The brothers back home were gracious enough to allow me a six-week mini-sabbatical working vacation, a little pause at the midpoint of my six year term as prior. From here I will be traveling to New Zealand, Australia, Singapore/Malaysia, mostly doing a few retreats and a little retreating myself. I’ve got just a bit of a yen to write again since I am on the road, so I’ve found my old blog (I had forgotten the address!), and we shall see what happens.
Saturday, 3 Sept.
I arrived safe and sound in Rome Friday morning. I was relayed by Jordan to San Jose where my friend John brought me the rest of the way up to my Euro hotel in Redwood City Wednesday PM. It was a very cool little inexpensive place, but I don't think I slept a wink all night. I’m not sure if it was the excitement about the trip or too much tea. At any rate, that plus not sleeping very much during the 16+ hours of flying, it was almost like a trip to India: I was so tired when I got here that I slept all through the night (nine hours!) and hoped that I had already overcome the jet lag. (I hadn’t quite.)
I had a good long walk Friday afternoon and another this morning, picked up all my supplies (my favorite Italian magazine, a book on Taoism in Italian, new sunglasses and a new shirt––yes, its grey but it’s a polo (Favored style of my Italian confreres), not a T-shirt, that shows some creativity, no?), and then just hung out at Roma Termini for a while just because I like it there. It feels so good just be on my own for a few weeks. I stopped in at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs) on my way home. I thought I had never seen it before but afterward I remember my friend Stefano Rossi taking me there some years ago, his favorite spot. It’s a former Certosa-Charterhouse of the Carthusians near the historic baths of Diocletian. The church itself is rather typical Roman, but its unique feature is a small pinhole in the roof, whose light falls on a big zodiac calendar each day to mark the dates in the floor. Besides the famous painting of St. Sebastian that is there, there were a few beautiful modern paintings and sculptures, one striking one of the head of John the Baptist.
It’s hot hot hot here in Rome still (feragosto-the summer break time, though there are lots of tourists) and sticky, especially up here on the top floor of San Gregorio, where I am staying. Our monastery shares space with the Missionaries of Charity––soon-to-be-Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s congregation––so there has been a steady crowd of people outside, and they are expecting a over 100,000 people in St Peter's Square tomorrow for the canonization.
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I had to check in to the Congress of Abbots already Saturday night, an early session for newcomers. (Even though three years a prior, this is my first Congress.) I have not spent much time at Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine University where the Congress is being held, on the Aventine right up from our Camaldolese nuns’ monastery, Sant’Antonio, and the ancient beautiful Dominican church of Santa Sabina. It’s a beautiful very clean and well-ordered campus. I was put somewhat at my own ease to realize that for many of us this would be our first real experience both of Sant’Anselmo and the Congress, so I was not the only one feeling a little spaesato (out of place). It certainly was fascinating to see and meet monks from literally all over the world, many Asians and Africans as well as from all over Europe and the southern hemisphere of the Americas. It is jarring sometimes to note just how informal we Camaldolese are in regards to a lot of the OSB world. (Our monks are the only students here, for instance, who don’t wear their habit to classes.) After aperitifs we had Vespers, all in Latin, Gregorian chant, and then an ample dinner was served. They are undoubtedly accustomed to feeding large crowds with much to choose from. And that was the end of it. I enjoy the walk to and fro; it only takes about twenty minutes across the bustling Circo Massimo and may be the only real exercise I get during these weeks.
Sunday was a bigger day. Departing at 7:30 AM from Sant’Anselmo we were taken for a day at Monte Cassino. It is close to Naples, about a two-hour bus ride. It is a massive impressive place that has a storied history. I’ll quote here from my homily (if I may) of this last Feast of Benedict: “There were several pivotal moments in the life of Saint Benedict. The way Saint Gregory the Great lays it out, one significant one was when Benedict left the remote Anio Valley where he had lived as a hermit for three years in the sacro speco near Subiaco and also had his first experiences as an abbot, and moved up to Monte Cassino, a plateau that can be seen from very far away.” I think I’ll re-post that homily here on this site (it’s on the Hermitage blog already, it will appear before this one). It is interesting for me even to look back on it now after having been to Monte Cassino and now attending the Congress.
