EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the first in a four part series. Follow link at bottom to read next post.
Several years ago, while visiting an intentional Christian community, I talked with a pastor who had been around since the group came together during the Jesus People movement of the 1970s. Filled with evangelical zeal, thousands like him had abandoned the American dream, dedicating themselves to a gospel life shared with new sisters and brothers in intentional community. Forty years later, most of those communities are gone. This one isn’t. I wanted to know why.
“We met Jean Vanier, ” this man told me. “And he introduced us to monasticism.”
A Roman Catholic Canadian, Vanier was in France when his priest invited him to live with two men who had been institutionalized because of intellectual disabilities. Vanier’s L’Arche community was born out of obedience to a Catholic priest in the shadow of some of Western monasticism’s greatest monuments. For Vanier, monastic wisdom was a song that echoed across the centuries, as present as the sound of church bells on a Sunday morning. For me, a young Baptist, it was a peculiar tune in an unfamiliar tonality.
Still, I had something in common with my Jesus People friend. A generation removed from his experience, my wife Leah and I had heard a call to follow the way of Jesus in community. Together with a few friends, we’d begun to find our way. From Minnesota, 150 years after a small group of German monks had traveled from Europe to establish a monastery there, a letter came. The Benedictines were encouraged to hear that other Christians were exploring vocation in community. Extending a hand of welcome, they built a bridge across half a continent, across the Atlantic Ocean, across 1500 years. They taught me to read St. Benedict’s Rule and introduced us to monasticism.
A decade later, thanks to a gracious invitation from the Community of Jesus, Leah and I flew to Florence, Italy to join a pilgrimage in the way of Saint Benedict. Flying toward the rising sun, we missed most of a night’s sleep, groggily greeting a driver on Friday morning who sped us through Tuscany’s hills to the town of Barga. A fortified city that dates back to the 9th century, Barga overlooks the Arno River, across from a mountain named after the cross of Christ. Since pre-Christian times, when this river valley was a principal north/south travel route through the Alps, Barga has been a resting place. The city’s fathers dedicated Barga’s duomo (main church) to St. Christopher, patron of travelers. A millennium later, their blessing is passed onto us as we’re received with hugs at the city gates by hosts who insist on pulling our suitcases up cobblestone streets and winding stairs to the Villa Via Sacra, perched 40 feet above on the city wall. Sitting down to a lunch of roasted eggplant, asparagus and pork loin, we learn the local legend, passed down from pre-Christian times, which says that Barga is bathed in eternal light.
A decade ago, on my first visit to St. Johns Abbey in Minnesota, I met another “new monastic” who told me the story of the Community of Jesus, where he’d been a member since the 1970s. Founded in the charismatic spirit that characterized the Jesus People movement, this community on Cape Cod in Massachusetts has been sharing life together for nearly half a century. When the community’s founders—two lay women who were gifted teachers—heard Gregorian chant on a trip to Bethlehem, they immediately sensed it was a key to the challenge of unity that their community faced. They told a charismatic group of young Americans that they were going to learn to chant prayers in Latin. By all accounts, this made no sense to most of them. But they trusted that God was speaking. They sat through months of lessons, learning to chant all seven offices of monastic prayer. Thirty years later, on the terrace of their new house in Tuscany, they testify how Gregorian chant eventually brought them to Italy.
The Community of Jesus sang its way into Benedict’s Rule, which spoke more and more to their shared life. In time they learned how important the cultivation of beauty is to Benedictines. The divine office demanded a sacred space, set aside for the worship of God. Two decades of building a Romanesque church put them in touch with the British, French, and Italian sources of Benedictine art and architecture. They learned to paint frescoes and trained as mosaicists under contemporary masters.
This decades long journey, we learned, put the Community of Jesus in touch with Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a Catholic priest at the Cathedral in Florence who also directs the Duomo’s art museum in the hometown of Michelangelo and Donatello. Fifty years ago, Monsignor Verdon considered a monastic vocation at Mount Savior Monastery in New York. A call was there, he realized, but not in the monastery. His heart was drawn to the gospel proclaimed by the masterworks of Christian art. For half a century, he’s taught art history and ministered in the church, making a way by walking into this ministry of helping people sense the love that moves the sun and other stars. When he met the Community of Jesus, the Monsignor found fellow travelers. Together they started the Mt. Tabor Ecumenical Centre at Villa Via Sacra in Barga.
For a ministry of sacred beauty, they couldn’t have found a better place. We tour the house after lunch—part monastery, part guesthouse, part art gallery. Six to ten sisters and brothers from the Community of Jesus have been serving three-month tours at the villa for the past two years, remodeling rooms and mending walls, welcoming guests and curating art exhibits. Their patios are verdant with bright flowers in terra cotta pots, their halls graced with mosaics. We meet a local at the market who tells us he attended an open house at Villa Via Sacra. It is, he says with pride, the most beautiful house in town.
A rest day gives our souls time to catch up with our bodies as we visit Barga’s duomo, drink Italian espresso and get to know our fellow pilgrims. We pass a man in the market who is selling pants, and for the sake of conversation I ask if he has any that will fit me. Given that I’m a foot taller than the average Italian man, I have my doubts. I have to special order pants at home. “Of course, ” he says, sizing me up with his eye. “You try them on.” Rosando Rossi, as it turns out, designs jeans in his hometown of Barga. His eye is spot on, and I walk away with two pairs of pants and an invitation to order direct from Barga anytime. Italian-made pants from the designer himself—and all for less than Old Navy prices. You can’t make this stuff up.
Still, we didn’t come to Italy for good deals. In the face of a 12th century sculpture, behind the alter of the duomo, I see the weight of the world that St. Christopher said he felt when he carried Jesus across the river on his shoulder. For twenty years I’ve walked with people experiencing homelessness, people living under bombs, people coming home from prison, cursed to wander the earth in search of food, shelter, and welcome. I think of the men I meet with every Tuesday afternoon on death row. Like our Lord, they carry a cross. And I have a chance to welcome them—to greet them as we’ve been greeted here, as Christopher welcomed Christ. “Even the poor deserve beauty, ” Dorothy Day said when fellow Catholic Workers asked why she gave a donated diamond ring to a poor mother rather than sell it to help pay the bills. They tell me Italy is a poor country, but how poor we are in America that we don’t remember which of our places are bathed in eternal light.
In the first chapter of his Rule, Benedict outlines four types of monk (not all of them good). His Rule is for the first kind—the one who shares life in community under the direction of an abbot. After learning to turn his whole self toward God in community, the second kind of monk—the hermit—may live alone in contemplation. But the third kind, Benedict says, is the worst: the one who lives alone within the community, judging others even as he shares life with them. This is the kind of insight that first drew me to Benedict. It spoke to my experience. How easy it is to miss out on the very thing I want most because I love my dream of community more than I love my actual sister or brother.
But still worse, Benedict says, is the fourth kind of monk—the spiritual tourist who goes from one community to the next, always idealizing another place and never settling down to do the work of repentance that each of us can only do in the place where we are. I am not here to worship my idea of someone else’s community. I’m here as a pilgrim, invited to learn from Benedict and generations of his disciples how to grow in the life that is really life.
Continue “On Pilgrimage” with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove here.