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So, Italy

Adventures in San Benedetto del Tronto and Siena

Hello from Siena, where I’ve come today with my son Lucas for the Palio, which will be run on Sunday. We have been for the past day or so among the Tipi Loschi, the wonderful Catholic tribe in San Benedetto del Tronto, a small city on the Adriatic. If you read The Benedict Option, you know all about them. Wait, scratch that: you don’t know all about them, because there is so much to know. What you do know is that they are the most ideal fulfillment of the Benedict Option that I have found.

In 2014, Father Cassian, then the prior of the Norcia monastery, heard me talk over lunch in Norcia about the Benedict Option, and told me that it sounds a lot like what the Tipi Loschi are doing in a coastal city on the other side of the mountain from the monastery. Father Cassian suggested I go visit them sometime, and said that Christians who don’t do some version of what they are doing are not going to make it through the trials to come.

In early 2016, I finally visited them. It was far too short, that visit, but I learned a great deal. To me, it was hard to believe such a community exists in our world. Seriously. They are robustly orthodox in their Catholicism, but also joyful, and do all kinds of great things as a community. They have a sort of clubhouse, called Santa Lucia, atop a hill overlooking the sea. They bought the run-down property cheap, and through their own hard labor, cleared the weeds and briars away, rebuilt the little house, and made it into a community center. Marco Sermarini, the Doge of the Benedict Option, is their unofficial leader, as well as the head of the Italian G.K. Chesterton Society, which explains a lot. The man is on fire for Chesterton; he saw to it that the classical Christian school the community founded was called the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton. Look at this; that’s Marco in the opening scene:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uv2Bu4oYBg0]

He’s also on fire for Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the group’s patron, and above all for Jesus Christ. He’s bold, that one, and full of life.

Here’s an excerpt from The Benedict Option to show you what kind of man Marco is:

Sometimes Marco lies in bed at night, worrying that his efforts, and the efforts of his little Christian community, won’t amount to much in the face of so much opposition. He is anxious that the current will be too strong to resist and will tear them apart.

“I know from the olive trees that some years we will have a big harvest, and other years we will take few,” he said. “The monks, when they brought agriculture to this place a thousand years ago, they taught our ancestors that there are times when we have to save seed. That’s why I think we have to walk on this road of Saint Benedict, in this Benedict Option. This is a season for saving the seed. If we don’t save the seed now, we won’t have a harvest in the years to come.”

It was getting late in the afternoon. I was afraid I would miss my bus to the Rome airport. Shouldn’t we be going? I asked.
Grande Rod, don’t worry, my friend!” he said. “You worry too much. You will make it!” And off we sped, down the winding road toward the sea.
As the sun went down in the western sky, we spoke once more about the challenge facing orthodox Christians in the West and how daunting it seems. Marco left me with these unforgettable lines.

“In Italy, we have a saying: ‘When there is no horse, a donkey can do good work.’ I consider myself a little donkey,” he said. “There are so many purebred horses that run nowhere, but this old donkey is getting the job done. You and me, let’s go on doing this job like little donkeys. Don’t forget, it was a donkey that brought Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.”

Marco is probably the greatest man I know, and I’m not kidding. When he heard I was planning to come to Siena with my son, he said I had to come early and visit the Tipi Loschi. It so happens that they are now in the middle of celebrating their annual feast of Pier Giorgio Frassati. Marco invited me to talk about l’Opzione Benedetto to the crowd of the Tipi Loschi and their friends from all over Italy. How could I possibly say no? Plus, I was very eager for Lucas, who is 13, to meet the Tipi Loschi. “These are the kind of people who will be your friends for the rest of your life,” I told him.

The journey there was not easy. We flew overnight from New Orleans to Heathrow, then, after a three-hour layover, connected to Bologna. We took a lickety-split cab from the airport to the train station, and jumped on our train to San Benedetto del Tronto with only eight minutes to spare. The train ride was another three hours — in a car without air conditioning. In the summer. Poor Lucas was so excited about the trip that he slept not a wink on the overseas flight. He pretty much collapsed on the train to SBT.

We finally arrived around 10:30 pm, and there was Marco waiting for us on the platform. “Bravo, Lucas!” he said about a million times. He drove us to Santa Lucia, where the Tipi Loschi were finishing up the day’s events with a lecture under the moon. The groggy travelers had leftover pizza, and (for me) Birra Nursia:

We finally made it to our room at Le Limonaie a Mare, just down the hill from Santa Lucia. Here is the view from our balcony. They say on a clear day, you can see the Croatian coast on the horizon:

The next morning, Lucas went to the beach with some of the Tipi Loschi kids, and Marco took me to Ripatransone, a nearby hill town. There I walked down the narrowest street in Italy:

Marco, who took the photo, says this picture explains the Benedict Option. I think he means walking the narrow path through the wall to the light.

