Next stop: Norcia, the contemporary Italian for Nursia, birthplace of Benedict and his twin sister, Saint Scholastica. We arrive a few minutes before vespers, and I learn that the brothers here have recently released a best-selling Gregorian chant album. The six or seven of them who file into the choir open their mouths and fill this ancient church with praise. But it’s good they aren’t recording this evening. Another busload of guests arrives after us, in the middle of the office. The eternal song sung round the throne of God goes on, interspersed with the clanks and bangs and ringtones of everyday people.
After prayer Father Cassian invites us to follow him through the church’s crypt to the monks’ chapter room, where we circle up for conversation. To get there, we walk through an archaeological dig which has unearthed the foundation of the house where Norcia’s twin saints were born. In 480, when this walled city was still under imperial rule, four years after Rome had been sacked, Benedict’s father was the empire’s local representative. With politics in disarray, we can imagine that dad’s word was law, not only in this house but in the whole world that Benedict and Scholastica knew as children. Like any noble man in the ancient world, this father imagined his son would follow in his footsteps. Benedict would have received a basic education from tutors at home, but when he became a teenager, his father sent him to Rome to complete his education.
Gregory’s telling of the story emphasizes how Benedict fled sinful Rome, but the monks here note that Benedict never returned home. He wasn’t nostalgic for small town life. “Listen, my son, ” he wrote at the end of his life, perhaps echoing a phrase he’d heard from his father, growing up in the mayor’s house. But Benedict did not listen to his earthly father. He fled for the hills, seeking the voice of his heavenly Father in the way of the desert fathers.
Where did Benedict get the notion to go live in a cave? Father Cassian tells us how, following the Council of Chalcedon in the mid 5th century, Syrian monks were persecuted as adherents of the monophysitism that the Council had condemned. Heretics or not, these hermits fled the desert, ultimately finding refuge in the hills surrounding Norcia. When Benedict and Scholastica were growing up, this was the Italian Thebiad. To borrow Athanasius’ memorable phrase, the hillsides had become a city. For prayer cells, the Syrian monks found caves. The young Benedict may well have made day hikes to visit the holy men who lived outside his father’s city’s walls. At any rate, he was thinking of something he’d seen—or at least heard of—when he hiked up the Aniene River valley from Rome and found a cave for himself above Subiaco.
We follow his journey by bus, astounded by our driver, Lorenzo, and his capacity to bend a full size coach around the hairpin switchbacks of Subiaco’s steep hillsides. After living in the cave here for three years, Benedict was the talk of the town. Shepherds talk, evidently. Word spread about the holy man, and disciples came wanting to follow his way. Benedict did not send them to find their own cave. Instead, he started building monasteries.
After dinner the sun is still setting. Leah and I decide to take a walk with a few of our fellow pilgrims. We are staying at Saint Scholastica, a monastery built and rebuilt over the centuries atop one of the very communities Benedict founded when he came out of the holy cave 1500 years ago. On a trail marker we see “Sacro Speco”—holy cave—only half a kilometer up the hill. For a week now we’ve been making our way to the birthplace of Western monasticism. Finally, we are here. The soundtrack from Raiders of the Lost Ark plays in my head as I bound up the trail, eyes wide open, half expecting to find discover some relic left by the holy man himself. But of course we aren’t the first to make this journey. The trail is well marked by Italian authorities. Centuries ago, the monks built a church over the top of Benedict’s cave. Its gates are closed for the night when we get there.
The next day, when our guide Mateo takes us on a tour of Sacro Speco, my blood is not pumping quite as fast. But I have the previous night’s adrenaline rush in mind as we learn that Francesco Bernardone climbed the same path in 1223, carrying with him a rose bush. Somewhere in his religious education, this cloth merchant’s son from Assisi had heard the story of Benedict wrestling the demon of lust, tempted to abandoned his love affair with God for an illusory romance elsewhere. Francis knew the feeling and at some point followed Benedict’s example, throwing himself into a thorn bush. The physical pain roused both men from their illusory dreams and helped usher them into the reality of life with God in community. Having started a popular order of preaching friars, Francis was the most famous new monastic in Europe when he came to pay homage to Benedict. On the hillside outside Sacro Speco, he found a thorn bush, dug it up, and planted a rose.
Abbot Notker Wolf, abbot primate for the worldwide Benedictine order, has graciously traveled from San Anselmo, the Benedictine University in Rome, to be with us in this sacred place. “What is Benedictine?” he asks, sharing story after story of how communities have followed the Rule through history—how people seek to continue today in the ancient monasteries of Europe as well as new foundations in Africa and East Asia. He repeats the question a dozen times, answering himself with another story. Then, finally, he tells us what he has discerned to be the heart of the Rule: “It is life together under an abbot. That is Benedictine, ” he says, with a very German nod of finality. Then he paraphrases again Benedict’s wisdom about how the way may seem difficult at first, but it becomes easier as our hearts are expanded. We grow in love. Like a wise grandfather, Abbot Notker looks at us with a smile and says, “It is true.”
