City On a Hill: Finding Community in Orvieto

I have a habit of dreading the future—not just the uncertainty, but what is sure to happen. For one, I hate goodbyes. And when I know one is coming, a deep, almost unshakeable sadness takes root in my heart. Dreading to say goodbye to someone while they are right next to you is like wearing a swimsuit to go skiing: sure, you can do it, but it is bound to ruin your experience. 

However, last semester, something changed. I studied abroad in Orvieto, Italy. Two weeks into our four months there, already I was dreading my cohort’s final days together. However, this did not prevent me from enjoying my time, nor did it cast an ugly pallor over the 13th-century refurbished convent in which we stayed. I shed my pessimistic instinct from the past two years like an exoskeleton. I became the version of myself that I wanted to be—not an entirely new person, but Beka with the anxiety and stress boiled away. Even my RA, Anne, who did not know me before last fall, noticed this change throughout the semester. This change, however, seemed to be mainly due to this new and temporary environment. I was afraid that, upon my return, I would crawl back into my shell once more. I started to miss the people and the place before I even left.  

This feeling related to a poem our program director read to us called “The Soul Longs for Home,” by Jeanne Murray Walker. In it, she says, “When what I have / right here / is what I want / why is it then / I miss it most?” When I was in Orvieto, it felt like home. And when I had to go home, it felt like I was leaving home.  

When people ask what the best part of Italy was, my answer is surprisingly simple: community. I know—it’s a cliché buzzword used to inspire incoming freshmen. But real community is different, and this past semester I experienced it like never before. 

Embedded within “community” is communion. Communion, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is not just “an act or instance of sharing,” but an “intimate fellowship or rapport.” Fellowship is more than just a church potluck. Communion goes beyond the wine and wafer, and part of us knows there is much more to it than that. 

I have realized that true community is stitched together with the golden thread of eternal, heavenly communion. That is why we use “community”  as a buzzword for Gordon College newcomers—the human soul longs for communion, for a taste of heaven, for Home.  

But alas, I have returned to the back-breaking reality of normal academia—and it does not include reading Virgil’s Georgics at a vineyard or eating homemade pasta twice a day. Being “present” is simple when you have seventeen best friends and time that moves like molasses. 

This is not to say we can not have communion in Massachusetts, but the American spirit often makes it exceedingly difficult. A culture of workaholism and due dates does not promise a happy ending for any of us, especially if we allow it to grab hold of our shoulders and shake us like rag dolls. This, I confess, is how I have felt upon my return. I have felt it for most of college, but I did not notice the water I was swimming in until I was momentarily pulled into the Italian air and thrown back into the stormy depths of college life. You can understand why I was scared to return. I didn’t want to scuttle back into my lonely shell again.

I discovered something in Italy: community does not just happen. You do not stare at a pile of bricks and wonder why it’s not turning into a wall. You have to put your back into it. You must hold the grieving and rejoice with the joyful. You must open up to others. You must seek out and grasp those relationships. They are motivated by Christ’s love, yet they remain a mere shadow of the “not yet” projected into the “already.” There is no need to dread the goodbye because this earth is just a reflection of the communion to come.

What I found in Orvieto, Italy, can be found in any place, if only you search hard and love deeply. Invest in people. Love them fully and clearly. Put aside your desires occasionally and help someone. They seem simple, but these actions are what push us to stay above the waves. They push us because they reflect God’s love. I long for the day when the tiny morsel of our heavenly Home is fully realized—when we see our Savior face-to-face. Even while we are here in our earthly home, we still long for Home. We still look for true, heavenly communion—“Even / here…as the white / moon slips down the skyline—I long for it.” 

Categories: Faith

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