Sunday, October 1, 2023

the visitation ends

 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…

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

second week of visitation so far

 Wednesday, 27 september 23

 I have had a hard time remembering what day it is… One sweet thing is that Vigils has been suspended for the entire week of the Visitation so I have these luscious extra couple of hours to myself in the early morning.


So we started out the Visitation in an interesting way that sort of happened on the fly. Giuseppe, who is the novice master here and is also serving as vice-prior pro temp, suggested that we have an incontro with the men in formation. They usually get referred to as i giovani, the young guys, but I have a tendency to avoid that term. Some of the are indeed young (the youngest being 21, one of two Tanzanians) but the others are well into their 30s, 40s and 50s. Even if they are in the first stages of formation, several of them have a good deal of life experience behind them as well as some experience of religious life in two cases. We were ten in all, with Mario and I, a group that included a Brazilian (Edmario) and the two young Tanzanians, Erasto and Stefano (Ste-FAN-o, he pointed out to me) who have only been here a few months and who, besides being shy, are still just beginning to learn Italian.

That’s the first noticeable thing, and toward the end I remarked to the whole group, how fortunate they are to have this international and intercultural experience, and how that makes Camaldoli such a unique place. There are two guys from India here in Italy right now as well, Adaikalam, who is now down in Rome beginning his study in Latin and Greek, and another older one, Rippon, just visiting for a few weeks; and there had been the two guys from China until recently here as well. For a small congregation to have representatives from India, China, Africa, South America and little ol’ USA is pretty impressive.

Mario and I each introduced ourselves and then went around the table and asked each of them to tell us a little about themselves too. That’s when we got to see the full array of life experiences. We then asked about the formation program in general, and honed on in a few points that had been raised: the personalized approach to formation (I taught them the term “cookie cutter” and they taught me stampino, which is what we Camaldolese are definitely not), we talked about holistic spirituality (which means a little something different to them than it does to the guy who wrote Spirit Soul Body), the sapiential approach (Bruno Barnhart’s name was brought up with reverence), and the experience of living at the hermitage instead of the monastery (they each get some periods there during formation, and one, Giuseppe, lives there now during simple vows). I was afraid it would be stilted and tedious but it was anything but. They gave us a lot of confirmation to put in our final report.

We also began with our personal encounters on Saturday and Sunday mornings. My old friend Fede took me for a nice run on Sunday afternoon and told me all about his academic adventure. He is doing his degree at the Istituto Ponteficio di Musica Sacra in Rome, and his first year has been full of piano lessons and semiology studies, participation in choirs as well as conducting lessons. From the latter I got a great maxim: Il tuo gesto è già musica, il tuo respiro già suono–“Your gesture is already music, your breath is already sound.” On the way out he told me all about the history he is learning about the origins of the notation of Gregorian chant. Pretty impressive, and of he is very passionate about it. I asked him what he might do with all this (he has a background in rock n’ roll and is a very talented guitarist and singer) and he wasn’t quite sure. 

The Italians are pretty brilliant at preserving the past, as evidenced also by the amazing new library/archive here at the monastery which has won a few architectural prizes. But of course none of us monks want to live in a museum, as Robert used to say. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say none of us, but certainly the Prior General, Mario, Fede, and I don’t. I find myself reflecting on that a lot when I am here in Italy, so deeply rooted in history but perhaps at times so entrenched in it that it’s difficult to move forward. I think that is what is so attractive and perhaps can be so annoying about us Americans: we have this great forward movement to us, openness and a “can do” spirit, and yet we can be a little shallow when it comes to a sense of the long arc of history––languages, literature, philosophy, culture, tradition. 

I must admit that I get a little apocalyptic at times and ask myself, “Why bother? The planet might be uninhabitable in a few years or Russia might unleash an atomic war and blot us all off the planet (or Donald Trump might get re-elected and take away NPR and put all of us liberals in concentration camps).” And yet the more I read about the upcoming Synod and the Holy Father’s push to be in conversation with the modern world so as to keep the Church relevant and engaged, the more I get energized. The underlying question I have rolling on my mind like a drone is “What does the church and the world need of us monks right now, and what is the best way to live on the planet and prepare for tomorrow?” I guess that is the questions that has been rolling around in me for over twenty years and part of the underlying motivation for my ten years in Santa Cruz. The answers that come through the fog are slightly different at 65 years old in 2023 than they were at 44 in 2002, and even more subtle.


Thursday, 28 september 23


The week has been quite full. Monday Giuseppe, the acting vice-prior of the community (the vice-prior for the last six years was named bishop of a diocese in Sardinia and ordained the same weekend I arrived in Italy), gave a very comprehensive report on the community, and of course a discussion opened up. We ended with an image from Mario that we didn’t have enough time to explore: the sap that runs through the branches of Camaldoli. What is it? We hope to return to that. 

