Sunday, September 19, 2021
Friday, September 17, 2021
Friday, September 17, 2021, feast of Hildegarde von Bingen
It has been a really great week here with the nuns at Poppi. I’ve been leading what they call a seminario––and I must say, the format fits me quite well, part educational, part practical, in other words a 45 minute to hour teaching, followed by 45 minutes to an hour of practice, stretching and/or breathing plus meditation time. We started Sunday night with just a brief introduction. I apologized enough times for my Italian pronunciation (I have never been teased so much about my American accent as I was by the monks last week) and for the fact that I am tied to the text. But the group kept telling me not to worry about it a bit so I finally stopped. (I keep imagining I’m like some foreign monk with a charming accent speaking to a crowd in America.) After that we have had two sessions a day, late morning and late afternoon (very civil), that have lasted nearly two hours with a break. It has been so interesting for me to re-visit this material (I’m teaching out of my book Prayer in the Cave of the Heart) again after over a decade, and to re-visit it in another culture. It’s all fresh to me again and I am so grateful again to the people of Holy Cross and Lit Press for making it happen back in the 2000s. I still find it all very essential and exciting––like discovering the Good News for the first time. Several people in the group are pretty well-versed in meditation practice already, friends of Antonia Tronti, who translated the book and does regular seminars on Asian spirituality as well as on Bede Griffiths and Abhishktananda. Some arrived with their yoga mats and zafus. One professorial older gentleman, when he received the message from Debora, the nun here who arranged this, that he should bring comfortable clothes, told her that he always wears a tie and jacket, that’s what he’s comfortable in. He has always looked a little skeptical of everything and admitted yesterday to the group that he is fuori campo, ‘out of his field,’ but he too seems to have had a good experience.
One thing I have found out about leading a group of Italians is that if you ask a question, you can expect there to be about a ten-minute delay while everyone offers an opinion about the answer. We’re using the prayer service that I put together for the Sangha and have used in retreats all over the world, of course now translated into Italian with the help of Federico, but I was still unsure of a word or two, and I asked the group what they thought. That turned into a session where we practically re-wrote the last paragraph, and I must admit, it reads better now. This is the way liturgy ought to develop. One of the guys, Gianni, who along with his wife has been very much engaged, wondered why the prayer service didn’t have a name, a title. I asked him what he thought it should be and he said that that depended on me. Long pause… and then he added, “But perhaps I would call it preghiera nella grotta del cuore.––‘prayer in the cave of the heart’.” Of course. But I wasn’t sure if he had said della or nella or dalla––‘of the’ or ‘in the’ or ‘from the.’ So, in the final session I asked which one it should be. And of course, everyone had very strong opinions about which and I had to leave it unresolved and said let them know my decision later.
These folks have been such good meditators, if that doesn’t sound condescending or silly. There seemed to go deep right away and anxious to do it. I forget the strength sometimes of meditating with a group like that, somewhat different from being with the brothers each night, which of course has its own power. The final session today, which was nowhere near the end of what I had prepared, was especially powerful, explaining, off-script, how I thought we needed to evolve to face what we have to face, and why meditation was so important for the next step in evolution. All in all, a very satisfying and moving experience, well worth the effort.
The community here is just lovely, no two of them alike, on many different levels. Sr. Graziana, who I know well from my visits to the nuns at Contra and from our visitation to Windsor New York together last year is the prioress, a vispa–spry 81 years old, about 4’10” and full of energy and motherly wisdom. She explained the long, complicated history of the place to me. As far as I can remember, this was a monastery of Augusintian nuns dating back to the 15th century. When they had diminished in number it was taken over by the Camaldolese nuns from Arezzo, under the bishop of Arezzo. When they diminished in numbers, they asked the Camaldolese of Contra and Rome, and the Prior General to help out, and they patched together a community. That included, first of all, Patrizia, who I know from Rome and Contra (and once we were in India together). She is a very talented artist who weaves wonderful tapestries, arazzi. She is also the only one who is a full bred Italian Camaldolese nun. The rest, including Graziana, have migrated from other congregations or countries, even Graziana who was a Franciscan first.