At our little Baptist church in Walltown, the saints gather each Wednesday evening to testify to the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. It’s always been my favorite service here. Music is a gift, and I’m a sucker for good preaching. But nothing beats a testimony. Nothing proclaims good news more clearly than a person who can tell you how they’ve been born again.
This whole week, I now see, has been an invitation to listen to the testimonies of those who’ve followed a way of penance to real life in God. Saint Benedict and his Rule offer an especially helpful lens because, like the masters of the desert before him, Benedict understood both the frailty and the glory of the human being. Asceticism is necessary not because the body or the world are bad, but because our desires are bent toward illusions and self-deception. Our passions are not wrong. They are misguided. Benedict learned they can be redeemed in the way of Jesus. And, in very practical ways, he and his disciples show us what redemption looks like. My desires must be disciplined by the painful work of submission. I must learn to trust.
One of our fellow pilgrims shares her testimony with the group. A couple of days ago, when we were in Norcia, she misunderstood the group’s schedule and got separated. A simple enough mistake. But it sent her into a panic. She darted around this strange town, unable to think straight, begging anyone she could find to help her. It didn’t take long to catch up with the group. Norcia’s a small town. Initially, she’d been ashamed to even tell us she’d gotten lost. But she’d prayed for discernment to understand why her reaction had been so strong.
Through tears she shared how, before she was born, her father had wanted to abort her. She did not know this until late in adulthood. But she had felt it from the start—a sense that all was not well, that she could not trust the universe. Praying Psalm 51 with Benedict this week, she couldn’t get past that one line: “You desired faithfulness, even in the womb.” How could God expect her to trust when she had been rejected before birth? It seemed so unfair.
Yet God had been faithful. Looking back, her doubts throughout her life now seemed as illusory as the panic that welled up while darting about the streets of a strange Italian city. The truth all along was that she had a Father she could trust, just as she was traveling now with a group of friends who weren’t going to leave her. But it wasn’t enough to know it. Trust had to get down inside of her—to permeate her daily habits so that it could transform her into the person she was made to be. For trust to be real, it had to be embodied in community. Her longing, born in the womb, had to learn faithfulness through the painful work of trusting frail people like her father. This way is not easy, but as the Abbot Father said, “It is true.” You know it when you see it, like the peace in the eyes on Donatello’s Mary Magdalene.
Before today I never thought of St. Francis as a disciple of Benedict, never saw so clearly how both of their testimonies are about how sons learned to negotiate the desires their fathers sowed into them, refining and purifying their wills through the difficult work of submission. Benedict never went back to Nursia, nor did Francis ever get his earthly father’s blessing. But they were not simply rebels with a cause. Francis climbed this holy hill with a rose bush in his hands because he knew what our sister pilgrim has seen—what T.S. Eliot summed up so well in those ultimate lines of his Four Quartets: “All shall be well… when… the fire and the rose are one.”
Before the shuttle arrives to take us to the airport in Rome, I rise early on our last day in Italy to hike down from Saint Scholastica to the 1st-century ruins of one of Emperor Nero’s villas. Subiaco, I learned yesterday, takes its name from the imperial Latin sub lacu—literally, below the lake. Damning the Aniene River, Nero created for himself a lakeside home in the mountains, not far from his work in Rome. The desires of the wealthy, it seems, have changed little in two millennia.
But Nero, like Rome’s glory, was long gone when Benedict made his way up the Aniene from Rome. What he found here around the year 500 was roughly what I find on my morning hike (absent the helpful signage from the Italian government which facilitates my self-guided tour). Here lie the ruins of empire, what’s left of our best efforts to build up ourselves on our own. When Benedict left the holy cave—that furnace where he learned to trust God and Romanus for his daily bread—he built 13 communities in this valley. For starters, he used the ruins of Nero’s villas. In the abandoned vacation homes of an emperor, a new monasticism was born.
Putting a dozen monks in each of these rebuilt houses, Benedict gave them a basic structure for reconstructing themselves: “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing to whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all to everlasting life.” When Benedict died half a century later, these words from his Rule are all he left. Yet, somehow, everything we’ve witnessed this week has flowed from his words. Somehow, this simple way of faithful obedience he laid out gave rise to hospitals and cities, to masterworks of art and the lives of saints. Somehow it crossed an ocean and touched me.
It’s a gift to stand by these ruins in the morning light and know that Benedict, too, was a new monastic. He received what was passed on to him, he learned from the example of others. And he built something new in the ruins, not knowing what would come of it.
The lives of the saints are, indeed, a gift, for they remind us how, in the end, all is grace. But they are a challenge, too. You do not get to the grace in these stories without facing reality, without going through the fire. Benedict’s greatest gift, perhaps, is his spiritual realism: I cannot learn to really live until I’ve found concrete ways to submit to other people.