I don’t ask, “Is Italy a great country?” Everybody knows that. It produced Dante, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. The question before us now is this one: Is Italy the greatest country?
I ask because late yesterday afternoon, I was at Caffe Tancredi, a tiny bar off the piazza here in Norcia, having a Birra Nursia, when the young woman standing next to me struck up a conversation in English.
“You must come to my pig farm,” she said. Peeg farm. This bore investigation.
Her name was Valentina, and she was having coffee at the bar with her Mamma. “She doesn’t speak English,” said Valentina. “She speaks ham. Ha ha!”
Mamma gave me the thumbs up. I liked these people at once.
Valentina’s English wasn’t great, and my Italian, like Mamma’s inglese, is non-existent. But she and Mamma managed to communicate that their pigs had one a global competition for best prosciutto, or something like it, and that The Guardian had come all the way from London to write a story about them.
“You come to us,” Valentina said. “Here’s the number. My father will pick you up.”
It was very nice, but I’m a busy man, here writing a book about monks. But after I finished my beer, I went for a walk around this village, saying my prayer rope, and it occurred to me that Norcia is known all over Italy for the quality of its cured meats. If I had been in Burgundy, and had been invited by a family to visit its vineyard, would I say no? Of course not.
What do you know, but an hour later, walking around the piazza with my prayer rope in hand, I ran into Mamma and Pappa. His name was Giuseppe, and he apologized for speaking no English. I returned the apology for my lack of Italian. We shook hands warmly, and Mamma said over and over again that I must come to the peeg farm. I promised her I would. They kindly stood for a selfie. Great people!
I had dinner at a restaurant called Il Cenacole, which serves pork — everybody here serves pork, and lots of it — from its own herd. The server told me that they’re part of a movement to bring back a heritage breed that is a hybrid with cinghiale, the wild boar native to this area. I had pork, but I started with a pasta with black truffles, which are also native to this area. It was delicious, though the server, Michaela, told me that this was a bad year for truffles in these mountains. It wasn’t cold enough, she said. She brought out the last of the winter’s black truffles, small dark fungal lumps the color of chocolate, and presented them to me like holy relics.
I went home full of peeg, pasta, and truffles, and settled down to work. But again, I fell quickly asleep, and slept for, get this, ten hours. This is very unusual for me, but I realized this morning when I woke up way past the time to call the peeg farm that Norcia is having the effect of unwinding me. I had not realized how tightly wound and stressed I have been until arriving here, and entering into the stillness of life in this mountain village. My wi-fi access is unreliable, so I can’t check the latest news every few minutes. It is frustrating, but also a blessing.
After getting dressed late this morning, I lumbered across the piazza to Caffe Tancredi for my morning cappuccino. The barista was busy making his special chocolate cappuccino creation for some women at the other end of the bar. I’m not a fan of chocolate, but he was so proud of it I had to taste his specialty. And it was, of course, out of this world. He was smartly dressed, with a bow tie — this, in a bar the size of a big closet. The pride this man took in his work was evident. I finished my coffee, then walked back across the piazza to church.
The cowled monks were in the middle of the day’s mass. I stood in the rear of the church, praying my prayer rope as they chanted the traditional Latin liturgy for a small congregation. Do you want to hear the kind of thing I was hearing this morning? The monks have a recent chart-topping album of their chants. If you haven’t yet seen it, take a look at the 60 Minutes report on the monks, this monastery, and their chants. These men are real. This is a thing not from over a thousand years ago, but from today. This day. I mean, it is from over a thousand years ago, but it’s right here, right now, too.
There was such a purity to the Gregorian chanting; it made me think of ivory pouring down like fresh milk. That is, there was something eternal and transcendent about it — these sounds could have been transmitted whole from the early medieval period — but also viscerally present. It was such a strange and wonderful feeling, a moment utterly out of time. The celebrant raised the Host high, facing the altar (they say the traditional mass here), and the feeling of eternity was, paradoxically, both modest and overwhelming. I deeply wished that Catholics could experience this, and see what is possible within their tradition, how beautiful it is, and how elevating.
After the mass, the crypt below the church opened, and I went down to pray. The crypt includes the original church built here, which had first been the Roman administrative building when Norcia was Nursia, a Roman town. The father of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, twins born here in 480, was the Roman official, and lived with his family in this building. In this space, Romans of Nursia gathered to hear the decisions of Benedict’s father. Benedict and Scholastica would have been born in this edifice.
