Back on the busy streets of Florence, we load up in a string of taxis to climb the hill on the edge of town. Beyond the scenic overlook where you can get a fine gelato and a miniature of Michelangelo’s David on a key chain, we climb the stairs to San Miniato al Monte, where St. Minas had a hermitage in the 3rd century. Local legend holds that the Roman Emperor Decius threw this hermit to the panthers in a Florentine amphitheater, disgusted by his devotion. Like the prophet Daniel before him, Minas found the cats to be amiable company. But Decius did not follow King Darius and praise God. Instead, he ordered his guards to decapitate Minas. Much to the amazement of everyone, the saint bowed to the sword, then picked up his severed head and climbed back to his hermitage. By the time we learn this story outside the church that bears Minas’ name, we can attest that it is steep climb, even with the help of a taxi, body fully intact.
We are greeted by Abbot Bernardo, an Olivetan monk whose Benedictine reform movement inherited monastic life here in the 14th century. He is a young and charismatic man—a spiritual leader in today’s post-Christian Florence, the Monsignor tells us. But he has inherited monasticism in a place hallowed by lives lived under the sign of the cross for 1800 years. What does it feel like to work and pray, literally surrounded by the communion of saints? Abbot Bernardo invites us into the crypt where his community encircles the bones of St. Minas to pray compline each evening. “Dig a shovel full of your grave each night, ” one of the desert fathers said. Looking up at the saints painted on the ceiling of the crypt, I hear the words of the Nunc Dimitis, resounding across the ages: “My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared.”
It’s tempting to think that the gospel life might be easier—that it’s somehow easier to trust—when surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. They do inspire and empower, it seems. In the 10th century, when Giovanni Gualberto, a Florentine nobleman, met the man who’d killed his brother on the street in Florence, he drew his sword to kill him. But it was Good Friday, and the sight of his enemy lifting his arms in surrender reminded him of the cross. Together they climbed the hill that St. Minas had climbed before them and knelt below a crucifix here. Their eyes stayed on Jesus, the two men watched their Lord bow his head. Gualberto took it as a sign that reconciliation was, indeed, the way of the cross. Somehow this sort of miracle feels natural here.
But I tear up remembering how lost I felt just last week when a friend came to ask what I thought we could do for one young man in the neighborhood who’d heard that another young man wants to kill him. I wish I’d known this story from San Minato to tell him. I pray, somehow, I can feel this close to the power of the cross next time I sit on my front porch with one of those guys. Lord knows we need a place where people can come to lay down their animosity.
Abbot Bernardo carries a key ring the size of a soft ball, opening ancient gates to invite us into the secret places of this ancient monastery. We are getting the tour that only an abbot can give. Tables are set for dinner in the refectory, and the daily reading is placed on a lectern at the top of a spiral stair, open to an Italian translation of The Last Monk of Tiberine. It is the story of Cistercian monks martyred in Algeria twenty years ago. It is also a book published in English by the Community of Jesus’ Paraclete Press. I laugh at myself, in awe of the ancient, blinded to the ways the Holy Spirit is always knitting us together across space and time. Men who work and pray among these treasures sit in silence to hear about contemporary martyrs from North Africa, from a book published by a new monastic community on Cape Cod.
I take my prayer of thanksgiving for the church universal with me as we travel south, our eyes open for gifts of monastic wisdom as we pursue its source in the life of Benedict. We’re still 250 km from his birthplace, but we stop at a country church outside of San Gimignano in Cellole. The Monsignor tell us how, in the Middle Ages, pieves like this in the Italian countryside were hubs for priests who served the small chapels that dotted Tuscany’s hills. Feasts were celebrated at the pieve, where children could be baptized in a central font and travelers could be welcomed. But sometime around 1240, a leper named Bartolo sought refuge here at Cellole. Others followed, and he found himself welcoming a community of lepers, both male and female. One evening, after washing the feet of a new arrival, Bartolo had a dream that he had washed the feet of Christ. When he woke, Bartolo found his guest missing from the bed where he’d laid down to sleep and realized that the dream was helping him process his reality.