Then there is Regina, who I met back in 2002 in India. She has been here in Italy since 2012, I think, and speaks her own unique form of Italian into which, when she speaks to me, she throws heavily accented English words. It’s hysterical trying to figure out what she is saying sometimes. She is an amazing cook, mixing Italian and Indian in a way that defies categories. She is totally in charge of this kitchen, clucking and tsking at everybody. She has become famous among the monks and locals and has even offered courses in Indian cooking. She has also been practically forcing food down my throat. Between her and Graziana I’m going to turn into big gnocchi if I am not careful. Now there is also of Debora here, in simple vows, who organized this retreat. She was part of a consecrated lay organization that did missionary work in Africa before she joined here. She is also a poet, with one book of her work already published. She speaks very good English from having an English mother, and has been at my side to pull me out of linguistic holes a number of times.
There is also Clara, who is Polish but joined the Camaldolese nuns in France, but who transferred here two years ago. I met her when I was here in 2019, but I would not have recognized her. At the time she was in a full black habit, complete with a wimple, and all you could see were eyes, nose, cheeks and teeth. Now she has lost 20 kms and is dressed in borghese, wearing a cowl for choir like the others. (Graziana is the only one in the full white habit.) Then there are four others here as well, Miriam who comes from another active congregation; and a woman from Finland but who has been living in Denmark for years, named Neti, who is also a holistic practitioner and yogi, and a bit of musician as well. It is her fault that I am here; she wanted a workshop in English, but no other English speakers signed up! She struggles with Italian––but then again she speaks six other languages. There is also Eleana, who is from Brazil, who as far as she told me is doing a hermit experience, but really joining the community for everything; and Isabella, from China, who belongs to a new Chinese congregation who I am not at all clear why she is here but is very much a part of the daily life as well. It’s all very Camaldolese.
Last night, just incidentally on the feast of St. Cyprian (oh ya, and Cornelius), we had an evening of music that had been planned beforehand. Miriam plays the cetra, what we could call a zither, a bit more popular here in Italy than in the US. She uses it to accompany the chant here. She is also a good singer. And of course, Neti plays and sings. So a program was put together of the three of us alternating for an hour, helping each other out on a few pieces, ending with a few Taizé chants and then an acapella piece for three voices that Neti had written that the people found very haunting. Since today was the feast of Hildegarde of Bingen I did my version of her O Virtus Sapientia, plus the Aarathi (in honor of Regina) and Compassionate and Wise, in keeping with the week.
That plus the teaching and presiding and/or preaching each day on top of the thelanguage challenges left me a little wiped out. I was originally going to go back to the monastery for the last weekend, but my first thought when I woke up yesterday morning was that I should stay here after the seminar was done, so as not to have to pack and change beds again. I am just in love with this little city Poppi and the landscape around it. What’s not to love about a medieval city on a hill with a castle surrounded by the Tuscan countryside? Everyone was fine with that, as a matter of fact the nuns were thrilled, so I’ll stay here until Sunday, say Mass for them, then go to Camaldoli for lunch, say goodbye to everyone there and from there Federico and I will head down to Rome for the last leg. I assume I need to take a Covid test before boarding the place on Thursday, and Federico and I have an appointment to visit the Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome, where there is the idea that he might study.
I’ll post this now, and follow up with some pictures and maybe some description of the town later.
Dalla grotta del cuore…
Sunday, September 12, 2021
September 13-17: teaching with the nuns at Poppi
It was a great stay at the Sacro Eremo. As I had hoped and expected, there was little official business to do, just a brief meeting with one of the monks. The Prior General is here––and you can see that he is very much at his ease here, the community allows him all kinds of space––but I didn’t have much interaction with him either. The room upstairs in the chapel really is what you might imagine a recluse’s cell to be. I could imagine Sr. Nazarena living there. The only problem with it was that the guided tours went through once or twice a day, with very loud talking (going on right now). And from time to time, I had to slip through them coming or going, feeling very much like one the animals in a zoo that is allowed to walk around with the public. I just kept my head down.
I just wanted to spend all day sitting in my cell as long as I could get a good walk or run in each day. And I did, venturing out farther than I ever have. There is along trail that goes from up here all the way down to the monastery, a bit up the road toward the ridge and it takes about an hour and a half, as opposed to taking the paved road which takes about a half hour walking. I had only taken it once before, with Stefano and his family two years ago. I went looking for on Friday, planning on walking the whole thing, but couldn’t find it, even though Alberto had told me where it was. It turns out I hadn’t gone up far enough. So I went farther up and found it yesterday and did a long walk/run first thing in the morning. I just loved it. There was a well about a mile in, and then a little cabin two miles in. Later Alberto was explaining to me that it is just a resting place, but I had to inform him that there was obviously somebody actually staying there, with smoke coming out of the fireplace and laundry hung on the line. It would be so much fun to explore all the many trails that go through these woods. Just like at home I rarely see any of the monks out in them. These formation guys are lucky––I’d have them out on Rec Day hikes regularly!
