EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a 4-part series. Read previous entry here.
At mass on Sunday morning, Monsignor Verdon invites Fr. Martin and me to give a joint homily with him. “A Monsignor, an Anglican priest, and a Baptist preacher walk into a church, ” Fr. Martin says. “Now, where’s this story going to take us?” The Old Testament text is Nathan’s confrontation of King David in his sin; the Gospel is the story of Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus. “The one who has been forgiven much loves much.” From disparate traditions, Benedict has brought us together to read these stories with our lives. We are sinners; we are forgiven. Getting this truth into our bones is how we grow in the way of love.
On Monday, after we’ve bid farewell to the sisters and brothers at Barga and pressed our way through Florence’s crowds, the Monsignor introduces us to Donatello’s wooden sculpture of Mary Magdalene at the Duomo Museum. According to tradition, Mary Magdalene lived as a hermit after Jesus’ ascension, a pioneer of the monastic way who was also a preacher of the good news she’d heard and seen. In Donatello’s sculpture, her long hair has become tangled and matted into the hair shirt of a prophet. Her face is gaunt from fasting, and she is frail. But her face is turned up toward heaven, where her Lord sits at the right hand of the Father, ever making intercession for each of us. And in her eyes, somehow, Donatello has captured perfect joy. Here in the museum’s gallery, the statue is in the middle of a small dark room—almost a hermit’s cave—illuminated before the cross of Christ. This life of penance is only intelligible when held up in front of the cross.
We have two principle sources for the life of Benedict: Pope Saint Gregory’s vita, written half a century after Benedict’s death to hold him up as a saint, and the Rule itself. According to Gregory, the noble son of Nursia abandoned his schooling in Rome and embraced the monastic life as an act of repentance. Maybe his classmates were typical frat boys. Maybe it was the decadence of the big city. Maybe it was the idea of investing all his energy in becoming rich and powerful that caused him to flee the city. Whatever the case, Gregory knows the vita of St. Antony who left the city for the desert, following the way of Mary Magdalene before him. For Gregory, those stories are a mold. Benedict finds a cave, takes up the hermit’s life, and is discovered by a monk in the area—a certain Romanus—who gives him the habit. A simple tunic that covers the body front to back, the habit is crossed by a hood which covers the shoulders and head. It says in simple forms what the placement of Donatello’s Mary Magdalene in front of a crucifix proclaims with force: a life of penance finds its meaning in the cross of Christ.
If we take Benedict’s Rule as a window into his own life, we also know that he started every day with Psalm 51—the prayer of penance that David prayed after Nathan confronted him in his sin. “Create in my a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” To live the Rule is to pray this prayer, not only in words at the beginning of the day, but also with one’s whole life.
Since the 10th century, monks have been living the way of Benedict at the Badia Fiorentina, where we go for midday prayer. Dante Alligheri, who grew up across the street, wrote in his Divine Comedy about this place “whence nones and terce still ring to all the town.” We join sisters and brothers of the Fraternity of Jerusalem who have inherited this place from generations of Benedictines. While we sit in the chairs of the church, I notice they are on the floor, kneeling on simple benches they’ve made in the style of Taize.
The Rule says to greet every guest as if the guest were Christ—and especially pilgrims who share the faith. This, too, these sisters and brothers here have taken to heart, including English antiphons today, especially for us, and inviting Fr. Martin to read today’s selection from the Rule in English. “It is bound to be narrow at the outset, ” the Rule proclaims. “But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” If Benedict’s way of penance seems overly harsh, he wants to be sure we understand its goal: the expansion of our hearts. This is the joy in the eyes of Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, the praise that Psalm 51 ushers us toward. It is the paradoxical peace that exudes from a young sister who serves us lunch, then sits down to tell us about her life.
As I listen, I try to imagine meeting this young woman in one of my classes at Duke. She is about the same age as most of my students, and I see the same energy in her eyes that animates so many of theirs when they talk. But her vows interrupt their basic assumptions. She has married Jesus in a concrete way—in a practical union of spirit and life that some many of them long for. I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that she doesn’t share the cares and concerns common to us all. But this young woman is different from so many of my students. She is not anxious. I recall Jesus’ words to Martha about her sister, and I realize I’m seeing what he meant. “She has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42).
The cloister walk where we are eating lunch is decorated with a 15th century fresco cycle depicting the life of Saint Benedict. The stories Pope Saint Gregory recorded are dramatized here for people following Benedict’s way to imagine themselves in his story. Monsignor Verdon is a well-practiced storyteller, bringing the images to life as he narrates them for us. While he is telling the story of a young monk who lost the iron head of a tool while working by the lake, the Monsignor points out how the artist understood the ethnic difference between the monk from uncouth Gaul and his abbot, a Roman nobleman’s son. In an era when metal tools were precious, this perfectly normal accident would have been a big deal. Between people historically divided, it struck fear in the Gaul.
Suddenly, I’m back at Rutba House, sitting with Ronnie, the first African-American man to join us thirteen years ago. He’d borrowed our car without asking, and we’d discovered it. Here we were trying to talk about it in our living room, and 500 years of history rose up between us. The next day, Ronnie left. I haven’t seen him in 13 years, but here in the cloister of Florence’s Badia, Ronnie’s story is painted on the wall. A fellow pilgrim invites me closer to the fresco—close enough to see the face of the Gaul kneeling down in front of Benedict. Tears are streaming down the man’s face as he looks up at his abbot. “But he doesn’t look away, ” my fellow pilgrim says with delight. “He knows he can trust him.”
Benedict knew that trust is always personal. “Listen, my son, ” his rule begins. His is not a Rule written to guide 1500 years of monasticism in the West. It is a father’s letter to his son, passing on wisdom that can only be received through relationships where we learn to trust one another across the human divisions we inherit. I’ve been at this life in community long enough to know that the repentance fits. We are, indeed, a bunch of sinners. Life together is a near constant reminder. But this realism comes with its own temptation. A demon whispers in your ear to say, “You cannot trust him or her to forgive you.” What it is really saying, I see in the fresco before me, is that I cannot trust God to be at work through someone else.
Benedict has called out my self-deception—exposed my “character as soft as lead” which resists the refining fire of concrete submission to another person. I ask one of my fellow pilgrims from the Community of Jesus what it was like to learn Gregorian chant on Cape Cod in the 1980s. “Oh, it was horrible, ” she says. “I hated it.” Why, then, did she do it? Because the prioress—her spiritual mother, whom she trusted—told her to. The first time I heard the story, I though it was a tale about catholicity and ecumenism—a story about ancient practices bringing people together. And maybe it is. But now I see that it’s also a story about how God wants to free us from slavery to our “own wills and gross appetites, ” as Benedict named them. You cannot trust God, Benedict saw, without learning to trust another person over yourself.
Continue “On Pilgrimage” with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove here.