What Matters to You and Why? This Week’s Friday Reflection


Middlebury College

Mark Orten, Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life.


On Friday, February 19, members of the Middlebury community gathered at the Mitchell Green Lounge to attend the first Reflection Friday series of the semester. The Reflection Friday Series is a program created by the Innovation Hub in which speakers are invited to share what they consider valuable and why.

Among the main goals of the series is to “build bridges of communication amongst faculty and students in an intimate setting.” The speaker for February 19 was Mark Orten, Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life. Conducting the interview was Liz Robinson, Associate Dean of the College for Creativity, Engagement & Careers.

The audience was presented with a biography of Orten prior to his tenure at Middlebury. He spent 13 years as the director of religious and spiritual life at Denison University, where he was also chaplain. There, he organized interreligious educational service trips to Guatemala and instituted an interfaith dialogue program. Before Denison, Orten was a Presbyterian chaplain at Princeton University.

When asked about what matters to him, Orten provided a list of eleven items. The first item, process, reflects his belief that any journey toward attaining a desired result is as important as the result itself. A self-described introvert, Orten shared his need for solitude, the second item on his list. The other nine values he finds important are affirmation, dialogue, integrity, communication, consideration, community and ritual.

Orten also spoke of mindfulness, noting the concept’s current popularity, and characterized the phenomenon as being fully engaged and present in the moment.  Orten insisted that the idea of mindfulness allows people a new way of “recognizing as a whole, something that has always been recognized throughout cultures.” In these cultures’ continuous attempts to explain reality, they share a common belief: that all of life is infused with sacredness, according to Orten.

He humorously described his attempts at mindfulness as being like a “monk on the freeway.” He believes that too much stimulation exists in our society, and that “all our joy and insight” can be found in our internal selves. Orten recommends that we recondition our focus toward being present instead of chasing after external rewards.

Orten believes that if the list of important things is intact during one’s day-to-day existence, one is doing well. Otherwise, if one senses that certain qualities are missing, it is time to adjust. To prevent one from deviating from what they consider valuable in life, Orten suggests that they stop, reflect, pay attention and observe.

Orten shared his embracing of certain rituals. He abides by principles of yoga, which ensures that his behavior is grounded in nonviolence. When stressed or anxious, he rings a bell in his office. Orten also lights incense, walks the newly installed labyrinth at the Knoll, and attends church on Sundays, which provides him with a renewed sense of community.

The moments that led Orten to pursuing ordained ministry started in childhood. Growing up in a rural area of North Carolina, Orten found himself passing time by catching baseballs he threw up in the sky. This activity gave him meaning: the feeling that “everything in life belonged” and that every aspect of life was in “complete integration.” Raised in a fundamentalist background, Orten went to a religious camp where he was recognized for his potential. He was then invited to attend a series of lectures at Yale. This experience showed him that life was different from the bubble of North Carolina. Orten eventually applied to the Princeton seminary despite backlash from his hometown. At the seminary, he realized the many forms that prayer can manifest itself in life.

Ultimately, the event provided students and faculty the opportunity to explore the ever important question, what do we value? Mark Orten, Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, shared his ideas during this Friday lunch, but by hearing from other speakers in future reflections, we can expect even more opportunities to explore understanding of one’s values.