Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bal'harm e Ballarò

31 August, 2019

The fact of praising a human and religious tradition does not mean despising the others. The synthesis between all of them can seem improbable and sometimes even impossible, but that which is urgent and important is not the unity between the religions, but their harmony. (R. Pannikar)

Oh my goodness. I almost don’t know where to begin. It was a wild and wonderful time in Sicily, not without its challenges, but still…

It started out with an overnight train trip to Palermo from Rome. I had made this train trip before, 20 years ago, but during the day, and I remember it being one of my favorite trips ever, seeing the northern coast of Sicily at dawn; crossing the Straits of Messina in a huge ferry boat––the entire train entering in; hugging the Mediterranean coastline; getting accosted by vendors in Napoli; finally my young (at the time) confrere Natale hanging off a column waiting for me and waving when I arrived for the first time at Roma Termini that night. This time, not much excitement: an overnight trip in a little cucetta with three berths shared with one guy who had no desire to talk and then a long bus ride in the dark from Messina to Palermo. It was again exciting to cross the straits and I was impressed even more this time at how close the mainland and the island are to each other. We had arrived at the crossing point around 4:30 AM, so by the time we got the train loaded on the traghetto and started across, the first hints of dawn were slipping in.

I was greeting at the train station in Palermo by Fr. Eraldo Cacchione, S.J., who had been my main contact for this conference. We had met once, he reminded me, 10 years ago at New Camaldoli, but I had no recollection of that. The only other meeting of sorts was over WhatsApp from Florence and scores of emails. He and another Jesuit, who I had met several times including once in India, Fr. Fausto Gianfreda, S.J. are the organizers of this now-annual conference called “Zipoli: Corso di Formazione alla Spiritualità nell Musicà,” a course of formation in spirituality in music. They had invited me to come already for the first and second editions of this conference (this was the third) in 2017, but it was impossible for me to get away at the time. When I was plotting this sabbatical, the first thing I thought of was being able to participate in this edition of it, and I let them know right away. However, in addition to offering a conference myself (more on that in a minute), Eraldo then asked me to organize all the liturgies for the week too. That was quite a job, first of all in Italian and secondly doing it long distance, flying blind. In the end Eraldo and his team put together a beautiful Vademecum booklet with the music tha I had put together for the four Lauds’ and three Vespers’ services, in addition to some music for Eucharist.

I really didn’t get the full scope of this event, nor my part in it, until I got here. The participants were college-aged young people (18 to 25, a great age to work with as far as I am concerned), and a relatively small group of them––this year we started out with 15 and in the end there were only 10! They (we) lived together for the week in a state sponsored dorm that was right next to the Jesuit church and residence in a noisy little neighborhood known as Ballarò. It has been a Muslim area for well over a thousand years and still boasts of a rambling open air market––Eraldo referred to it as a souk, in fact. When I was in Palermo with Mom and Dad in 1999, one of the memories I have is of a friend of our cousins driving me to various spots in his Fiat 500, stopping the car and then telling me, ‘Vai, fai in giro––Go walk around,” while he sat in the car smoking. I didn’t speak much Italian at the time and had no idea what I was looking for or looking at. And at one point he brought me to an open market that was actually kind of startling to me in all its foreign chaos. And I have a feeling that this was the same market.

My first hours with Eraldo were spent going over the week and the music for the liturgies, and then getting a quick tour of the most important venues. They had chosen several different sites throughout the city, all within walking distance, for the various presentations, plus we were going to have our regular liturgies of the hours in a little chapel a half a block away, called the Capella delle Dame–the chapel of the Ladies. It’s a fusty little place that is the home of a congregation of noble woman who minister to girls and young women who get brought over to Sicily under nefarious pretenses and often wind up in prostitution or other forms of human trafficking. The chapel and its antechambers, which are filled with Baroque accoutrements, is usually closed up and rarely used, so someone from the congregation had to come and open for us at the arranged times. They were very sweet and welcoming. The space worked well enough for us though it was very hot and airless inside, and I, wearing my choir robe for the liturgies, was usually drenched in sweat by the end. We then went to the site for my own presentation, which was to be the first of the week the next morning. That was my first gasp.

