Michelle Arnold Paine
On the evening of February 27, 2015, I received a text message from my dear brother in Christ Alessandro Lardani that his sister Elisa had delivered her baby, but was in surgery. Her doctors were not sure she would survive. He asked me to spread the request for prayer to our network of American friends, those who had been students or faculty in Gordon College’s program in Orvieto. Immediately I contacted several faculty and former Orvieto students to ask for their prayers. A few hours later I received another text. The hemorrhage that had begun during the birthing process was continuing and Elisa was fighting for her life.
Through the night I was up several times nursing my own five-week-old baby, and I made sure to check my phone frequently for further updates. The next day we learned that Elisa Lardani Marchi had passed away due to numerous complications ending in disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). Her baby Maddalena was in stable condition in the NICU.
I first met Elisa’s family (the one she grew up in – not the one she created with her husband Luca) in 1998, when I was one of a group of university students, mainly from evangelical Christian colleges, who had come to the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto to study art in a new program developed by Professor John Skillen and his colleagues in the art department of Gordon College. One purpose of the program was to gain a view of salvation history through the great visual narratives of the fresco cycles of Florence, Rome, Arezzo, Padua, and Orvieto.
That first year, and for the two-and-a-half years I would later work as the coordinator of the program, the faculty and students were hosted at the convent of San Lodovico by the sisters of the Company of Mary Our Lady. They were a teaching order whose convent had been a boarding school for educating teachers. As economies and demographics changed they had re-configured themselves as a religious house of hospitality, and we were their guests.
One Sunday morning in that first spring of 1998 I attended Mass at the cathedral (the Duomo), lingering afterwards to savor the heartfelt simplicity I had observed in the liturgy. A woman approached me. She said (in Italian, but I deciphered the sense well enough), “I saw you in the library last week and now I see you here, so I came to introduce myself.” Orvieto has many tourists, but few stay more than a few hours, so my (obviously foreign) presence over time in “everyday” places was unusual. I told her I was moved by the service at the Duomo, which seemed unlike the Masses I had attended previously in Florence and elsewhere in Italy. She invited me to meet her later that week: “I will bring you somewhere to pray where there is a peace that is not of men.” Her name was Anna, and she said she had children my age who she would like me to meet. Her daughter Elisa would be just my age and was at university in Padua studying Psychology. Her son Alessandro was in Perugia studying law.
I met her in front of the Duomo a few days later. She led me through the maze of medieval streets to evening vespers at the convent of the Franciscan order of Saint Clare – Santa Chiara. The cloistered nuns gathered in the chapel six times a day to pray the Daily Office, separated from the world by an iron grate. The convent was full of the silence of centuries and a holiness of those who are truly “set aside” to do the hard work of prayer. Afterwards Anna invited me to visit her at work in the public library “quando vuoi” (“when you want”). In the next weeks I did visit her. Others of our group met her in the library, too. We began to pray with the poor Clares, and met Anna’s son Alessandro and her daughter Elisa.
As I got to know Anna and her family better I found they were members of a charismatic prayer group. They were seeking to deepen their devotion to Christ, and for them Gregorian chant with cloistered nuns held no contradiction with the guitar-and-drum praise music they played at their charismatic prayer meetings every Wednesday evening.
Soon our entire group of American students were meeting frequently with Elisa, her brother Alessandro, and other young members of the Comunità Maria to play soccer (Italians vs. Americans), to eat gelato, and to play guitars on the steps of the Duomo. That spring was a beautiful moment of reciprocity in which our Orvietani hosts welcomed us to into their faith, lives and city. In exchange we had an opportunity to re-open their eyes to the beauty of the art and history that surrounded them every day.
When we had been acquainted for a month or two, Anna asked if I would like to attend the national convention of the Comunità Maria, part of the world-wide charismatic Catholic Renewal movement. Elisa, her mother Anna, and her brother Alessandro had begun a profound conversion process the year before and were beginning a walk of faith with that group, the “Mary Community.” I did not immediately give my assent, asking instead if I could attend one of their regular, local prayer meetings first.
