Reflections from a sabbatical in Italy

Photo by John Rodden Castello from

Editor’s Note: This week’s guest contributor is a seminary classmate and friend, Tuck Grinnell. His post is a reminder to all of us to keep learning and stay open regardless of our age.

I just completed a 3-month sabbatical program–from January 9 to April 3rd in Rome Italy.  I am a retired priest so a sabbatical is a little unusual. I was excited to return to Rome which I had visited before. The sabbatical combined theological courses offered each week -Monday through Friday and tours to various museums, churches and other sites in and around Rome.  On weekends, I and the other participants traveled to different parts of Italy and Europe. On two weekends, I was able to go to Florence and Venice – two of the cities I most love in Italy.

Many reflections were sparked by my time in Italy. During a course on Christology, I found myself very challenged in my attitudes, judgments, and prejudices. I don’t know exactly what part of the course on the humanity and the Divinity of Christ caused me to reflect deeply on my life, but I know that it sparked a real need for personal repentance. I realized that I needed to repent for the judgments and attitudes that previously had been so normal in my thinking and acting. Now, I realized, I needed to turn away from these thought patterns and live differently.

Another reflection surprised me. If you visit most of the churches in Europe, especially in Italy, you know that they are heavily decorated with paintings, tombs and chapels of all sorts. Visiting these churches is almost too much for the eye to take in. There are too many paintings – too many angels – too many memorials- too many marble floors -too many baroque ceilings. Individually, each painting or angel or mosaic was striking. Together, it was almost impossible to focus.

All that got me thinking about our human tendency to continually renovate our churches, our houses, our neighborhoods.  Every generation, it seems, has felt the need to redo, or redecorate, or redevelop this church or that chapel.

Here, in the US, people are continually redecorating or revamping their environments. What is it about us that is never satisfied to leave well enough alone?  Why this need to leave our mark so to speak on our churches? Our buildings? Our homes?

Each Friday, in the Wall Street Journal, there’s a section called Mansion.  As you would expect, it features homes in the tens of millions of dollars.  The articles on individual homes or estates always describe the many times that the home or estate has been renovated or redeveloped.  It is also clear that many of the renovations and redecorations have nothing to do with need but simply are an expression of the personal taste of the current owner. Perhaps, that’s what is also true of the many churches and buildings in Europe. I keep asking myself when is enough enough?  Why not simply leave our mark in the hearts of our fellow human beings instead of the buildings we live in or worship in? 

A final reflection from my time in Italy has to do with migration and immigration. It is clear that a major migration is occurring across the world. Italy is often the first stop for migrants coming from Northern Africa or even the Middle East. We read stories all the time about people lost in the Mediterranean when the boats on which they’re sailing are overcome by storms. I always ask myself why in the world can’t we have a compact to deal with migration worldwide?

We, in the US, are familiar with the issue, especially on our northern and southern borders as people flood across them.  It is a worldwide issue that can only be addressed in a worldwide way.

Retirement is an opportunity for continued learning and growth emotionally and spiritually. I am grateful for this opportunity to nurture my desire to keep learning and growing.


  1. sally mac

    Thanks for sharing these provocative thoughts. Could it be that conspicuous consumption accounts for both the grandiosity of Renaissance churches and Americans’ obsession with updating and renovating?

    As for immigration/migration, until there is a general consensus for the Common Good, petulant greed dictates that Might makes Right and “them that has, gets.” We see it play out every day, all over the World. Our challenge as Christians is to channel energy that changes the status quo.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally, I am reminded of the slogan “do the next right thing” that moves away from fear based greed and into savoring the presnet moment. Be well, Tom

  2. Shirin McArthur

    Thank you, Tuck, for sharing some gleanings from your sabbatical. May we never be too old for sabbaticals (in whatever form or scope) that refocus us and invoke further transformation. Reading your reflection, I was caught most strongly with the too-muchness of baroque church decoration. I find a real parallel in the flood of information coming to us through the Internet and social media these days. We need to choose a few wise voices and reflect more deeply, just as you were struck by a few images or mosaics.

    Thank you!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Shirin for remidning us as Tuck did that “less is more” in the divine economy. We need space to appreciate the good available.