Just like the old days being on the road, it’s really a lot of discipline to get into a regular rhythm in a new place. But I had borrowed a yoga mat from Axel, got out for exercise first thing after breakfast (which I didn’t think I should skip being present), and then happily spent most of the rest of the days reading, writing, playing the guitar. Speaking of the latter, that new little guitar (Taylor GS Mini) has worked out just great for me. It’s so easy to carry on the plane, I finally got the one that feels pretty good (a little adjustment still necessary) and I have gotten used to it, and it’s one of those guitars that I can’t wait to pick up and play when it’s sitting on the floor next to my desk. I did translate one of my favorite songs into Italian, Dan Schutte’s “Only This I Want,” which went quite well with today’s gospel––‘Take up your cross and follow me’––which was fun to work on. I also “worked” a little, but just a little, and was happy to simply follow the gentle rhythm of life here. They have little in the way of community life outside of meals (three a day together) and liturgies (usually four), but all seem to have their place and do their daily maintenance tasks, every one of them. Alberto is pretty clear about that, and he himself is a worker bee, happily watering the plants and wiping down tables and sweeping sidewalks. He’s just a great monk, the very model I think of what this particular life calls for, very open to other expressions of the life (like Axel going off regularly to teach yoga classes) but he himself never leaves the property, perfectly happen with the daily round and the common task, and really loves the Lord and the Word.
Speaking of Axel and his yoga classes, they have become very popular here at the Sacro Eremo, and around Italy. Apparently he has become a well-respected yoga teacher. They have given him a beautiful room to use above the portineria in the guesthouse, a wooden floor and a big stand filled with mats and blocks and blankets.
We had group lectio in there the last evening too, just the monks. It was on the readings of Sunday, and it was really interesting to hear what they all had to say and how they said it. It was quite clear that a few of them, including but not only Alessandro, really know the scriptures! I only added the briefest thing, a little shy about the language.
I tedeschi are still here until tomorrow when they will turn young Fabian over to the wiles of the novice master at the monastery. But we hadn’t seen much of them since they went to La Verna yesterday and all the way up to Fabiano in the Marche, where Saint Romuald is buried and one of our monks lives at the parish where the tomb is) and then to Val di Castro which is where he died. Especially Fabian came back feeling rather indignant about what bad shape cell where Romuald died is in as well as the abandoned monastery. But that is one of the properties that got taken over by the state in one of the suppressions and there’s nothing we can do about it. They invited me to go along for either or both treks, but I chose the better part, at least for me, staying home and soaking in the ambience.
I realized today that thus far, outside of the airports, I have been in a monastery this entire time, from Hildesheim to Nütschau, then to the monastery at Camaldoli and the Hermitage, and now I’m here with our nuns in Poppi. I’m staying in the foresteria wing of their monastery with full access to their side as well. I’ll write some about that all later.
Friday, September 10, 2021
September 6: meeting with Prior General and General Council
September 7-12: visit monastery and Sacro Eremo
I’m up at the Holy Hermitage now. Every one of these places is a world in and of itself. I kept noting earlier this week what a different world it is just to cross through the door that goes from the foresteria to the monastery. Really, looking back it felt so chaotic there in the foresteria, so many people, so much activity. Then there is this little semi-hidden door through which you can access my favorite chapel upstairs and if you know what you are doing you can cross through to the cloister by way of the winter choir upstairs or you can go right into the sacristy and then the lower cloister. (These, by the way, are things that I had forgotten myself.)
I really enjoyed staying up in the upper cloister this week. I had the room dedicated to Blessed Rodolfo (I assume the famous one who wrote our first constitutions) a large room at the end of the only hall that has cells that look out at the cloister garden. Several mentioned to me how stately the room was––“fit for a cardinal”––and how it was unrecognizable from when Don Graziano of happy memory used to live there. Graziano was a large rough and tumble kind of guy, who handled money and worked on the farm, with huge hands and a rumbling gait, whose cocola was as stained as Emmanuel’s used to be. And yet when he would sit down at the organ the most amazing music used to come out of him. He favored the pre-Baroque stuff like Buxtehude which sounded perfect for the rococo church and its chiffy old organ, whose pipes he used to also climb up and adjust seemingly every day. (I was later told that that might really have been necessary. Like Emmanuel adjusting the generators.) He also gruffly told me how he didn’t like the new guitar music in church––chicka-chicka-chicka, he would say, strumming and air guitar––Ma tu, he said, “But you… it’s okay.” He also had memorized long passages of Dante’s Divina Commedia.
