A weekend with the monks in Norcia

IMG_0441Between our train and our bus on the way to Norcia, we stopped for a coffee in Spoleto. The bartender was from Mexico and she thought we were German (I think because Americans typically only speak English), but she then asked where we were going. She was surprised when we said Norcia—since the earthquakes there have not been so many visitors. We received similar reactions from police who stopped to check our identification and from the bus driver who picked us up. As we neared the town, we could see buildings with pieces falling off and there was much less activity than I remembered from previous visits. The town itself was surrounded by scaffolding and the walls were damaged in many places, but looking through gates, one could see someone sitting at a café or a few firemen walking around another spot. After we got off, a monk in a car brought us up the hill to worksite where the Benedictines are constructing their new home: San Benedetto in monte.

IMG_0439After a brief tour to see our room, the facilities, the chapel and the refectory, we immediately went to work. While monks were driving machines around and mixing cement, I was assigned to carry tools to the workers installing a new gate and then to help another monk salvage the scaffolding from a construction project begun before the earthquake. About a year ago, I visited the monks, before the earthquake, when they were still situated in the city center. I went walking with one of the monks who was a friend in college, and we walked up the hill where the monks had property, but which contained little more than a completely ruined church. That monk remarked at the time how nice it would be to live up there, away from the noise in the center of town. Little did he know then that his prayer would be answered! And so I was there now, rescuing pieces of scaffolding in hope of a future building project. Most of the monks speak English, but there were a number of Italian workers, which meant a great opportunity to learn a new set of vocabulary! (One of these workers also thought I was German before I told him I’m from the United States. I always think this is a compliment—because of the language thing—but the same ones who think I am German always seem relieved when I say I’m American!)

IMG_0438At 5:45pm, the monks, the workers, and us all gathered for Vespers (evening prayer) in the small chapel, separated from the refectory only by a wooden partition. Given the circumstances, I thought the altar in the center was surprisingly beautiful, in a colorful neo-Gothic style, reminiscent of the St. Matthias Church in Budapest. Despite all of the changes, the monks still prayed the ancient Office in accord with the Rule of St. Benedict, gathering seven times each day to chant the psalms in Latin. We were able to follow along and fulfill our own obligation of prayer. During the prayer at the very end, I heard the name of St. Peter Celestine, whose feast they fell on that day in their calendar. Besides Pope Benedict XVI in our own day, St. Peter Celestine (i.e. Pope Celestine V) is famous for having resigned the papacy in a tumultuous time. This action, which made way for the ascent Pope Boniface VIII, was the reason Dante placed St. Celestine in one of the circles of hell, accusing him of cowardice. And yet, as holy man who found himself in difficult times, he is venerated by these monks as a special patron. Before the earthquakes, these monks were in the process of restoring a basilica built over the birth place of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. One of the most recent steps in that process was the restoration of an altar dedicated to Pope St. Celestine V. This altar was completely demolished by the earthquakes—only the façade of the basilica remains. And yet this saintly pope remains honored by the monks in the hills.

IMG_0440It rained sometime between midnight and 2:30am—I discovered at the same time that our little dormitory has a metal roof. At 3:15am, my alarm went off, and then at 3:30 it was time for Vigils. A psalm, a hymn, six more psalms, a reading, six more psalms, and a closing prayer. Although I have joined the monks for Vigils on previous occasions, its length depends on the time of year, and so one is never quite sure until the end how much longer it will be. Of all the verses, this was the one that stood out: “fiant dies eius pauci et episcopatum eius accipiat alter” (Psalm 108). This is the verse recalled in Acts 1 when the apostles consider how to fill the spot left by Judas, “his office (episcopate, KJV: bishopric) let another take.” I paid more attention to the surrounding verses and noticed that this is one of the so-called “cursing psalms”. This psalm, along with a couple others, are never said in the newer Office, since some might find them disturbing (especially since the new Office is typically said in the vernacular). And yet here, in the early hours of the morning, these monks come before God and express in prayer the full range of human experience, from the exultation of delight to the desire for vengeance on those who commit injustice. We finish Vigils at 4:45 and then drink coffee in silence. The monks now pray lectio divina in private and we join again for Lauds (morning prayer) at 6am.

IMG_0442After working for a number of hours, the bell rings around 10am, and everyone gathers for Mass in the chapel. Again, everything is in Latin and all of the parts chanted. I wasn’t sure what the Italian workers would think of this—today we even had a number of volunteers from ages 10 to 18—and yet they all joined prayerfully. I did not have a Missal, but I heard the Salve sancta parens and knew it was a Mass in honor of Our Lady, as is common on Saturdays. After Mass, we continue working until the Midday prayer around 12:45pm. About halfway through our psalms, the smell of freshly chopped basil comes from the other side of the petition as a couple monks finish preparing lunch. At each meal, instead of conversation, there is a monk assigned to read for those who are eating. I will carry on in another post…

More photos and information on their website.

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