September 6: meeting with Prior General and General Council
September 7-12: visit monastery and Sacro Eremo
I’m up at the Holy Hermitage now. Every one of these places is a world in and of itself. I kept noting earlier this week what a different world it is just to cross through the door that goes from the foresteria to the monastery. Really, looking back it felt so chaotic there in the foresteria, so many people, so much activity. Then there is this little semi-hidden door through which you can access my favorite chapel upstairs and if you know what you are doing you can cross through to the cloister by way of the winter choir upstairs or you can go right into the sacristy and then the lower cloister. (These, by the way, are things that I had forgotten myself.)
I really enjoyed staying up in the upper cloister this week. I had the room dedicated to Blessed Rodolfo (I assume the famous one who wrote our first constitutions) a large room at the end of the only hall that has cells that look out at the cloister garden. Several mentioned to me how stately the room was––“fit for a cardinal”––and how it was unrecognizable from when Don Graziano of happy memory used to live there. Graziano was a large rough and tumble kind of guy, who handled money and worked on the farm, with huge hands and a rumbling gait, whose cocola was as stained as Emmanuel’s used to be. And yet when he would sit down at the organ the most amazing music used to come out of him. He favored the pre-Baroque stuff like Buxtehude which sounded perfect for the rococo church and its chiffy old organ, whose pipes he used to also climb up and adjust seemingly every day. (I was later told that that might really have been necessary. Like Emmanuel adjusting the generators.) He also gruffly told me how he didn’t like the new guitar music in church––chicka-chicka-chicka, he would say, strumming and air guitar––Ma tu, he said, “But you… it’s okay.” He also had memorized long passages of Dante’s Divina Commedia.
I am also here only semi-officially as the visitator for both communities. However, though this was only a visita fraternathe monks for the most part thought of me as Padre Visitatore. I was surprised (and delighted) how many wanted to talk, either asking for an appointment or, in one case, simply stopping by. A couple of walks, and one spontaneous 45-minute session in the laundry room downstairs. And really, lovely even tender sharing, and I felt quite honored. Also, one semi-official event each day. Monday there was a meeting of the Consiglio Generalizio allargato, and expanded General’s Council, Don Alessandro, his three assistants (George came up from Rome and Mario, my fellow visitator, was already there after offering a retreat at the Hermitage this last weekend), plus Axel and Giuseppe. Alessandro talked about the state of the two communities here, then I offered my report about New Camaldoli––they had lots of questions and I had to keep saying, Aspetta, per piacere––“Wait, please, I’ll get to that.” I was struggling a bit still with the language and was trying to follow my four pages of notes. Then I also got a report about Tanzania (Mario had just returned from there a few weeks back), India and Brazil. (I’m happy to report that Don Emanuele is doing much better. He is still resisting the community’s insistence that he return and move into the infirmary.)
Tuesday, they had a chapter meeting to vote on the entrance of young Fabian from Hildesheim into the novitiate (young but already ordained as a diocesan priest), and also the acceptance of Bernd as a claustral oblate. I had asked if I could be present for it and all three, Roberto, the vice-prior, Giuseppe, the novice master, and Alessandro himself were fine with that. It was fascinating to observe. That’s all I’m gonna say. Jeremias and Benedikt were also there to present the candidates, and as always filled with joy and gratitude to the Camaldoli for having taken them in. That was the fullest day that I had because I had five private appointments that day as well.
Wednesday was a good catch-up day for me, trying to respond to emails mostly, not much to do until the evening. At Vespers then was both the entrance of the novice and the official oblatura (now I know where Robert got that word) at Vespers. Both simple ceremonies but very beautiful. Alessandro gave a powerful homily as usual. I was surprised at how much they made of the reception of the claustral oblate, a combination of what the Germans wanted and the Italians not having done this for a very long time. (Thomas remembers that there was one in his memory, but Alessandro has no recollection of it ever happening.) He had written his promises to poverty, chastity and obedience in the profession book and read them out (in German) and then signed it at the altar, and he was clothed in a cowl. I need to have a talk with Jeremias and Benedikt and find out how they see that category. Even one of the young guys at Camaldoli mentioned to me how he was surprised at how much was made of it.
There is a very talented novice here at Camaldoli named Federico with whom I have been in contact for well over a year via email and Zoom. He’s a fine musician and also very talented at recording, having a solid background in the secular music industry before joining the monastery. He’s also quite intelligent and creative in lots of ways, writing, art, calligraphy, gardening and brimming with just brimming with energy. He also speaks English very well, having lived both in London and England for considerable periods of time. We spent some good hours together among other things preparing a song to sing for that evening, as i tedeschi had asked me to. (I keep referring to them as i tedeschi–“the Germans,” which makes the Italians laugh, maybe some nervous muscle memory of the World Wars…). I chose the song that Isaiah and James love to do, “This Alone” (“One thing I ask, this alone a seek…”). I must say, it was tear-jerkingly beautiful in that acoustic and always kind of a pleasant shock for the Italians to hear that style of music sung in their church.