I have read quite a bit about the confluence of cultures in Sicily around the dawn of the first millennium and was very anxious to see some of the spots I had read about. To summarize a very complicated history: in the 9th century, the Byzantine Greeks on the island were feuding with their counterparts back in Constantinople over some political issues (power and money) and so they asked for some help from the Berber, Arab, Persian, and Iberian Muslims from Carthage, what we know as Tunisia in northern Africa, with whom they had already had a trading relationship for some time. (Side note: I was corrected by someone the other day who said that it was a misnomer to refer to it as simply Arab influence, when there was this mixture of tribes, though most books do refer to it as such. This gentleman said it was much more accurate to refer to it as Muslim or Islamic.) That “help” from the north African Muslims turned into a Muslim-Arabic takeover of much of the island in the 9th and 10th centuries. In records from that time Palermo itself (then known as Bal’harm) was often referred to as the medina, “the city” and was one of the largest and wealthiest Arab cities along with Baghdad and Cordoba. A number of churches were converted to mosques, but in keeping with the teaching of the Qur’an a great degree of religious tolerance prevailed. There was also a significant Jewish presence on the island and large Jewish quarters in both Palermo and Siracusa. The Arabs brought with them a high degree of learning, erudition and innovation, which melded into the literacy and education of the Byzantines and Jews. Not unlike pre-15th century Spain, it seems to have been a golden era.

That era was followed by the Norman conquest in the 12th century. The Normans were an amalgamation of Vikings, Franks, Romans, and Celts who spoke an ancient dialect of French. They had already made their presence felt throughout northern Europe and England. This was also the time of William the Conqueror, and just after the great schism in Christianity that separated East from West, so-called Greek Orthodox from Roman Catholic. It must be said that the remaining Byzantines in Sicily were happier under Islamic rule that they were about the prospect of submitting to Rome and losing their rituals and beliefs. Strange bedfellows, but at this point at least, just as under Islamic rule, there was still religious and cultural tolerance. And this is the period I was so fascinated with, many traces of which remain. As a placard that I saw at several points around the city describes it, Arab-Norman Palermo is “an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Byzantine and Islamic culture,” an “interchange which gave rise to an architectural and artistic expression based on new concepts of space, structure and decoration that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean region.” Nine religious and civic buildings from this era in Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù are considered UNESCO sites.

All that to say Eraldo then took me to the site where I was to present/perform the next day. And to my delight and astonishment, it was one of the places I had wanted to see, Santa Cristina. Built in 1174, it’s one of the oldest churches in Palermo. Its architecture is very sober and austere, and it has almost no interior decorations. That’s what marks what is known as the Arab-Norman style. It was known as a place that welcomed pilgrims, Sicily being a stopping point on the way to the Holy Land. As a matter of fact the street it is on is still known as the Cortile dei Pellegrini. In addition this church was for a time the abbey church of a group of Cistercian monks. Needless to say, I was delighted that this was going to be my venue. The typical Sicilian style that I was to see over and over again is pretty overwrought high Baroque style with every inch of wall space covered with something, and lots of anguished holy faces. This chaste Romanesque style, always my favorite ever since I studied art history, was like a drink of cool water after a salty meal, and I was glad to be able to experience it several times during my days here.

I had that evening before the conference started to myself, walking up and down the centro storico, many of whose main streets are blocked off from traffic so as to accommodate the throngs of tourists. My host later at the B&B in Bisacquino, who is a Palermitano himself, told me that it is only in recent years that Palermo has cleaned up this area so as to cater to tourism. When he was a boy––less than twenty years ago––it was not so. I heard every version of opinion about this development. One man told me that the Sicilians don’t do enough to promote tourism when there is such a cultural treasure there. Another said that the Sicilians are glad to have all this tourism as a boost to the economy. On the other hand I saw a poster around the corner from the dorm complaining about the raised prices, lack of affordable housing, and abundance of franchises over local businesses.

