Undistracted, Leisurely Attention

by Dr. John Skillen

If you read my previous post, “Saint Basil and His Bees in Orvieto,” you may recall my descriptions of enjoying two weeks of undistracted leisurely attention—scholé—during our summer seminars in Orvieto, Italy. There, students and teachers create rich honey from pollen selectively gathered from classic texts, masterpieces of visual art, and excursions through the vineyards and olive groves of central Italy. This outside-the-classroom experience is a condensing of the scholé form of contemplative learning that is more feasibly practiced by small circles of students or educators. When there’s an interesting exhibit at the science museum, we can hop in the car and go! Studying Renaissance art? Let’s make an excursion to the local fine arts museum. If we’re studying flora and fauna, we pack the picnic hamper and head to the hills.

Our setting in Orvieto offers many opportunities to engage the mind while giving the body a workout. The following snapshots share a glimpse into the variety of scholé experiences we enjoy during our time in Orvieto.

The scholé ethos of this program is embodied in long, conversation-filled Italian meals, made from fresh, local ingredients and skillfully prepared by our local chef, Maria; in three-hour classes in the morning (with a cappuccino break in the middle); in hiking up the hillside, through olive groves and vineyards, to the Capuchin monastery; in moving a discussion or two to the shore of Lake Bolsena, with time for a swim followed by gelato. In the eveningsscholécontinues as we join the chanted Vespers service of the Franciscan nuns, whose local community has been praying the monastic Daily Office for seven centuries; and when we conclude the day with a Compline service, accompanied by Dr. Perrin on the guitar.

Located midway between Rome and Florence, Orvieto is an ancient-modern clifftop town that has been continuously occupied since its Etruscan origins seven centuries before Christ. But it’s not all olive groves and gelato shops, and nearby Bolsena with its lake isn’t just the “beach.” Bolsena was the hometown of a courageous teenage martyr named Christina, who most likely lived during the time of Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians in the early fourth century. Christina’s body was buried unceremoniously in a hillside cave after she stood firm in her faith in the face of her executioner: her own father, the Roman-appointed administrator.

When Christianity was legalized under Emperor Constantine, the community of believers began burying their dead near Santa Christina’s resting place in an expanding network of catacombs that reverent visitors are welcome to explore today.

This experience of visiting the catacombs, for teachers and students alike, is solemnly fascinating. Latin is no dead language for the students gathered around the burial plaques, touching their fingers to the stone as they decipher the inscriptions carved in memory of the faithful wife, the beloved five-year-old daughter, or the prominent leader. What a pleasure to work with students who know Latin well enough to enjoy parsing their way through abbreviated phrases and Roman numerals indicating the years and months and days of a person’s earthly life, their curiosity and expressions of tenderness erasing historical distance.

On another day, we make a descent down through the layers of Christian history in the Basilica of San Clemente, two blocks from the Colosseum in Rome. The eleventh-century, mosaic-filled church looks plenty old itself at street level when we enter. But then we descend into the remains of the fourth-century church whose pillars still hold up the sanctuary above. And below that is the large urban villa where a convert hosted a first- or second-century house church, adjacent to an apartment building where a men’s secret fraternity performed pagan rituals in honor of the bull-killing hero Mithras.

Yes, we see the famous monuments of classical Rome during our time here.

But we focus on examples of early Christian appropriationof the classical heritage: for example, the Pantheon, originally built as a temple to all the Roman gods and later rededicated to all the martyrs who worshipped the one triune God; and a church now dedicated to the Mother of God built on the remains of a temple originally constructed to honor Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. We spend a day among the ruins of the ancient Roman port of Ostia Antica, once located at the mouth of the Tiber River but now stranded several kilometers inland because of the changing coastline. In this vast archaeological park, which is far from resembling our formal, modern museums, nothing hinders the young at heart from racing up the aisles in the amphitheater and reciting Hamlet from the stage. We may even discover the house where prayer-warrior Monica died while waiting for the boat that would take her son, Augustine, back to their homeland in northern Africa, where he would become bishop of Hippo.

Together these experiences put teeth in the question of how the early Christians sorted through the remains of classical philosophy, literature, and material culture, choosing what to preserve, discard, or put to “better use.” Every classical Christian school and homeschool co-op implementing scholé enacts this same “sorting-out” of the godly from the misleading in the classical heritage. Certainly, classical educators are well situated to do long-term what we provide in distilled form during our summer program in Orvieto. We all strive to combine close study of great texts of literature and philosophy from the classical, medieval, and Renaissance world. In Orvieto, we add in-the-flesh encounters, climbing and exploring, worshipping in ancient churches, and visiting not museums but the original sites themselves. And in doing so, we become a bit more like Basil’s bees, “pursuing not merely what is sweet and pleasant in such writings” but also reaping “from them some benefit also for our souls.”

Dr. John Skillen

Dr. John Skillen (PhD, Duke University) directs the Studio for Art, Faith and History while serving as a senior advisor in Gordon College’s Global Education Office. He was the medieval and Renaissance literature specialist in Gordon’s English department for many years before starting the semester program in Orvieto in 1998, serving as its director until 2009. The program has hosted more than 600 students from 25 institutions. Dr. Skillen established the Studio for Art, Faith and History to develop special projects that offer creative contemporary responses to pre-modern traditions in the visual and performing arts, and to develop educational programs for high school students, graduate students, and adult learners. Dr. Skillen is a resident professor with the annual Classical Academic Press Orvieto trip.

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