Tuesday morning we had a two hour meeting with the financial manager of Camaldoli in the administrative office. Thanks to ten years of looking at financial reports and FAB meetings and the patient tutoring of Jeri, once I got some of the vocabulary down (utile, doesn’t mean “useful,” it means “profit”; mutuo doesn’t mean “mutual”; it means “loan”) I knew how to run the columns and do the numbers. The FAB would have been proud of me.

It’s no secret that these have been hard years for Italy in general and for Camaldoli specifically. Besides Covid (you may remember that Italy was hit early and hard), the war in Ukraine has affects here that we do not feel in the US, particularly fuel but also grain and other food stuffs. Besides that, the Antica Farmacia lost a huge customer from Korea for its creams that brought in up to $700,000 a year. So big decisions have to be made and, like us, they are looking at ways to bring in more income as well as looking at all the expenses. One thing that the motherhouse has that we do not is that it is supporting dependent houses, the foundations in Brazil and Tanzania, besides some significant financial help it has offered to a few of our other communities. Kind of like a parent waiting for his or her children to grow up, stand on their own two feet and maybe pay back a little.

After the meeting with the financial manager we had another two hours with all those responsible for income producing activities––the liquorificio that makes the famous laurus and all the other liqueurs, the small but hardy bookstore, the laboratorio that makes the creams, the foresteria (guest house) which has seen a real surprising decline in profit over the last five years, and also the farmacia in general, which the Prior General himself is overseeing and for which he has been actively pursuing a new line of perfume. 

Later Alessandro asked me if I followed everything or if I was tired. I admitted that at a certain point it was like hypnosis; all the words just sort of blurred into a drone, which made him laugh. But four hours discussing finances was a real onslaught, I must admit. Mario is pretty good with numbers and ideas, so I let him carry the ball. 

Giuseppe has graciously suspended Vigils this whole week of the Visitation, for which I have never been so relieved! So I’m gonna post this and get in a little stretching and breathing.

Bless you all!

Saturday, September 23, 2023

the first week of visitation

22 september 23


It’s hard to believe I have only been here in Italy a week, but such is the case. I arrived at a hot and humid Rome last Friday early afternoon, an uneventful direct overnight flight from San Francisco. Our old friend Mario Zanotti, now stationed at San Gregorio in Rome and my fellow visitator, met me at the airport and whisked me to the monastery. I was feeling pretty grimy after the long flight, and I did not want to sleep, so I put on my walking shoes and took a good walk, my favorite itinerary, up to Roma Termini, around Santa Maria Maggiore, Via Cavour, etc. Also a chance to practice my Italian with some merchants, buying a panino and a spremuta at the station. Then back to San Gregorio, shower, evening prayer with the brothers. Only a small group there now for the summer season but the students are starting to return already. Our oblates, friends (and employees) Louise and Gabe Quiroz were in Rome for the Congress of Benedictine Oblates at Sant’Anselmo, and Friday night they treated George and I to a wonderful meal in Trastevere. I spent Saturday walking again, reading and writing, letting my soul catch up with my body. Then Sunday, after a nice morning run around the Colosseum, we had Mass and pranzo and it was time for Mario and me to drive to Camaldoli where we arrived just before cena.


I am here in an official role as the Visitator of our mother house, the dual community of the monastery and hermitage of Camaldoli. Normally members of the Consiglio Generalizio, the Prior General’s three assistants, do the visitations to all the houses around the world, but two special visitators are elected for the mother house, since it is the Prior General’s own abode. That honor-duty fell to Mario and me this time. 


The Italians observe a little more ceremony around the visitations than we do. Monday morning we met with the Prior General and he offered us a schema of the days ahead, how we might proceed. Then, as of pranzo that day, he, in a sense, steps down as prior of the community and the 1st Visitator (me, this time) steps in for all ceremonial roles. I pray the opening prayer at lunch and decide when lunch is going to end. They wait for me to signal when to enter the church in procession and when to leave at the end of prayers. It all felt very strange at first, unseating the Prior General, but I got used to it quickly. It’s not very much different from what I do at home, and Alessandro is as always very gracious.


Monday afternoon we had our first riunione with all the monks, including those from the Sacro Eremo who came down for that purpose. Again I had to open the meeting with a few shorts remarks, then the word fell to Alessandro to give his presentation of the community over the last six years. As always, his remarks were very global in their perspective, the state of the world and the state of the Church as well as the state of the community and congregation. The floor was open for discussion of what he had brought up. Not too many spoke but enough so that it was not uncomfortable. We then presented the schema for the week ahead, and that’s when I got to see the Italians at their most characteristic. I could barely follow the discussion, arguing about how many meetings there would be, when and if the two communities should meet together (you could see the polemics arise between the hermits and the cenobites!), what ought to be discussed, etc. etc. In the end it was decided that we would re-write the schema. This was all new to me since I have never done a vistation before. Mario has had some experience, so I let him carry the load.

Then we had Mass with Vespers with me preaching. I find that to be one of the most nerve-wracking challenges––to preside and preach at Mass not only in a different place but in a different language, being so at ease doing so in my own. Of course I had everything written out and had gone over the missals countless times to make sure I know where the prayers were. It went fine. A big festive meal followed with all the monks from both communities again, and then the next day, Tuesday, we headed up to the Sacro Eremo.