The next morning I had to jump right in, head first. We had morning prayer at 8 AM at the Capella delle Dame. I had not yet met the kids but I had to lead them in a brief rehearsal of the music, sight unseen, in Italian. I had spent a good part of the early morning rehearsing how to say things like “Now you try” and “Listen and then repeat” and “A little louder” and “Turn to page 3” in second person plural. Like my stilted conversation about guitars a week before, it’s amazing what vocabulary you take for granted. It went fine. I had decided to try to bring in all kinds of “chant” for these liturgies, mirroring our theme of multiculturalism, and this first day, besides a couple of easy chanting tones, I had opted to begin and end morning and evening prayer with the nama japas from Shantivanam and the collection “Hare Yeshu. They picked them up easily, thanks be to God, though they were looking at me a little mystified.

We then went right over to Santa Cristina where I was to offer my presentation, which as I said, was the first of the week. By now it was clear to me what the concept was, but of course I had not idea what was going to follow. Each presentation was to follow the format of an hour and a half of presenting the material, a brief pause, followed by a period of questions and/or a summary, ideally lasting two and a half hours. (Two and a half hours!)

I realize that we Americans really are quite literalists, and I had laid my presentation out exactly––and I mean exactly––as they had asked me to: to speak on music in Benedictine formation; the sound of the Spirit in my spiritual and vocal chords; inter-religious dialogue; music and California; and the various genres from folk to Gregorian chant; and to make it autobiographical as well and to perform for and with the students. The title of my presentation was “From Liturgy to the Religions of the World.” Needless to say I was over-prepared as usual; I had twelve pages of notes typed up. To sum up I spoke on how the music I listened to outside of church influenced the music that I wrote for the liturgy, as part of the wave of music that came out post-conciliar in the attempt to find a musical vernacular to go with our vernacular language, and my specific voice in all that. And then how my background in liturgy and liturgical spirituality (this is something our beloved Bruno used to tell me about myself) helped me in my approach to interreligious dialogue.

I am happy to report it went extraordinarily well. Eraldo and Fausto had done a pretty long introduction since this was the first presentation, so I was actually cheated out of a half an hour and I had to cut two songs and some spoken material, otherwise I think I had exactly the right amount. Every now and then I would stop and ask, ‘Si capisce il mio italiano? Do you understand my Italian?” And they kept saying enthusiastically, ‘Si, si!’, me all the while being rather surprised. The questions were very penetrating and right to the point. Looking back I think there were two things that were especially good about it. First, out of all the presentations, not only did I have the most musical examples mixed into the speaking, but I was certainly the only one that had participation. (It was the best performance of “The Drink Sent Down” ever, with the students singing the alhamdullilah ostinato throughout.) Secondly, again looking back, I really did inadvertently set the tone for what was to come afterward and would be reaffirmed by the final presenter on Sunday morning, Raffaele Pozzi, who spoke on “Music and Spirituality in the Global World.”

One of the things that keep coming to my mind is that I do very few gigs anymore but the ones I do usually take a lot of preparation. I don’t mind this a bit––it’s like going deep rather than wide. The two that I accepted for this sabbatical time, for instance: the opening event for the International Thomas Merton Society took me many hours of reflecting, research, writing, and rehearsing over the course of several months; and this one, even more, with the addition of preparing and sometimes re-scoring and/or translating and adapting all the music for the liturgies besides writing the talk, took even more. And what a sense of satisfaction when they are done. I hope that both of them will have a permanent format at some point: we’ve talked about filming a version of the ITMS presentation and Eraldo said that they want to gather the talks from Zipoli in some kind of a publication. (Italians love to publish things!) But even more, I hope I get to repeat these performances in an appropriate venue.

