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Norcia just before the earthquakes: My time with the monks

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 06, 2016

Last week I spent two nights in Norcia, Italy, the birthplace of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. I was blessed with a rare personal encounter with the monks of Norcia, joining them in both prayer and work, an opportunity seldom offered to pilgrims. My glimpse of their way of life is even more precious in hindsight, because immediately after I left, the town of Norcia was devastated by massive earthquakes, the monastery was rendered unlivable, and the Basilica of St. Benedict was completely destroyed.

St. Benedict, in the center of town. Photos are mine unless otherwise noted.

There have been monks in Norcia since the tenth century, when a monastery was built on the ruins of the fifth-century house where the holy twins Benedict and Scholastica were born—a destination of pilgrims for centuries before the monks came. The first millennium of monastic life at Norcia was interrupted in 1810, when the Napoleonic Code forced the monks to leave.

The sons of St. Benedict would not return for another 190 years, when in 2000, a two-year-old community of Benedictine monks founded by Fr. Cassian Folsom moved from Rome to Norcia. The newly named Benedictine Monks of Norcia, mostly Americans, were charged with the care of the Basilica of St. Benedict (built in 1200) as well as with the spiritual needs of the many pilgrims who come to Norcia each year.

The Basilica of St. Benedict. Photo used with permission of Benedicamus Domino.

When I arrived in Norcia on October 24, the town was still recovering from an earthquake that had devastated the region in late August. While almost three hundred people in the region were killed and the village of Amatrice was completely destroyed, there were no fatalities in Norcia. Yet many buildings in the town had been damaged, tourism and pilgrimage had been severely reduced, and the basilica and much of the monastery were no longer safe.

Still, the Norcia I visited was pleasant and functional albeit quiet—no longer reeling. The monks were rebuilding, buoyed up materially by a campaign of donations from the U.S. and spiritually by (among other things) a visit from Cardinal Sarah a few days before I came. (Cardinal Sarah said of Norcia, “It reminds me of Bethlehem.”) The Basilica was being repaired and was expected to be functional again in a year’s time.

In the aftermath of August’s disaster, most of the monks had retreated to Rome, leaving only two to watch over the monastery, but by October, many of these had returned (though since parts of the monastery were damaged, some had to stay in another town nearby). Perhaps most encouraging, the formation of new monks was ongoing and two new novices had been clothed since August.

For one intending to visit the monks, the adaptations in routine were immediately apparent. I arrived late at night from Florence and, the monastery’s guesthouse being damaged, guestmaster Br. Ignatius booked me into a local bed-and-breakfast. My first encounter with the monks was to be at the Conventual Mass the next morning. (A Conventual Mass is a mass celebrated by and for the members of a religious community, connected with the Liturgy of the Hours.)

With the basilica closed, the Conventual Mass, Lauds and Vespers were sung in the Scavi (Italian for excavations), the ancient ruins of St. Benedict’s home beneath the monastery—one of the few areas which, ironically, bore no trace of earthquake damage. I say “sung” because it was just so—and to sing the liturgy seemed (as it is) to be the keystone of Benedictine life. Spoken prayer was the exception, and with the mellifluous plainchant rising to Heaven, it hardly seemed to matter that I don’t know Latin. (While the monks of Norcia are one of the few communities that celebrates both the Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Form, both of the masses I attended happened to be Tridentine.)

The night I arrived, reflecting that St. Benedict is one of the six patrons of Europe, I had wondered if anyone had ever depicted these six saints together. When I mentioned this to the brothers the next day, Br. Justin said, “I think Fr. Benedict has an icon of them!” and went off to fetch it. From left to right: St. Benedict, St. Cyril, St. Methodius, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).

After mass I met two of my fellow visitors: a Benedictine oblate and liturgical blogger (and CatholicCulture.org reader!) from Portland who spends five weeks of every year in Norcia (and who kindly sent me some of his photos for use in this article), and his friend, a priest who is the vice president of vocations for the USCCB. I also met Fr. Basil, the choirmaster with a kind smile, who on several occasions would “open the door” for me to experience the monastery in ways few visitors do. First he invited me to work in the brewery.

