Saturday, February 2, 2008

Another Quiet Saturday...

It is the feast of the Presentation of the LORD. We joined the monastic community's candlelight procession from the main entrance of the Casa into the chapel. What a lovely way to celebrate the encounter between Simeon and the Holy Family. Lord, let your servant now go in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation. We sing this beautiful scripture every night at Compline. What joy he and Anna must have known... This feast always makes me mindful of CHRIST's next coming in glory. Wouldn't it wonderful to see that day?

After breakfast in silence, most of my classmates hit the tram for Rome. I seem to need this day alone. The house is still and my heart is peaceful. AND the laundry is free! Two loads later...I took my weekly walk to the market for a cheapo lunch and a few items. I've blown out 2 of my 3 pens in class so a pack of pens went into the basket. I've never taken so many notes in all my life! (Next week...more loose leaf.)

I've become slightly addicted to these fruit candies. I can't understand what the label says, but they're gummy-like and coated in sugar. They remind me of a candy I had in London as a little girl (1976.) My sister, Lizzie and I couldn't stop eating them. It must be a European thing. Yum...

Aside from the holy feast, it's also "Groundhog Day." I find myself wondering what that little guy saw when he left his burrow this morning. More winter? Early spring? One more Sunday in Ordinary Time and we're into Lent. Time moves forward...and seasons change...drawing us ever deeper into the Paschal Mystery. How rich our tradition...what a gift our Catholic faith!

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

Friday, February 1, 2008

Two Tables in the House of God: Reflecting on RB 43

It's the first day of February...we'll be home exactly four weeks from today! Sister Aquinata is encouraging us to stay steady with our studies. (It can be tempting in the second half to pull back the throttle and coast.) Sister even added to our collection of papers this morning lest we run out of work to do in the course of the weekend. (Not a chance!) The good news is I am nowhere near the state of uselessness we monastics refer to as acedia. I'm not bored or sad and, mercifully, the homesickness has subsided with the bad germ that caught hold of my body. Even though there is an incredible amount to absorb - an "all you can eat" monastic buffet - something always jumps out at me. Today's lecture was no exception.

In RB 43 Saint Benedict addresses the issue of lateness. On hearing the signal for the divine office, the monastic will immediately set aside what she has in hand and go with utmost speed. RB 43:1 (emphasis my own) Translation: When the bell rings MOVE! Intensive study of the Holy Rule offers me the opportunity to examine my own monastic observance - lukewarm as it is (RB 18:25). This is actually a very challenging practice. How difficult it is to abandon a task before it is finished. How tempting it is to take just a couple more minutes and then slide into choir, like a runner on third base, just as the match is struck. I think my Lenten efforts are being shaped here...

The real brilliance of this chapter is Benedict's link between the oratory and the refectory (dining room). Keeping in mind that Benedict's monks probably had no daily Eucharist, but a distribution of Communion every day but Sunday, it is notable that being late to one table was as serious as being late to the other. Like the Master before him, Benedict knew that what happens around the altar has everything to do with what happens in the refectory. Conversely, what happens at the dining room table, has a palpable ripple effect in the quality of our prayer. Monastics eat from two tables and BOTH will sanctify us if we reverence them properly. Wow! Another good Lenten list grows longer by the day here. And, I am grateful for the hunger I still feel in my heart for the wisdom of Benedict. T-minus 28 days and counting!

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

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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A little festivity...

Yesterday was the memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas - the Dominican priest whose Summa became the benchmark of systematic theology for the next five hundred years. His day in the liturgical calendar is also Sister Aquinata's feast day. For several weeks the class has been meeting in clandestine huddles to practice songs, poems and dance to assemble a simple program for Sister's enjoyment. It turned out really well, I think. Sister Aquinata felt our love and gratitude for the gift of her wisdom and encouragement.
The BEST was Brother Andre who dressed up as Thomas Aquinas and was the MC for the afternoon. He began with a few simple theological points about the nature of God and then worked them into his introductions of the various performances. You'd have to know Brother Andre to fully appreciate his gift for humor. We laughed so hard... It was a very good outlet for students half-way through a VERY intense course.

Tomorrow, we have a FIELD TRIP - Yippee! We're boarding a bus at 7AM for Nursia - the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. I'm so excited... You'll have to wait until Thursday for the next blog, but I promise wonderful photos of our pilgrimage.
I am watching the calendar on my wall very closely... It's almost February and that makes me smile. We'll be home soon. Love to you all... - Sister Vicki

Monday, January 28, 2008

I have seen the glory of Rome...

Once again, our intrepid band left the Casa in darkness to catch one of the earliest trains into the city. And, once again, we watched the sun rise over St. Peter’s Square - so beautiful - and so quiet at that hour. Even the light in the Holy Father’s office was off. Too early for the worries of the universal church, but the perfect time to hit the queue for the Vatican Museum!
At 7:30 AM there was already a substantial line. That’s because this was the last Sunday of the month – FREE admittance! It usually costs E14 to get in. You better believe it was a nun-fest! There were so many sisters everywhere I looked - so many different habits! The common ground of religious life has become quite clear to me in that shivering mass of humanity. As my sisters say at home, “Free is better than cheap!

An unusually cold morning (just below freezing), we huddled close against the wall of Vatican City. An hour and fifteen minutes later, we moved our frozen feet and entered the museum where security guards were awaiting us. It was SERIOUS security – metal detector just like the airport. After all, entering the museum is also entering Vatican City. VERY cool…

It’s impossible to describe what I saw yesterday and do any of it justice. I will say that the very first exhibit was the most moving. In the Pinacoteca, we viewed some late Medieval art: tempura-painted altarpieces, tapestries and paintings. We took out time here and just tried to take in the passion and beauty of these works. It was early so the halls were very quiet. It was an opportunity to do lectio with the eyes – so much to contemplate, things that took my breath away.

Believe it or not, photographs are allowed without the flash. The only place where cameras are not allowed at all is the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine is the grand finale of the tour route (there’s just one way in and one way out – just like life!) The Chapel is much smaller than you might imagine - and dark – so the walls and ceiling won't fade. It was a curious experience to stand in the center and look up…and see GOD creating the sun…and extending the touch of life to Adam...the creation of Eve…and the expulsion from the Garden. We passed around a mirror (a tourist trick that really works!) to see it all without breaking out necks.

The Chapel was filled to capacity at one point and one of the security guards had to “shhh” the crowds and remind us that we were in sacred space. I said a brief silent prayer at the altar where the cardinals place their papal ballots in the chalice. (The Sistine is home to the papal conclave though, now, empty of its thrones and canopies.) But it struck me that the Spirit swirls mightily in that space and it couldn’t hurt to invoke the Spirit’s power – even with a small little voice – for the People of God.

After the museum, we, along with thousands of others, headed for the Square to pray the Angelus with Pope Benedict. (We pray it at noon each day at the Casa so, I’m getting pretty good at it now. I went to Catholic school in the 70’s – it was all about JESUS.) Then, we slipped into a very small church – Sant’ Anna – for the 12:15 Eucharist in Italian. It was a challenge and a joy. I found myself listening even more attentively to follow the liturgy and responding in a whisper of English. After Mass, we had to get some earthly food. Pasta and some vino della casa – and then we caught the 3:00 train back to Aurelia.

It got very quiet as we hiked up the big hill to the Casa. The exhaustion seemed to hit everyone at once. After Evening Prayer, Supper and Compline, most lights went out VERY early. All in all, this was one of my very favorite experiences. I really love that the Vatican has a “free admission” day. These treasures belong to the whole Church – rich and poor alike. To have seen such beauty was a grace.
Love to you all… - Sister Vicki