I’ll write more about the rest of the conference and the time in Sicily later, but before I forget: I just heard that two new “products” (such a crass word) are at the printers/duplicators even as I write and will be available hopefully by the time I get home. First, the film of the concert that we did at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz last year, thanks to the amazing work of Devin Kumar (Bhattacharya); second, the book Hermit, Preacher, Wanderer: Songs and Stories from the Road, which I am so excited about, from OCP. That contains not only the sheet music for twenty of the songs from the Santa Cruz-wandering era, but also prose explanations of the songs and the traditions that they come from, plus photos and excerpts from my travelogues. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. So please watch for them both.

I'm taking the guys out for pizza again tonight as a thank you, and then leaving from Rome tomorrow morning for the long journey home. I will try to write more along the way.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

the assumption, florence and rome at night

August 19, 2019

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:
God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act. (Dietrich Boenhoffer)*

Today is the feast of Saint Bernard Tolomei (1272-1348), the founder of the Olivetan Congregation. I have a special place in my affections for this congregation since I spent many a day living at their monastery San Miniato al Monte, my first trip to Italy and several times after, and also because our Monastery of the Risen Christ is a former Olivetan community. (Our Fr. Thomas Matus told me that during the Second Vatican Council there was talk of actually uniting our congregations. Wouldn’t that have been interesting?) We monks are all going over to the nuns’ at Sant’Antonio for Mass and dinner tonight, and George has asked me to preside. I don’t have to preach, but I did prepare a short introduction in honor of the Siennese saint.

The other reason I have a special love for Bernard Tolomei is that in his own way he represents our own triplex bonum–three-fold good. At the beginning of his monastic life he lives as a hermit––with three of his friends––and with a “great contempt for the world.” (This is echoed in the opening prayer from the Benedictine Sacarmentary: “you called Bernard Tolomei from le seduzioni di una vita mondana––the seductions of the worldly life.” This may be a play on words in Italian––I wouldn’t put it past them––because ‘mondana’ also means a “prostitute.”) Later, at the urging of the local bishop and attracting more and more followers, they began a rigorous cenobitic life. But the thing that really touched me, for all his contempt for the world, is that when the plague hit the land Bernardo and his brothers threw themselves into caring for victims of the plague until they themselves died of it and were buried with other victims in a common grave. No one knows where his remains are, like a seed that fell into the ground and died.

Back to my own days in Tuscany, if it be of interest…

Last Wednesday don Alessandro and I had an appointment with the nuns at Poppi. That city is known for the castle on top of the hill that can be seen for miles, and our monastery is tucked right into it at the very top. There are now six nuns there, including Debora, the novice who did the poetry reading the other night, an Indian, and Pole and a French nun from our monastery in Poland that closed recently. This kind of mixture even in a small group is not atypical for our houses. At our own lunch today here at San Gregorio, Alessandro––not the prior general––was the only Italian: other than him there was a Pole, an Indian, a Brazilian and me.

The little monastery in Poppi is an enchanting place and the sisters have done a wonderful job of making a welcoming environment of it. The Indian sister Regina, who I met first back at Shantivanam in 2002, cooked a lot of the food, including some Indian vegetarian dishes that she was quite pleased to offer especially for me. She is becoming well known in the area for this skill and has even taught classes to locals. Patrizia is an artist and makes beautiful tapestries, one of which I have commissioned her to make for us for our new Chapel of Reconciliation (though I haven’t passed that by Raniero yet who is helping me with that project, so don’t tell him). We first had a house meeting about some congregation business, which was quite interesting. We had pretty much decided what we were going to do five minutes into the meeting, but it took us another hour of talking to agree to it. It was fascinating being on the inside of an Italian meeting! (Actually it reminded me a little of my one encounter with the USCCB.)

