Saturday, 30 september 23, St Jerome
After the morning of finance meetings, we had a lighter afternoon. Alessandro wanted to show us the azienda agricola(basically “the farm”––laborotorio (the laboratory where the cremes and cosmetics are made, la cantina antica e nuova(the new and old cellar), le case coloniche (the houses that Camaldoli owns) and the Mausolea (there is no translation for that word that I can find, but it is not a mausoleum). The last first.
It’s got a complicated history. Originally it was called the musoleo. Somewhere along the line it became feminine, la musolea, and then morphed into its current named. I read all about it in the collection of don Ugo’s historical essays a few years back. It is basically a large villa about five miles from Camaldoli. Though the lands around seem to have been given to the monks as early as the end of the 11th century, I believe the first iteration of the villa itself was built in the 13thcentury, mainly as a place to house the folks who did all the farm work, and took care of the vineyards and the laboratory for the Farmacia. The current version only comes from the 15th century (!), built by the famous prior general Pietro Delfini, a humanist who wanted the monks (the cenobites at least) to be involved in rigorous manual labor on the land. At one time the Prior General actually lived there, back when such ecclesial positions were high in society. At another point during the suppression in the late 19th century under the Savoy government some monks lived there as well until the hermitage and monastery were re-opened in the 1930s. A few monks continued to live there until late in the 20th century, including the noted scholar and liturgist Cipriano Vagaggini.
The last group to use it was called La Grande Via, led by a well-known Dr. Franco Berino and Enrica Bortolazzi. The aim of their program was to “encourage health, wellbeing and longevity, prevent chronic illnesses and early aging and help re-establish a state of health in people hit by chronic illnesses associated with incorrect lifestyles.” (Rough translation from their website.) I visited them once and was quite impressed with their work. They have been gone for about a year and now the place is empty, and Alessandro is hoping to do something new with it, a retreat center or agroturismo of some sort. It’s a marvelous place, very large inside. It has got two huge spaces which were used for yoga and meditation in its last iteration, more than twenty rooms for sleeping, several conference halls, an industrial sized kitchen and a refectory, two little chapels, etc., etc.
Then we saw the antica cantina, the old wine cellar full of centuries-old wine barrels, now empty, that seemed to go on and on. (I, of course, was on the lookout for my old enemy, i pipistrelli–the bats, which I was warned might be there. They thought it was rather silly that I am terrified of bats.) We then saw the la nuova cantina which is not a cellar at all but a handsome sturdy metal building where the wines are made. Mario was particularly excited since he seems to know wines pretty well. He got very enthused when we got to the spumante. (He might have been waiting for a free sample, but none was offered, alas.) I was entertained to find that they sell wine in a box now and on the package it says, in English, “wine in a box” which seemed somewhat disappointing compared to the normal florid Tuscan lexicon.
We had been led on this whole tour by a young man named Lucca who has charge of the entire scope of the azienda agricola, and he was in the meantime pointing out the lands around us that are part of Camaldoli still, in the place mostly vineyards. Then we got in cars, crossed the road and drove up a long unpaved road to see the stalls where all the cows are kept. (To my vegetarian ahimsa horror, we raise young calves specifically for vitello–veal, which I think is heinous, but I held my tongue.) And then on up the road to visit all the houses that we own, in greater or lesser states of repair. All the way up the long road Alessandro kept saying, “This is our land” and “These are our fields” and “Those over there are our houses.” It’s quite a lot to manage and of course in these times of economic hardship for the congregation he is very intent on making the best use of it all. Some of the houses have had or have semi-permanent occupants.
One of the apartments is now inhabited by an elderly Brazilian woman, Elena, who I had met two years ago at Poppi, where she was living with the nuns at the time. Now she is on her hermit own, living next to a little chapel dedicated to San Martino that she maintains and where she also does her handwork of creating weavings on a loom.
On the way back, Alessandro asked if we wanted some gelato. I hope I didn’t answer too quickly. It was just the treat I needed after a long day, in the little town of Soci.
Sunday, 1 oct 23
Wednesday and Thursday were somewhat uneventful. We had personal meetings in the mornings and group meeting with the brothers from the Eremo in the afternoon. By now I was finally over my jetlag (!) and had established a pretty good routine. Just like at home, I skipped colazione with the brothers, and headed out for a run or walk right after morning prayer. We were delighted that so many brothers came for personal meetings. For various reasons we thought that here at the monastery there would not have been so many.
By then we had also already begun to write up our reports. The ones for the initial visits at the separate communities I had done a good draft and then Mario would lavare i miei panni–“wash my clothes,” a Florentine euphemism for cleaning up your Italian and we would add together other thoughts. I must say I was, and Mario as well, very careful with every word, particularly not in my own native tongue. I always think that setting just the right tone is so important. I kept thinking of the line from the letter to the Ephesians: speaking the truth with love. If it isn’t true, it’s not really loving. But at the same time, if it isn’t loving, it ain’t really true. And the other image I kept offering Mario was of a mirror. I felt like our job is simply to hold a mirror up to the community, with no judgement. And if possible, any recommendations would come from themselves. There were some difficult things that brothers wanted said and I think we addressed them appropriately. But I was nervous.
And then there was an additional report to write up for the two places together. The brothers here do not like to refer to the “two communities” or even “the communities” of Camaldoli. They prefer (or at least some of them do) to refer to themselves as one community in two places. That is pretty hard to convey. Mario had a really fine idea for that one drawn from his background in ecology and forestry studies and asked if he could start writing the draft for that one, which I was only too happy to concede. (Normally, it’s the first visitator who writes the reports.)
