Peace be to everyone reading this from across the pond and the occasional internet drifter.
I’ve been in Norcia since about 2:00PM local time yesterday, though my body is quite unsure what time it is. The trip started at a brisk pace in Indianapolis, and got off with only a few hitches. Delta has lowered the maximum weight requirement for checked baggage, and I showed up with a bag 14lbs too big. I threw away my hangers, moved some of my audio gear and my gift for Fr. Cassian (crunchy peanut butter — his request) into my bag. Oops.
It turns out that peanut butter can be used as a weapon, and TSA promptly threw it away when they saw it under the x-ray machine. I should have known this, although there would have been no avoiding making the weight requirement. My audio gear bag (an upcoming post soon) was also the cause for some serious curiosity, and agents admitted that I had one of the strangest looking x-rayed bags they’d seen that day. So, at every check point I was forced not only to basically undress and unpack my backpack, but also pull every electronic piece of equipment out and demonstrate that it wasn’t threatening. I wish I had had some speakers so that it could have just played music at their will and made the searching procedure easier. I did this step-aside-unpack-explain-smile-unpack dance three times: Once in Indianapolis, once in NY and once in Dublin. Italians have the uncanny ability to discern explosive materials from XLR and MIDI cables. I ate my last American meal — A Big Mac meal with an extra cheeseburger — and began dreaming right away of the next opportunity I would have to joyfully poison my body. My heart aches for special sauce even as I write about it. That stuff is crack.
With my daypack and audio bag, boarding, sitting and leaving the plane were a little like being born, although all my seatmates were friendly and I went two for three with the window seat. The Economist got me to New York. I took Restaril just as I boarded the plane to Dublin and woke up in Dublin, missing the meal and all the free half-cans of coke. Feeling the Irish blood boil in me as I stepped in the Dublin airport, I decided to take a traditional Irish breakfast–Guinness– and then spent an hour thinking about America and my family and watching beautiful Irish women look doubtfully at your disheveled traveler. Across the bar, I saw a man get the hic-ups; his neatly protruding stomach jumped like a woman’s in labor and he would occasionally hit it like beating the cirrhosis-riddled child inside. I gathered my things and curled up in my seat for the last 2.5 hour stretch to Rome and slept most of the way, interrupted only by a child who wailed with a blood-curdling cry that only stopped once the plane had come to a complete stop at Di Vinci airport.
Rome is wonderful, and the smell was not altogether unfamiliar to that of the airport in New Delhi, but with less curry and feces in the air. My checked bag that I was sure would be lost at the transfer in Dublin came out before most everyone else’s, and with my remaining energy I stacked my things and headed for outside, unsure of where I was going except to “go meet Br. Basil” per my last email from Br. Benedict. My eyes sifted through the unending row of chafers with scribbled names on signs until I saw a bald monk with a beard to put King Menelaus to shame. He stood there unpretentiously and looked at me, and for a second I thought “there’s lots of monks in Rome”, but “Br. Basil!” came out instead, and he shook my hand. “Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you thirsty?” “No, No, No. Thank you. How are you? Let’s get out of here. No, it’s not heavy at all.” I was shaking and sweating and wanted to sleep and eat and get drink all at once.
The second my bags were in the car and the windows down, the pace has been as delightful and rewarding even up until now. We stopped halfway in Orte for food and petrol, and I honestly ate the best gas station food I’ve ever had: Mushroom pizza, mozzarella and roma tomato salad, a large coke. With difficulty I passed up the cold beer next to the soda, though it was offered. Then back to the road.
The remainder of the drive was increasingly more beautiful, and it is no surprise that Italians call this area “saint-making country”. It has been the inspiration for many holy men and women. On our final stretch to the walls of Norcia, several groups of crotch-rockets blazed by us on blind turns, narrowly missing busses and young people picnicking on the side of the road.
Then there was Norcia. We came into the walls and began navigating through a series of small streets with canopies of wet clothes and telephone lines. The walls closed in on us, and when we could finally go no farther, we stopped in an alley. I asked, “How far is the walk?â€ Br. Basil smiled and replied, “I said the same thing. We’re here.”
Santo Benedetto is a monastery built on ruins which were built on ruins. The earthquakes come here in cycles of 30 years, and then 70 years, and has been consistently crumbling and rebuilding some time, like much of Italy (in Rome new ground for building is almost never broken as the chances of discovering historical artifacts is almost guaranteed, and the government will promptly take it from the contractor). I dragged my luggage up the last two flights inside a chilled marble-floored guest house that smelled like something between the Tibetan motels in Majnu-ka-tilla in New Delhi and Center Hall at Wabash. The feeling of putting my things down for more than 10 hours was to my body what confession after thirty years would be to the soul. The sun was shining and cleansing and purified the air– which was already pure.
