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.

Helena, and what makes Christianity different

IMG_0412This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.

Waugh does a beautiful job depicting both the time and all the various places that appears throughout the book. The novel starts with Helena as young princess in Britain, which he portrays as both primitive and exotic, much like Till We Have Faces. From Britain, we then follow Helena all over the Empire: through Germany, out to the lonely Balkans, then to Rome, and finally through Asia Minor down to the province of Palestine. And each of these has their distinctive character, especially Rome. “To a Roman there can only be one City and that a very imperfect place indeed.” Waugh does not hold back from making Rome appear as unattractive as possible, everything from the court intrigue and treachery to the fashions and popular superstitions. Then there is the awkwardness of the newly legalized Christianity, personified in Pope Sylvester. This simple Pope is caught between gratitude for the new freedoms and yet the impossibility of compromising with  paganism, and so the risk of offending so great an ally as Constantine, who is at once planning to be baptized someday and yet also the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman pagan religion.

“All my life I have caused offense to religious people by asking questions.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of the book is that Helena is portrayed as a skeptic from beginning to end, always asking questions and rarely satisfied with answers (or a lack of answers). Her searching attitude allows Waugh to demonstrate how Christianity does not fall within the lines of myth and philosophy. Helena, after a particularly disappointing lecture on myth, turns to her Christian servants and asks, “Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?” “I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.” “Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?” And so the seeds are planted for the faith that will blossom in the soil of Helena’s desire for something tangible and historical, and ultimately lead her to seek out the True Cross of Christ. (Speaking of tangible and historical: I visited the tomb of St. Helena at the Ara Coeli Basilica in Rome this very day. The picture I took is just below.)

IMG_0410This tension between the abstract and the concrete appears not just between pagans and Christians, but even among Christians themselves. Eventually Constantine, tired of everything wrong with Rome (and it truly is wretched), decides to go and start a New Rome in the East which will be cleaner, and there he will make basilicas dedicated to “Wisdom” and to “Peace”. “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations.” After Constantine leaves, Pope Sylvester responds to this comment, “Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church.” How often this desire for a tidier faith recurs throughout the centuries! I am reminded of when the German Emperor Joseph II attempted to make Catholicism “tidier” by cutting the Stations of the Cross from 14 to 7, trying to reduce all the many religious orders to a single form of religious life, and many other so-called reforms. But faith is not just a bunch of ideas; true religion is not just a social program.

As intriguing as the description of Rome is, Jerusalem is the most significant place in the book, as the place where it happened. Having been to Holy Land a couple times, I had images to go with the ekphrases of the various sites, and I appreciated the accounts of how the places came to have their current shape. Waugh even makes one feel some horror at all that might have been lost in the effort to preserve the holy places. Helena’s devotion to the evidence of Christ makes me feel as though I never made a proper pilgrimage to those places, and I am eager to go back and follow in her footsteps, indeed, in the footsteps of the Master.

I heartily recommend Helena for anyone planning to visit Rome or Jerusalem, or even anyone who wants a glimpse at what makes Christianity different. I will probably end up adding more Evelyn Waugh to my list.

Romola, another masterpiece by George Eliot

IMG_0384(My desire to have more people read George Eliot outweighed my desire to divulge all of my thoughts on this book. For this reason, I do not unveil any major plot points in Romola. Fear not to read the following thoughts on George Eliot, and take it rather as an exhortation to read on your own!)

I hesitate to write about George Eliot lest I say anything unworthy of one who I think may be the greatest novelist in the English language. My fascination with George Eliot began early last semester, when I opened the first page of Middlemarch and saw Eliot making conjectures about St. Teresa of Avila and what allowed her to accomplish so much in her time. As I continued and found the main character, Dorothea Brooke, to be modeled on the person of St. Teresa, I was instantly hooked. Upon finishing Middlemarch, I did not believe a novel could begin, proceed, or end in so satisfying a manner, but I continued to read anyway and soon had finished more of Eliot’s novels: Mill on the Floss, The Lifted Veil, Daniel Deronda, and I am now writing this post upon finishing Romola. In my opinion, none of these has outdone Middlemarch, and yet they have only confirmed my preference for George Eliot over every other English-language novelist.

(A quick note before continuing: “George Eliot” was the pen name of Marian Evans. Unlike Charlotte Bronte who initially wrote with a pen name, but is now always identified by her birth name, George Eliot continues to be referred to through her pen name, although always with feminine pronouns. This always surprises and distracts people who discover this in conversation, so I decided to omit pronouns in the first paragraph and then insert this note before continuing.)

By claiming for George Eliot the title of greatest English novelist, I know this requires an explanation for those who think Jane Austen deserves this title. As delightful as Austen is in everything she writes, “her works are but miniatures”, as one critic puts it. She concerns herself beautifully with a very small set of concerns. Whereas Austen typically ends her novels with a suitable marriage, George Eliot saves most of her story for what happens after the wedding and her characters have interests that reach far beyond domestic tranquility. There are also two elements almost entirely missing Jane Austen, which take center stage in the work of George Eliot: religion and the intellectual life. The closest Austen gets to considering these is in Northanger Abbey, when the narrator satirically derides the novel, and then in Mansfield Park, when there is a discourse on the usefulness of clergy and common prayer. To look at these elements in Eliot, it is necessary to take each in turn.

