Norcia, Italy, Thursday, January 21
This is my third trip to Norcia. The two-hour bus ride from Assisi into the Sibylline Mountains toward the birthplace of the twins Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica passed as peacefully as the calm I have enjoyed in Assisi, living in a small apartment since January 5th. I traveled to retreat with the Benedictine monks of Norcia, a community that only fifteen years ago had accepted the invitation of Spoleto’s bishop to re-inhabit the monastery connected to the Basilica of Saint Benedict. A monk of Saint Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana, Cassian Folsom, a lover of Gregorian Chant and the traditional Latin Mass, had started his own small group in Rome in 1998. In the beginning they were only a few guys sharing an apartment and singing the Divine Office in a garage. Having accepted the Bishop’s invitation to Norcia in 2000, the community now numbers sixteen monks, ten of whom are Americans. They maintain a website osbnorcia.org.
Talking briefly with a few of the Americans, I found them friendly enough. I imagine none among these young traditionalists are interested in Thomas Merton. Prior Cassian is the eldest at sixty. The average age of the others is thirty-three. In a video on their website, he notes the young can be a handful and that his community could use a few grandfathers. They sing Gregorian chant beautifully with masculine sobriety. I am staying in an apartment owned by the monks close by to the monastery.
I ate with the community in their refectory for the first time on Wednesday. They eat only one big meal a day at 3 P.M. (no flab in sight in that refectory until I walked into the room). In a ritual I like, and have experienced at visits to other Benedictine monasteries, we guests (there were only two of us newly visiting) placed our hands over a lavabo and the Prior poured warm water over them by way of our being welcomed (“Let all guests be received as Christ,” says Benedict’s Rule). The meal was vegetarian and carefully, almost professionally, prepared by Father Basil from Arizona: pasta and vegetables, lettuce and bread, good wine or a bottle of beer which the monks craft brew themselves and sell in their shop to keep their bodies together. The young monk I had come to know as Brother Evagrius was the reader during the meal. Monks don’t talk at meals but listen to a book being read. I could not eat and concentrate on the book he read in Italian at the same time.
I exchanged a few words with the Prior as I left the refectory. Cassian wanted more information about Peter Halldorf and his ecumenical community of Bjära-Säby in Sweden. I had stayed with them for seventeen days in December, wowed by everything and everyone I had experienced there. Cassian has a friend who is studying intentional communities that are apparently popping up everywhere. I sent him an email this afternoon at the coffee shop, my only source of wi-fi, with all the information I had gathered about this extraordinary Pentecostal monastic community.
What draws me back to Il Monastero di San Benedetto? I have visited Norcia twice before. In 2012, when I was studying Italian in Assisi, my friends in the Italian Merton Society drove me to Norcia for Sunday Mass at the monastery. I was slightly taken aback by the traditional Latin Mass, but moved by the quality of their Gregorian Chant. Staying on after Mass, I noticed a young monk making his “thanksgiving,” his hood up, his tall, slim body arching into a swoon, piously bent over a pew. Instinctively, I imagined myself jumping over the communion rail, slapping his face, and shaking him to “Snap out of it!” I saw myself in that kid: a boy trapped in fantasy land and here was I to save his day. I stayed in my pew of course. But the apparition of him struck me deeply. I committed the young monk and my over-reaction to memory.
I visited the Norcia Benedictines a second time in October, 2015. I had come to Assisi with Sisters Marianne Hieb (a Sister of Mercy) and Helen Owens (a Franciscan). We were presenting together at their fifth annual pilgrimage retreat in Assisi. The theme would honor Thomas Merton’s centenary in 2015 with a ten-day program ending All Souls Day. I suggested to Marianne and Helen that we offer the pilgrims a half-day trip to Norcia. Not only could the retreat group experience an Italian setting besides Assisi, but they would also be exposed to the kind of monastic community and liturgy that Merton entered at Gethsemani Abbey in the 1940s. I went in a separate car, again with Italian friends. The Italians and I arrived too late for Solemn High Mass. Standing in the main square before Saint Benedict’s basilica, some in the group looked dazed from their dose of the Latin Mass and a pre-Vatican II monastic culture. I rallied them back into the church. I had emailed the monastery in advance that we were coming, and a Brother Evagrius had replied that he would be happy to give us a talk after Mass.
I recognized immediately that Brother Evagrius was in fact the young monk whose face I had wanted to slap three years ago. He was straight out of monastic central casting: in his early 30’s he had a long black beard, clear eyes, the healthy complexion of a pink-cheeked farm boy. He was from Montana. After his well-practiced presentation to us in the basilica’s crypt, I asked him, begging his pardon were I intruding on his privacy, why he had come to the monastery. He told us he had had a girlfriend but that their relationship had not been enough for him. That’s the only detail of his story I remember. I was busy admiring his long slender hand that he rested upon his chest as he spoke. I wondered if he played piano.