Since 2012, the monks of Norcia have been known for brewing Birra Nursia, a Belgian-style beer that comes in light and dark varieties (and is now available in the U.S.). Brewing is their livelihood, and occupies much of their time when they aren’t praying or ministering to townspeople and pilgrims. The brewery was also one of the few parts of the monastery deemed safe to use after the August earthquake, and since then, a portion of the proceeds have gone to the people of Norcia as well. So I accompanied my new oblate friend and a few of the brothers first to the garage, where we grabbed dozens of folded boxes and inserts, and then downstairs to the bottling room, where we set to work with tape dispensers and made boxes for Birra Nursia.

Those few hours working in the bottling room and monastery were my main opportunity to converse with the brothers. Most of them were American—a few from the South—and seemed to be in their mid-30s or younger; the average age of the monks is somewhere around 33. As so often happens in the tiny world of American orthodoxy (and the even tinier network of orthodox Catholic colleges), one of the brothers and I knew several of the same families back in the States. Aside from the habit, the most apparent external differences between the monks and everyone else are a certain calmness of demeanor and a certain gentleness (and perhaps restraint) in speech.

As we were working in the bottling room, it came time for Sext, the midday prayer of the Divine Office. A favorite memory of mine is of lining up with the monks in front of a crucifix by the bottling machine and singing Sext right there in the brewery.

This moment was captured by the oblate, who blogs at Benedicamus Domino. (I am standing next to him and thus not visible.) Facing the camera are Br. Augustine (the manager of the brewery and one of two Thomas Aquinas College graduates at the monastery) and Br. Justin (one of the new novices). Note that the monks are wearing their work blues.

After this, I had some time on my own to try the local cuisine (including Birra Nursia, of course) and explore the countryside immediately outside the town wall, to my taste some of the most beautiful land in Italy. I walked past farms, saw locals practicing archery and heard the echoes of two Norcian drum ensembles rehearsing simultaneously at different points in the valley.

After Vespers that evening, Fr. Basil invited me upstairs for a quick look at the refectory, where the monks eat. This was a totally unexpected treat which ended up being my favorite part of the monastery.

The refectory is beautifully frescoed by a local artist, who I learned had been sitting behind me at Mass earlier. Each panel features a scene from the life of St. Benedict on the right, a parallel scene from the life of Christ in the middle, and a parallel from the Old Testament on the left. Delightfully and appropriately, all of the scenes have something to do with food, so that, as Fr. Basil told me, the monks are always reminded of the spiritual dimension of eating.

On the right, the young hermit Benedict receives bread on a rope from his neighbor, the Byzantine monk Romanus. In the middle, Jesus is tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread. On the left, Elijah sleeps under a tree as an angel ministers to him with bread and water.

When I told Fr. Basil I planned to walk about 40 minutes outside town to find the original monastery founded by St. Scholastica, he went and brought me a bottle of water and some beef jerky and chocolate from Trader Joe’s—another kind gesture, and something I didn’t expect to get in Italy!

The next morning, after Lauds, Fr. Basil celebrated a private mass in the crypt for me and the two visitors from Portland. Then Br. Evagrius, who had served the mass, produced the monastery’s relic of St. Scholastica, which I had asked to venerate.

Since the previous night I had exited town in the wrong direction and ended up at the church of Madonna delle Grazie instead of the old monastery, this morning I ventured forth again. After passing through the industrial part of Norcia to some farmland and being chased by some dogs, I finally found the Church of St. Scholastica, built on the site of her first monastery for Benedictine nuns.

Taken from a safe distance: the three ravenous beasts which unexpectedly burst out of a gate and made a beeline at me, and the interesting-looking earthquake ruin which had tempted me down their path in the first place.

Chiesa di Santa Scolastica.

An ordinary shed in a field by the church, caught in a moment of beauty.

Finally, just before noon, it was time for me to conclude my (providentially) all-too-short visit. I reconnected with Br. Ignatius, who let me into the gift shop so I could buy a few things, snapped a quick and grateful selfie with him, and dashed off so I wouldn’t miss the bus to Spoleto, where there was a train connection to Assisi, my next destination.

Selfie with Br. Ignatius Prakarsa, from Indonesia.

That evening in Assisi, we felt the tremor of a distant earthquake.