The ancient part of the story is wonderful and I obviously learned more about the place being there. Benedict found and old temple to Apollo there, which he didn’t destroy but in a sense “baptized.” There was also an old Roman tower which is where Benedict had his cell and from which he had his famous vision which Gregory the Great writes about in his Dialogues. (Gregory actually mentions it twice, once in the life of Benedict and another time in Dialogue 4). This is right after his twin sister Scholastica has died, and both times Gregory mentions it, it is in connection with the death of Germanus the bishop of Capua.
In the dead of the night he suddenly beheld a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away… According to his own description, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light.
Part of our tour was to go down into the depths of existing structure and see everything that has been excavated, particularly after the destruction during World War II.
|Monte Cassino after the bombing.|
And that, of course, is the other part of the place’s history that is perhaps even better known in this day and age––the famous Battle of Monte Cassino of 1944. The Americans, mistakenly as it turned out, thought that the Germans were encamped there and bombed it to almost total destruction. The sad irony was that the Germans were able to occupy the ruins after the bombing, and the spot was only secured later by the Polish army, thousands of whom died and are buried there near the abbey.
I forget how much (perhaps especially in Europe? In Italy?) Benedictine monasticism gets associated with Gregorian chant and “traditional” liturgy. The first thing on our program was Mass. It was quite high church, Abbot Donato presiding in magnificent vesture, almost all in Latin except for the readings and homily. The Eucharistic Prayer as done facing “in the same direction as the people” (ad orientes). The music (again Gregorian) for the most part was executed by two monks and the exceptional organist. Those of us who chose not to be vested were seated in the choir, which was behind the high altar and so could see or hear almost nothing. It was all done very well, but my gosh, what a different world from Big Sur!
There are only eight monks there (at least as I counted) though it is a huge monastery. They treated us to a wonderful pranzo in the enormous refectory, and somehow I got places at the Abbot’s table (though on the very end). He speaks beautiful English (Oxford educated, I believe). And then we had a tour of the museum, sang Vespers with the monks and headed back home, not arriving back in Rome until 7:00. I was glad to get home to San Gregorio. By this time Don Alessandro had arrived and they were just sitting down to dinner, so I was greeted warmly and very happy to be back in the warm environs of a Camaldolese community. After dinner I couldn’t wait to get my habit off, throw on my shorts and go for a long walk (and some gelato) in the cool Roman evening.
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Today was our first morning of real conferences, four of them, all held in nave of the church at Sant’Anselmo, chairs set up on either side in choir style. (It reminded me vaguely of Vatican II!) There are also booths set up for simultaneous translators––English, French, German, French, Italian, Spanish. It must have been easier when everyone knew, or faked their way through, Latin. The first three sessions were pretty informative, Abbot Richard Yeo, who is one of the candidates for the next Abbot Primate, explained the Benedictine Confederation. I learned that we Camaldolese along with the Vallombrosians, the Sylvestrines and the Olivetans were the last congregations to join the Confederation, and that the Camaldolese of Monte Corona along with the Cistercians and the Reformed Cistercians were the only ones was not to accept the invitation to join. Then the outgoing prior of Sant’Anselmo, Elias Lorenzo, who is also a possible candidate but was just elected Abbot President of the American Cassinese Congregation, gave us a good explanation of Sant’Anselmo itself. It is made up of three distinct but interwoven communities––the Benedictine Curia, the community of students and faculty (the College) and the university itself (the Athenaeum). Then Abbot Placid Solari gave us quite a good history of the Athenaeum itself, starting with its inception as a school for the monks of San Paulo Fuori Muri–St. Paul Outside-the-Walls back in 1687, its demise after the Napoleonic Suppression and its resurrection under Leo XIII, who also mandated the Benedictine Confederation. The last talk was painful, all about juridical rights and finances, and I felt sorry for poor Abbot Bruno Malfer, who spoke in German to have to deliver it last after a long morning. (He also is a candidate, I’m told, but a bit of a dark horse.) I listened to his conference in the Italian translation just to keep myself entertained.
That’s all for now. We begin in earnest tomorrow and we shall see if I have anything fit to share.