NORCIA, Italy — I have visited Benedictine monasteries around the world and have always been found St. Benedict’s instructions to treat guests “as Christ” to be part of their welcome. The monks have always opened their door to me with a quiet confidence and simple joy. They are the happiest and most peaceful of men, and beneath their calm exterior, one can discerns a tough resilience — an inner beauty and an inner steel.
Historically the monks have endured great hardships without complaint or self-concern. They have been persecuted, slandered, and imprisoned. Their monasteries have been turned into prisons and poor houses. Their buildings have been razed, only to be raised again. Time and again I have visited modern communities built on the ruins of ancient monasteries. As one monk said with a quiet smile, “We’re like weeds. We come back.”
It was therefore with great anticipation that I took the opportunity this summer to spend a week in Italy. While there, I took the time to re-connect with a former student who is a novice with the Monks of Norcia.
Once we escaped the hectic traffic and summer heat of Rome, our drive through the rugged hill country of Umbria seemed to take us back in time. We arrived, settled in, and joined the monks for Vespers in their church built over the birthplace of the saint.
Our stay was short, but made a deep impression. My traveling companion observed later, “I have digestion problems, arthritis, and chronic back pain, but while I was in Norcia, I had no pain and no health problems!”
Religious life in Norcia was suppressed by Napoleon in 1810. The present community was founded in Rome in 1998 by the Rev. Cassian Folsom, with the help of then-Benedictine Abbot Primate Marcel Rooney. Folsom was originally a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana and was given permission to embark on this pioneering mission. In 2000, Folsom, with a group of young, mostly American men moved to Norcia.
To learn more, I sat down with the subprior, Dom Benedict Nivakoff.
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Longenecker: Norcia is the birthplace of St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica. Can you give us a short description of the town and its setting?
Nivakoff: Norcia has the external feeling of a medieval walled fortress. The population of Norcia is only 3,000 in winter, swelling to 12,000 in summer. The people are friendly and warm, and welcoming to tourists as that is the main industry since the modern farming has not encouraged the otherwise agrarian lifestyle here to continue on its own.
How have the locals reacted to the restoration of monastic life in Norcia?
With near unanimity, the locals have welcomed us with open arms. Their knowledge of monastic life is not vast, but their love of culture, history, and tradition gives them an intuition which sees in our life a connection to their roots, and path for their future.
You have not only restored monastic life in Norcia, but your version of the Benedictine life is very traditional. Can you outline the structure of your day for us?
Ours is not a conscious effort at the imitation of a moment or a period in history, but with St. Benedict’s birthplace literally at our feet, we try to live the Rule as he taught it.
This means our day starts early. We rise at 3:30 a.m., and our entire day is punctuated by moments of prayer ranging from 20 minutes to 90 minutes. We sing seven offices in total during the day, one at night, and daily Conventual Mass.
St. Benedict teaches that it is not that work is interrupted by prayer, but that work and prayer form a unity whereby all our work becomes part of our prayer, and our prayer is itself part of our work. St. Benedict calls it the Opus Dei — the work of God.
How many monks are in the community? Have you new vocations? What is the average age of your monks?
We have 11 monks in solemn vows, four in simple vows, and several in formation. We receive many vocational inquiries every week. Usually three or four enter every year. But the monastic life is not easy. Those who persevere are not usually more than one or two. The average age in our community is 34.
Benedict encourages hard work and initiative in his Rule, and we need to support ourselves. However, our work is not only for financial gain. Our mission is to spread a culture of God-centeredness.
In each of those areas, our shop, our beer, and our recording, we are trying to share God with a God-hungry world – often in the disguise of a book, beer, or music. Man in his loneliness needs all the help we can give.
One of the major criticisms of the enclosed religious life has been that it is useless. What contribution do you feel a traditionally minded Benedictine monastery can contribute to the Church today? What can you contribute to the world?
Indeed, from the world’s point of view, a monastery is a useless place, but it is that lack of utility, that lack of immediate relevance that offers people of our age a reminder that life is more than what we can see.
How is the health of the Benedictine family around the world? I sense that it is in decline in the developed world, but perhaps thriving in the developing world? If so, why?
The monastic life has always been a radical sign of contradiction, and thus always faces imminent decline. The monastery lives on the edge of the world – never so far as to reject it in spite, but never so close as to worship it in awe.
Wherever a monastery expresses a genuinely otherworldly vision, directing its members outside themselves to the transcendent, whether that be in the developing world, or the so-called developed world, it will thrive. But thriving doesn’t always mean huge numbers. It means men becoming saints. The search for sanctity does not always draw a big crowd.
What insights and practices from the Benedictine life can parish priests and laypeople integrate into their lives?
The first word of St. Benedict’s Rule is Listen. But to listen, one must first not speak and be quiet. One must encounter silence. St. Benedict uses two words for that: silentium and tacituritas.
The first is the literal closing of the mouth, the second is an interior attitude of docility, humility, and wonder. Both are necessary and both are possible.
The parish priest or layman who cannot find 20 minutes a day or a few hours a week for silence will have a hard time staying focused, a hard time “dwelling with himself” as St. Gregory the Great describes St. Benedict.
What is the best way for readers to learn more about your life at Norcia?
Some brave souls, attracted by the life, decide to become monks. Others move their families to live close by a monastery. For still others, a pilgrimage or short visit can leave life-changing impressions.
Otherwise, we monks try to use all that modern technology has to offer to help bring people in. Our CD of Gregorian chant helps many people connect with our life here. Our website offers daily updated recordings of our chanted prayer, videos, homilies, photographs, and articles. These were not possible to share in former times, but now more than ever, a layman can live near a monastery.
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My own spiritual pilgrimage from fundamentalist Protestant to Catholic priest has been greatly influenced by the practical spirituality of the Benedictine way. With its deep roots in Western culture, its tenacity and calm beauty, the way of St. Benedict offers a deep spring of rest, refreshment, and renewal.
With their music and monasticism, the Monks of Norcia are creating just such an oasis in the desert of the stressful, modern world.