That night then was the Vigil of the Assumption. The Assumption is a liturgical solemnity in America too, but here in Italy it is a major secular holiday as well, the real ferragosto. I had no idea about the extent of it. A practice that I picked up from the Italians that we now do once a month at the Hermitage as well is to have Vespers early (or in private) the night before a solemnity and then celebrate the Vigil the night before. (We at NCH then have a sleep in until 8:00 AM when Lauds is held. I call it the “Prior’s Special Birthday Schedule” because the first time we did it was for St. Romuald’s Day a few years back.) We all trucked down to the monastery from the Sacro Eremo and the nuns came in from all over, and the church was also filled with lay people. Alessandro presided, the very talented organist Thomas and cantor Emanuele led the sung liturgy, with a few other extra cantors from different communities stepping, and various readers, lay and monastic. A good thing there were some extras: there were 11 psalms and five readings! (Thanks be to God there was no homily.) And only after all that and solemn proclamation of the Gospel was I supposed to sing something, and I did, “Mary Woman of the Promise,” a melody that I love very much and play on the guitar all the time, but this was the first time I had ever sung it. It was so nice, I sang it again the next day at Mass at the Hermitage.

August 20

The next day my dear friends Stefano and Pamela and their two kids, formerly of Florence, now of Treviso near Venezia, came to Mass and lunch and to whisk me away down to Luisa’s house, Stefano’s Mom, in Florence for a little vacation time. Stefano and I met through a mutual acquaintance over our common interest in India, he through Abhishiktananda, two of whose works he has translated into Italian. We spent several very intense periods of study and practice together here in Italy, particularly back in 2005 when I stayed for about five weeks. I then was here in 2008 to celebrate their wedding. And it is at Luisa’s table that I spent many a night eating and conversing about so many things, and one of those places where I learned a good deal of whatever Italian I know. Luisa’s home in Florence is crammed full of books and toys and artifacts from all over the world. At 78 years old she still travels to Africa once or twice a year helping with an NGO for housing and health issues. She is also very well versed in all things theological and always has deep theological questions and strong opinions. Luckily my answers usually please her!

We had a great couple of days together, a place where I feel perfectly at home, enough to get up early in the morning and make my own coffee in the moka pot. It was a whole other education in all kinds of things to spend that much time also with the kids. Francesco is now 10 and Alice (pronounced Ah–LEE-chay) is 6, and they have a whole other vocabulary (not surprisingly, given the level of erudition in the family, they are both very articulate) as well as a whole other way of looking at the world. Francesco was absolutely captivated by the guitar and was very pleased to help me change a string that had broken. My favorite moment with Alice was when we were at the Palazzo Pitti the next day, and I wanted to drift off and get a coffee. I asked Francesco if he wanted to walk with me and he declined. So I started to talk away and they called me back because Alice, who is usually a little diffident with new people, wanted to go with me. So there we were walking hand in hand down the streets of Florence in search of an open BAR.

And, yes, as I mentioned, Friday we had a grand tour of the Pitti Palace, the storied home of the Medicis when they were the archdukes (a title they invented for themselves, I’m told, since they were not really royalty), including many long galleries chock full of art, as well as their private apartments, chapels, the throne room, bathing rooms. Amazing huge place. There was so much art that Luisa took to pointing the most important pieces out to me as we traipsed from one gallery to the next. They all took the kids home about 1 and left me to explore more of the space, including the gallery of modern art, which by the way includes art all the way up to the 19th century and the Impressionists! I guess that’s modern for Italy? I checked with Pamela, who graduated in art history, and indeed this is true. Anything after the Renaissance is considered “modern” and anything from the 20th century on is considered contemporary. (Needless to say, there was nothing contemporary.) I then spent an hour wandering around the historic centro of Florence, this time more than ever savoring memories of my first time there exactly 20 years ago this very month, when Raniero and I lived for four weeks at San Miniato and walked down every day for Italian lessons before General Chapter in 1999, the Piazza della Reppublica, the Ponte Vecchio, the church of Santa Felicita where reside the beautiful frescoes of Pontormo that I used for the CD cover of “The Song of Luke,” Santa Croce with its famous beautiful piazza. Florence bears the unique distinction of the entire city being patrimony of UNESCO.