The Visitation at the Sacro Eremo, I must say, went very well. It was nice to get started on such a good note. The vice-prior, Alberto, gave his opening remarks. As always, he was brief and to the point, every word weighed and poignant. We then opened the floor for discussion. It took a few minutes, but pretty soon a pretty lively discussion took place. We were to deal with certain topics along the way––liturgy, Lectio Divina, hospitality, the economy––one at a time. Having never done a visitation before may have been to my benefit since I had no preconceived notions of how they should flow. But every community meeting we held went pretty much the same way: a topic was introduced by someone, and then the guys just talked. At the end several of them said how different this was from other visitations and that they liked it a lot. 


After that first meeting we had a bit of a scare. Several of us noticed that Alberto’s voice was a little odd, almost as if he was half asleep, kind of slurring his words a bit. After the meeting while walking to his cell––thankfully someone was with him––suddenly he started dragging one foot and was not able to move half of his face. An ambulance was called, and he was carted down to the monastery where a helicopter whisked him off to a hospital near Florence. He had indeed suffered a minor stroke, which they think was due to a blood clot resulting from a surgery he had last summer. Fortunately, he recovered rather quickly but they kept him two nights to make sure.


Alberto is often described as a living saint, so there was great concern. I think he’s an amazing guy; he loves life at the Eremo and works hard to protect it, and yet he is very open to other expressions of the life as well. He is soft-spoken but I find him also to be fearless in saying what he thinks. He has very intense eyes and a very long beard. One of my favorite moments of the week was when he was talking about another monk who died some years ago who used to give the young guys a good piece of advice when they complained about not enough silence and solitude. Se vuoi silenzio, stai zito––“If you want silence, shut up.”


We had individual meetings with the monks each afternoon, and again I am thankful to say that many signed up for them and they were wonderful encounters. Thursday afternoon I began to write up our relazione, our report to the community, as is our due as visitators, which we were then to read to the community at the end. My aim was to keep it short (even as the Prior General had encouraged me to do) and just reflect back what we had heard. I did my draft and sent it to Mario and then Friday morning we worked together on the final version, adding some things and trying to get every word right. I was a little nervous about a few things and had him change one sentence just before we printed copies for everyone. The other tense part of this, of course, is that the Prior General is present for all of this since he is technically the prior of both houses, though the vice priors ideally run things. So if there is any hint of criticism it could be seen as criticizing the Prior General. And if you know our Prior General, Alessandro, you will know that he is a force to be reckoned with. 


We were both very pleased with the report and a really fine discussion opened up again, and I think it ended well. The last thing we told them was that it been a joy to find a community so at peace with one another, and such a welcoming environment. These are the three words that we heard from then that we fed back to them as a mirror of their communitarian identity: discretion, peace, and brotherhood.


We packed up and headed down to the monastery in the early evening and then Alessandro took Mario and I out for a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant last night. I didn’t even realize how much I needed a little break after a pretty intense week, and we had a great time together, not talking “business” at all. It was nice to see Alessandro relaxed, laughing and enjoying himself. He is carrying quite a load. 


Today begins the visitation here at the monastery, a very different environment and climate. We have a meeting with the men in formation this morning and then the beginning of our personal interviews this afternoon. I’m also in the meantime doing laundry…

Sunday, September 19, 2021

ancora di più qualche foto

A few more pics of this happy place before I leave...

Here you can see how the monastery is tucked 
right into the foot of the castle. 

The cumulus over the church in the deep blue sky. 
Those bells make quite a racket.

Here are the good ladies who have been such great hosts:
(from the right) Graziana, Isabella (China), Debora, Neti (Finland),
Patrizia, Miriam, Chiara (Poland via France), 
and Regina, Queen of the Cucina (Kerala)

On my way to Rome today.


Friday, September 17, 2021

delle foto di Poppi

The castle of the Counts Guido that crowns the city on top of the hill. 
The monastery is tucked into its base.

The Tuscan countryside after the rain.

12th century church of San Fedele, former Vallambrosian monastery 
with the Romanesque architecture I love so much.
The rest of building is just raw unadorned stone.

A view of the surrounding countryside, fields and the lazy Arno River 
drifting through on its way to Florence, not more than a creek here.

One of the gates of the city where I began my jog each morning.

This sign (which contains our stemma?!) descries how you can see two "universality spiritual" centers from Poppi, Camaldoli and La Verna which Date wrote is "in the raw stone between the Tiber and the Arno."

An evening of music with Neti and Miriam (behind me on the cetra).

Regina, reigning queen of the cucina.

nella grotta del cuore

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

delle foto

The Tanzanians singing their song for me.

The whole formation group.

A fount halfway up the path.

The intimidating stairs leading up to my room.

The sacristan's cell.

Axel's yoga room, also used at least once a week by monks for lectio.