A tale of two hills
Cynic that I am, I’ve always been wary of the universal claims about the power of the University of Dallas’ Rome semester.
By the time you finally arrive on the Due Santi campus as a sophomore, you’ve been told, “This is where the Core comes together,” and, “This is such a formative experience” more times than there are flavors of gelato. Despite my giddiness in the days leading up to my flight, I couldn’t help but wonder if the claims were actually true.
But there is nothing like unexpected beauty to jostle one out of skepticism.
I look back on the most precious moments in this first half of the semester, and honestly, they’re not Mass at St. Peter’s or standing beneath the Parthenon. They’re the quiet moments alone with the Father in the hermitage of St. Francis, or turning from a sunset to see a monstrance through a church window.
They’re the times you’re standing behind the campus gate, hugging and laughing after a particularly stressful return from a long weekend or when you lead everyone in “Oh God Beyond All Praising” at the center of a tholos tomb.
One of these unexpected moments took place on the ferry that took us from Bari, Italy to Patras, Greece. A few hours before docking, UD students flocked to the deck, pointing, gasping and taking pictures of an island dotted with trees and white rocks. We were passing Ithaka.
Words cannot do justice for that moment of camaraderie. I stood in awe of these young adults from all across the country, with myriad backgrounds, interests and personalities. But in that moment, we were all united in that same joy, laughing, reciting poetry, cracking jokes about how Odysseus spent 10 years searching for an island we reached in 12 hours. The place we had all visited so many times in the pages of Homer was real.
Not only was it real, but it was ours. As we gathered for a group picture, my friend exclaimed, “This is our home.” Through Homer, we were taught to wonder about home, to voice the longings that resound in every soul. That moment of unity and homecoming was only a foreshadowing of the union that, God willing, we will all experience before the vision of our heavenly homeland.
But that hilly island would have meant nothing without the existence of a smaller hill in Athens. Overshadowed by the ancient Parthenon and hidden by the bustle of modern Athens, the Areopagus easily escapes notice. But 2000 years ago, St. Paul stood at that sacred site and preached to the Athenians:
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.
“He fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”
In last week’s edition of the newspaper, Dr. Engelland wrote about the death of Socrates. If the prison of Socrates is the birthplace of the liberal arts, the Areopagus marks the way Christianity enters into the liberal arts tradition and changes it forever.
With his words recorded in Acts 17, Paul praises the Athenians’ own groping for God and uses their poetry for the sake of Christ’s Gospel. In doing so, he gives Christians permission to seek out and delight in the Truth and Beauty who does not relegate Himself to church sanctuaries, but sings through pagan poets and secular stories.
On the Areopagus, Paul claims all creation for Christ. He contextualizes our joy in beholding Ithaka, our wonder beneath Parnassian constellations, and our song in Mycenae.
So yes, I suppose the Core does come together in Rome.