Then of course there was a big feast in the refectory, both communities present, of course. Since Covid times the monks at the monastery have been eating in the scarpa di cavallo–the old-fashioned horseshoe arrangement (I think of it as “eating in choir”) where everyone sits around the wall a step up looking outward, which I actually really like, instead of at the tables set up in the middle. This time we were all around the walls and at the tables in the center. I suppose they made a big deal of it to celebrate the presence of the Germans.
Then, kind of the highlight of the week, I had a session with all the guys in formation Thursday morning. I must admit, I was really struggling with the language early in the week. During my meeting with the Consiglio Generalizio I was fine, especially reading from my notes, and my comprehension is for the most part pretty high in situations like that. Also, at the end of the Chapter meeting Alessandro had asked me to come up and say some things to the assembled brothers about things at New Camaldoli, for which I was totally unprepared, and I did fine. But trying to adjust to new voices on the fly, particularly in the refectory, and trying to have little conversations about things that I usually don’t talk about––plumbing, health, even asking about daily things, and sometimes responding to the brothers in the one-on-one meetings––I kept just freezing up, not being able to find the words. By Wednesday I was pretty frustrated. So, when Giuseppe asked me to do something with the formation guys, without giving me to many parameters except to talk to them about my spiritual journey and monastic life, I wasn’t sure how to do it. And I originally thought I would just surrender and speak in English with Federico translating, which can be pretty tedious for both the speaker and the listener. We weren’t sure how much the Germans understand Italian, so in the end I decided I would try to go back and forth between English and Italian myself, with Federico next to me to help if I stumbled (or freaked out and froze up). As it turned out, that wound up being a pretty good way for me to do it and after a while I forgot what I was doing and it just kind of poured out of me. Who knows how many grammatical errors I made, but no one seemed to mind.
We met in that same little chapel upstairs. It was quite a group, the three young guys from Tanzania (ages 30, 26 and 22), two Chinese, two Germans (Fabian and another German monk, Joseph, from their old congregation of the Dormition who is considering transfer for Hildesheim), then Federico and three other Italian postulants-observers. Since they liked the music so much, I decided to do the session around a few songs. We had heard the reading from Hosea 2 that morning at Vigils, I will lead her into the desert and tenderly speak to her heart, which I love so much, followed by a reading from the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross. So I choose that as a theme, you might say, one my standard screeds, how the cell and solitude itself is both a desert and a bridal chamber, a place of love and a place of purification. And then talked about a new look at asceticism, one that is not about punishing the body but “training the senses and stilling the mind,” as yoga teaches. The energy and the container, stuff like that. During my sabbatical I wrote a song based on that same Hosea reading, which I sang for them, and the “Arise My Love” from the Song of Songs, and in the end the song “Holy Now,” whose words sounds even more powerful translated into Italian. Joseph, the German who is considering transferring and who has been a monk for 20 years, said that it was different from any novice conference that he had ever heard, which could go either way, really, but Fabian was wildly enthusiastic as was Federico and the Tanzanians.
But the real highlight came afterward. The Tanzanians had written a song for the solemn profession of Emanuele, Don Bosco and Elia which took place a few months back. Simple words, in Swahili, praising the day and telling what it was about and then repeating the same verse for each man replacing one name for another. The youngest, John, who both Federico and Axel say has a real talent for music, had composed most of it and even come up with a choreography to accompany it. It had harmony and a countermelody and Fede accompanied them on a djembe. After they sang it, John and Onesforo (I am not making that name up) tried to do the dance, but Onesforo kept forgetting it and they wound up laughing. I got a video of both. And then all the formation guys together sang a beautiful song that Fede had written and taught them all, based on Saint Romuald, called Il Privelegio d’Amore–“The Privilege of Love,” just beautiful, again harmonized, accompanied by the guitar. They are pretty fortunate to have such a large group together here in formation, though they are not always all here at the same time. I am not sure they all appreciate what they have, but then again, “don’t it always seem to go…”?
Now, as I say, I’m up at the Sacro Eremo. All the Germans are here too, five of them. I asked to just have a room instead of a full cell, partially because I am only here for a few days and it seemed like such trouble to set up and clean a cell. Plus they are big and ungainly, and I always take some time to feel comfortable in one here. Some years ago I had a magical stay here in an old room, from the 13th century, above the kitchen and portineria, where you could smell the smoke of the caminetto seeping through the floor, and I was trying to get that one again. But instead I am in a room that I did not know existed, above the sacristy of the church up this very steep flight of stairs, where beloved Don Carlo used to live. Apparently, it was the room of the sacristan at one time. It looks out over the property behind the church on one side with a view of all the cells on the other. It’s as silent as can be and it was pitch dark at night. I’ll be here now until I go to the nuns on Sunday. I had a long visit with Axel yesterday afternoon when I arrived, but other than that I have little to do, thankfully, my only real days off during this trip. Alessandro did announce to the brothers that if any of them wanted to speak to me as vistatore, I was available. Though I think there will not many who will avail themselves of that here.