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Posts Tagged ‘Norcia’

img_0012_2“Pray Always”:  An Impossible Command?

There’s a section in The Rule of Saint Benedict which usually comes as a surprise to novices in the monastery.  In it Benedict deals with the all-too-human conundrum that’s bound to happen in any monastic community.  In brief, Benedict wonders about the moment when the abbot asks impossible things of a monk.  What’s the monk to do?

Naturally there’s no easy answer to this, but I’ve always felt that Benedict’s sympathies fell with the monk who’s stuck in such a predicament.  All the monk can really do is to do his best and to hope for the best.  Being more practical myself, I would add one bit of counsel to Benedict’s sage advice.  If patience is a virtue, this may be one of those times when it can be a good strategy.  A patient monk can hope that the abbot will eventually forget what he had commanded.  And in the extreme, a young monk can rely on the passing of the years, which could very well leave him the last man standing.  Problem solved.

In the gospel of Luke Jesus seems to be asking one of these impossible things.  He tells the apostles to “pray always without becoming weary” (18: 1), and it must have left the disciples wondering.  It’s all well and good to speak those words if you’re the Son of God, but mere mortals like the disciples had a lot on their minds.  And it was not beyond their notice that even Jesus took time out to eat and sleep and to do all the other things that round out people’s waking hours.  Worse still, the disciples too must have realized the distractions that crowd the human mind, especially if you’re trying to pray.  Was Jesus setting the disciples up for a fall?  Was he asking the impossible of them?

img_0021_2Part of the problem of the command to “pray always” is that most of us are not at all convinced that it’s such a great idea.  Some of us have to go to work.   Some of us think it’s really important to concentrate while we’re behind the wheel on the highway.  Some of us have to deal attentively with other people — at least once in a while.  Wouldn’t it be better to reserve quality time for prayer at less critical slots during the day?  And do we really have to do it ALWAYS?

The good news is that Jesus never expected us to spend the whole day on our knees in prayer.  Nor does he expect us to pass the entire day, day after day, reading the Bible.  Nor does he expect us to spend our time in formal worship, ceaselessly.  Thankfully, I don’t think Jesus meant to speak literally when he asked the disciples to pray like this always, without growing weary.

What I think Jesus did have in mind, however, was an expression of prayer in which we consecrate the entirety of our lives to God.  In practice this means that there is no aspect of our lives that is off-limits to God.  Nor can we restrict God to certain gaps in our schedule, such as an hour on Sunday or the occasional fifteen minutes for a session of morning prayer.

Nor can we block off our work from a divine connection.  In practice this means that our work must be honest, done with integrity, and done with an eye to the benefit that it ultimately provides other people.  We must have a sense of mission about our work and do it well, because our work is an expression of who we really are.

img_0016_2The same goes with time spent with friends or in personal time out.  None of this can be cordoned off from God, because it’s all part of a full life lived well.  Such a life is always lived in the shadow of the Almighty, and we can’t reserve big chunks of it as if it were nobody’s business but our own.

Given that perspective, we begin to appreciate what Jesus is asking of his disciples.  Prayer then is surrender to God who has given us the gift of life, and prayer is the expression of the fulness of our lives.  Prayer means more than turning to God when the going gets tough.  Prayer is also the expression of joy and contentment and striving to better ourselves.  Prayer is the admission of God into our lives, in good times and in bad.

Finally, I think it’s important to own up to one item about praying always that intimidates most of us.  If we pray always, don’t we run the risk of sacrificing our distinct personalities?  Won’t God smother us if we pray always?  Could all this lead to a complete denial of self in which we fade into oblivion? By no means.

img_0018_2The goal of prayer is not to obliterate ourselves.  In prayer God neither destroys our identity nor our freedom to act.  On the contrary, God does promise to give us the strength to achieve far more than we could possibly achieve if left to our own devices.

In a nutshell, “praying always” sounds like a frightening command until we realize that God has absolutely no intention of wrecking or stifling our lives.  God merely wants to partner with us as we strive both to flourish and to meet the challenges that come our way.  Given the occasional ferocity of some of those challenges, I think I prefer to have the Lord walking alongside me, rather than me walking all alone.

“Praying always” is not such a fearsome command after all.  It’s nothing more and nothing less than the consecration of our lives to God, in the hope that God who has begun such good work in us will see it through to completion.  And with a little bit of patience, and just a little bit of insight, we might very well begin to see the finger prints of God in our lives.  They’re there, whether we take the time to notice them or not.

img_0023_2Notes

+On October 11th I attended a dinner in San Francisco, put on by the Order of Malta.  It was the annual fund-raiser for the Order’s free clinic at the Oakland Cathedral, but it also honored a very good friend of many year’s standing, Dr. Robert Stein.  He and his wife, Helen-Mary, have been very supportive in introducing me to the work of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On 13 October I attended the opening reception of an exhibit of original folios of The Saint John’s Bible, hosted by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Since Oklahoma City is my home town, it gave me a chance to see spots I’d not seen in quite some time.  That included driving by the hospital where I was born.  The exhibit will continue through the end of the year, and in November I will return to give a lecture at the Museum.

+On 14-16 October I gave a retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Mundelein Seminary, outside of Chicago.

img_0015_2+A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the town of Norcia in Umbria, in Italy.  The monastery there is built on the site of Saint Benedict’s family home, and our group had the opportunity to tour the church and ruins, as well as attend Mass.  We also had time to explore the quaint and lovely town.  Unfortunately the monastery and town suffered significant damage in the recent earthquake, and for a while the monks have had to relocate to Rome until repairs could be made to make the monastery safe once again.

