February 24th, 2011
I am on retreat at San Martino delle Scale, the only Benedictine monastery still operating in Sicily. The site was first built upon by Pope Gregory the Great around 600, but two centuries later, marauding Saracens burned it down as they continued extending their rule over this part of the Byzantine empire. After the Normans arrived and Christianity was once more ensconced, a new monastery was begun in 1346. The monastery’s Baroque past is still apparent in a Neptune fountain, its grotto now a mass of ferns and weeds, and in a display of cherubs and dolphins, the incongruous centerpiece of a simple cloister courtyard. Right now, the complex is a construction site, workers are restoring the main church as well as repairing the roof of a monastery wing that is being used as an elementary school. These vast premises house only ten monks; the corridors of empty cells are kept tidy, if unheated and dimly lit. After almost a day, I still cannot find my way to dinner. I wander past rows of paintings -- past abbots and patron saints – hoping to be found by a monk and directed to a meal. After the suppression of monasteries during Italy’s reunification in the 19th century, life here changed – a simpler way was found – now the buildings are a cultural patrimony and largely house educational projects. A hall within the monastery doubles as a parish church; the famous carved walnut choir stalls and a grandiose marble staircase, decorated in the Pompeian style, are museum objects. And the paired down band of monks pray and dine in spaces suited to their reduced number and circumstance. Nevertheless, they are here, going about their work and prayer amid the art students. The bell tower’s motto “Seize the Day” never seemed more appropriate.
February 25th, 2011
Once I was a member of a monastic community. Moving with this small group of monks through dim, cavernous corridors to prayer and then to dinner feels familiar and strange at the same time. Did such devotion to a precise schedule ever seem odd to me at the time? Never. It felt comforting and dependable and I felt these regular rhythms could go on forever, they had a life of their own. Time may be regimented, but not the personalities of the monks. Tonight, at my San Martino delle Scale retreat, a slight young man, perhaps a novice, knocks on my door this evening to show me the way to Mass. He is wearing a heavy sweater, a ski cap and a woolen scarf is swathed around his neck...and he still looks cold. “I have visited Oakland,” he says during our walk to the chapel. “I worked in my uncle’s Italian restaurant.” I ask if he has ever visited Rome. “No,” he replies, “just the Vatican.” At Vespers, the monk beside me chants the psalms without looking at the book, but, in the middle of the prayer, he waves me close and quickly turns my page for me, something I was just about to do myself. All meals are served by a rotation of serving monks (except the rather aloof abbot and his talkative, stentorian-voiced prior, who are always served first at their own table). At midday, all listen to readings from church history and the lives of the saints while speedily taking in nourishment for the afternoon. The evening meal allows for a period of talking and immediately the formality is gone, banter and debate reign until the abbot knocks on the table to call for the grace after meals. Some of the trends in high-end cuisine can be found on the Sicilian peasant fare being served up by the kitchen. How about a first course of seafood risotto and a second of three mysterious marine-like tentacles stuffed with herbed bread crumbs or a free-range egg dropped atop a meatless ragù of fresh tomatoes and onions? After evening prayer, one of the monks who has never spoken to me before wishes me “Good night” in English. I head down the corridor, noticing one bedroom in particular. An adult tricycle sits in front of the door, a permitted possession of the elderly brother porter who needs crutches for walking but, evidentially, still can ride.