting to shelter her head with his hands. A prisioner, with the shackles still on his ankles. Another man, who seemed to have fell on his face and attempted to shield his head. Even a dog, which had been chained by its master and died curled around the picket post. These were real people, and one wonders who would have prayed for them, if not us.

It was very interesting for me to note that if you track the scientists' timeline, the eruption happened at around 1pm on August 24th, AD 79. Yet, the first pyroclastic flows, at least the ones that hit Pompeii the hardest, didn't come down the mountain until the next morning, sometime before or around 8am. The exhibit said that this is when most of the deaths occurred, the earlier deaths were from the chunks of flaming debris that fell from the eruption. But the pyroclastic flows of superheated gas, ash and steam is always the greatest killer of a volcano. That is a huge span of time, far greater than I ever realized. I, like most people I think, always thought that the covering of Pompeii was a sudden, completely unexpected thing. It wasn't quite, there was at least some time to get out, and even when the ships became impossible there was even still a possibility of some people to get out on foot if they were quick enough and were able to understand the magnitude of what was happening. In a town of 20,000 people, it is believed that most of them did indeed get out. Who remained? Those who could not move themselves, and loved ones who would not leave them behind - the sick, the slave, the children, the injured. Perhaps that woman was injured by rock, and the man stayed with her to the end. Perhaps the young boy lost his family and, frightened, took shelter in the gymnasium for hours until at last the flow covered him. The slave they found in the middle of the road, as if he had gotten free at last and was trying to make his way to the water.

The exhibit is very well done, with a lot of amazing artifacts and frescoes, and the display is tastefully done of the "bodies" (They are actually plaster casts, when the covered bodies decomposed they left behind exact shapes, hollow spaces, in the hardened ashes. Some brilliant archeologist figured out what this strange hollows were that they kept finding, and poured liquid plaster into them. After it hardened, they chipped away the ashes and found... them.). The room with the "bodies" is kept very quiet and dark, and it inspires a hushed tone out of reverence for the dead.

This is a wonderful and rare opportunity for us to encounter our past, and I would encourage everyone who can go to this exhibit before it ends (last day this Sunday, Jan. 6th) to go, including families with children old enough to appreciate the experience.

An interesting online tour of Pompeii and the "relics" it contains, from a Christian's perspective, can be found at the Pompeii Virtual Tour.

As a side note, it was also interesting to note that in the museum's area dedicated to human anatomy and diseases, there was a rather large and impressive display up for the latest developments in ADULT stem cell research at the UofM. It was good to see this kind of promotion, even though they of course had older exhibits that were obviously biased towards promoting embryonic stem cell research - one was a "debate" station where you could hear "all sides" - except the only one we could fid who was against ESC research, out of five or six people, was one of our local Catholic Studies/moral theology professors, Dr. Wojda (and I hate to say it, but his argument was a little over the average person's head and didn't really answer the question directly. Dr. Degnan would be a better choice, if anyone's listening over there at CS!). Even the token Republican representative was pro-ESC -- argh. Anyway, I can only hope that this newer exhibit on adult stem cells is a sign of a trend... And if you go to the museum, be sure to pop over into that section and add your own "opnion" on ESC research to the handy-dandy "what do you think?" box.

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