Norcia’s Citadel of Remebrance
Did you see the Benedictine Monks of Norcia on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday? These are the guys I’m going to spend a week with next month, and who are going to be a key part of the Benedict Option book! I had no idea that their recording of their Gregorian chanting had his No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts. See here to learn more about that particular monastery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you are an unmarried Catholic man and sense that you may have a monastic calling, go to Norcia and meet these monks. They are traditional, they are relatively young, and they are so joyful. You might have a life there with them.
Now, there are Benedictine monasteries everywhere, so why did I pick these monks to focus on for my book? Aside from the fact that their monastery exists over the birthplace of St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica in the fifth century, I chose it because these men returned to the monastery nearly two centuries after Napoleon closed it, and made it live again. Half of them are Americans, meaning they had no deep cultural affinity for monasticism. They discovered the depth and beauty of serving God as monks, and converted.
“I wanted something different and something more, and that’s what drew me to the monastery,” says Father Cassian Folsom, the prior.
You might remember that I visited the monastery in 2014. It’s like stepping into timelessness. I’ve had the same experience at Orthodox monasteries. Father Cassian tells CBS why, in his view, so many people love Gregorian chants:
“It shows that there’s something in the music that attracts people across a huge spectrum. That something, I think, is a desire for what people today call spirituality, for something more than the everyday lives they lead. … It takes them out of themselves, I think, because of its beauty and its ethereal quality.”
Something more than the everyday. And not only that, but if you enter into the monastic way of thinking and praying, even as a layman, it takes you back in history to the roots of Christianity. Once you’ve seen that, you can’t unsee it, and it’s hard to be satisfied with the trivial and the ephemeral. These monks of Norcia are cultural revolutionaries, and they don’t even know it.
Why do I say that? Because their monastery is both a fortress and a lighthouse of memory and witness. Pascal-Emanuel Gobry laments the Great Forgetting in the West today. Excerpt:
I’m not writing all of this for the stubborn pleasure of being a curmudgeon and yelling at the kids. A civilization, a culture, is a very complex machinery made up of ideas. Our life is sustained and shaped by institutions, such as liberal democracy, the welfare state, capitalism, the common law, human rights, and the scientific method. These institutions are a piece of technology, whose raw material is concepts and ideas. Like any other technology, it becomes harder and harder to use, and eventually breaks down, if we can’t use it. We are in danger of becoming like the people on the planet in Star Trek whose every need is met by a super-smart computer their ancestors built, but who have become lazy and forgetful over the generations, so that once it breaks down they are completely powerless to fix it, much less live in any functional way. And if we expect these institutions to keep delivering the bounties they have delivered us even if we don’t understand how they work and how to work them, we are engaging in little more than a cargo cult.
Contemporary culture, strangely, tells us that every era and culture was so shaped by its own culture and history that it had terrible blinders and could not understand things. Our material wealth and technological success has made us so arrogant that we believe we don’t have anything to learn from people who didn’t have iPads or universal suffrage, even though the reality is that the only way we have these things is because our ancestors learned from their ancestors to bequeath to us the institutions — that is, the ideas-in-action — that make all these things possible and worthwhile.
So, this is, like, actually a big deal, man. Maybe people should, like, start reading, like, books or something. Just a thought.
Dostoevsky famously said: “If there’s no God, then everything is permitted.” It’s a view the west might consider more often. Dostoevsky’s not saying that if there’s no God then no one’s watching us and we can do what we like. He’s really asking: what’s the rationale for living this way and not otherwise? If there’s no God, then there’s no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something. If there’s no divine tune, how do you know where to go, what to do? To believe in God is not a business of rewards, but an ability to make sense of things.
The monks of Norcia, by serving God, help make cosmos out of chaos. They know something important that many of us do not. Hilary White lives in Norcia as a laywoman and worships with them. She says:
As I was tramping down the hill this morning to join in on Br. Gregory’s big day, I totted it up: 20 years in Victoria, population about 125,000 in the ‘70s; 11 long, miserable damp and grey years among the miserable, damp and grey-minded hipsters of Vancouver, population about 2 million; 4 rather jolly years in Halifax Nova Scotia and the obligatory-for-Canadians 5 years in Toronto. 40 years in cities, all together. 40 years in which I unconsciously absorbed the modern urban message; sneak through life as anonymously as you can, be noticed by no one, attach yourself to no one, expect nothing from anyone, be a part of nothing and don’t get too attached because no one is going to stick around – everyone around you is transient and you are ultimately on your own. Cities do not exist to create community. I’m not sure what they are for in a positive sense, but I know from long experience that they provide an ideal place to hide for people who fear commitment and accountability. It’s a way of life I’ve had my fill of.
A few months ago, the monks released their album of Gregorian chant, and we attended a little gathering in the city hall. Afterwards we were making small talk, and Fr. Benedict introduced me to some of the Nursini notables as “Ilaria, una nuova Nursina.” A while ago, a friend was visiting from the US. She likes Norcia very much and comes regularly, and has been doing so for a lot longer than I have. We were sitting under the awning at the enoteca (wine bar) having a drink and spots a chap she knew who came over to greet us. As she tried to introduce me, Marco said, winking at me slightly, “Oh, everyone knows Hilary. She’s part of the community.” I admit, I nearly cried.
That’s a Benedict Option, for sure. White writes elsewhere about young Catholics discovering the value of tradition. Excerpt:
With this great Catholic liturgical patrimony being revived in some few pockets around the world, Jessica Kidwell’s story is more common than one might imagine. Gregory di Pippo, the editor of the New Liturgical Movement website, told me that the Church’s treasure house of art, music, and spiritual patrimony is being discovered more and more by younger people with no “baggage” about the pre-conciliar Church.
“History, philosophy, theology, even fiction,” he said, can lead to the discovery “that the Catholic Faith, its content and practice did not spring into being a half-century ago, and in fact used to involve something nobler than spaceship-esque church buildings, more rigorous than coloring-book catechetics, more demanding than two days of fasting a year, more beautiful than polyester and velcro vestments, more godly than politics, and more true than moral or cultural relativism.”
People are still looking for the Summum Bonum, the Greatest Good, di Pippo added. “It’s not just an issue of an aesthetic preference. It’s far more serious than that.”
Jessica Kidwell said that once she discovered the beauty and transcendence of the traditional Mass and Divine Office, quite different from the pared-down and modernized English language revisions of the 1960s, she was “hooked.”
She counts herself lucky to be born in a time well after the great tearing-down in the Church of her parents’ generation. In the 1970s and 80s, thousands of nuns abandoned their convents as the religious orders “modernized” according to the trends that burst onto the scene after Vatican II and in response to the secular “social revolution.”
“My generation’s mothers and fathers,” Kidwell said, “were discerning their vocations in an environment wherein the religious life was largely either dead, or a mockery of the evangelical counsels.
“By the grace of God, there are more options out there now for sincere young Catholics who want to give their lives to God in religious vows.”
And, I think, more options out there for sincere young Christians who want to live more traditionally, and not mire themselves in the Church of What’s Happening Now. For sincere young Christians who believe the deep past has more to teach us than the day before yesterday.