I am also here only semi-officially as the visitator for both communities. However, though this was only a visita fraternathe monks for the most part thought of me as Padre Visitatore. I was surprised (and delighted) how many wanted to talk, either asking for an appointment or, in one case, simply stopping by. A couple of walks, and one spontaneous 45-minute session in the laundry room downstairs. And really, lovely even tender sharing, and I felt quite honored. Also, one semi-official event each day. Monday there was a meeting of the Consiglio Generalizio allargato, and expanded General’s Council, Don Alessandro, his three assistants (George came up from Rome and Mario, my fellow visitator, was already there after offering a retreat at the Hermitage this last weekend), plus Axel and Giuseppe. Alessandro talked about the state of the two communities here, then I offered my report about New Camaldoli––they had lots of questions and I had to keep saying, Aspetta, per piacere––“Wait, please, I’ll get to that.” I was struggling a bit still with the language and was trying to follow my four pages of notes. Then I also got a report about Tanzania (Mario had just returned from there a few weeks back), India and Brazil. (I’m happy to report that Don Emanuele is doing much better. He is still resisting the community’s insistence that he return and move into the infirmary.)
Tuesday, they had a chapter meeting to vote on the entrance of young Fabian from Hildesheim into the novitiate (young but already ordained as a diocesan priest), and also the acceptance of Bernd as a claustral oblate. I had asked if I could be present for it and all three, Roberto, the vice-prior, Giuseppe, the novice master, and Alessandro himself were fine with that. It was fascinating to observe. That’s all I’m gonna say. Jeremias and Benedikt were also there to present the candidates, and as always filled with joy and gratitude to the Camaldoli for having taken them in. That was the fullest day that I had because I had five private appointments that day as well.
Wednesday was a good catch-up day for me, trying to respond to emails mostly, not much to do until the evening. At Vespers then was both the entrance of the novice and the official oblatura (now I know where Robert got that word) at Vespers. Both simple ceremonies but very beautiful. Alessandro gave a powerful homily as usual. I was surprised at how much they made of the reception of the claustral oblate, a combination of what the Germans wanted and the Italians not having done this for a very long time. (Thomas remembers that there was one in his memory, but Alessandro has no recollection of it ever happening.) He had written his promises to poverty, chastity and obedience in the profession book and read them out (in German) and then signed it at the altar, and he was clothed in a cowl. I need to have a talk with Jeremias and Benedikt and find out how they see that category. Even one of the young guys at Camaldoli mentioned to me how he was surprised at how much was made of it.
There is a very talented novice here at Camaldoli named Federico with whom I have been in contact for well over a year via email and Zoom. He’s a fine musician and also very talented at recording, having a solid background in the secular music industry before joining the monastery. He’s also quite intelligent and creative in lots of ways, writing, art, calligraphy, gardening and brimming with just brimming with energy. He also speaks English very well, having lived both in London and England for considerable periods of time. We spent some good hours together among other things preparing a song to sing for that evening, as i tedeschi had asked me to. (I keep referring to them as i tedeschi–“the Germans,” which makes the Italians laugh, maybe some nervous muscle memory of the World Wars…). I chose the song that Isaiah and James love to do, “This Alone” (“One thing I ask, this alone a seek…”). I must say, it was tear-jerkingly beautiful in that acoustic and always kind of a pleasant shock for the Italians to hear that style of music sung in their church.
Then of course there was a big feast in the refectory, both communities present, of course. Since Covid times the monks at the monastery have been eating in the scarpa di cavallo–the old-fashioned horseshoe arrangement (I think of it as “eating in choir”) where everyone sits around the wall a step up looking outward, which I actually really like, instead of at the tables set up in the middle. This time we were all around the walls and at the tables in the center. I suppose they made a big deal of it to celebrate the presence of the Germans.
