Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Clinging to the Rock

When I was a child, I loved to draw mountains carved throughout with tunnels and caves. My secret passageways weren't just holes in the ground, though. They were meant to be lived in, and everything was provided to make that possible, even preferable. They were underground palaces.

I was reminded of this during my two-day visit to Sacro Speco (Sacred Cave) about an hour from Rome. The beautiful Monastery of St. Benedict--well over 1,000 years old--is carved into the side of a mountain there. It was constructed over the cave where a young St. Benedict lived as a hermit for three years before he began establishing monastic communities as they have come to be known. It was from this rock-hewn cradle that the Benedictine Order was born.

Petrarch described Sacro Speco as "the threshold of Paradise," and it is easy to undersand why, and what drew St. Benedict there. It looks over a tree-filled valley at the bottom of which the Anio River runs fast and clear over the rocks. There's even a waterfall. The sound of the rushing water rises up and caresses the mountainside 24 hours a day. At night, I kept my window open to breathe in the cool mountain air and listen to the running water. I slept like a baby!

Below and to the right of Sacro Speco is the Monastery of St. Scholastica, which I also briefly visited, and the town of Subiaco, which comes from the Latin term Sublaquem (below the lakes). The name comes from three artificial lakes created in the valley by the Emperor Nero in the 1st Century (and which no longer exist). Incidentally, I learned that the first printing press in Italy was at St. Scholastica in the 15th Century.

Anyway, back to the "cave." There are five monks living at Sacro Speco right now, all from different countries. The monastery and church are well-preserved because they are owned by the state. I arrived on Sunday afternoon, when a 23-year-old intern (from Missouri) who works at the monastery was in Rome and came to Sant' Anselmo to pick me up. Together, we took the Rome metrobus (subway) to a bus station, and from there got on a bus to Subiaco. (This was a blessing, as I am still a little intimidated by the public transporation system here.) At the Subiaco bus station--at the bottom of the mountain--the monastery's prior, Fr. Luigi, came down in a car to take us up.

After getting settled, the intern (Andy) showed me around, and gave me a tour of the church. I was instantly awestruck. Everything is beautiful and yet very humble; overwhelming yet intimate. The church is hollowed out of the mountain in an irregular pattern and on several levels (like my caves!) Practically every surface is adorned with colorful frescoes that are hundreds of years old. Most date to medieval times, and each highly symbolic rendering tells a specific story in the life of Christ or in the lives of the saints, particularly St. Benedict. The cave's walls breathe prayer in a way that wraps you in them and makes you feel part of them rather than below them or held at an adoring distance. It is at once very sacred and very human, and therefore honest.

I wish I could post photos of the church's interior, but camera flashes are not allowed. Some frescoes have been damaged over the years by light, humidity, and human touch. If you're interested, I recommend you view some of them using the link I provided in the previous post. Still, that fails to provide the "full effect."

Nestled deep in the Lower Church is what remains of the opening of St. Benedict's cave, lit by 12 lamps representing the monasteries he founded. It is a place of profound peace, and I could not help but think of the life that has flowed from this "Rock" for 1,500 years. That includes the prayer and work of the five monks living at Sacro Speco, but also that of every monk throughout the world in the history of the Benedictine Order that has profoundly influenced not only Christianity but Western civilization.

One night, after Vespers and dinner (the food is outstanding here, too), I walked alone into the courtyard after a brief rainstorm. For some reason, I was drawn to a raised bed of roses, where I spotted at least a dozen snails. This struck me as funny because the dinner conversation (in Italian, so translated by Andy into English for me) had included the topic of snails. For at least 20 minutes, I stood and watched the snails, slowly doing what snails do, plugging away through the damp earth or clinging to the wet rocks, largely unnoticed.

At that moment, at least for me, and given the historic nature of my surroundings, I was struck by the myserious, plodding, clinging virtue of perseverance which even death cannot overtake. Over the years, the monks of Sacro Speco have been buried within the mountain--literally becoming part of a rock that still pours forth life 1,500 years after the time of St. Benedict.

Originally, I was only going to stay at Sacro Speco one night. I ended up staying an extra day. I did not realize until I arrived how much I needed the rest and peace the place offered.

On the second day, the other intern (Eli, from Guatemala) and I hiked down to the valley and the Anio River to the waterfall, which I have included a picture of. It speaks for itself. (Then we had to hike back UP the hill!)

On Tuesday, I ran into some good fortune, or providence, whichever you prefer. I was going to head back to Rome on my own this time via the bus and subway (as I said, still a little daunting to me). However, a group from Rome's Lay Centre (mostly Americans from New Jersey) had arrived for a tour. The priest traveling with the group is a Benedictine monk and the prior of Sant' Anselmo where I have been staying in Rome -- Fr. Elias (his home monastery is also in New Jersey). There was extra room on the group's bus, so I was offered a ride back to Rome, which I accepted. First though, the group stopped for lunch (pasta and lamb!) at the excellent restaurant/hotel run by St. Scholastica. No one would let me pay even for an after-dinner cup of coffee!

On Wednesday, the group's leader told me, they are all going to the Pope's general audience at St. Peter's. They have an extra ticket, and asked me to join them--so tomorrow it's off to the Vatican!

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