Devoid of Wonder, We Remain Deaf to the Sublime
High school students spend a weekend together in the Shenandoah Valley
Winter weather, 130 miles, 40 teenagers, new Covid restrictions. This was the reality given to us as we embarked in early December from the Maryland suburbs of DC to voyage to the Shenandoah Valley. We were traveling for our “GS Winter Weekend”—one of the two annual weekend trips taken by GS, a group of high school students who are invited to grow in familiarity with each other and with Jesus by following the charism of Fr. Giussani. Even amid all our circumstances, we had a strong desire to share life together. After another wave of the virus left us more isolated yet again, the weekend was a welcome rekindling of our companionship.
The weekend, led by Fr. José Medina, had the theme, “Devoid of Wonder: We Remain Deaf to the Sublime.” Fr. José explained that the necessary condition to experience life as beautiful is attention. Faith involves the certainty that reality is possible, and therefore, we have to engage it seriously with the hope that we will discover this promised satisfaction.
The gift of attention was provided in such simple ways throughout the weekend. One of the ways that we grew in this gift was through the little tasks of cooking and cleaning. In the past, we usually went to a cafeteria for meals, but on this trip, the students were in charge: they were divided into teams that either prepared the food or cleaned up our dining area. These tasks made everyone more responsible and engaged, which helped us to live the attention that was asked of us. Francesco, a sophomore, described this experience and what it helped him realize: “I was truly struck by the simplicity of the way we did things. Everyone helped each other out without ever being asked. The friendships in GS are some of the truest friendships; you can see the clear love and care everyone has for each other.”
There were many other moments on the weekend that helped us to feel this wonder that draws us to attention. The retreat center is perched in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On our first day, we walked a simple lakeside trail that is ringed by hills—stark in the winter but striking in their stripped-down simplicity. With the help of our music leader, Davide (who traveled all the way from Indiana to join us!), we had a fun sing-along by the side of the lake as we took in the gorgeous scenery.
A key moment for many was Fr. José’s presentation of a short, animated Spanish film. It told the story of orphans who are asked by their teacher to welcome a new boy with a degenerative disease. Maria, a bold-spirited little girl, befriends this boy and throws herself whole-heartedly into this project of helping him to enter their activities as much as he can. Her simple and energetic response to the teacher’s appeal was charming, but it also helped all of us to understand the theme of the weekend more deeply. Maggie, a junior, spoke of it in her reflections: “The thing that struck me the most was the video we watched about the young girl Maria who was unafraid to take risks. She did a lot of stupid things, but that did not stop her. She continued to take risks. I hope to be more like her.”
We were also graced by the witnesses of Carlo and Sarah. Carlo was in GS for four years and graduated last year from a program designed for Down syndrome students at a local high school. He now works at Catholic University. With a moving gratitude and simplicity, Carlo spoke about the people in his life who help him to live well, embracing what he is asked to do in his work. Sarah spoke after Carlo, and she gave us a beautiful account of how following the suggestions of friends from the University of Maryland led her to a mission trip to Mexico that far exceeded her expectations. These witnesses were clear signs to all of us of the fruit of attentiveness and how it helps to make reality more attractive.
On the lighter but still quite valuable side, we had moments of games and singing. The indoor highlight was the classic GS lip-syncing battle in which teams put together entire choreographed scenes to famous recordings while “singers” belted out the tunes. The outdoor highlight was an adaptation of the national game of Kyrgyzstan, Kok Boru. This game involved horse and rider tandems attempting to put a dead goat (stuffed unicorn) into the opposing team’s well (cardboard box). A Kyrgyz might not have recognized it as their national sport, but it was a lot of fun.
Fr. José reminded us that nothing, from walks to witnesses to games, was outside of what was being proposed: an attention that seeks to discover what is valuable in reality. This attention is what made the weekend beautiful. As Maggie put it, “This weekend was the first time truly paying attention was proposed to me. Father constantly repeated that attention and adherence are what are needed to truly be religious. It is only in seeing what is in front of us and saying ‘yes’ to it that we can know God. But saying 'yes' involves a risk. “
Tom, Rockville, MD