Saturday, before I headed back down to Rome that afternoon, we went to Fiesole, just another charming city on top of a hill above Florence. There in Fiesole there are the scavi–the “digs,” archeological sites that have been uncovered. Both of the parents being teachers, this of course was a total nerd fest. There is an old Roman theatre there, plus a Roman temple built on an old Etruscan temple, and the remains of ancient Roman baths, as well as a museum that was founded back in the early 20th century (hence, “modern” though not contemporary). Then back to Luisa’s for a final pranzo, Stefano accompanied me to Santa Maria Novella where we finally had an hour to ourselves to check in about life, before I headed back down to my clean quiet air conditioned room at San Gregorio. (I snuck in while the brothers were having dinner.)

Our confrere from the Eremo di San Giorgio in Garda, Roman, showed up yesterday to stay a couple of days. He is a very tall Pole who is a good friend of George. He and I were also in India together in 2000, my first time there, and the three of us were happy to be reunited. He’s also gregarious and came bearing gifts of prosciutto, vino and olio. As I mentioned, last night the five of us, plus a young layman named Claudio who is in residence here, went to Sant’Antonio to have Mass and dinner with the nuns. They are always so gracious and happy to see the guys. And this time, Sr. Anna-Maria, who is in charge while Madre Michela is away, gushed over us and said something like, “It’s always so wonderful to see you, and this time so many of you!” I had presided, singing the presidential prayers, and Br. Alessandro had preached a homily that was appreciated by all, so they felt like we had given them a great gift too. 

One last cherry on the cake, as we were walking home, Alessandro had the idea that we should all walk to Piazza Navona, and so we did. It was about a half an hour walk, but well worth it. I actually now feel badly: when people ask me I usually say that I actually don’t like Rome that much, too noisy, dirty, crowded, and too many bishops and monuments to popes and cardinals. But this trip I have seen another side of Rome, both at Laura’s house and last night wandering around with Alessandro leading. He knows the city well and was pointing various thing as we passed––including the original Jewish ghetto and kosher Italo-ebraico restaurants, the seat of government (which is in total disarray right now), and the only library of Italian film. Of course the piazza itself was full of life, as was then the Pantheon where we headed on our way home. Finally he led us to a huge gelateria called 150 Gusti––beats Baskin and Robbins 36 flavors.

Now my backpack and guitar are packed and I am ready to head to Roma Termini for the overnight train to Sicilia.

* This was quoted by Anthony Scaramucci on the idea of replacing Donald Trump on the Republican ticket.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

prigioneri di speranza

18 August, 2019, back in Rome

The Camaldolese spirit assures a correspondence between the interior conditions and the most appropriate external environment, and takes in account, as is right and just, that the total dedication to God in the seriously contemplative life is the greatest act of charity and the most perfect state in the Church. (Anselmo Giabbani)

The train trip to Arezzo last Sunday, just as the trip back down here from Florence yesterday, through the Tuscan countryside, was as beautiful as always. My strongest memory of the trip this time was the fields of sunflowers, which I thought I could actually notice turning toward the sun. (The name in Italian is actually gira-sole–“sun-turn.”) 

