“When the foundations are destroyed, what can the just do?” (Ps 11:3)
Walking up the narrow streets of Norcia, the smell of the local delicacy, wild boar, wafting through the air from hanging limbs in shops and restaurants, three times a year University of Mary students make their way toward the historic basilica of St. Benedict. Nursia, the Roman birthplace of St. Benedict, now known as Norcia, is the site of a revival of Benedictine monasticism. The University of Mary, a Benedictine institution, requires a course on St. Benedict for our Rome students with trips to Subiaco, Monte Cassino, and Norcia. At Norcia, our students (many of them in the Catholic Studies program that I direct) encounter a dynamic renewal that both looks back to the foundations of Benedictine monasticism and vibrantly looks forward to the renewal of Catholic culture in the New Evangelization.
Psalm 11, with which I began this piece, has stood out in my mind since a friend related that he has been discouraged by it. The foundations are crumbling all around us and what can we do in response? Well a group of monks from America and around the world at the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia are a perfect example of what we can do to rebuild and restore. The monks moved into the abandoned monastery and ancient basilica in Norcia in the Jubilee Year 2000. They literally have been rebuilding dilapidated foundations and structures both inside and out of their monastery. And they have begun many great works of restoration of monastic culture, touching the liturgy, arts, brewing, and scholastic education. Now they have released a new CD of Gregorian chant, including an original composition.
What is so poignant about this foundation in Norcia, where half of the eighteen monks are American, reversing the historic trend of evangelization from Old World to New, is not just the physical reconstruction, but also the restoration of the monastic life itself. Vatican II’s decree, Perfectae Caritatis on the “adaption” and “renewal” of religious life, exhorted religious communities to do the following:
The adaptation and renewal of the religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time (§2).
As we know too clearly just about every community emphasized the adaptation part and not very much the ressourcment part. In fact, Benedictine communities left the strict cloister behind, becoming much more outward focused, abandoning a faithful observance of Benedict’s Rule and the chanting of the traditional psalter. St. Benedict pointed out that the monks of Egypt recited all 150 psalms a day, but his monks at least should never abandon the entire psalter in a week:
Let him take care, however, above all that each week the entire Psalter of one hundred fifty psalms be recited…. For those monks show an exceedingly slothful service in their devotion who, within the course of a week, sing less than the entire Psalter … since we read that our holy Fathers resolutely performed in a single day what we tepid monks but hope to achieve in an entire week (ch 18).
Many monasteries, however, have abandoned St. Benedict’s weekly psalter and ordering of the day through the traditional hours of prayer. In America the influence of Thomas Merton led to a turn to the Far East for meditation techniques and an embrace of centering prayer by some communities. (Our Sunday Visitor just published a piece on the mixed influence of Merton on monasticism.)
In light of a huge decline in influence and numbers for Benedictines worldwide, the monks of the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia are part of a profound renewal of Benedictine Monastic life. Due to the centrality of the work of God for St. Benedict (which is prayer), it is only fitting to look first to the liturgy for their renewal. In a recent address to Abbots and Priors of the United States, Archbishop Fisichella made the point that it was the task of monasteries to preserve Gregorian chant and Latin in the liturgy. Under the leadership of the monastery’s founder, Fr. Cassian Folsom, professor of liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo and consulter for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, liturgy stands at the center of monastic life at Norcia. Celebrating both forms of the Roman Rite in Latin, the monks also keep a traditional monastic horarium:
Conventual Mass: 10:00
In addition, the monks have engaged in many cultural endeavors. Looking back to the mandate of Vatican II, this may be the best way to understand the call for “adaption.” As I have written elsewhere, Cardinal Pell described their brewery, Birra Nursia, as a genuine expression of the New Evangelization. The monks see the brewery as an apostolate for engaging non-believers and though their brewery has only been around for a few years (since 2012) it has had a large impact, even being served at the last papal conclave!
The monastery has also renovated much of the property, including the library, sanctuary of the basilica, monastic cells, and bell tower (among other projects), and commissioned a beautiful painting of the Crucifixion for their new and expanded refectory. In addition to promoting the arts, the monastery also hosts the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies. Two-week long summer programs encourage the study of theology according to medieval methods: preaching, lecture, disputation, and commentary. This year’s July program will focus on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, using Aquinas’s Commentary.
The monastery’s new CD, Benedicta: Marian Chants from Norcia, was produced in partnership with de Montfort Music, a highly successful label, producing 3 of the top five classical albums for 2014. The CD presents many traditional Marian hymns and antiphons, some of which will be readily recognizable, but what stands out to me is that the CD also includes an original composition. This, once again, reflects the creative and dynamic renewal of the Norcia monks. The text and music of the original piece, Nos Qui Christi Iugum (“We Who Have Received Christ’s Yoke”), were composed by Fr. Basil Nixen, the monastery’s choirmaster.
I would encourage everyone to purchase the CD, not only for its beauty and inducement to contemplation, but also to support the great work of renewal undertaken by the Monastery of St. Benedict of Norcia. We all have a great work ahead of us to rebuild the foundations of our civilization. In this work, we will all be carried by the prayers and labors of contemplatives. Their renewal, the renewal of the monastic foundation, may just leaven the whole project of rebuilding. And where better to start, but in the very home of the great builder of the foundations of Western civilization, St Benedict?