Saturday, May 27, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Time for Vita Comunitaria

I made the mistake yesterday of going to the local grocery store during the noon rush. Here, as in most small villages in Italy, things shut down around 12:30 or so for the afternoon riposo. So, right around this time, the grocery store is packed with people headed home from work or from school to pick up a few things for lunch. Italians don't shop for groceries once a week, but, because they can so easily walk to the grocery store, usually go every day or couple of days. 

Looking at this idea of riposo (or siesta in Spanish, which you might know better) from an American cultural viewpoint, we might consider this unproductive. And unnecessary. A waste of good working or learning time. This tradition, though, came out of necessity, especially in more southern places where the heat of the day can be intense. Buildings weren't air conditioned. It was dangerous for workers to be outside in these high temperatures. So, this cultural phenomenon developed. Everyone goes home to have lunch and to rest. Then, around 5p, when things started to cool down, they return to work and school for about another 3 hours or so.

This is possible when you live and work and go to school in a small village because you live within easy walking distance of everywhere you need to be. School is a 5-10 minute walk away. The grocery store and other shops are the same. So, are workplaces. By slowing down the pace of life, spending time together, meeting one another on the street as you're walking to and fro, and even running into each other in the grocery store during the noon rush - all of this creates community. Add into it the evening tradition of the la passeggiata - an evening stroll where the entire family goes out and walks the main corso together, running into friends and other family members, catching up on the news of the day - then followed by another time of gathering together for a meal that often stretches late into the evening, and vita comunitaria (communal life) just happens. Naturally. All the time.

During the period of the Middle Ages, all three of the major religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - innovated their spiritual traditions centered around the idea of God as lover and human beings as beloved, an acknowledgement of the feminine in spirituality. The many rich and abundant texts by female mystics were composed in and for very specific communities. As urban centers grew, the need for pastoral care in towns and cities required greater lay participation. Lay women and men organized themselves into these communities, some endorsed by the Church and others not. Spirituality was formed in community. Pastoral care was offered from within these communities. Even in the U.S., up until the individualism of the 20th century, much of faith life was developed through communal life. 

My time in Orvieto reflecting on vita comunitaria, both past and present, makes me recognize that we've lost something in America. Faith is meant to be shaped and lived out communally. Each of us is blessed by God with unique gifts to serve that community, which then offers them more fully in greater society. We are called to be the body of Christ, working together, then sent out to perform what Ulrike Wietnaus calls "street mysticism." It is on the streets where we find sacred space like the feminine mystics did - in the open spaces of markets, churches, shrines dedicated to the saints, shops, apothecaries, roads and hospitals. It is on the streets where the spiritual and the secular mix. (Perrin, 4-7)

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It's a huge festival in Orvieto that celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Here, it is celebrated in the streets of this village - communally - with a Vigil mass, processions, an art festival, an evening dance, then culminating on Sunday with the palombella, an ancient aerial transit of a dove (la columba) from the Church of St. Frances (Chiesa de San Francesco) to the duomo with fireworks. (I promise to take pictures as long as you don't show them to PETA!) Here, the sacred intermingles with the secular. There is no separation. One can only wonder how much fuller the lives of Orvietans are because these two aspects of life - and our very beings - aren't separated from each other, but fully intertwined as part of life together. 

Something to think about on this Vigil of Pentecost. Fino a tardi!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Orvieto - A Little History

The history of Orvieto is quite fascinating. Like the other hill towns of central Italy, it sits on a huge mass of tufa rock, likely from an ancient volcanic eruption. This rock is solid in some parts, not so solid in others.

Orvieto's first traceable history comes from the Etruscan civilization, beginning about the 9th century BCE. This was a culture of great splendor and importance and Orvieto (known then as Velzna) was the most important town in the Etruria territory. Below the cliffs of this village, archaeologists and histories discovered what they think is the Fanum Volumnae, an ancient sanctuary that was thought to be the center of the Etruscan religion. 

Here, the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis was excavated, along with remains of the Temple of Belvedere. The necropolis is an ancient burial site consisting of over 200 tombs made of tuff (tufa) blocks. This is a likely predecessor to what tombs looked like in the the time of Christ. Each tomb was owned by individual families and was marked with family names, which can still be seen. In a tour I took in my last visit, our archaeologist tour guide mentioned that there is an early connection between one of the families, whose tomb is in this burial site, with that of Remus and Romulus, the traditional founders of Rome. 

Velzna was also the political center, where the leaders of the 12 major Etruscan cities (dodecapoli) would gather to worship the gods and decide by common consent the political strategies to adopt.

Under the settlement, the Etruscans built a series of caves and tunnels to connect themselves. They did this because they often were under siege from unfriendly neighbors. Many of the homes in the village have underground "basements," some of which have been excavated to connect up to the various tunnels. There are still olive presses in some of these caves, dating from the Middle Ages. And they are still great places to store cheese and wine, two commodities for which Orvieto is famous. 