Inside the pieve, a contemporary icon tells this story, across from the baptistery where water flows in a steady trickle. A new monastic community has started here in recent years, part of the Bose Community in northern Italy. Brother Emillio tells us that St. Bartolo’s new monasticism in the 13th century—a community started by lepers to welcome lepers—is an inspiration to their community today. The same country church and communal house that the church made available to lepers 800 years ago has been opened to these 21st-century new monastics. When their founder, Enzo Bianchi first visited the pieve, he stood by the baptism font, just inside the doors, and said, “This is heart of the church, where sisters and brothers are welcomed into God’s family.” In the icon of St. Bartolo washing the feet of Jesus, I notice how similar the image of the pool is to this ancient stone font. When we are washed in these waters, St. Paul says, we “put on” Christ. “There is no longer male of female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Maybe we’ve been numbed by the repetition of the miracle, and Bartolo’s dream is for all of us—an invitation to process the life we’ve already been given in the church, to see how Jesus is with us wherever we wash the feet of our unlikely sisters and brothers.
Some historians argue that Benedict’s Rule carries the germ of democracy in the West. He did not become the imperial bureaucrat his father hoped he’d be, but Benedict was politically savvy. He knew the differences between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. And he knew that living as one in Christ Jesus was a gift—the resurrection on the far side of a life lived under the sign of the cross. Freedom isn’t free, we often say, and Benedict knew it. But the gospel taught him that people must be set free from themselves to be free for worship of God in love for one another. Thus his Rule denies every social division of birth. It doesn’t recognize class or rank in society. One can only submit to the Rule by leaving all that behind.
But Benedict is not naïve. There is a rank under the Rule as people climb the ladder of humility. Monks enter and exit the offices of prayer in the order in which they came to monastic life, bowing to those who are further along on this journey toward hearts overflowing with love. This way of life is never a dream. Benedict didn’t make speeches. He built community. His legacy lives on in concrete and practicable forms.
Or, it doesn’t. No community is perfect. Calling ahead to Monte Oliveto Maggiorre, mother house of the Olivetans, whom we’d met at San Miniato, we learn from the monk at the door that our timing isn’t good. We’ll be arriving just before siesta. Sorry, he says. Maybe next time.
I get it. Sometimes when people visit us at Rutba House, they hear the phone ringing and ask, “Aren’t you going to get that?”
“Not now, ” I say with a smile. We all have our limits. I don’t begrudge a monk his afternoon nap.
But we go anyway, trusting we can learn something from this planned visit, even if it doesn’t go as planned. After winding to the top of a mountain, our bus stops at the bottom of a small road. This is as far as he can go. We’re on foot the rest of the way. As we climb an ancient, stone-paved path, I realize that whoever built this monastery must have carried every stone and beam up this same way. Whoever lives her now must do the same with the groceries. No wonder they need a nap after lunch.
But the view is reward enough for this journey, and the monks are at least hospitable enough to have constructed very nice contemporary restrooms for us to use. As it happens, we get to the church just as midday prayer is ending. A young monk from El Salvador explains to the Monsignor in Italian that they’re just now closing the doors so the brothers can have lunch and siesta. “O yes, of course, ” the Monsignor says with great deference. “But do you have time to offer a prayer for our journey?”
Pilgrims seeking a blessing, we are invited in. And since we’ve come all this way, as our brother from San Salvador has also, he decides to go ahead and share the greatest blessing of the place—Sodoma’s famous frescoes of Saint Benedict’s life, which line the cloister walk. We view them in silence, so as not to disturb the brothers. This is the third such sequence we’ve seen in two days. The stories are becoming familiar, but every artist captures something different.
I stop in front of Benedict preaching to the shepherds. When Benedict began his monastic life in the cave above Subiaco, Gregory tells us shepherds came to receive instruction. Here is Benedict, sitting at the mouth of his cave, teaching. He has no lecture notes. He isn’t making a speech, but rather enumerating points on his fingers—a tried and true practice of popular educators. One shepherd is whispering in another’s ear. The woman among them is standing, quite suggestively for a monastery, with her upper thigh exposed through the slit in her tunic. These are, as Sly and the Family Stone sang, everyday people. They have not come for a history lesson or an art exhibit. They’ve come for a blessing, and Benedict is giving it to them. “Muchas gracias, ” I whisper to our Salvadoran host as we tip-toe out the door. “Dios te bediga.”
Continue “On Pilgrimage” with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove here.