Look at that, would you? There must be a dozen places like that in Norcia, the hometown of St. Benedict, high in the Umbrian hills (well, mountains; these are part of the Apennine range). Casella and I find ourselves lodging here tonight. We came to make a pilgrimage to the church and monastery built over the birthplace of the saint and his twin sister, St. Scholastica. A happy, happy benefit of coming here is that Norcia (Nursia, to Americans) is known for cured meats, wild boar, and truffles. Behold, America: a ham tree!:
Naturally, Casella and I ate cured meats for dinner at this excellent restaurant in town. Here’s the antipasti platter, of cured meats from the area. The head cheese was the best. I didn’t know until it was down my goozlepipe already, but there were a couple of bites of donkey meat sausage on the platter:
The primi piatti was spaghetti with mushrooms and black truffles, and the secondi was a mixed grill that included, yes, wild boar. I wish I had a boar piglet sleeping at the foot of my bed tonight. And I wish Nonna would come by and bring me warm milk and tell me a bedtime story.
In fact I had lumbered up to my room after dinner when I got a text from Casella telling me to come down to the Piazza San Benedetto just down the street to see the full moon over the church. Here’s what it looked like (too bad the iPhone camera can’t pick up the beauty of the full moon, which is just a smudge here):
I spent an hour today praying my prayer rule in front of the altar of the crypt church, underneath the church you see above. Here is the spot on which SS. Benedict and Scholastica were likely born, and where I stood to offer my prayers:
Father Cassian, the prior of the monastery, gave Casella and me a short tour, and explained how we are fairly sure that this was the spot. He said there are certain things we know from archaeological evidence, and others that come to us through tradition. The crypt level of the church was at street level when the original building was a Roman basilica, which is to say the seat of local government for the imperial state. The apse was where the governor sat and made decisions. St. Benedict’s father is believed to have been the administrator of Norcia when the saint and his twin sister were born (in the year 480). Recall that the last Western emperor of Rome had been deposed in 476, so this was a time of great chaos. It is likely that the Roman governor had his family home next to the seat of government, which would mean that part of what is now the crypt of the church was at least next door to the family home. The frescoes above date to the 14th century; the rediscovery of them indicated that that particular alcove in the church was especially important for some reason. It is believed that it marks the site of the twin saints’ birth. But no one can say for certain.
Whatever the truth, it was a spiritually powerful thing, standing there in the great silence, praying. I found myself wishing it were possible to keep vigil all night. I have fun writing about the food we eat on this trip, because I love it, and because it’s easy to write about. It’s much harder to describe the spiritual experiences I’ve been having (I’m still trying to find a way to write about praying at Dante’s tomb in Ravenna in a way that doesn’t sound trite). Casella and I went to sung vespers in the church, and listened to the monks chant in Latin. It was a time of rare grace.
Later, over beers from the monastery brewery (note for beer geeks: these monks were taught how to brew by the monks at Westvleteren), Casella pondered how St. Benedict’s father had been responsible for trying to keep order here after the Empire collapsed, and, of course, failed. Yes, I said, but his son succeeded — in time.
There is a lesson here for us Christians in these times. I’ll write more on that later.