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Monday, January 4, 2016

A Day in the Life of a Benedictine Town

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A Day in the Life of a Benedictine Town
I’m late, come sempre. In fact, I’m starting to think that if I were to show up to Mass on time, the monks would all fall off their benches in shock. I know my neighbour Massimo certainly would, but probably just to be dramatic and rub it in. Br. Gregory made his final vows today. I’m a terrible homebody, and hate leaving the house and almost didn’t go this morning. The one thought that pried me off the sofa and into my shoes was the thought, “Are you a part of this community or not?”

The Basilica church is packed and there is a large contingent of Franciscans in choir as well as an assortment of local prelates and visitors. People are standing in the back and they’ve put out the folding chairs along the side aisle. The Asperges is finished, and I park my wheelie shopping cart carrying my computer in the alcove in the back of the church next to St. Benedict’s statue. I know I have nothing to worry about. This is Norcia. I gave up locking my bike a few months after I got here.

In the rapt crowd, as the monks start chanting the Introit, I spot quite a number of people I know. Gianfranco, my plumber, with his wife and two teenage daughters; the current mayor and his wife, sitting next to the previous mayor whom he defeated in the last election; Caterina, the town librarian and archivist who just published a book about Norcia’s 17th century golden age; the snooty lady who always snubs me because I once asked her to take her loud conversation out to the piazza (she’s also one of those who always refuse to kneel down at the consecration – it’s an Italian thing that drives me nuts); the small clutch of young American postulants looking very fresh-faced and expectant; the lady who works in the post office whose name I haven’t learned yet but who helps me stagger through Italy’s various arcane bureaucratic labyrinths; Maria, the nice Romanian girl who works in the bakery and wonders a lot about what she ought to do in life but who tried London and immediately ran back here; Dr. B, my German ex-pat veterinarian who made all those free house calls for Winnie, my sick cat; the little clutch of respectable elderly Nursini ladies who always take tea together after Mass and whom I secretly long to join; Maurizio, who thinks he’s an opera singer and bought an antiphonale and likes to sing along with the monks, loudly … very, very loudly; Filippo and Mariana who have just learned that they cannot have children; Stefano and the always beautifully dressed Lucia who have just moved here from Marche on the other side of the mountains to be closer to the monastery (Lucia was once dispatched by the monks to my house when I was too sick with influenza to go shopping and desperately needed cat food and tea.) Among the semi-regulars are a group of oblates who live in Rome, a three-hour drive away and a small contingent from San Benedetto in Tronto, about an hour on the other side of the mountains on the Adriatic coast.

I settle myself into an already nearly full pew next to Fabrizio, the fresco painter from Orvieto who is doing the monastery’s refectory paintings. He smiles and shifts over, and hands me my cheat sheet, all in Latin. I recently learned that he speaks perfectly acceptable English but, I suspect on the recommendation of guest master Br. Ignazio, he has only ever addressed me in Italian. There seems to be an ongoing conspiracy in town to get me to improve in the language, spreading out from Br. Ignazio to the other monks, who tease me about it rather mercilessly, and into the town via Emmanuele, the computer shop guy who does nearly everyone’s telecommunications work.

As usual, my mind wanders off somewhere to smell the liturgical flowers while the Mass progresses. After the homily, the deacon and subdeacon escort Br. Gregory, a transplant from Brazil, to kneel in front of Fr. Cassian and there he promises obedience, stability and conversatio morum, a promise to engage for the rest of his life in the Benedictine ideal of constant development in prayer and holiness. He lies down on the marble floor with his arms outstretched and a black pall is laid over him and six tall gilt candlesticks were brought out to flank the living catafalque. He has died to himself and the world, and been buried in Christ.

The monks sing over him and the crowd as one strains on tiptoes to see. A man has done something extraordinary, in a way something that we cannot really imagine doing. And it is a paradoxical act, because it separates him from us common mortals forever, but in another way, the Benedictine way, he has given himself to us, to be part of this community and dedicated to a service of prayer here with us, forever. Because we have all attached ourselves to this place in the same spirit of monastic stability. He gave himself to God, and God has given him to us. Even those who are not oblates, we know that he has become ours, our brother.

I glance down to read the little brass plaque bolted to the back of the pew in front of me. It says in Italian, “donated by the municipality of Norcia.” This is the town where 4000 people, the entire adult populace, signed a petition asking Rome for Benedictine monks for their monastery that had stood empty and silent since Napoleon breezed through. They don’t all come to Mass – we’re still working on that – but they all love their monks.

For me, as a Benedictine oblate and a rather halfhearted do-it-yourself unofficial hermitess, the whole town is a monastery. St. Philip Neri was said to carry around with him a little bag of copper pennies. Asked why, he pulled out a beautifully shiny coin, and said that it reminded him what community life was for; all that bumping up against each other as we amble along shines us up nicely. I live alone, but I have constant streams of guests and every day, I walk down to the monastery for the Office and am greeted by nearly everyone I pass.

The guys at the garden centre deliver my tools and pots and bags of soil because they know I don’t have a car. In March, Fabio from the ferramenta brought up the trestle table and shelves for my studio in his car and stayed to watch the solar eclipse through my pinhole camera. The baker and his wife have invited me to dinner next week when they take their post-Christmas holiday. On a sunny, chilly New Year’s day the beautiful and stylish Teresa who runs the antiques shop and has been painstakingly renovating our side altars, greeted me in the street outside her shop with a hug and heartfelt “Auguri, buon anno!” She wanted me to help her with some lines of English in a play she will be in. Luca, the realtor stopped me in the street the other day asking how my latest article turned out and when could he read it online – practicing his reading English. Michele, the waiter at the enoteca told me where to go to get my bike fixed and offered to take me to the local emergency room when he heard I had been hit by a car (nothing damaged but the bike’s brakes.) I’m forgiven regularly for my crummy Italian. I have never lived in a town where I am known by so many people. I’m a straniera, but I’ve been adopted into the Nursini family.

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.

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Hilary White

Our Italy correspondent is known throughout the English-speaking world as a champion of family and cultural issues. First introduced by our allies and friends at the incomparable, Miss White lives in Norcia, Italy.