Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pilgrimage Part II: Monte Cassino

Two and a half hours southeast of Rome, there is a city called Cassino. It fills a generous valley surrounded by mountains. It is easy to see how those mountains became valuable real estate in war. Mountains offer security. Armies find them nearly impossible to climb without detection. Securing a mountain means a vantage point and a high probability of victory. Montecassino is such a mountain. The monastery atop its peak was founded by Saint Benedict himself in the 529 AD. It has, however, been completely destroyed four times over in the last fifteen-hundred years: the Longobards in 577 AD, the Saracens in 883 AD and even an earthquake in 1349.

The last destruction occurred on February 15, 1944. Allied forces mistakenly believed that the Germans were hiding in the monastery and using it as a secure base of operations. Bombs fell from the sky for nearly six hours until there was nothing left but a single tower – where Saint Benedict’s cell was located. Many monks escaped the structure and those hiding in the recesses beneath the monastery were miraculously spared. Montecassino was faithfully rebuilt – a nearly exact duplicate of the previous structure - after the war and was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964 at which time the Holy Father acclaimed Saint Benedict the Patriarch of Western Monasticism.

Understanding the history is critical to appreciating Montecassino. Aesthetically, it is radically different from the humble cave at Subiaco. The monastery is an expansive fortress of porticos and archways. The abbey church is a Baroque masterpiece of marble from eighteen different places in the world, gold leaf and frescos. It is literally a monument to the breadth and height of Benedictine monasticism.

My heart was moved, however, in some significant places - first, the tomb of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. The remains of the siblings rest together underneath the massive marble altar. The altar is encircled by candles and there is a silence observed there – by monastics and tourists alike. Saint Gregory the Great tells us that Benedict had the body of his sister brought to Montecassino and laid in the tomb prepared for him. How beautiful that his brothers laid him there beside her – true spiritual companions from the womb to the tomb.

The last stop on our official tour was to Benedict’s cell. It is believed that the "man of GOD" finished writing The Rule in this place. From the window, he saw a dove soaring into the sky and knew that his beloved sister had died. And, in an unprecedented moment of private grace, Benedict saw a vision of the whole world held in a single ray of light (See: The Dialogues II, 34 & 35).

There was one more thing about Benedict’s cell that I’ll never forget – the altarpiece depicting Saint Benedict and two angels. It was the inspiration for the altarpiece in the chapel of Saint Gertrude High School – established 1922 in Richmond, Virginia. The sight made me happy and sad all at the same time. That’s good, I think. It’s time to come home…

Blessings and love to you all…
- Sister Vicki