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…