Story and photo by M. Ryan Groff '06
Seeing photos of great works of art in a book or online is one thing. Feeling the complex tension of Christian learning when standing between Raphael’s School of Athens and his Disputation of the Sacrament (while simultaneously planted beneath Cardinal and Theological Virtues) at the Vatican is another thing altogether. As an alumnus of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum (JAF), I had learned a lot about Tertullian’s question—“What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”—from classroom discussions. But I appreciate the delicate balance of faith and reason all the more after standing between these depictions of the Church and the academy, with the cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance circling the ceiling above me.
A Ten-Day Journey
This past January, having never traveled outside North America, I joined a small band of JAF alumni and Professor Tal Howard for a 10-day trip to Orvieto, Florence and Rome. We were hosted by John Skillen and Matthew Doll at the Monastery San Paulo, home to Gordon’s Orvieto program. Far from being a sightseeing excursion (though we saw our share of sites), and not for the purpose of snapshot cultural sampling (though we sampled some tasty bits of culture), we were there to explore personifications of classical virtues in Renaissance literature, art and architecture.
Dr. Howard charged us not to be “connoisseurs consuming another culture or historical period,” but rather to allow the questions and presuppositions of another place to affect our own.
C. S. Lewis said that “firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring . . . but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” It allows, even demands, attentiveness otherwise difficult to conjure. After just a few days in Italy, we began noticing the personified virtues everywhere: on the façade and doors of the baptistery at the Florence Duomo; in a ring around the pulpit at Santa Croce; and littering the walls of the Vatican Museum and the ceiling of the Uffizi Gallery. We could literally see these virtues playing a part in all areas of society—architecture, liturgy and civil governance. It’s difficult to imagine a better school than firsthand location, or a more powerful pedagogical aid than actually standing before an ancient idea. I’d been a student for quite some time but all without getting out of my seat.
A "Clean Sea Breeze"
Lewis admits the firsthand encounter is not just good in and of itself but because it also saves us from the confines of our own narrow present. The same could be said about the virtue of a trip. We take it not to leave our present but as a palliative against thinking we are all there is.
Encountering the past in Italy was for me, as Lewis puts it, like a “clean sea breeze of the centuries,” with the beauty of this breeze being that it came to me in a whole new way when I experienced it in its original setting.
M. Ryan Groff ’06 thinks trips are the eighth virtue and enjoys taking them as part of his work with the Jerusalem and Athens Forum, of which he is an alumnus (2005–06 cohort) and for which he has been program coordinator since last year. He and his wife, Laurie (Arnold) ’06, live in North Beverly with their sons, Simon and Micah. Laurie is an assistant swim coach and Hebrew language instructor at Gordon.