Norcia Diary: The Early Church
I am deliberately not writing too many details about my experiences with the Benedictine monks in Norcia, because I want to save this material for the Benedict Option book, which will be out next spring (I’ll be able to announce the publisher once their publicity team gives me the go-ahead.) I do want to say, though, that even though I knew this would be a good trip, I did not imagine how deep and rich this material would be (from the interviews, I mean), nor how much of it there would be. Walking back from my most recent interview, with Brother Evagrius, a 30-year-old from Indiana, the thought occurred to me that this entire experience has been like talking to men from the early Church, except that they talk like we do. If I had heard the same words coming from the mouth of a wizened Greek, Italian, or Russian elder, it would have been no less true, but somehow it wouldn’t have been quite as accessible.
In talking to these men — most of whom are fairly young — this ancient Christian tradition comes vividly alive, and graspable. Father Cassian, the prior of the monastery, steeps the novices in patristics — that is, the writings of the Early Church Fathers — when they come, and the Fathers are almost living presences here in the community. Every single one of those men that I’ve interviewed so far come across as serene but not otherworldly. They have such a profound peace about them, but they are also just … guys. It all flows so naturally, though they would tell you that this is the fruit of dying to oneself every single day, of emptying themselves out so they can be filled with the Holy Spirit. Point is, any idea of a monk as a sort of ghostly, withdrawn figure is immediately dispelled by their humble presence. Their faces glow. You can’t fake that. And when you start talking to them, you begin to understand how profound their commitment to Christ is, and how saturated in the Bible they are, and in the ascetic life. I’ve been talking to each one for an hour, for the book interview, except for Father Cassian, who gave me two hours of his time. I leave these sessions hungry for more.
A reader tweeted to ask me if this experience makes me more or less confident that Reformed Christians will buy into the Ben Op project. I would say more, definitely. It has been very good for me to have a copy of Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith’s forthcoming book on the spiritual power of habit with me. It’s a terrific book — clear, punchy, practical — about how habits train our hearts. I would even say that it’s a must-have text for the Benedict Option. The book has informed some of my questions for the monks, who talk about how all Christians should order their lives habitually to serve God — and about how we can’t just drift through life, or we will miss the mark. That, I think, is where many Evangelical leaders will connect with the book.
Orthodox readers may be surprised to discover how, well, Orthodox this monastery is. There are icons everywhere, and though they are thoroughly and unapologetically Catholic, they focus on how the first millennium of Christianity is our common heritage. The Fathers, as I said, are essential to life in this monastic community. This morning, in my final interview with Father Cassian, he was talking about having hope. He brought up the example of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, the Athonite elder whose fidelity revivified the Holy Mountain after a long period of decline. I was amazed that a Benedictine prior, in the mountains of Umbria, held the example of a modern Athonite elder so dear.
“We have lots of friends on the Holy Mountain,” he said. That is great to see.
I wrote to a Catholic friend just now, telling him that he had to get over here to Norcia as soon as he could. He’s been struggling with some heavy things for a while, and could use some peace and healing. This is a place of healing. I told him that when you are around these monks, you feel as if you have, for a moment in time, been able to glimpse the sun from Plato’s cave. It’s not that they’re perfect (and it would probably embarrass them to death to hear me say that), but that they exemplify — exemplify — what it means to live a life fully committed to Christ, to treat others as if they too were Christ, and to regard God as everywhere present and filling all things.
It’s real, people. It’s really real. These guys aren’t messing around. Br. Evagrius said that it’s essential for Christians today to prepare for martyrdom — not, he emphasized, that he is prophesying anything like that in fact, but rather so that we will live so detached from the world, like the early Church did, that we would be prepared to give our lives joyfully for Christ. As he said these words, his face was beaming, in the same way most young men his age would talk about their favorite college football team going to the national championship.
He said, “When you truly order your life to Christ, it orders everything else in your life. It has to.”
He said a lot more. They all have, and I look forward to telling you all about it in the pages of the book. The spiritual power in this simple place in the mountains, where the monks live simple lives of prayer, work, ascetism, and charity, is a thing of awe. Whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, the kind of thing these monks are doing here — bringing these practices into our lives — is where the renewal is going to come from, sooner or later, in God’s time. Those monks were made for a time such as this.