I was a little nervous presenting the relazione to the brothers at the monastery since there was a little contention up at the Eremo, and we had some even harder things to address down there, and some other suggestions that I knew might not go over well. I read it out to the assembled brothers Friday afternoon and my nervousness almost got the better of me. I was tripping over words and got kind of slavishly attached to the written text. At one point someone corrected my pronunciation of a word––in mid-sentence!––which I had not actually mispronounced, and that threw me off a little more, but I recovered and brought it in for a landing. To my relief it was received very well, and we had a nice discussion. There had been a long pause and I said that if there was nothing else to say we could go. But Alessandro said, “Aspetta un attimo. Ci vuole un po tempo per gli italiani––Wait a minute. It takes a little time for the Italians.” And Mario said “Il fuoco Italiano è lento ad accendersi ma lungo a bruciare––Italian fire is slow to light but it burns long.”
Alessandro had offered to take us out to dinner again Thursday or Friday night, but we had to sadly but wisely refuse. We wound up spending a good deal of time after dinner (from about 8:00 PM on, not at all my best time in any country) working on both reports but especially the last one for the combined monks. Mario did a wonderful job with the draft, very poetic. We went through and worked on the practical things together, suggestions and recommendations. Only once all week did we say, “We strongly urge the community to…” and refer to it as “urgent and necessary.”
I don’t think it is any breach of protocol to share with you Mario’s introduction. I spent many hours hiking through and marveling at this amazing forest of fir trees these past two weeks, so this especially resonated with me.
During the visit to the Hermitage and the Monastery of Camaldoli, several brothers compared the community to a centuries-old plant in which lifeblood flows. This reference demonstrates the close bond that still exists between the monks of Camaldoli and the forest in which they live. The relationship between the monks and the forest is an integral part of the Camaldolese-Romualdine experience. Saint Romualdo himself chose the dense forest as a privileged and favorable place for contemplation and prayer. His successors codified the methods of interaction between the monks and the forest which gives them hospitality, protection and means of subsistence, into their constitutions and rules of life. The monks contemplated the soaring white fir trunks which invite us to raise our gaze and praise towards the sky. For this reason, they begin to plant more and more fir trees. They made it a pure, homogeneous forest, without other tree species.
That fir forest has survived to this day. But the pure cultivation of silver fir does not renew itself naturally, because the plants are too dense and there is not enough light for other plants to grow. The renewal of the forest requires care and work and necessarily involves the clear cutting of a part of the forest and the planting of new plants. This is why today the management of the forest by the relevant parties is changing. Not it’s a matter of encouraging the possibility for other tree species (beeches, maples, hornbeams, oaks) to put down roots and grow together with the silver firs. The greater biodiversity allows each of the species, including the fir, to be reborn naturally through the seeds that fall to the ground. Different plants create a richer and more vital ecosystem that favors the renewal of all species, even if at the expense of the concept of purity, that is, of a certain order and geometric perfection of the forest and individual plants.
There’s the magic phrase that somehow ties in also with the upcoming Synod on Synodality: “a richer and more vital ecosystem that favors the renewal of all species, even if at the expense of the concept of purity.” And then we ended with this paragraph which I thought was very strong, tying into both the Synod and the theme for our upcoming Chapter––“Being Present to the Presence in the Present.”
The richness of our Congregation consists in its diversity and flexibility, which gives us a certain availability to the Spirit, and allows us to respect each person with their needs and their personal journey. This diversity is to be appreciated and celebrated. There is always the danger of absolutizing one’s way of living Camaldolese monasticism. There are different ways of being a monk, a Camaldolese: hermit, cenobite, missionary... However, what unites us, like the roots of plants intertwined in the humus of our forest––our tradition, the liturgy and Lectio Divina, the silence and sobriety of the cell, and above all the search for God––is greater than what differentiates us from one another. If a brother lives the Camaldolese charism in a different way from mine, that should not be perceived as a threat, but as an opportunity to exercise magnanimity, in the unity of the personal and communal vocation of our three-fold good. The world around us, as well as the Church, needs to learn this synodal attitude, this way of being “present”: celebrating, embracing and encouraging diversity. We Camaldolese monks are a model of this, and we wish to continue to be more and more.
This time I was patient waiting for the Italian fire to light and it burned very nicely without any argumentation for a good hour. Several of the brothers expressed their appreciation for the hard work we had done and for both the tone we had set and the mirror we had held up. We had a wonderful meal with everybody and then––Whew!––what a sense of relief!
I had a little more to do yet last night––both teach my month Zoom session and take part in another Zoom conference for our friend Douglas Christie from LMU, but that was kind of fun after all that other work. And fun to do it form here. Thanks God my cell has really good intenet. And it was nice to see familiar friendly faces on the former, and Bede as well as Paula Huston and Elbina on the latter––and speak in English! The only downside was that I had to miss pizza night…
Today several have left already for Rome so morning prayer was somewhat more muted than usual. I got in my last morning run and treated myself to some schiacciata at the schiacciateria across the street. Schiacciata is a specialty in this region, kind of like a think pizza dough or a smashed (schiacciare actually means “to smash”) focaccia with various toppings. I had a big piece filled with chocolate. (Hey, I earned it!) I can hear the Sunday crowds, tourists and pilgrims, right outside my window as I type, a really lovely sound.
After Mass and pranzo, Bro. Emanuele and I will take the train down to Rome, where we will eventually meet the other brothers and begin our preparations for the Synod. Thomas Mazzocco arrives tomorrow from Berkeley. It will be so good to see him. But first… I learned another new word––letargo: I am going to go into hibernation–letargo for a couple of days.
Ciao for now…