I already mentioned about how Middlemarch begins with an observation about the life and times of St. Teresa of Avila. Silas Marner, probably Eliot’s most widely read work, begins with the banishment of a man from a Puritanical community, and this sets the stage for everything that follows there. In another novel, she has a character discover the Imitation of Christ and change her life, and in another, the plot revolves around the meaning of Judaism. There is even a reference to a natural Manichaeism in Mill on the Floss! In Romola in particular, set in Renaissance Florence, Eliot depicts a radical (and even political) sort of Catholicism which she compares and contrasts with pagan elements existing in that time and place. She is meticulous in showing the causes and effects of the change of religious attitudes within her characters, and the great care with which Eliot depicts this is especially remarkable when one learns about the development of her own religious attitude. In a future post, I would like to consider more closely the religious history of George Eliot, who began as an evangelical, but later became more agnostic and even published translations of Feuerbach and an early historicizing account of the life of Jesus. Despite all of this, and partly because of it, she depicts the interior life of her characters in a most accurate way, keeping their freedom intact even as she shows all the motives at work. It is especially true of Middlemarch, but in all of her novels, one can hardly walk away without growing in sympathy for the lives and struggles of others.

IMG_0382In addition to the religious aspect of her novels, George Eliot displays an erudition wide and deep in all of her novels, and especially in Romola. Before writing any fiction, Eliot parodied the know-it-all heroines of her contemporaries in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and satirically comments in many of her books that Greek is too difficult for the mind of a woman (George Eliot herself was proficient in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian). Eliot avoids the pitfalls that she criticizes, and many times over, as a trope common to several of her novels is the intellectually capable female becoming either obsessed or repulsed before a wider intellectual project. Since Romola is placed within the Italian Renaissance, the reader is constantly impressed by the learning of many characters in the book, which itself demands that the reader already have some background knowledge but at the same time encourages the reader to get more. One instance of this is a description of a back-and-forth early on between two scholars, one clearly superior to the other, each of exchange of which contains a Latin poem, each one satirizing on the last and including ever more obscure references to the classical use of certain words. It was not necessary, but I was so impressed, that I put down Romola for a week in order to work on my own Latin, attempting to read classics (Ovid and Quintilian) and eventually settling for the Vulgate, which I am currently working through at a slow pace. Romola also made want to read the Italian poets, reread The Prince by Machiavelli, study up on 14th and 15th century paganism, and look more closely at the controversy surrounding Girolamo Savonarola. I also need to go back to Florence. I cannot think of any other author that brings so much to the table in this way, especially without feeling artificial or stuffy.

Alongside her erudition in philosophy and literature, Eliot also shows herself an expert in describing painted works that she herself has invented. (I just learned that this is called ekphrasis.) I am thoroughly impressed when I find an author capable of using mere words to convey the effect of music or painting. This first stood out to me when I read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and he describes a piano-violin fugue that occurs within an interview. It is the first time the child with the violin has ever played a fugue, and Hesse allows the reader to discover with him the effects of this form of music. Even in Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, a novel I did not otherwise care for, there is a beautiful scene where Hanno is rapt by his mother’s music, such that the reader almost hears the same. As for the description of painting, Homer can be credited as the first to do this with his lengthy description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. George Eliot places a painter in three of her novels, and always gives such a description that the reader wants to see the finished project, though he has a fair sketch in his mind. These paintings are less essential in other novels, from the humorous sketch of Casaubon as Aquinas in Middlemarch to the mournful series about Berenice in Daniel Deronda, but in Romola they take on a more integral role, from the tabernacle adorned with Bacchus and Ariadne to the painted horror of Tito Melema, as well as a scene of the blind Oedipus with Antigone.

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One other distinctive aspect of this novel is the depiction of evil, and evil with a beautiful guise. In Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, there is certainly cruelty and bitterness, and yet I do not think it ever quite arrives at malice. Daniel Deronda depicts some straightforward evil, but it is most striking in Romola, where Eliot makes the reader fall in love with a character who ends up beyond redemption, all in a desire to avoid whatever is unpleasant. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Eliot leads the reader right up to the moment when a choice has to be made, when one can choose the good or the easy, and envision the consequences both far and near. Besides the malice of one particular character, there are other who are almost like ghosts, haunting the imaginations and consciences of characters within the book. There is nothing quite like this in her other novels.

If I had to Romola to any other novel, I would point to The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Eliot, like Manzoni, beautifully describes life in an Italian city and seamlessly blends the historical and the fictional. Both authors manage to show both the most glorious and the most ugly manifestations of religion, especially when it is mixed up with baser motives. Her occasional use of Italian may be difficult for those less familiar with the language, but there is nothing essential that one would miss beyond a few jokes and some pleasant poetry (my Penguin edition even included notes to elucidate these bits).

Since I am unwilling to divulge any essential plot details, but always want to say more, let me know if you have read any of her novels! I am certainly willing to talk further about them, but not at the expense of “spoiling” the enjoyment of a first read.