I found Bryan and hugged him; I met Br. John, the Official Guestmaster (he didn’t seem amused quite by me referring to him as the “O.G.” of the monastery, though I could hear Eazy E laughing from heaven) and hugged him too. I think my stench was more of an introduction than my name, and I hope first impressions don’t last forever.
Then I saw the gift shop, the small and cozy den of soaps and honeys and rosaries and post cards and books in languages I don’t speak [yet]. I was happy to just sit and watch Bryan tend to the shop; I thought “In August, this will be me” and was intimidated by my poor Italian. I wish Beth had given me more.
Vespers in the evening was followed by absolutely delicious lasagna and fresh salad and fresh bread and a little wine. Benedictines usually eat some meat but mostly abstain from alcohol; as an act of piety here they abstain from meat but follow the local custom of having wine with meals. It was very good, and when I was full and showered and sitting back in my chair, I felt like I hadn’t travelled at all.
After dinner I met up with Bryan and we went on a passiggiata. Since birth, the locality in Norcia has made a cultural staple of walking off their meal by pacing from one entrance gate of the town to the other, a fifteen-minute loop in total since the town is only about six or seven times the size of the Wabash campus and 3,000 strong in population. Bachelors, groups of girls, married couples with their kids in strollers, elderly– everyone dressed to impress and then got to trotting. We passed the same groups of people several times, with Bryan occasionally introducing me and I standing there with my thumb in my butt chanting two important mantras to myself: “Nothing wrong with an unspoken thought” and “Better to be quiet and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. After this walk I could begin to feel my body “wake up” again, and I promply found a draught of brandy to put that notion to bed, so to speak. We retired to the guesthouse (Bryan lives next door), I finished unpacking and laid down to begin rereading the Odyssey. I was asleep before I got through the proem, and slept seemingly more deeply and peacefully than in years.
I woke up today at 6:15 for Lauds and went. I came back to my room and was almost magnetically attracted back to bed. I woke again at 11:45 feeling 90% refreshed and went to Mass. It was in the co-cathedral (it is no longer technically a cathedral because Norcia is no longer the seat of the diocese) and was full of holy men and holy smoke and Gregorian chant. The choir of three monks would simply and elegantly chant the Norvus Ordo in Latin, and the ‘men’ of ‘amen’ would dangle in the air like humidity in New Orleans, asymptotically approaching silence. After mass I found a computer and looked up what the readings were.
Sunday is a happy day for monks. Truly it is a “mini-Easter” as the Church would have us ideally practice, and I had the opportunity to participate in a silent and pious adoration before supper. It was an exquisite dinner of pizza, shrimp cous cous, tuna salad, fresh fruit and whipped cream for dessert. All of this is made from the scratch of the scratch. The Kitchen Masters here earn their title. Bottles of becks and small pitchers of wine dotted the white linen cloth like Christmas lights, and the table we sat at with Fr. Cassian at the center was not altogether unlike the famous scene of the last supper. We were even on the second story. All meals are taken silently here at Santo Benedetto, except for lunch when someone reads from a book (everyone else eats in silence) and on Sunday, when recreation and talking is permitted. There was a bit of very healthy laughter, and although my portions have halved since I’ve been here, I feel more satisfied and nourished than any quantity of Big Macs. There is no “itis”, or lingering feeling of lethargy and sloth. After dinner I sat and conversed about the Eucharist with a very intelligent, pious and pretty lady who used to be the accountant at Santo Benedetto. She has green eyes and knows Latin and the Old Rite and has quiescence about her brought about only by prayer and grace– like the other 90% of the people here.
The greatest hope I had coming here has come true: I correctly predicted that I would have to do little myself to bring myself to pray more. When everyone prays, you pray, and prayer has yet to feel time-consuming or fruitless or repetitive. Perhaps this is because I’m praying in a language I don’t know and which I have to translate on the fly while in a 1,900 year old crypt traditionally called the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Rita; perhaps it is grace.
If you are reading this and wish to make a donation to Santo Benedetto, put your wallets away for the time being at least. I will surely solicit the world for money for this place soon enough. But for the time being, we are in a pinch as there is no Crunchy Peanut butter. Please, if you read this, send crunchy peanut butter to:
Monastero di San Benedetto
Via Reguardati, 22
06046 Norcia (PG)
I love and miss you all, and look forward to seeing you in Norcia, stateside or somewhere else.