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imageThree Days, Three Monasteries

Most tours to Italy try to carve out overly-ambitious itineraries that include way too many stops.  After all, the logic argues, if you go all that distance, why wouldn’t you want to cram in as much as possible?  But of course you can never see even a fraction of what’s there; so you have to choose, whether you like it or not.

My just-completed visit to Benedictine sites in Italy must seem like gross underachievement to some.  Our group could have seen a dozen sites a day.  We could have raced through churches, palaces, ruins and the like until we choked.  But we didn’t.  On the principle that more is actually less, I decided to focus on less when I built the schedule.  So we ended up — not with a blur of too much information — but with the memory and insight that come from seeing just a few things well.

So it was that we twenty-five visited the monasteries of Norcia, Monte Cassino, and Subiaco, in as many days.  All are in the region of Umbria; each played a distinctive part in the life of Saint Benedict; and each today houses a community of monks.  But to the surprise of many in our group, all similarities ended there.  Last week many learned that if you’ve seen one monastery, you’ve not seen ’em all.  Nor is there such a thing as the stereotpyical, one-size-fits-all, monk.

imageTradition says that Saints Benedict and his twin Scholastica were born in Norcia.  A monastery has stood in the center of town for ages, but only in 2000 did a community return to set up shop after a hiatus of nearly two hundred years.  Today the town still owns the monastery, but it has welcomed the monks with open arms.  For ages the town has staked its reputation on hams and sausages, which are truly excellent.  But in a tough economy many of the civic leaders decided that a restored monastery might be good not only for the spirit but for business as well.  Time tells all, but I think their judgement is sound.

Monte Cassino sits in solitary splendor on top of its mountain, just as it has since Saint Benedict set up shop there in the early 500’s.  Unlike the modest buildings at Norcia, Monte Cassino overwhelms visitors with its renaissance arcades and its baroque interior.  It’s huge and imposing, and it just swallows you up.  Perhaps that explains why it’s been such a tempting target ever since the Lombards destroyed it in the 6th century.  Each time it has risen from the ashes, in tribute to the grit and determination of the monks.

Finally, Subiaco is the place where Benedict began his search for God.  He found refuge in a cave high in the mountains, and today the monastery encases the cave as it clings to the side of the mountain.  Here it’s not the exterior that impresses, however.  Instead, the building protects a collection of frescos that any museum would covet. Among them is the only life-portrait of Saint Francis, painted shortly after one of the monks recognized their famous guest.

imageThese monasteries each merit a visit, but our group learned something that most tourists fail to notice.  Monasteries may or may not have great art or great geography, but that’s not what really distinguishes them.  After all, there are monasteries with no monks that are equally impressive.  Instead, it is the community that makes the monastery, and no two communities are alike.  Some communities are tired and barely cling to life, while others are marked by warmth and vitality.  And they thrive or decline not because of any magic formula in their way of life.  Rather, it all depends upon their willingness to search for the face of God every now and then.

The second lesson is this:  monasteries differ because no two monks are alike.  Perhaps this was the biggest discovery for many in our group.  Those among us who had spent time at Saint John’s already knew this, but others were surprised by the unique personalities we encountered.  At Norcia the prior came after Mass to offer warm words of welcome.  Later, guestmaster Brother Ignatius let his lunch go cold as he went from table to table to speak with each person individually.  Quiet enthusiasm radiated from his face, and each of us easily imagined spending more time with him.

imageAt Monte Cassino the 90-year-old monk who greeted us did not have quite the same energy, and his words of welcome reached only a few ears.  Perhaps he had seen way too many a tour bus in the course of his life.  By contrast, Fr. Mauricio at Subiaco seemed to possess boundless energy.  Who knows how many groups he had ushered through those halls as he explained one fresco after another?  He was an over-the-top guide that day, as he probably was the day before, and will be tomorrow.

So what were our take-aways from visits to three Benedictine monasteries in three days?   For one thing, no one left with the impression that if you’ve seen one monastery you’ve seen them all.  No two are alike.  Nor did anyone leave thinking that monks come from cookie-cutters.  Each monk comes to the monastery with a distinct personality, and each remains a unique gift to his community.

imageI hope my fellow pilgrims picked up on one last insight that most tourists scarcely grasp.  People do not join monasteries because they have a calling to be a monk.  Rather, they enter because they have a calling to be a monk within a particular community.  This is what sets Benedictines apart from Franciscans, Jesuits and all the rest.  The latter go where the needs of the Order might dictate.  For us monks, place is all-important.  In one place, and in one family, monks pursue the face of God.

Happily, at Norcia and Monte Cassino and Subiaco the monks see the face of God in each other, and I hope they do so every day.  But they also get to see Christ in the visitors who climb out of the fleet of coaches that pull up every day.  Perhaps they even saw Christ in us last week.  And, in return, I believe we glimpsed the face of Christ in them as they welcomed us.

imageNotes

+On March 3rd I and my fellow pilgrims visited the monastery of Norcia, in Umbria, where tradition says Saint Benedict was born.

+On March 5th we visited the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where it rained torrentially.  It was the only foul weather of our trip.

+On March 6th we visited the Abbey of Subiaco, where glorious sunshine and high winds greeted us.

+On March 4th the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s University joined our group as we visited three Roman churches.  Mark Greci and John Dube are spending a year of service at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo, the Benedictine headquarters in Rome.

+On March 8th several volunteers joined several monks in tapping over 1,000 maple trees at Saint John’s.  This marks the beginning of the maple syrup season, and it also allows us to  hope realistically for spring.

+The first two photos in today’s post come from Norcia, followed by two from Monte Cassino.  The last three come from Subiaco, where the fresco cycles are among the finest in Italy.

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