For centuries the Benedictines have created a culture that has consistently transcended national boundaries. Despite the local character of each abbey, and despite the languages that separate us, the Rule of Saint Benedict binds us into a common way of life that is immediately recognizable, in whatever abbey you may find yourself. Take a monk from one house and plop him into another some six thousand miles away, and he will still feel pretty much at home within a few days.
There’s no better spot to illustrate this than the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome. Perched on top of the Aventine Hill, it is unique in the Benedictine world. Like every other abbey, it has an abbot. But unlike the others, it has no monks. In fact, it is the residence of the abbot primate, the powerless head of the Benedictine confederation of monasteries. But it is also a house of studies for Benedictine monks from around the world. They come to do graduate work at Sant Anselmo or at one of the other Roman universities, and then eventually they go home.
I’ve had the chance to visit at Sant Anselmo through the years, but on this current visit I am struck at how much it has changed. Years ago it was filled with European and American monks. In fact, it was a great place to connect with monks from across the western world. And my own community benefitted enormously from the experience of our monks who studied here through the decades.
There are still many European and American monks here, but there are fewer of them. Stepping in to take their place are monks from Africa and India, and that is what has struck me on this visit. However, in this we are but a microcosm of the Church.
You can imagine what a chore it is to form a community of monks from forty countries, whose numbers are consistently replenished every three or four years. At Sant Anselmo everyone has to make compromises, and language is the starter. For the sake of getting anything done, Italian is the language of instruction and the medium for practical communication. Though it does seem a little incongruous to my own provincial eyes, it takes getting used to seeing a monk from Kenya speaking in Italian with a monk from Korea. But it works — just as well as it might in English.
As for prayer, Mass and preaching are in Italian, while Latin is used for the liturgy of the hours. Because many houses still use some of the Latin chant, that is the music of first resort. It saves everyone the need to reinvent the musical wheel every year. Plus, they sing it reasonably well at Sant Anselmo.
Besides prayer, it is the refectory table that binds everyone together. There’s no point in trying to replicate the cuisine of each of forty countries, so everyone has to settle for an all-Italian diet. Of course that doesn’t please everyone, and at the top of the list of malcontents likely are the Italians. They know how it should be cooked, and a meal for one hundred is never going to rate as haute cuisine. I’ll also grant that to some nationalities pasta twice a day might be a little odd. Most westerners either love it or are indifferent. But no one really dislikes the food at Sant Anselmo. Nor do they have a right to complain. As with the chant, I like the pasta.
Sant Anselmo was built in the 19th century on land carved out from a property owned by the Order of Malta. The Knights’ palace, designed by Piranesi, sits across from Sant Anselmo, and together they share a small piazza with the Egyptian embassy to the Holy See. For years this piazza was the safest spot on the safest hill in Rome, thanks to someone who ages ago drove by and threw a bomb at the embassy. For decades thereafter, a squad of smartly-dressed carabinieri stood guard, just to make sure it never happened again. Actually, as everybody in the neighborhood could tell you, they sat in their van drinking coffee, reading, and listening to the radio all day. They also got out to stretch and to chat with passersby now and again. All in all, it made for one of the most comfortable police jobs in Rome. There were no bombers ever again, at least that they saw; and the biggest challenge was keeping a fresh crease in their slacks.
Obviously they were superb at what they did, because no terrorist dared approach such well-tailored guards. But they were maybe too good at their job. Sadly, recent government cutbacks have meant the end of the carabinieri in the Piazza di Cavalieri di Malta. Too bad for them, because they had to clear out and find real work — maybe at a fashion house in Milan.
The Aventine is one of the loveliest neighborhoods in Rome, and it probably always has been. It’s only a five-minute walk to the Circus Maximus, and fifteen to the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. This convenient location perhaps explains the nice things that people occasionally dig up here.
Sant Anselmo itself sits atop what was likely a 2nd-century palace, and a mosaic from the site adorns the entry hall of the monastery. Further below are storage caverns and rooms that have yet to be explored. And it’s the same all over the Aventine. They know so because a few years ago an overloaded bus broke through the road-bed into something quite empty below. If such a thing were to happen in the US, it would garner huge headlines. But in Rome it was both a hazard as well as a further strain on the public archeology budget. ”What — another ancient house? Good grief!” was the reaction. They solved this problem by banning any truck or bus, and they patched up the pavement. Hopefully it won’t happen again. And who needs more ruins when there are already a ton of them.
What I enjoy most about Sant Anselmo is both the international flavor of the place and the historic reach of the neighborhood. From the upper floors of the abbey you have great views of Saint Peter’s in the distance, while across the piazza is the famous keyhole that frames a view of Saint Peter’s. Tourists line up all day to get their turn for a quick peek.
Nearby are other religious houses, but pride of place in my book belongs to Santa Sabina. It is a 5th-century basilica only steps from Sant Anselmo, and for ages it has been the headquarters of the Dominicans. The graceful lines of the church and its original wooden doors mesmerize me. But I also go to pay my respects to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who once lived there and prayed in that very church. Imagine!
Above I noted that the abbot primate is largely powerless, and that was by design. Despite occasional experiments, abbeys since the time of Saint Benedict have jealously protected their independence from one another. Tired of this inefficiency, Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century tried to organize the Benedictines along the lines of the Jesuits. He pushed to create the position of abbot primate, to mirror the Jesuit general, who was all-powerful. But the monks would have none of it until they finally reached a compromise. They would accept an abbot primate, as long as he had no power.
In frustration, Pope Leo is said to have thrown up his hands and uttered these oft-repeated words: ”You Benedictines are not an order, but a disorder.” To that we Benedictines respond that once again the Holy Father has spoken infallibly. Besides, disorder is part of our charism, and it is an art which you can enjoy at any and every abbey, including Sant Anselmo.
+On October 9th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX.
+On October 10th I flew to Rome to attend a meeting of the Order of Malta, and while attending the meeting I have stayed at Sant Anselmo. The flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam was uneventful, but the flight to Rome was something else. For those who allege that all airlines have compromised on the quality of their service, I say fly the New Alitalia. They have stinted on nothing in an effort to maintain their traditional service. We arrived, predictably, late, much to the despair of eight seat-mates who were connecting to a flight to Palermo. Even had we arrived on time, they never would have made it. It took fifteen minutes before the shuttle bus came to collect us from the plane. But of course the air-conditioning on the plane had stopped as soon as we parked. Then it took nearly forty minutes before the luggage appeared. One wheel on my bag had gone to meet its maker, or so it seemed; but in a major defeat for the airline, I fixed it all by myself the next day. A first in the history of travel.
+In my short time at Sant Anselmo I have had the chance to visit with my confrere Fr. Nickolas Becker, who is studying in Rome. In addition, I have visited with our two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s, who are spending a year in service at Sant Anselmo. I’ve also had the chance to meet with a few friends who teach at Sant Anselmo, including the prior, who was one of my history students at Saint John’s. The pictures in today’s post were all taken at Sant Anselmo.