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Reflections On Travel Study in Italy
By Debbie Will
On June 31, a group of 12 Providence Seminary Counseling students and their professors (often referred to as the 12 disciples) left Calgary and headed to Italy for a two week travel study. Our main purpose was to fulfill the requirements for courses in Cross Culture counseling, Integration of Theology and Psychology, and/or Theology and Practice of Christian Spirituality. The focus of the trip was to follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi, visit the sacred sites of Rome and Assisi, and visit the terrain overlooking the coast of Italian Rivera, and through these experiences reflect upon what this journey means as a Christ follower and psychotherapist in training. It was a very full itinerary, and definitely a once in-life-time experience. Clearly the “me” who viewed Michelangelo’s “Pieta” at the Vatican, climbed the mountain to Carceri Hermitage in Assisi, had a God encounter with a Friar, and followed the footsteps of St. Francis might as well be a different person then the one who boarded the plane to Italy on June 31. I am still attempting to figure out how two weeks of Italy travel could cause such immense change, but maybe I could start with the fact that this was no ordinary travel tour.
Beginning in Rome, our group had the opportunity to visit St. Peter’s Basilica; this was our first destination and laid the ground work for the rest of our trip. Prior to our trip, we had some contemplative exercises where we had to spend time pondering the art of Michelangelo, Bernini and Caravaggio which we would see in Rome. Although it was my second visit to the Vatican it felt different this time. Seeing these works of art in person was very impactful, particularly the “Pieta” by Michelangelo (representation of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of dead Christ sitting on her lap). Many consider the “Pieta” one of the most beautiful works of marble in Rome, I would agree. Michelangelo boldly captures the intimacy and majesty of a single moment in time, which gave me a physical presence of experiencing God. I am reminded of the immense sacrifice that was made through Christ’s crucifixion which has given a pathway to salvation and redemption for all of mankind.
That same day we visited the necropolis underneath the Basilica, and saw the tomb of the very first Pope, St. Peter. To read Matthew 16:18, (“Now I say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock my church will build my church and all of the powers of hell will not conquer it”) and to see this carried this in reality made the scriptures come alive for me. One of things I took away from our visit at the Vatican is a deeper respect for Catholicism and an appreciation for the foundation it has given to Christianity. I can see why some say “All road leads to Rome” in praise of the grandeur and importance of a city which claimed for itself the title of “caput mundi”.
The next stop along our Pilgrimage was the city of Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis, one of the most famous Catholic saints in history. Assisi is a small Umbrian town in central Italy and one of the most beautiful and spiritual places I have ever visited. Spending time in Assisi at the monastery (where we stayed), traveling to several historic sites connected to St. Francis journey and the breath taking scenery all contributed to this place having a deep impact on me. During our week in Assisi we literally followed the footsteps St. Francis would have taken over 800 years ago. We walked around his childhood home, spent time in St. Francis Basilica and travelled out of Assisi to visit the Sanctuary of La Verna and Le Celle monastery in Cortona, Italy both places he would retreat to for prayer and rest. To experience these places was finding God in thin places. In all of these places there was a time-stopping awareness of God’s presence. Through following St. Francis footsteps I got to know a man who embodied living out Christ in everything he did. He saw all of cosmos as a reflection of the glory of God and as sacred Clearly I see a man who came to know himself by knowing Christ, and in his true self-knowledge he found freedom to serve wholeheartedly. He chose to live a life of humility, simplicity and poverty. St. Francis has challenged me on many levels, for now as a psychotherapist in training I will focus upon what it means to live out my life with more intentionality in all these areas.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the travel study in Italy. One of the wonderful things of a pilgrimage is that you do not do the journey alone. There are no solitary journeys. At the heart of the trip was experiencing a sense of God’s presence throughout it all, and being blessed with a rich community of fellow sojourners. Although our group ranged in ages from twenty-nine to fifty-nine, our common ground was surprising expansive. We were able to discuss difficult topics and real issues we were struggling with. I think this is because a pilgrimage allows for plenty of time to talk and have meaningful conversations. And so it goes, we made friends and memories that will last life time.
“Nothing compares to what it is like to be physically present”, is often a phrase that can explain the value of going somewhere rather than reading or learning about it in the classroom. The trip was a watershed in both my walk of faith and my academic journey; my brain is still on overload as I attempt to integrate my transformational experiences along with new theological, spiritual and cultural perspectives. Although technically speaking I went on the Italy trip to learn about spiritual formation and counseling across cultures, I have taken away much more than that. Through my daily encounters of experiencing God’s presence, I have come away with a new understanding of who God is, who I am, and a deeper trust and joy in my faith. I have a new appreciation for how God reveals himself through relationships, circumstances and nature. My travel experience has given me a desire to deepen my relationship with the divine through holistic practices which connect the body, mind and soul. As I move forward in my journey with God, I take with me the importance of connecting with God of the universe who comes to me in love, and who I can trust infinitely!
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