Thursday, January 31, 2008

Literally, the cradle...

Yesterday, a BIG bus pulled up at the end of the driveway (too big to make it to the top of the hill.) We boarded and were underway by 7AM - that meant the first late sleep - ever! There was a quiet excitement as we prayed Morning Prayer somewhere between the Casa and the sunrise. Sister Terese Zemale, OSB- a General Councilor of the Missionary Benedictines and our liturgist - encouraged thirty minutes of silent prayer/meditation after the office. Then, she gave the signal and many of us began to chat quietly (and many of us put the seats back and slept.) It took almost 3 hours to reach the mountain town of Norcia. But the trip was TOTALLY worth it!

I am in love with Norcia - the cobblestone streets, the little shops selling Pecorino Romano, prosciutto and TRUFFLES (not the chocolate kind, but the mushroom kind - be still my heart!), the mountains covered in snow just above the buildings, the kindness of its people. The town itself is surrounded completely by an original wall. There are several gates around the periphery. Not far inside lies Monasterio di San Benedetto - a 12th century structure built over a 1st century government building. It is believed that Saint Benedict's father was a town official and the holy twins were born in the residence attached to the public space. Today, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the crypt over the spot believed to be the birthplace of Benedict and Scholastica. (Wait until the students at SGHS see these photos on "Monastic Monday!" All my lesson plans will have to be revised to include the incredible sights we're visiting. A happy task...and a joy to share this journey with our young women in Richmond.)

There were monks living in the monastery in Norcia up until the 1800's when Napoleon suppressed monastic communities. But, in 1998, the community was refounded by a monk from St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indianna. Father Cassian Folsom, OSB received custody of the monastery and church in 2000. The small community of four has grown to eleven. The monastic observance in this house centers around the Liturgy of the Hours - eight offices in Gregorian chant. We are grateful to Father Cassian for extending hospitality to us. We attended the conventual Mass and were given a tour of the crypt and basilica by the prior. Special thanks to Brother John for his patience with the long line of sisters at the cash register in the monastery gift shop. Women and gift must be in the genetic code!

Our meal was taken at the Abbey of Saint Antony. This small, cloistered community of Benedictine nuns has been in Norcia for centuries. Their primary ministries are prayer and hospitality. We entered the guest dining room and found tables covered with linen and set with loving care. Generous platters of pasta, vegetables and salad where passed family style along with bread and vino della casa. Dessert was this delicate cake soaked in some kind of orange liquor and fresh fruit. I think what I loved the most was meeting Sister Benedicta and her Abbess. Their greetings were so genuine, so warm, so full of GOD. The Abbess speaks Italian but that didn't stop her from taking my hands and smiling. These are some mighty good women who work very hard - both in the oratory and in the guest spaces.

After lunch we rolled down the mountain and wandered about the town for a bit. Many of us made private visits to the crypt to pray for our communities and special intentions. One sister, Sister Maria Goretti D'Angeli of Fort Smith, AR, lit a candle in the basilica for the North American Prioresses who are meeting this week in Indianna. Very nice....

We had one more stop on our pilgrimage - the house of Benedict and Scholastica. Believed to be the country house of the family, what is now called, the Church of Saint Scholastica sits about 3 kilometers from the center of town. The large chapel is in terrible disrepair. It is no longer a functioning parish community. It has become, rather, a fascinating source of archeological information. Its walls are covered with frescos that date back to the time of Benedict and even earlier. As the frescos of Benedict were examined, another set of frescos about Saint Scholastica were found beneath - painted over in favor of her brother's life story. Restoration and research seems to be at a standstill. We were told by the caretaker of the cemetary next door, that the diocese intends to restore the church. I think each continent should send five sisters and a few brooms and get this thing started! It is, after all, our Mother's house - the site of the very first community of Benedictine women.

We arrived home around 7pm and had a late supper. It was SUCH a good day! Next week we go to Subiaco and Monte Cassino. Can't wait... This is the stuff that changes a monastic heart - touching our history, reverencing the tradition and seeing ourselves in the tide of time - leaves on a blossoming family tree.

Blessings and love to you all... - Sister Vicki