I had never experienced prayer in this way before – singing improvisational melodies, then falling silent as one person’s prophetic song without words floats above the rest. Or the clatter of someone (or several someones) speaking in tongues drowning out the music of the guitar, suddenly ending with a proclaiming of God’s Word revealed in Scripture. I was suspicious, cautious of this new way of worship, of the emotional power in the room. But I was fascinated. I could not doubt the love in the eyes and in the lives of my new friends. Something here had to be real. I did decide to attend the national convention, where I first attended a charismatic mass, and I saw that the traditions of the Catholic mass which had I had previously supposed to be lifeless rite, could also be made new with guitars, with the passion of youth, and with the love of Jesus, who was present here with a force I had rarely seen before in a worship gathering.
Elisa and her brother Alessandro grew up literally in the shadow of the Cathedral – the cellars of their childhood home connected at one time to the crypt of the Cathedral. Orvieto has a treasure in its cathedral – a number of them, really, including frescos by Luca Signorelli, Gentile di Fabriano, and Fra Angelico.
The Orvieto Duomo’s spiritual treasure is a relic from the Miracle of Bolsena, the miracle which was an impetus in the church’s decision to institute the festival of Corpus Domini: Body of Christ. A Bohemian priest was making a pilgrimage to Rome in 1263 to address his doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation, when he stopped along the pilgrimage route at the church dedicated to Santa Cristina in Bolsena, eight miles from Orvieto. While celebrating the mass, at the moment of lifting high the host, blood dripped from it onto the altar cloth. The altar cloth is now housed in a transept chapel of the Cathedral of Orvieto where mass is celebrated every day.
After graduating from Gordon College in the spring of 1999, I was invited to work for the program in Orvieto program during its second pilot semester in the fall of 1999. I continued my discussions with the Mother Superior at San Lodovico; I continued to attend vespers with the sisters of St. Clare. I continued to attend mass; I continued to pray with the charismatic prayer group. I continued to deepen my friendship with Anna, Alessandro and Elisa (who had just transferred from University of Padua to University of Rome so she could be closer to her family and, I realized later, to Luca).
Elisa and I had some similarities. We were reserved, serious, studious, and dedicated to excellence sometimes to the fault of perfectionism. In the fall of 1999 as she and Luca began to deepen their friendship, our hearts began to open side by side from an adolescence closed off from love.
That fall I occasionally attended mass in the side chapel of the Duomo – where the relic of the Miracle of Bolsena was always present. I loved the music that the sisters-who-wore-gray (later I found out they were the sisters of Jesus Redeemer) would sing for those morning masses. One day, filled with peace from the service just completed, I stayed and knelt before the Holy Corporal, stained with the blood of Christ. My eyes wandered to the chapel walls, frescoed with the story of the Bolsena Miracle and other Eucharistic miracles: outrageous narratives bordering on superstition to my rational, modern mind.
That particular morning one of the sisters in gray had asked me to come to the festa they were having in honor of the founder of their order. Another friend from the Comunità Maria had been there too, and he had greeted me warmly. I stared at the relic and realized that this was God’s house, that these were my brothers and sisters, and God was inviting me, too, to be at home here. I was sitting, literally, face to face with the reality of Communion, of Jesus’s body and blood. I had the choice to reject or accept it, but I could not avoid a decision. Here in Orvieto there was no in between. I was encircled by a convergence of Word, flesh, image, and life: either accept communion with the Church, with human suffering and with Christ, or reject it.
After the second pilot semester in the Fall of 1999 I left Orvieto with the prayer that the wheels of administrative process would permit Gordon College to return to Orvieto with a permanent study abroad program, and I along with them. During the following year, the seeds which had been planted during my first two semesters began to grow. And when I did return to work for Gordon-in-Orvieto in the spring of 2001, it was not only for work, but also for my Confirmation and entry into Full Communion with the Catholic Church in the Cathedral of Orvieto at Easter 2001.
Just a couple of days before I left Orvieto in January 2000 Luca and Elisa officially began their courtship and Luca faced me in Anna’s kitchen and said, “I love her and I want to marry her.” I visited Orvieto a few months later to celebrate Easter of the grand Jubilee of 2000 in Rome and attend the annual national convention of the Comunità Maria, which I felt to be my spiritual anchor. During that trip I took a walk with Elisa. She told me the story of her and Luca. I wrote in my journal that it was beautiful, because I could see that she was “growing in faith and in love and in herself, and not being in any way constrained or repressed by her relationship to Luca, who, if he weren’t a Christian, would probably be a rather oppressive character.” At some moment during that weekend at the convention, I suddenly realized that marriage is a sacrament – an encounter with God through the love of and union with another person. This view of marriage was freeing, rather than confining.