Then, kind of the highlight of the week, I had a session with all the guys in formation Thursday morning. I must admit, I was really struggling with the language early in the week. During my meeting with the Consiglio Generalizio I was fine, especially reading from my notes, and my comprehension is for the most part pretty high in situations like that. Also, at the end of the Chapter meeting Alessandro had asked me to come up and say some things to the assembled brothers about things at New Camaldoli, for which I was totally unprepared, and I did fine. But trying to adjust to new voices on the fly, particularly in the refectory, and trying to have little conversations about things that I usually don’t talk about––plumbing, health, even asking about daily things, and sometimes responding to the brothers in the one-on-one meetings––I kept just freezing up, not being able to find the words. By Wednesday I was pretty frustrated. So, when Giuseppe asked me to do something with the formation guys, without giving me to many parameters except to talk to them about my spiritual journey and monastic life, I wasn’t sure how to do it. And I originally thought I would just surrender and speak in English with Federico translating, which can be pretty tedious for both the speaker and the listener. We weren’t sure how much the Germans understand Italian, so in the end I decided I would try to go back and forth between English and Italian myself, with Federico next to me to help if I stumbled (or freaked out and froze up). As it turned out, that wound up being a pretty good way for me to do it and after a while I forgot what I was doing and it just kind of poured out of me. Who knows how many grammatical errors I made, but no one seemed to mind.
We met in that same little chapel upstairs. It was quite a group, the three young guys from Tanzania (ages 30, 26 and 22), two Chinese, two Germans (Fabian and another German monk, Joseph, from their old congregation of the Dormition who is considering transfer for Hildesheim), then Federico and three other Italian postulants-observers. Since they liked the music so much, I decided to do the session around a few songs. We had heard the reading from Hosea 2 that morning at Vigils, I will lead her into the desert and tenderly speak to her heart, which I love so much, followed by a reading from the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross. So I choose that as a theme, you might say, one my standard screeds, how the cell and solitude itself is both a desert and a bridal chamber, a place of love and a place of purification. And then talked about a new look at asceticism, one that is not about punishing the body but “training the senses and stilling the mind,” as yoga teaches. The energy and the container, stuff like that. During my sabbatical I wrote a song based on that same Hosea reading, which I sang for them, and the “Arise My Love” from the Song of Songs, and in the end the song “Holy Now,” whose words sounds even more powerful translated into Italian. Joseph, the German who is considering transferring and who has been a monk for 20 years, said that it was different from any novice conference that he had ever heard, which could go either way, really, but Fabian was wildly enthusiastic as was Federico and the Tanzanians.
But the real highlight came afterward. The Tanzanians had written a song for the solemn profession of Emanuele, Don Bosco and Elia which took place a few months back. Simple words, in Swahili, praising the day and telling what it was about and then repeating the same verse for each man replacing one name for another. The youngest, John, who both Federico and Axel say has a real talent for music, had composed most of it and even come up with a choreography to accompany it. It had harmony and a countermelody and Fede accompanied them on a djembe. After they sang it, John and Onesforo (I am not making that name up) tried to do the dance, but Onesforo kept forgetting it and they wound up laughing. I got a video of both. And then all the formation guys together sang a beautiful song that Fede had written and taught them all, based on Saint Romuald, called Il Privelegio d’Amore–“The Privilege of Love,” just beautiful, again harmonized, accompanied by the guitar. They are pretty fortunate to have such a large group together here in formation, though they are not always all here at the same time. I am not sure they all appreciate what they have, but then again, “don’t it always seem to go…”?
Now, as I say, I’m up at the Sacro Eremo. All the Germans are here too, five of them. I asked to just have a room instead of a full cell, partially because I am only here for a few days and it seemed like such trouble to set up and clean a cell. Plus they are big and ungainly, and I always take some time to feel comfortable in one here. Some years ago I had a magical stay here in an old room, from the 13th century, above the kitchen and portineria, where you could smell the smoke of the caminetto seeping through the floor, and I was trying to get that one again. But instead I am in a room that I did not know existed, above the sacristy of the church up this very steep flight of stairs, where beloved Don Carlo used to live. Apparently, it was the room of the sacristan at one time. It looks out over the property behind the church on one side with a view of all the cells on the other. It’s as silent as can be and it was pitch dark at night. I’ll be here now until I go to the nuns on Sunday. I had a long visit with Axel yesterday afternoon when I arrived, but other than that I have little to do, thankfully, my only real days off during this trip. Alessandro did announce to the brothers that if any of them wanted to speak to me as vistatore, I was available. Though I think there will not many who will avail themselves of that here.