STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/15/2009

Living in the Enclosed Garden: The Convent Life of Gordon in Orvieto

by Agnes R. Howard

Art, rich history, beautiful country, fascinating cities, good food . . . and nuns? Students in the Gordon in Orvieto program anticipate some of the cultural riches offered through our outpost in Italy, but others might be grasped more gradually.

Currently housed in the Monastero San Paolo, previously in San Lodovico on the other side of town, the Gordon in Orvieto program is closely tied to the institution of the convent. Our program has found convents suitable for reasons linked to the ancient and more recent history of such places.

Women’s religious orders in Europe have fallen on lean times. Reduced ranks have left vacant space in great old buildings, now given to education, celebration, charity, hospitality. But it would be foolish, boorish, not to take stock of their original purposes; especially as some of the hallmarks of these institutions—consecrated space and time, faithfulness conceived as meditation and prayer, community life—not only shape the walls we reside in but also encourage deliberate observance of these habits in fresh and appropriate ways. We give thanks to God, rendiamo grazie a Dio, for the chance to learn in this setting.

Entering the convent invites questions about its past. Walls, gates and heavy doors separate it from the busy street outside. From the Middle Ages until only the last few hundred years, most women in religious life were cloistered. That is, after taking formal vows they would neither leave the building nor permit many outsiders to enter.

But convents were often constructed around outdoor spaces within the doors, enclosed gardens and courtyards for refreshment and reflection. A courtyard is visible immediately after San Paolo’s main entrance, and a lovely cortile overlooking the cliffside lies at the end of the hallway. The hall in between reaches spaces given to common use: a refectory for meals; a vestibule for preparing to enter the adjacent chapel, where sisters would gather repeatedly each day for prayer. The building nudges us into community.

Religious houses offered women the opportunity to dedicate their time to God, following a rule of discipline and prayer together, removed from secular life. The fifth-century “patron saint of Europe,” Saint Benedict, wrote a Rule for monks that was adapted for women and adopted by the first residents of San Paolo. San Paolo’s records are scarce, but their reputation for devotion and holiness persisted over centuries and attracted praise from visitors, including the famous female poet Vittoria Colonna.

In centuries when women’s opportunities for literacy and work outside the domestic sphere were sharply limited, convents allowed them to study, make music and art, or copy books. For us that affords a salutary reminder that study and prayer go together, and that having a stretch of time to do both is a high privilege.

That stretch of time is divided into segments, disciplined. For those in monastic life, the year is given shape by the liturgical calendar, church seasons overlaying natural ones. Within each day the Liturgy of the Hours sets aside periods for prayer at dawn, noon, night, through to Compline to close the day. The belltower, campanile, tolls times for each.

Time is different at Gordon in Orvieto. Lest this sound merely fanciful, note that the change in time zones, curfew hours, and assigned slots for activities set apart this semester from students’ lives at home. Meals are taken not whenever hunger nags but at fixed hours at table together. Internet access is limited, so Facebook gets bumped from the center of the social universe. Students themselves often remark on the pleasant (slow) pace of life, which my inner voice answers with the judgment that I must not have assigned enough reading.

But community doesn’t come cheap. Nuns who entered convents chose their way of life but not necessarily each other. They had to learn how to pursue holiness while sleeping and waking among difficult personalities and old habits. Shared lives, mutual burdens, and unity for the sake of God are sweet fruits. But they require discipline, both within and from above.

Our version of this process repeats itself each semester as if for the first time, or as if in centuries past. Students share rooms, a coffee pot, schedules (with all together in one or two courses), pasta served family-style at dinners with classmates not of their election. Another aspect of community, of course, is shared labor. Weekly chores fall to all. Disputes arise when one fails to wash dishes or mop the floor as expected. These may appear petty, but such disputes hold out a link to the monastic tradition whose quarters we occupy. Monks and nuns recognized that these minor tasks were of major significance; service to one’s brothers and sisters in small ways bred love, humility, faithfulness.

Permanence is another aspect of community, for it is impossible to develop it without the commitment to stay—in the case of students, for the semester; and for San Paolo’s nuns, for a lifetime. San Paolo has been part of Orvieto for almost 800 years. Founded in 1221, the convent switched from Benedictine to Dominican rule in 1309. San Paolo weathered the changes of Medieval and Early Modern periods: plague, Guelph-Ghibelline warfare, Renaissance, Reformations Protestant and Catholic, right up to the French Revolution.

When war swept across Europe after the French Revolution, San Paolo suffered as Napoleon and his troops closed, destroyed or pillaged church institutions throughout Italy. The sisters had to find shelter in private homes in what must have been a fearful and dismaying end to the enclosed life they had chosen. San Paolo remained empty for several decades.

Much of San Paolo’s history is beyond our reach. But the snapshots we have—of a 1527 visit from Pope Clement VII; of 16th- century commissions sisters received to restore distant convents; of the acquisition of a miracle-working painting of Jesus; of the building and decoration of the 17th- century Church of San Paolo—along with the house’s reputation for piety, help us to see it as one of Orvieto’s estimable institutions.

San Paolo is on the edge: of Orvieto; of the cliff. Placing monasteries on Orvieto’s rim was the design of medieval city fathers in a time of frequent fighting and factions. It suits monasteries still, not only because their guests get to enjoy wonderful vistas (and, as with most Italian hill towns, the view is half the point) but also because religious institutions are both part of the urban landscape—omnipresently, inextricably part of, in the eyes of newcomers discovering church after duomo after convent after oratory in a walk through the medieval streets—and committed to a different purpose.

Agnes R. Howard, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history who has taught in the Gordon in Orvieto program. She has published essays in First Things, Commonweal, Books & Culture and The Cresset. Agnes and her husband, Tal, live in Georgetown, Massachusetts, and have three children.


Agnes R Howard