Throughout their time dating Elisa and Luca included me in their activities and their conversations and I never felt like a third wheel. Early in their courtship Elisa and Luca attended a weekend Corso Fidanzamento, or “Betrothal Course” on Dating and Relationships conducted by the Franciscans in Assisi. This set the foundation of their relationship firmly in Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality and the family. They strongly encouraged me to attend. “But I’m not dating anyone,” I countered. “Exactly!” they would respond.
For the following three years they pestered me every time the course was offered. Finally, just months before I returned to the US permanently in 2003, I too went to Assisi to hear God’s plan for marriage and families. Elisa and Luca drove me the one-and-a-half hours from Orvieto to Assisi in Luca’s tiny, old Italian car, and then picked me up when the weekend was over. After three years they were probably afraid I would bail if I took the train alone! I returned often in the following years to the teachings I heard there as I searched for my anima gemella or “twin soul.” It was another five years before I met my husband.
Elisa and Luca’s care for my emotional life, the most intimate part of my heart, was a small preview of what their ministry would be as a couple. They were fulfilling their vocation as a couple even before they were married. Leading up to their marriage in 2003 they shared with me what they were learning about the Billings Method of Natural Family Planning as part of their marriage preparation. This natural, yet science-based method for monitoring fertility was completely new to me and this surprised them: “But the man who invented it is American!” – as if I should know about everything Americans had ever invented!
I was blessed to attend Elisa and Luca’s wedding in 2003, just three weeks before I returned to the US after my three year sojourn in Italy. In the twelve years they were married on earth they cultivated the beauty of the sacrament of marriage in their parish, their Diocese and across Italy. They were involved in Mistero Grande, a national marriage ministry; they were leaders of the Marriage and Family Ministry of their Diocese. At Elisa’s funeral there were 13 priests present, friends, spiritual directors, and ministry leaders from their various ministry activities.
When Elisa’s brother wrote to me the week after her death he wrote: “In the city of Orvieto, the city of the Eucharistic Miracle, of the blood poured from the Holy Host, maybe after 750 years a new miracle is needed, that of the small and humble mother who poured out her blood, and made of herself Bread Broken for Love.”
"Body Broken for Love" has become the testimony Elisa left behind, the theme of a conference in Orvieto exploring what it means to lose a spouse. Timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of her “birthday in heaven” the conference (Feb. 27-28, 2016) was “the beginning of a journey into the exploration of love in the midst of sorrow,” wrote Elisa’s husband Luca Marchi. An interdisciplinary exploration of the theme was an appropriate first endeavor for a newly formed non-profit to honor Elisa, who sought to integrate faith and reason in her work as a psychologist. Priests (including the Bishop of Foligno), a philosophy professor from the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome, theologians, family ministers, and a psychologist presented on the verse from Song of Songs "Strong as death is love” (8:6).
“There is no human explanation” for this death, said the priest who officiated the funeral, reminding the crowd of the biblical command “Give and it will be given to you,” saying: “Elisa gave everything, even unto the last drop of blood.” Monsignor Renzo Bonetti who con-celebrated also underlined that “it is not the years which count but the fullness of God. Elisa in the labor and delivery room found her Calvary and her Cross and carried it until the end. More she could not have given.”
Through this conference as well as in many public interviews Elisa’s husband Luca has testified to the strength of the sacrament of marriage: an eternal bond created by the Holy Spirit whose love continues to grow and to give even beyond the grave.
Luca speaks of a love for Elisa that continues to live and grow as he experiences his children, especially the new baby. Little Maddalena, like her namesake Mary Magdalene – the first witness to Christ’s Resurrection – is a beginning, not an end. This love has led him to deeper reflection on the sacred vows he pledged at the altar: to honor her ‘all the days of my life’: “This does not refer to the other’s life, but to my own!” explains Luca in an interview with Silvia Lucchetti on it.aleteia.org.
Elisa was a musician and a dancer and so it is appropriate to end with an excerpt from a new song written by Elisa and Luca’s priest confessor Father Luca Castiglione. “Sali E” speaks frankly of the sorrow and loss experienced by those close to her, but plants seeds of hope and expansive redemption in the midst of it:
Arise and spread your wings, your wings, if you want to fly with me
What we are doesn’t disappear,
like a seed,
dies to the earth and then
like a seed
Make haste then and invite everyone
These fruits are not for us alone.
Learn more about Michelle Arnold Paine and her work as an artist at: http://www.michellepaine.com