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Real Presence in Orvieto

Two students reflect on and capture a semester of study in Italy.

Story by Gordon College April 1st, 2016


In America we are constantly fighting against time, pushing to utilize every second of the day for our own agenda. At the end of our busy day we are left saying, “Where did the time go?” Our minds are whirling, distracted, thinking about what is next. We rarely allow ourselves the chance not only to inhale deeply, but to realize what that smells like, what our body feels like in that space, what we see and hear. We forget what it means to be present. What if at the end of the day we could be at peace instead of feeling such great exhaustion? What if at the end of the day we could say to ourselves, “This day was well lived”? Having Real Presence allows you to step away from the fast-paced life of America and step into a moment, away from technology, away from five minutes early is on time, and away from the expected routine. My real presence was found in an ancient Italian town that was sculpted right from the mountain that it sits upon and it is called Orvieto.

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Connecting with Culture

After two hours of waiting for the medieval procession to begin – the procession that has been held for 750 years to celebrate the holy day of Corpus Christi – the rain finally stops. I am dressed in a colorful tunic and so are Karen and her sister Hannah. Nora’s elegant green gown identifies her as a member of the aristocracy. My newfound Italian friend stands beside me, translating the instructions given by the woman in charge. Hannah and I are carrying a heavy wooden cage containing a white dove representing peace among the town quarters. The trumpets sound and the solemn yet festive procession finally begins. As Hannah and I make our way through the town with several hundred other participants, I realize the importance of this ceremony, rich with tradition and history. Here we are, two Americans sojourning for a few months in this culture, and they have asked us to be among them, to be a part of their culture. We have been welcomed and embraced as one of their own.

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Being Present with Yourself

In the stillness of a moment could you meet yourself in silence or laughter or love? If we cannot be comfortable with ourselves than it is difficult to care for others. In Orvieto, Professor Matthew Doll, our Director, read to us Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude. Reading this text throughout the semester served as an inspiration to seek solitude in order to live in community. Henri Nouwen has said, “Solitude is very different from a ‘time-out’ from our busy lives. Solitude is the very ground from which community grows. Whenever we pray alone, study, read, write, or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we are potentially opened for a deeper intimacy with each other.” I found that it is imperative to live presently with myself in moments alone with God before I could live presently in daily life with my friends.
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Making Art

In Orvieto, whether you are making art, writing poetry, or reading through a text, a beautiful collaboration happens among us students. We are in conversation with our professor, but also with one another. We become a body of makers creating alongside one another. This body works together in a space and context that allows for a depth of presence with each other and with the art being created. Orvieto itself — the town, the surrounding landscape, its people — becomes part of the art-making conversation. It serves both as inspiration for works of art and as the space in which the art is created. While drawing on the steps of the Duomo or writing in the park, we connect on a deeper level with our present place and context.

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Being Present Together

Mealtime in Orvieto is more than just a time to eat, but a time to be together. God has made us as relational creatures; he calls us to be in relation not only with Him, but also with each other. The semester in Orvieto allows time in the day to be together, to talk and have fellowship. Even the shops in town close down for a few hours in the afternoon for a riposo after the midday meal, allowing a pause to breathe and relax. Without access to wi-fi in our living space this time of the day was strange at first, but soon became a treasured time that I wish I could create here in the States.

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Being Present Spiritually

Rich with religious Catholic tradition, Orvieto allowed us to gain a new perspective on spirituality and experience faith in the life of a different culture. Every Wednesday evening the local community of charismatic Catholics holds an informal but powerful service of praise and prayer – the preghiera. Accompanied by acoustic guitars and drums, the people raise their voices and call out to the Lord. The spirit is full with the joy of the Lord as the sounds of praise resonate off of the old stone walls of the church. Others are drawn to the daily Vespers service at the Franciscan convent, where the nuns chant the service as their order has done for almost a thousand years. For Sunday morning Mass many of us attended the parish church of San Giovenale and sang in the choir. One of the most beautiful spiritual experiences happened on Good Friday when we joined hundreds of townspeople for the Way of the Cross (the Via Crucis). Everyone held candles as we processed all through the medieval quarter from one station of the cross to the next (there are fourteen), reading the scripture passages from the story of Christ’s Passion, praying and singing.

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Mostra Collective

The final exhibition reveals a semester’s worth of artwork. Professor Doll designs beautiful posters and fliers, and we pass them out to all the neighbors and local businesses and many friends of the Gordon program. The convent is cleaned, the art is put up all around and tables of food are set up in the courtyard. We all get dressed up, hoping that we will be as gracious as hosts as the Orvietani have been to us. People talk and laugh, listening to the live band, soaking in the art and eating the food. I see Tomaso, the kind gelato man from down the street, chatting with my friends. Rachele, the Italian teacher, takes a picture of my drawing. Chiara! Our chef from the first part of our semester has come back, looking at our art like a proud mother. Even the old man who lives next door has finally come out and nibbles at the food. All the people who played a part in our time in Orvieto are gathered in one place. I am overwhelmed with joy to see my time spent in Orvieto in the faces of the people. At the end of my time in Orvieto I can say, “This time spent here was well lived.”

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Footnote: Photography by Miranda Fuchs. Reflections by Theresa Sterling.
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