Today in the Divine Liturgy, I prayed almost constantly for the people of Norcia, especially the monks. Like countless people around the world today who have been touched by the ministry and witness of the Benedictine monks there, and by the hospitality of the Norcini, I continue to reel from the earthquake’s destruction this morning of the 14th century basilica. It’s hard to comprehend that it’s gone.
— The Monks of Norcia (@monksofnorcia) October 30, 2016
Only a week ago, Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for Divine Worship, visited Norcia, and said that it and the monastery remind him of Bethlehem. If you’ve been to Norcia to pray with the monks, you know exactly what he means. Something miraculous has been happening in that ancient mountain village where Saints Benedict and Scholastica were born, something that began in the year 2000, with the reopening of the monastery nearly two centuries after Napoleon’s laws closed it and dispersed its monks. The congregation of the Norcia monks restored Latin plainchant, and celebrated the mass in Latin. And they grew! If you’ve been to Norcia, you cannot help seeing the light and the warmth embodied in those faithful monks. It is deeply attractive.
This past February, when I was visiting, in conversation with Brother Ignatius Prakarsa, I asked him about how cloistered monks evangelize, if at all. This short passage from The Benedict Option contains his answer:
“The structure of life in the monastery, the things you do every day, is not just pointless repetition,” said Brother Augustine Wilmeth, 25, whose red Viking-like beard touches his chest. “It’s to train your heart and your spirit so that when you need it, when you don’t feel strong enough to will yourself to get through a difficult moment, you fall back on your training. You know that you wouldn’t be strong enough to do it if you hadn’t been kind of working at it and putting all the auxiliary things in place.”
In other words, ordering one’s actions is really about training one’s heart to love and to desire the right things, the things that are real, without having to think about it. It is acquiring virtue as a habit.
In the grand scheme of things, these habits are what the Lord can use to save the world. You never know how God will act through the little things in a life ordered by His love, to His service, to speak evangelically to others, said Brother Ignatius Prakarsa, the monastery’s guestmaster. In the summertime, the monastery’s basilica church fills up with tourists, many of whom are lapsed Christians or unbelievers, who sit quietly to watch the monks chant their regular prayers, in Latin.
When he meets them on the church steps later, visitors often tell Brother Ignatius that the chanting was so peaceful, so beautiful.
“I tell them we’re just praying to the Lord. We’re just opening our mouths to sing the beauty that’s already there in the music,” he said to me. “Everything is evangelical. Everything is directed to God. Everything has to be seen from the supernatural point of view. The radiance that comes through our lives is only is only a reflection of God. In ourselves, we are nothing.”
I am confident — confident — that the Light of Christ will shine through those monks, piercing this present darkness as never before. This morning in the Orthodox liturgy, the New Testament reading was from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It contained these lines:
And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
Look at this image of Father Basil this morning, in the piazza of Norcia, steps away from the basilica shortly after its collapse:
There is a man driven to his knees, on the piazza, surrounded by nuns, the elderly, and someone in a wheelchair. The weak, the frightened, those without a roof over their heads. What did the priest-monk Basil do? He went to his knees to pray. This is the fruit of the spiritual training, day and night, that Brother Augustine talks about — the training that simply is the Benedictine life. This is the core of the Benedict Option: building up the daily habits of prayer, asceticism, and charity that allow the Holy Spirit to make us resilient. If you think losing their basilica and monastery is going to stop the Monks of Norcia, you badly underestimate them. All the prayer, worship, fasting and brotherhood they’ve been living these last 16 years, this ordering their lives around the service of Christ, has rooted them deeply in the faith. This terrible calamity shows their human weakness, but it also will reveal their inner strength, for as God said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
I am hearing from a lay source close to Norcia that all the churches in the town may be gone. We will get confirmation on this later. Never forget — never, ever forget — that from that little town, four years after the Roman Empire in the West formally collapsed, St. Benedict came into the world, in the very house over which the now-ruined basilica was built. It took centuries, but look what God did from that mustard seed of faith. He is going to do it again with the mustard seed of the Norcia monks. Just you wait till my book comes out in March. You will see, in the words of these brave and faithful men of God, what their message is to the world, and why we all need to hear it in these chaotic times.
I know a lot of you are scared now about what’s going on in the world. I hear it every day from folks in private e-mails and texts. I heard it in conversations at the Christian academic conference at Baylor last week. I heard it this morning in coffee hour conversations after church. And I’ve heard it from emails that have been coming in today. I feel it too. But look at Father Basil in that image this morning. There you have the Benedictine virtue of stability made manifest in the ruins. There is a spiritual battle underway now, and these monks are on the front line. Help them if you can.