Eventually, Orvieto fell to Rome in the third century BC, although it took them two years to conquer this natural fortress, with cliffs on all sides and its intricate web of caves and numerous wells. The Romans destroyed most of the evidence of the Etruscans and then used the area to supply crops, wine and other goods to Rome. There are only a few traces of Roman civilization in the village.  

This area was dominated by the Goths, Byzantines and Lombards until about 1000 CE. It was then that Orvieto began to repopulate, especially on the northwest side, which is known today as the Medieval Quarter. This is evidenced by the presence of the Chiesa d'San Giovenale (Church of St. John), whose first documentation was in 1004. (More on Orvieto churches later!)

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Orvieto, then called Urbs Vetus (See the present name taking shape?), advanced and increased its power. It was a time of great artistic and cultural flourishing. Thomas Aquinas taught in a school here and composed a special liturgy for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which originated here (more on that later). Pope Urban IV found refuge here from a civil war in Rome for a couple of years. Other popes "summered" in Orvieto. Most importantly, this time included the construction of the duomo. The cathedral, besides being known for its beautiful mosaic facade, also contains in its chapel (Chapel of San Brizio) frescoes by Fra Angelico and, most famously, Luca Signorelli's masterpiece, the Last Judgment, based on Dante's Divine Comedy, written in 1314. 

This amazing time ended in 1348, when a pandemic followed by continuous internal fighting within a ruling family (sound at all familiar?) destroyed the Comune of Orvieto. It came under the rule of the Papal State and, then, in 1860, was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. 

This history with all of its drama and richness is, in large part, what draws me to Orvieto. Sometimes, I think that, in the US, we're too young as a nation to understand that our hold on democracy is tenuous. That it takes constant work and effort to maintain it. Here, in Italy, the people understand this. And, they also know that life goes on. That history continues. And that, no matter what, there is resurrection and life even after death and destruction. 

Or, in the words of Julian of Norwich (b. 1343), an English feminine mystic: "All will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of things will be well."

Fino a tardi, arrivederci!

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: First Days in Orvieto

In these early days of my sabbatical, I have been simply trying to rest and relax and unplug a little. Last week I spent most of it in riposo, as Italians might call it. This week I'm actually in Italy - more precisely in my favorite hill town, Orvieto, located in the province of Umbria. Orvieto is most known for it's duomo, one of the most beautiful in all of Italy that is called the "lily" of all cathedrals.

This area is rich in so many ways - natural beauty, art, food, beverages, and, especially, history. It's a place in my personal history, too. In 2006, I came here along with a small cohort from Fuller Seminary for a summer intensive. We immersed ourselves in the theology, spirituality and art of the medieval period - a time so integral to this area, to the church, and, honestly, to Western civilization. These Middle Ages - often misnamed as the Dark Ages - were actually a time of great expansion, whether culturally, artistically, spiritually and theologically. During my few weeks here that summer, I learned so much about the important influence that women had then in the church through their writing and witness - an understanding that we've only just begun to unearth over the past several decades. During those weeks, I also made a few lifelong friends.

So, I'm back in 2023 to this place so dear to my heart. It's my fourth time here. Each time I arrive I feel like I've returned to my spiritual home. This time is no different, other than that it will be the longest number of days I've spent here. I'm trying not to live as a tourist, but to settle in. To shop for food every day or so in Pam Local, the nearby grocery store. To honor this culture's daily period of afternoon repose. To make new friendships and to renew old ones. To rest and to renew. 

During this time, I'll be refreshing my memory and expanding my learning of the feminine mystics of the Middle Ages, who come from this part of Italy. In a Facebook post a few days ago, I mentioned that I'll be reading Women Christian Mystics: Speak to Our Times, edited by David B. Perrin, OMI. In his introduction to a series of essays, this is what HE writes about listening again to these women who have "lived valiantly the drama of human life and who, to date, have not had the opportunity to teach us."

"Listening again does not mean we sit back in our comfortable tightly knit intellectual dwelling places and sigh contently knowing we've done our part to heal past wounds by passively patronizing women's stories with albeit our attentive ears. No, listening again means to allow their stories to touch our stories, to let their lives enter into our lives such that we gain the hard-won wisdom they have to offer. Nor does listening again mean we laboriously try to fit their stories into our preconceived categories. Rather, we listen in order to allow their stories to BREAK OPEN the sealed containers within which we sometimes live. We need their stories to provide for us the grist for our own wisdom. They have walked treacherous and burdensome ways, as do we as individuals and as a collective body. Taking up their stories into our lives provides some wider context within which we can reflect and expand our own worlds outside the often times patriarchal or other limiting horizons against which we have come to know and define who we are as Christians and as human beings."

May this time break me open from the sealed container in which I often live. May it provide discernment and wisdom. May it open me to a broader context and expansion of my own thought and being. And, particularly, may I be renewed and refreshed to live authentically.

Hello, Orvieto - my old friend! And, to you dear reader, welcome to Orvieto!