After leaving Rome I was expecting to also leave the heat behind, but I was wrong. Arezzo itself was like a furnace. There is only a bus (instead of a train) from Arezzo to Bibbiena, where I was to be fetched by someone, so I had to leave the station and walk about a block, by which time, carrying my backpack and guitar, I was drenched in sweat. The bathrooms were all closed in the station so since there was another 40 minutes before our bus was to leave I headed into the centro a little to find servizi. No luck––ferragostoafter pranzo, everything was closed. It was going to be an uncomfortable ride. One of the first things you notice when you drive into Arezzo or walk from the train station is a little piazza in the middle of a roundabout that welcomes you into town, in the center of which is a large beautiful statue of our famous monk musician Guido of Arezzo, who by the way invented the notation for Gregorian chant. I have a special fondness for him of course, but I gently respectfully scolded my famous forbear in that moment: “A little help, fratello?”

The trip was made a little more challenging once I got on the bus. At first I was lucky to have a seat to myself, with the guitar and backpack on the adjoining seat. But the bus filled up, and at one point an older man got on and seemed to be struggling, so I shifted over to allow him to sit. It turned out that he was mentally disabled, and he wanted to talk. He kept asking me questions, in Italian, rather loudly, that I didn’t always understand. I answered as best I could. At one point he asked me where I was from, and he got really excited to find out I was from California, and started asking me all kinds of questions about California, and he wanted to say all the English words he knew, which were mostly “Thank you.” So every time I answered a question he would grab my arm and say “Thank you!” And sometimes he grabbed my arm for no apparent reason and, with a big smile, would just say “Thank you!” Trying to blend in in a foreign country is not always easy anyway, but the scene we were making was quite a good opportunity for me to practice several virtues at once. I kept asking myself, “What would St. Francis do?” 

The next surprise awaiting me was that Alessandro, the Prior General himself, came to pick me up at Bibbiena. We don't stand on ceremony a lot in our congregation (to say the least) and tend to be informal and not very hierarchical, but I was still quite touched by the gesture. I think he and I have developed a pretty good rapport as confreres and colleagues. He took me to a little osteriafor some dinner where we had a good long chat and caught up on many things, before he ushered me to my cell at the Sacro Eremo of Camaldoli.

My goodness, how I love that place! Of all of our houses––and I have been to all of them outside of Brazil and Africa––I feel like the Eremo of Camaldoli really has the power soaked into it and gently holds it for all of us. A wonderful understated vice-prior named Alberto, the very archetype of a Camaldolese monk, kind of like our Fr. Isaiah, keeps the place in order, and the community is very warm and welcoming in their quiet way. 

Monday is always a day without Vigils in common, and so I had a good long deep sleep, maybe the first really good one since getting to Italy. I had all day to myself Monday, actually the only one that I was going to have to myself. I got in a good walk down to the monastery, a little more than two miles, about a half an hour. I then headed up the trail that goes through the woods and ends up at the main road again. Sometimes I never learn: I made the same mistake that I remember making in 2005. When I got to the top, I thought I was still below the Eremo on my left, so I turned in that direction. But I was actually below the Hermitage on my right, so in turning left I wound up going back down the hill the long way (there are two roads up the mountain). By the time I realized my mistake, I was almost all the way down and of course then had to head back up, which meant by the end I had walked (according to my pedometer app) almost 8 miles. I earned my pasta that day, though I missed Mass.

As much as I wanted to spend some time at Camaldoli during this visit to Italy, I decided to only spend a few days because I was afraid I would have to “work” or be “on” in some way. Tuesday wound up being pretty full. First I had a friendly meeting with Fr. Joseph Wong, the Chinese monk who used to live with us at Big Sur, down at the monastery, touching on several things, including his project for a monastic presence in China. Then I had a meeting that Alessandro had set up for me with a woman journalist named Enrica Bortolazzi who is writing a book about the Camaldolese. She also works at our Mausolea.

The Mausolea is a beautiful old villa down the road from Camaldoli that is partly a farm, and a vineyard, and a factory for all our products, and also a place where monks lived for a time during the Napoleonic suppression in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now the monks have turned part of it over to an organization headed up by a famous doctor to use. 

