Grazie: A Note from the Gordon in Orvieto Director

By Matt Doll, Director of Gordon in Orvieto

As we were standing in the courtyard, bags ready, about to leave for the Rome trip, I realised that we were truly here. It was important for us to acknowledge and honour the fact that the previous group of students, who were only here for two weeks before needing to fly home at the start of the pandemic, never made it past that same moment. Despite going home too soon, they still exchanged a fullness of friendship and care that is central to the Orvieto program. Knowing this, we agreed to bring them with us and agreed to take every moment as a gift moving forward. That is exactly what we did. Twenty students from Gordon, Wheaton, George Fox, Westmont and Houghton chose to return to Orvieto after three missing semesters and it was an extraordinary gift to have them here. 

Leading up to the semester we were preparing for what we knew would be unpredictable. Needing to balance the evolving COVID restrictions locally and internationally, some of our patterns and routines would require change in order to restart. We knew it would be a day-to-day and week-to-week operation and we had to assume that there would be interruptions that would shift the starting lines, forcing us to pivot from one moment to the next. 

Having a convent as our home proved to be ideal, given the unique requirements of the global health crisis. In a remarkable way, the convent became a reimagined version of its original purpose more than 750 years after it was built. It has all the necessary components for sustainable living. Inside the gate we have an interior courtyard, residential spaces, arts and humanities classrooms, offices, a kitchen and refectory, a garden as well as indoor and outdoor places to relax. It has all the components to facilitate hospitality. These interior and exterior elements of the building’s design, as an architectural expression of form and function, have always been central to the identity of our program’s purpose. In this instance, the convent took on an even deeper role of necessity for our well-being.

As convents are places of deep solitude, they are equally designed to encourage communal forms of growth for service. It requires active participation by everyone to achieve both. 

What can never be forgotten is that an enclosure makes presence possible, but it doesn’t guarantee it. That requires more. As convents are places of deep solitude, they are equally designed to encourage communal forms of growth for service. It requires active participation by everyone to achieve both. And, as Thomas Merton reminds us, “there can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world—but to help save it in saving oneself.” We have always viewed our relationship to being in Orvieto in these terms. The convent is a place of retreat but not of removal. A functioning convent needs to be a life-affirming place of productivity, imagination and community as much as it needs to be a place of contemplation. 

This emphasis reminds me of the sukkah, a parallel building type that also was designed to facilitate healthy, reflective living in community. In “The Symbolic Sukkah in Psalms,” Herbert Levine notes, “The sukkah is centrally connected to human life: it offers a dream of intimacy with God, dreamt from within the simplest, most basic habitation, the agricultural hut. The transformation of that hut into the divine sukkah is not just a dream of ultimate solitude, however rewarding than necessary such place of private meditation and prayer might be. It is also centrally connected to the political and liturgical life of the people.”

So, we made a sukkah of our place here. We oriented our classes around what could be possible. It became an intensified version of our goals for every semester. We drew, wrote and painted everywhere. We made fresh pasta together with our cook, Maria. We had community films and discussion nights. We harvested grapes with Albert and Ike. We had a poetry reading in the late fall sunshine. We made sculptural works around every inch of the property. We had an incredible Thanksgiving dinner. We travelled to Assisi and Florence. We had an exhibition with acres of new artwork. It was wonderful, and the group was devoted to being fully present here from beginning to end. What we enjoyed was an entire semester full of grace. Our time was blessed and we witnessed genuine gratitude for being here and genuine gratitude toward one another. What felt improbable became a beautiful reality as we were able to do so many things together. 

Grace and gratitude are rooted at the same starting point. One is unmerited and the other is responsive. When we receive grace, do we choose to give back?

As a poignant example of this, here is a brief moment worth celebrating. 

At the midway point of the semester two positive cases showed up in the group, immediately requiring us to respond. We moved the two people into an apartment while the rest of students were required to quarantine as one big household. The entire convent became our ospedale, our hospital for those inside. But since none of them were sick, they waited to be tested two days later. Representatives from the Ministry of Health arrived on Saturday, suited themselves up for what looked like a lunar exploration and began testing one person at a time in the centre of the courtyard. As soon as the roster concluded, they sent everyone inside the convent and called over the people isolating in the apartment. The central design of the courtyard means that all the windows face onto it. Everyone went to their rooms, hung outside the windows and cheered on the final two tests. To make it even better, music major Katelyn Lashley ’22 pulled out her viola and began to play a few pieces to brighten the mood even further. The medical staff loved every second of the unusually happy circumstances to their otherwise routine procedures. One of them said she was being brought to tears. 

Thankfully, within a couple days the whole group tested out of quarantine and we were back on our way. The image alone of this whole scene encapsulates what we can choose to do given a sudden change of plans. We can respond with simple gestures of gratitude. We can sing, applaud and encourage others. It is easy to be weary in the middle of such immense uncertainty. And, if it isn’t a natural disaster, then it will be something else that gives us cause to ignore what needs to be done, what needs to change, what holds sway over our best efforts to seek and secure communion. 

Grace and gratitude are rooted at the same starting point. One is unmerited and the other is responsive. When we receive grace, do we choose to give back? At a minimum, what have the past two years taught us? Without gratitude, we are less than half of our true selves. As we always hope to do, we made a good dwelling place together by centralising our intentions toward one another. This is what encourages our students to leave the convent and orient their vision outwards. Convents are not meant to retain their inhabitants. They are meant to send them out again and again. 

To the students and staff here and on campus, to the families and to all the schools that allowed their students to return, we say, grazie

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