After, we had lunch with a bunch of friends of the Tipi Loschi, including Richard Vigilante from the US. Friends, there was pasta. And cheese. And pasta and cheese. And conversation! A shot from before the pasta arrived:

Then it was time for a siesta. Late in the afternoon, I sat in the gazebo at the Limonaie and gave an interview to Rodolfo Casadei, an Italian journalist. He was not the first or the last to tell me that The Benedict Option needs to be translated into Italian. I hope it will be! First I need to find a publisher.

Rodolfo and I hiked a short distance up the hill to Santa Lucia, where the evening’s events were well under way. From the road, I spied Lucas playing soccer with a bunch of Italian ragazzi, and saw Father Martin of Norcia inspecting livestock. When we entered the crowd, it didn’t take long for someone to bring me a cold Birra Nursia. Marco introduced me to his friend Angelo Bottone, an Italian-born philosopher who works for The Iona Institute in Dublin. We had a great talk. I also spoke to a group of young Americans who were living among the Tipi Loschi — some temporarily, others for longer — including one whom I had met earlier this year at Benedictine College, and strongly encouraged to visit them. “They are everything you said they were,” she told me, with a big smile.

(Actually, seeing the photo, I recall now that we had this conversation on the night I arrived. Sorry! I’m jet-lagged and loopy.)

Photo: Giovanni Zennaro

Soon it was dinner time. Above, the scene from Santa Lucia; that’s the Adriatic in the background. I sat between Father Benedict, the prior of Nursia, and Father Martin. I wish I had photos to show you, but I was so busy talking and eating that I forgot to take pictures. It was wonderful to see them again, especially there at Santa Lucia. And then, who shold walk up but Fabrizio Diomedi, the iconographer I met in 2016 at the Norcia monastery. Fabrizio spent years painting Biblical scenes on the walls of the refectory there. His work was likely destroyed by the October earthquake last year. Because I love his work so much, and because I wanted to have something of the monastery whose witness means so much to me, last year I commissioned a diptych of St. Benedict and St. Genevieve of Paris. Benedict is my patron, of course, but I developed a devotion to St. Genevieve when I learned about her five years ago in Paris. She was an abbess of the 5th century who was very brave in facing down Attila the Hun. Her icon features her holding a candle; the story goes that she and her nuns were on their way to the Saturday prayer vigil when a storm blew out their candle, plunging them into darkness. She made the sign of the Cross over the candle, which sprang back to life, lighting the way safely for the nuns to the church.

As I was writing The Benedict Option, I asked these two saints (who, being pre-schism saints, are also venerated by Orthodox Christians) to pray for me to God that I do good work on it. This is why I asked Fabrizio to write a diptych of them for me.

Here is Fabrizio and his work last night at Santa Lucia:

Here is a close-up:

(Genovefa is Genevieve’s given name. She was a Gaul.)

It is astonishingly, breathtakingly beautiful. If you’re familiar with Orthodox iconography, this will look familiar to you, but you will also notice that it has a softer Western style. If you read Italian (or want to use Google Translate), read this statement by Fabrizio about why he took up iconography. Basically, he says that contemporary art seemed empty, self-referential, and narcissistic to him. He wanted to bring about Beauty that represented eternal Truth, and that led us beyond ourselves to unity with the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ.

Here is a link to images of some of the work he did in the refectory at Norcia — all probably gone now, under rubble.

I showed the diptych to an American last night at Santa Lucia, and she asked, “Can you actually buy something like this?” Indeed you can. His work in Norcia having come to an abrupt end, Fabrizio pays the bills by taking commissions. I cannot urge you strongly enough to reach out to him and commission an icon. I will be using this dual icon of St. Benedict and St. Genevieve in my personal and family devotions for the rest of my life, and it will become a family heirloom. Every time I look at it, I will think of Norcia. You can write to him at info@diomediarte.it, or connect with him through his Facebook page.

Finally came the time for me to speak to the crowd from the stage. My interpreter was an American named Kevin Hertelendy who works for the Tipi Loschi. I wish I could remember his last name. He did a great job. Father Benedict also spoke (in Italian), as did Marco Sermarini. I told the audience that I really do believe that the future of the Christian churches in the West — not only Catholic ones! — is being made on either side of the Sibylline Mountains, in Norcia and San Benedetto del Tronto.

Photo by Giovanni Zennaro

At last the evening came to an end, and we went back to the Limonnaie. But I wasn’t sleepy yet, and spent another hour outside in the cool sea breeze talking to Angelo Bottone. Even this, alas, had to come to an end, around 1 am, and I went upstairs to sleep. As I drifted off, I thought about all the kind Italians who told me they had been deeply affected by The Benedict Option. It moved me greatly.