Two revelations descended on me that afternoon, during my second encounter with Brother Evagrius. When I entered the abbey church to look for him, something about the space “moved” me. I felt more deeply attracted to the wooden altar than I had remembered the first time I was in that church. I felt an attraction and a reverence welling up in me. And then, half-listening as Evagrius spoke to our group, I felt regret at my earlier cynicism on my first visit to Norcia. I had judged that this traditionalist monastic enterprise was a “re-enactment” of a monastic culture whose time had passed. To my mind these young monks were akin to guys dressing up in Confederate and Union uniforms and staging a replica of a Civil War battle. But now, in the presence of Evagrius, I felt how disappointed in myself I have always been that I left the Jesuits so young and did not become a priest. It was all I ever wanted to become since I was eleven years old and formed a society called the “Young Hopefuls.” We were five boys in grammar school who wanted to be priests and I was the founding president. One of us, a friend since second grade, is a priest today.
That evening back in Assisi, the retreat group met to speak of our reactions to the day. I made my confession about how my reaction to the monastic church and how Evagrius reminded me of the young man wanting to be loved by God that I had been. Evagrius allowed me to see my cynicism of the institutional church as a defense against my immaturely abandoning the only vocation I had ever wanted. I confessed to the group that, having just entered my seventies, I have the freedom to allow that pious young man, I once was, to openly love the monastic life. I can now stand back and allow myself to bend over in thanksgiving after Communion, as Evagrius had been bent over when I first saw him. Reacting to this tale, a woman among us (it had to be a woman) said she was hearing a word for me and wanted to say it in front of everyone. “The word I’m hearing is “re-appointment” and I think I’ve come to Assisi to give you this word.” She consoled me and sent me forth.
As soon as I rented an apartment in Assisi for January, I knew I would return to the Benedictines in Norcia “on retreat.” And while there again I found myself not only admiring the masculine sobriety of the community’s Gregorian Chant, but found solace in the traditional Latin Mass, not only for its solemnity, but for what it by-passes: the banal hymns in English, the priest as only celebrant and center of attention, with everyone having to listen to the public verbiage of his prayers. In the high ritual of the traditional Mass I could lose my self and pray. When I emailed Marianne, my colleague on the Assisi retreat, to tell her I was returning to the monks at Norcia, with typical drama I confided to her that I was “returning to the lions’ den in my heart.”
And now I have returned to the small apartment I’ve rented in Assisi where I am doing well. I am attending Eucharist with nuns and a few other old bats like myself every day, sometimes twice, morning and evening, and frequently visiting Saint Francis’ grave in the crypt of his Basilica. His crypt is one of my favorite places in the whole world to gaze at people and be edified by their piety. I remember sitting in another crypt in France where St. Benedict’s bones are venerated (exactly where Benedict is buried is controversial) in the Benedictine monastery of Fleury (Sant-Benoit-sur-Loire). I loved being with Benedict’s bones in that place. I would have ordered Chinese in and eaten it in a back pew right there. This would be as close to viewing people in paradise as I was going to get. A crypt tastefully appointed with good bones interred is incomparable for instilling joy in remembering a life well lived. Give me a good funeral any day for its gravity. I am usually sad at weddings, imagining the tears that wait to wash over the now adorable couple.
I want to make one more trip to some monasteries in France that I’ve visited before: Solesmes, Fongaumbault, Temedeuc, Belle Fontaine, and the well-preserved abbey at Fontenay where Saint Bernard was abbot. I wouldn’t mind another thirty-day retreat at Grand Coteau in Louisiana, where I was a Jesuit for four years. My first and only thirty-day retreat with Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises was in my Jesuit novitiate in 1963, when I was seventeen, fifty-three years ago.
And now I can hear my mother whispering in my ear what she would often say about men who became pious in their old age after a life time of “kicking the gong around.” I always thought she had made up “kicking the gong around.” She never parsed the phrase for me. She left me to imagine sexual license and every other vice a man’s life could enjoy. I am remembering my mother a lot lately. Last month I took the matter to Mother Google and discovered that “kicking the gong around” is a reference to snorting cocaine in Black Harlem in the 1930s. There is even a song, “Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway with the phrase in its lyrics: “She messed around with a bloke named Smokey./ She loved him though he was cokey./ He took her down to Chinatown/ and he showed her how to kick the gong around.” My mother could not have been referencing cocaine. I’m certain she was questioning the sincerity of religion embraced late by guys who had previously enjoyed living raucously with untethered cocks. My mother always was a good judge of character. On my last night in Saint Benedict’s Basilica in Norcia, conscious of how my mother would judge my new piety, I lit a candle for her before the statue of Saint Scholastica.
Norcia, January, 2016