His name is Franco Berrino. He is an epidemiologist who specializes in pathology and tumors, and particularly in preventative and predictive medicine. He is the author of many scientific publications, but his most famous book is in English, published by the International World Cancer Research Fund, is called Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer. Needless to say, he is convinced of the usefulness of a correct diet and lifestyle to avoid cancer and illness in general. Toward that end he runs very popular seminars of 3, 5, 10 days at our Mausolea that include diet education, yoga, meditation, music.

This woman, Enrica, is the co-director of the place, and it is incredible. She has been in charge of the logistical end of things and has done an amazing job of renovating the old place. Between medieval paintings of monks and saints, there are decorations from Asia spread throughout, and big rooms that are empty except for a huge carpet where they do yoga. There was incense and candles burning all over the place. I was very, very impressed by the whole feel of the environment, so lightsome and welcoming. Whenever I experience a space that combines the East and West like that, especially in Italy, it really touches something deep in me. It reminded me of the time when Raniero and I stumbled upon the World Community for Christian Meditation center above San Miniato in Florence in 1999. I like to say that Italy is my spiritual father, but India is my mother.

Anyway I had about an hour and a half interview with Enrica, all in Italian. It actually went really well, even talking about some very subtle things––death to self, integral spirituality, hope for the future, my own history. She asked very penetrating questions, and then at the end she wanted to talk all about music too. She also asked me if I had any idea what she could name this book. She was thinking of “Uomini del Silenzio––Men of Silence,” but I told her that I thought that might be too obvious. I had quoted Cornell West to her at the end of my interview, saying that I was not feeling very optimistic about the future, but that I was a “prisoner of hope.” I thought that might be a cool title: Prigioneri di Speranza.

I was pretty wiped out after all that, but the day wasn’t over yet. A young woman gave me a ride back to the monastery, where I was scheduled to have dinner with the community down there. I had a nice enough time, especially with the older monks who I know pretty well, but by that time my Italian was fading out a bit––but there was still one more thing to do!

There was a poetry reading that night at the monastery, in the famous Sala Landino, by one of our nuns who has just published a book of her poetry, and Alessandro had asked me to sing something at the beginning and the end of the program. By the time the nuns arrived my Italian started to fail me completely, and I felt like I was talking like an idiot. And for some reason (John Pennington would appreciate this) I had decided to sing a new song that I have written, a setting of another one of Antonio Machado’s poem, which I have never sung in public before, in Spanish, that is also actually kind of hard to play. Of course: you’re in a foreign country, so the best thing to do would be to sing a new song that you have never sung before in public in a third language that you have to translate first into English and then into Italian. No sweat! I had been practicing all day, but when it came time to perform my hands seemed to take on a life of their own and it sounded like I was a total amateur. I was so nervous I was sweating, which rarely happens. The poetry reading itself went fine, and luckily the song I sang at the end, “Los Laberintos,” went very well, in spite of also being in Spanish, and the people really liked it. So I kind of redeemed myself. But I went back to the Eremo feeling pretty deflated. I asked permission of the Prior General, who I rode back up the mountain with, to do Vigils “in private,” and gave myself a good sleep-in.

I woke up the next morning thinking about the work the Dr. Berrino and Enrica are doing at the Mausolea. I was really touched by it, and told Alessandro so the next day. I am convinced that the kind of work that they are doing, along with care for our poor burning planet-home, is the spiritual, evangelical, missionary work that the world really needs. It’s also what I wish to God that contemplatives––monks or otherwise––were living and offering to the world, or hope that they/we are in some way: a new way to live inspired by our practice, not only preparing for the body to die and the soul to go to heaven.* Whatever we have offered and/or are offering––and those gifts are not minimal––I think what they have added to it will bear much more and better fruit. I’m glad don Alessandro is supporting this project (though I’m not sure all our monks do), but in addition we should be learning from them.

*According to none other than N. T. Wright, that is not the telos of the Christian life according to scripture anyway, but rather a new heaven and a new earth.

More later…