Lucas and I woke up at 6:45, packed our bags, and met Marco downstairs. His pal Giorgio was with him. They were going to deliver us to Siena via Norcia — a really long drive for them. We had a quick breakfast of cappuccino and cornetti, then hit the road for Norcia. As you may recall, the town and the region was horribly damaged by earthquakes last year. Driving through the area and seeing all the destroyed houses was heartbreaking. Italian hill towns that had been there for centuries, now gone. We finally arrived at the Monastery of St. Benedict, which has been relocated to the monks’ property on the mountainside near Norcia. They are now living in a couple of wooden houses built in part by the Tipi Loschi and other volunteers, but they have big plans. Father Benedict showed us this morning the brand-new drawings for the monastery and church they plan to build. It’s very impressive.

We stayed for morning mass — the Latin mass, chanted — and saw my old friend Thomas Hibbs from Baylor, his son Dan, and Tom’s colleague Alden Smith, who teaches classics at Baylor. Here I am showing (L to R) Alden, Tom, and Dan the icon that Fabrizio wrote:

Photo by Giovanni Zennaro

Lucas and I could not receive communion, of course, but we could still pray during the mass, and experience God in the chanting. The chapel the monks are now worshiping in is vastly smaller and plainer than their Norcia basilica, which collapsed in the earthquake. But watching them chant the liturgy, I thought of what Jesus said to St. Paul: “my strength is made perfect in weakness.” The monks of Norcia have been reduced to real poverty and hardship, but the light of Christ is shining through them from the mountainside.

Photo by Giovanni Zennaro

The monks were so nice to Lucas, who watched closely to see how they celebrated mass differently than we celebrate the Divine Liturgy (Lucas serves at the altar).

Father Benedict and Marco Sermarini (Photo by Giovanni Zennaro)

I wish we could have stayed longer, but we had a long way to go yet, and Marco wanted to show us the face of Norcia, post-earthquake. We drove down the mountainside and into the town.

I don’t mind telling you that I fought back tears. Here is a side view of the basilica from this morning:

Understand, this is a view of the inside of the basilica. Struggling with my emotions, I said to my son, “Lucas, not a year and a half ago I was standing inside there, praying. That’s where I met Mr. Marco.” I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing, and to make it cohere with my memories of the place.

Here is the view from the piazza, photographed by me in February 2016:

Here is a similar view from this morning:

The basilica façade is just about the only part of the basilica left standing. Notice the town’s bell tower, which is very unstable. The two other churches in town are destroyed. This was once the church of St. Philip Neri:

Photo by Giovanni Zennaro

It was traumatic to be there. The town should be buzzing with tourists now, but it’s largely vacant. The Caffè Tancredi, where I took my morning coffee there — it’s closed. The restaurants I loved are also closed. Most of the people have not yet returned. It’s a hell of a thing. Norcia is known for its cured meats, so we stopped into one norcineria for prosciutto sandwiches. Behold, a Milanese named Stefano Schileo, about to experience bliss:

Photo by Giovanni Zennaro

The proprietor gave me three small cinghiale (wild boar) sausages as a gift, because Marco told him I loved wild boar. I would have bought pounds of the stuff to take home, but you can’t bring meat back into the US. Still, look at this deliciousness:

Photo by Giovanni Zennaro

Grande! Walking around the town, I told Marco that things like this really test one’s faith. How could God let such a thing happen to these people?

Marco said that the shop owner told him that people are slowly trickling back into town. I hope so.

We went back to the car to leave, and to say goodbye to Giovanni Zennaro (center) and Stefano (Schileo, right), two friends from Milan who had come down to the Pier Giorgio Frassati festival, and who accompanied us to Norcia:

I love Italians. Did I mention that?

After a long drive through Umbria and Tuscany, we arrived in Siena. Saying farewell to Marco and Giorgio was hard. Lucas told me, up in the room, “Dad, I almost cried telling them goodbye.” I know the feeling.

After we got settled, we trekked up the hill (it’s always up a hill in Siena) to the Campo, where we saw the ceremony assigning the horses to each contrada (for an explanation of the Siena contrada system, see here). Afterward, we walked over to the Onda (the Wave) contrada, which was the one my friend Sordello and I cheered for when we came here in 2015. My fazzoletto — a silk kerchief worn around the neck, a symbol of each contrada — lies packed away somewhere in the moving boxes at home, so I bought a new one, and one for Lucas. He researched all the contrade before coming here, and is partial to Lupa (the She-Wolf), but Lupa is not running this year. We also paid for our tickets for the big contrada dinner to be held on the night before Sunday’s race.

Exhausted from a long day, we walked back to our hotel, stopping to buy Chianti and Fanta, and then take-out pizza. Here’s how I ended the day on the balcony of our hotel:

Tomorrow, we will wander the city some more, and be on the campo for the third trial run at dusk. As I write this, Lucas is sound asleep. He told me that this trip is already more than he dreamed of. It is for me too, in terms of the friendships strengthened and friendships made. As one of the Italians said to me, the Benedict Option networks of Christian fraternity are being built right now. Onda is my contrada in Siena, but my real Italian contrada is the Tipi Loschi.

More tomorrow…



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