This first quake hit while Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, OR, who had just arrived as part of the annual Populus Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage, was preparing to celebrate Mass for the monks. In the next 24 hours there would be several quakes in the region of Norcia, causing significant damage to the still-recovering monastery, basilica and town. Subprior Fr. Benedict wrote in a blog post, “The 50% of the monastery which had been considered ‘habitable’ after the August quakes has now been damaged far beyond what one might call safe livable conditions.” I was afraid, and still am, to ask about the state of the refectory.

Once again, thank God, there were no deaths in Norcia. Several of the monks escaped to join some of their fellows who had been staying at San Benedetto in Monte, on the mountaintop, since August.

But the worst blow came a few days later, on October 30, the day after I arrived back in the States. That morning, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake, Italy’s biggest since 1980, struck close to Norcia and caused damage as far as Rome. Yet again, by the grace of God, there were no fatalities, but the town is now a wreck. Not only is the Basilica of St. Benedict now completely destroyed, but not a single church in Norcia is left standing. The brewery has been destroyed. The town is empty.

The ruined basilica. Photo from the official Monks of Norcia blog.

Every Benedictine monk takes a vow of stability. Stability means staying one’s whole life in the same monastery and in the same community; it means mortifying the impulse to move around from one place to another as though all the monk needs is to find the perfect place which will solve all of his problems. There is no doubt that the vow of external stability exists for the sake of an inner, spiritual stability. Yet stability of location and of community is very close to the heart of the Benedictine way. How can a monk live stability when his home is destroyed and his community is forced to split itself between various temporary homes?

An act of God is an act of God, and sometimes we are put in circumstances which test us, challenging us to keep our vows even when the object of our vows has become a moving target. How can two spouses live their marriage vows, attain the stability characteristic of the married state, when adverse circumstances conspire to separate them? How can a husband fully live out his vow to his wife, or a wife keep her promise to her husband, when the other spouse has broken or given up on his or her own vow? How do I remain faithful to my state in life when (so to speak) my state in life seems no longer to be my state in life, or keep my vow at times when it can appear to be an abstract concept with little bearing on my real situation?

What I see in the monks of Norcia is that it is precisely when reality seems so much more complicated than a simple vow that we are being asked to renew our commitment at a deeper level, to move from a carnal understanding of the vow to a spiritual one, and to realize that God is more concerned with our efforts than our results and that He prefers our abandonment to His will above anything else. Fr. Benedict wrote two days ago:

Our life as monks has entered an entirely new phase, one we never expected but in which we see, unmistakably, God’s hand. He asks us to build up our community here on the mountain strongly and decisively based on prayer and conversion so that we might become saints for our time. He also asks us to rebuild the ruins of our monastery at St. Benedict’s home and to make it a source of light, hope and truth for monks and nuns throughout the world, as well as for all those who long for God.

In the days of aftershocks since last Sunday’s powerful quake that destroyed our ancient basilica and monastery, God has brought calm to our monks’ hearts in this new mission. In fact, one of our observers went ahead and received the tonsure and choir cape of postulancy at Vespers the same evening of the massive quake. We offered him the chance to go home, of course, but he would hear nothing of it. That is the way with this earthquake: it binds the monks to the very ground that shakes.

[…]

We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years St. Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world. Fiat. Fiat.

I have every confidence that these monks already are a light to the world, and that their light will spread. I thank God for that light, and for the time I spent with the sons of St. Benedict in the place of his birth. And I will always pray for the monks and the people of Norcia.

Fr. Basil, surrounded by nuns and townspeople, prays on his knees before the ruined basilica. Image from Twitter.

I ask that everyone who reads this keep the monks and people of Norcia in their prayers. I also ask that they consider donating to help the monks maintain their community and rebuild their home. The Deep Roots campaign began to aid recovery after the earthquake in August, and material support is needed now more than ever.

This video provides an aerial view of the damage to Norcia, as well as footage of firefighters rescuing statues and paintings from the ruined basilica, and saving a dog trapped under rubble.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Nov. 06, 2016 6:17 PM ET USA

    Thanks Thomas, that was a great report.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 06, 2016 2:55 PM ET USA

    I certainly hope that the rebuilding effort will go well. I hope no one was seriously injured. May God be with them.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Nov. 06, 2016 10:26 AM ET USA

    Thank you for sharing this story. Please keep us informed of ways we can help restore the community's living space and maybe the basilica.