In Norcia, At Last
After sung vespers, and just before going in to dinner last night at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, a young man stopped me in the space outside the refectory, extended his hand, and said, “Rod, it’s Justin.”
I didn’t remember him from last time.
“You put me on your blog,” he said. Suddenly I remembered: it was in this post that I included a video pitch from Justin Leedy, who was trying to raise $45,000 to pay off his student debt so he could come to Norcia and pursue a vocation. And there he was, right in front of me.
“Did it work?” I asked tentatively.
“It worked!” he said. “I’m here.”
I crossed myself and said a quick prayer of thanksgiving. Readers of this blog who contributed to Justin’s campaign, thank you. There is a young man preparing to enter the monastery here in Norcia because of your generosity.
Father Cassian, the prior, welcomed me in the traditional Benedictine manner, by pouring water over my hands into a basin, and then we went in to dinner. Taking my place at a long table, I turned to the tall, bearded layman on my right to shake hands and greet him, but he smiled and shook his head. No talking! Right. After initial prayers, Brother Ignatius, the guestmaster, ascended the stairs to a platform overlooking the refectory, and began to read from the day’s selection, the memoirs of Father Louis Bouyer.
Some monks served us course after course, silently but efficiently. We had a simple pasta, then vegetables, then fish, followed by a bit of yogurt and fruit. The last time I was here, the iconographic frescoes were coming along nicely. Here’s an image from that time, in the autumn of 2014:
Since then, much more has been added. The iconographic style is essentially Byzantine, but with a bit more humanity and warmth in the faces — a distinctly Western touch, as is appropriate. There is, I’ve noticed since arriving, a distinct appreciation here for Orthodox spirituality, however. An icon of the Dormition hangs over the bed in my monastery-provided room, and an icon of the Last Supper presides over the dining table in the apartment, as in Orthodox homes. They sell Orthodox prayer ropes and icons in the monastery gift shop, and I suppose it goes without saying that the monks here could not possibly be more welcoming to me, an Orthodox Christian.
After dinner, the monks stood to chant more prayers, then filed silently out to their evening. I went back to my apartment adjacent to the monastery, and passed a beautiful site: a “norcineria,” which is to say a shop that sells cured pork and boar in a hundred different ways. That’s what Norcia is known for, and never was I happier that we Orthodox still are not in Lent. I took a photo of it, but am having a lot of trouble transferring photos from my iPhone to my computer over wifi, so I can’t show it to you. I hope I can get this worked out this week. I apologize for having to head this post with an old image I’ve used several times before, from my last trip here, but I cannot yet get the new images to my computer.
It was only about 7pm, and I had intended to get work done, but the serenity of the atmosphere here in Norcia, as well as the calming rhythm of vespers, then dinner, worked on me hypnotically. I could barely keep my eyes open, and fell asleep before I could post anything to the blog. Turns out I needed the extra sleep to get my internal clock adjusted. I woke up this morning before daylight, praying as I rose out of sleep, and surrounded by a sense of peace so strong it almost felt luminous. Luminous. I’ve used that word a lot to describe this place, especially the countenances of the monks here. There is no better one, or if there is, I have yet to find it. I dressed, then went across the piazza to a tiny cafe, where I had cappuccino and a pistachio cornetto, and after paying, crossed the piazza again and entered the church. I had hoped to make my first visit to the crypt church, and pray before the altar that was once part of the childhood home of St. Benedict. But it was not yet open. I saw the tall man from dinner in a pew, kneeling in prayer.
I went back into the square and began circumnavigating the statue of St. Benedict, prayer rope in hand. It turns out that one revolution around the perimeter equals 25 Jesus Prayers. After the second turn, I saw the tall man leaving the church. We recognized each other, and I broke my pattern to walk over to say hello, and to apologize for disturbing his peace the night before at dinner. He looked to be in his early 30s, strong but extraordinarily beautiful. He had about him the same sense of peace as the monks.
“Fabrizio,” he said, extending his hand.
“Do you live here, or are you a pilgrim?”
“No, I work in the church.”
“Wait, you’re the iconographer!”
Of course. My own godfather in Orthodoxy, the iconographer Vladimir Grigorenko, told me ages ago that a true iconographer must be a man of prayer. Fabrizio is such a man. If I had not seen him alone in the church praying, and also eating reverently and prayerfully in the refectory that he is decorating (that’s his work above), I still would have seen it in his face.
The world is very far away from this village in the Umbrian mountains. Late this morning, I begin my interviews with the monks, for the Benedict Option book. It is good — it is very good — to be here. The world needs what these men have. If I can communicate even a portion of it to readers, I will have been successful.
I mentioned to the guestmaster, Brother Ignatius, that I hoped to share their Christian wisdom with the world beyond Norcia, which so hungers for it. He sighed gently, and said, “We came to the monastery to escape the world, but the world keeps coming.”
He smiled. He knows that their prayer and their labor here in the monastery is for the sake of God, and in turn, of the world that God so loves. They have to live separately to a certain extent so they can kindle and intensify the God-given light within, but as their master St. Benedict instructed them, they welcome all others as Christ himself. And they teach all who incline their ears to listen. A Catholic professor wrote to the the other day, saying that these days in the post-Christian West, we have no need of arguments, but rather examples and stories. This is true. You cannot argue with the light in the faces of these men, and the deep peace in their eyes. And they are all so young!