I interviewed a young American monk yesterday, and he said that after being here a couple of years, when he goes back home, everything about America feels so transient and insubstantial. I didn’t take him as being critical, but simply observing how living in such an old place refocuses one. As I walked around under the vaulted ceiling of the crypt, I tried to imagine the Romans who trod these same stones — including the boy Benedict. To the left of the main altar is a side altar in an apse, dedicated to Benedict and Scholastica (see the photo above). It traditionally marks the site of their birth. There is a new icon of the twins on the altar, and above, the remains of a 14th-century fresco commemorating their birth.
I prostrated myself, then took a seat on the bench and continued my daily prayer rule. There in the crypt, the silence is as total as it is possible to achieve in Norcia. What sounds reach there are faint and faraway, as long as pilgrims in squeaky sneakers stay upstairs. At first, the quiet is unnerving. Why is that? It’s because one is uncomfortable being alone with one’s thoughts. Hadn’t one of the monks told me the day before, in an interview, that the great silence of the monastery makes it hard to hide from one’s true self?
If you asked me to pray for your intentions here, I did so this morning in the crypt, and lit a candle for you and yours. A reader wrote last night to say that her dear cousin had died. She is a Protestant, but asked me to remember her cousin in prayer here. I did so, and put that intention in written form, so the monks will be praying for her too. I dunno, it felt like the communion of saints down there in the crypt, with me, an Orthodox Christian, praying for a Protestant Christian, in this ancient church inhabited by Roman Catholics. All our differences seemed far away down there underground with St. Benedict and his sister.
Today is the Feast of St. Matthias for Catholics, and I was encouraged to come to lunch. Given the feast, the monks were going to serve the festal beer they produce, the dark version of Birra Nursia. I walked in and took my usual seat at the long table, and service began. It was pasta, salad, fish, and fruit with whipped cream. The beer was extraordinarily good, genuinely some of the best I’ve had in ages. Did you know you can buy it in the US now? Go to the website for ordering information.
Listening to Brother Ignatius read aloud from the platform during lunch, I rejoiced inside over the warm welcome I have received here. They really do honor St. Benedict’s Rule, which commands the brothers to receive guests as Christ. I thought about my friend the Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith, whose great new book I’m reading in an advance reader’s copy now, and how deeply and profoundly at home he would feel here among these Catholic brothers in Christ. We have a lot to regret about these post-Christian times, but one blessing of them is that we Christians from rival traditions can let go of our historical divisions, and enjoy the fellowship of each other’s company. I was born Protestant, became a Catholic, left the Catholic church a broken man, and entered into Orthodoxy. I am grateful for Orthodoxy, and God willing, will remain Orthodox all my life. But these men, these monks, are my brothers in Christ, and I will learn from them what I can about serving Him.
It’s hard to think about going down the mountain, back into the frenzy of the world. My hope with the Benedict Option book is to bring some of the peace and tranquility and timelessness of the monastery in St. Benedict’s village to readers all over my country. We cannot all be here in the monastery, but we can hope to have the monastery within our hearts and homes. I am convinced that what is happening here, now, this day, in Norcia, within these monastery walls, is more important for our future than anything happening in the US presidential race. My task is to help you readers see this too.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Hey Rod, when I read today your comment “It’s hard to think about going down the mountain, back into the frenzy of the world,” I thought: Wait, haven’t I read something like that quite recently? And then it hit me — I man describing what happened after he made a retreat at a monastery in Kentucky:
Back in the world, I felt like a man who had come down from the rare atmosphere of a very high mountain. When I got to Louisville, I had already been up for four hours or so, and my day was getting on towards its noon, so to speak, but I found that everybody else was just getting up and having breakfast and going to work. And how strange it was to see people walking around as if they had something important to do, running after busses, reading the newspapers, lighting cigarettes.
How futile all their haste and anxiety seemed.
My heart sank within me. I thought: “What am I getting into? Is this the sort of a thing I myself have been living in all these years?”
At a street corner, I happened to look up and caught sight of an electric sign, on top of a two-storey building. It read: “Clown Cigarettes.”
I turned and fled from the alien and lunatic street, and found my way into the nearby cathedral, and knelt, and prayed, and did the Stations of the Cross.
Afraid of the spiritual pressure in that monastery? Was that what I had said the other day? How I longed to be back there now: everything here, in the world outside, was insipid and slightly insane. There was only one place I knew of where there was any true order.
— Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (p. 364).