This is how you get to Norcia. You fly to Rome and travel to its central railway station. You then take the Ancona train to Spoleto—I recommend the 11:58 AM. If you can’t manage that, take the 3:35 PM. The Ancona train takes 1.5 hours to reach Spoleto.
There are four buses a day from Spoleto to Norcia: the 10 AM, the 2:05 PM, the 5:20 PM and the 8:10 PM. The trip takes 55 minutes. Therefore, if you want to get to Norcia in time for Vespers (6 PM), you need to catch the 2:05 PM bus. It is right outside the Spoleto railway station. You can buy a ticket from the driver for 7 euros. The trip will take 55 minutes. The Norcia stop is the last; you will be dropped across the street from the city walls. Look for the Porta Ascolana—the nearest doorway—a few yards from the Via Vai Caffé.
Norcia is the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. It is also famous for its norcineria, i.e. cured pork products, and other delicacies. Gourmet shops line the main streets, offering citizens and tourists wild boar salami, black truffles, fine lentils, dried beans, truffle-studded cheeses.
The town nestles up against the Sibilli mountain range. On cold mornings in autumn and winter, mist fills the valley like milk in a bowl. By noon, the sun has burned it away. Norcia may be a mountain town, but this is Italy after all.
The town has a shop for hill-walkers; it is full of trekking gear. You can ask the manager to arrange an excursion for you with a mule and donkey stable. You can go on a journey of only three hours or for as long as seven days. A three-hour journey with a donkey costs only 30 euros.
The latest addition to Norcia’s menu of gourmet comestibles is “Birra Nursia”, produced by Norcia’s Benedictine Monks. It is available as “bionda” (light) and “extra” (dark). You can buy it in the monastery shop or in the region’s caffé-bars, trattorias and restaurants. Umbria is wine country, so the monks have captured a hitherto neglected market. The brew master is named Brother Francis. He is the tallest, most broad-shouldered of the monks. Almost all of the monks have beards; his is comparatively more “bionda” than “extra.” I am told he was born in the Ozarks. This is not surprising as most of the monks are Americans. One—the beardless Brother Ignatius—is Indonesian, another German. One is a Canadian from Calgary, Alberta.
Norcia made headlines on August 24, 2016 when it was rocked by a 6.3 earthquake. Nearby Amatrice was leveled; three hundred were killed. Miraculously, nobody in Norcia was hurt. Nevertheless the town suffered damage to its ancient walls and to several buildings, including the Chiesa di San Benedetto and its monastery. The monks were told to leave. After a brief sojourn in Rome, the monks returned and surveyed the damage to both their Nursian home and their property in the hills, Fuori Le Mura. They decided to concentrate on rebuilding Fuori Le Mura. Nobody knows how long it will take to repair the damage to the Nursian church and cloisters, or how much it will cost.
It is late September, and I have come to Norcia with my husband Mark. We bought our tickets months before the earthquake. The last great quake to hit the region was in 1997, and although I was there in 1998, I had completely forgotten about it. Since this August’s devastation, the Nursini—as the Norcia-dwellers are known—have experienced dozens of aftershocks, some measuring 4.4 on the Richter scale. Most, however, are mild, barely noticeable—except by phone. There is, it turns out, an app for that. Whenever a quake hits, phones buzz simultaneously all over town.
Earthquake advice: it is a myth that you should stand in a doorway. If an earthquake strikes when you are in bed, stay in bed. Put a pillow over your head and wait for the shaking to stop. Then go outdoors. If out of bed, crawl under a sturdy desk or table and hang onto a leg. Be prepared to move with the leg. When the shaking stops, go outdoors. If outdoors, crouch down before you fall down. Make sure you are well away from windows, chimneypots and 14th-century church facades.
When the first aftershock hit, the pajama-clad crowd gathered in the Piazza San Benedetto screamed as above them one of the church’s twin pinnacles wobbled to the left by 45 degrees. It is still like that now: two corners are literally off-base. Emergency tape encourages townsfolk and visitors to keep far from the front doors. The monks no longer pray in the church but in a monastery chapel underground.
As of this writing, the monks who still live in the old monastery open the doors to visitors only three times a day. There is Lauds at 6 AM, Mass at 10 AM and Vespers at 6 PM. Very few outsiders attend Vespers, and even fewer Lauds. Only a handful attend daily Mass.
This is what it is like to go to Lauds. You get up before 5:30 AM and dress warmly. The morning is cold and dark, but the ancient walls and pavements shine in the streetlight. You pass the great statue of Saint Benedict as you cut across his piazza, and you squeeze between the 14th-century city hall and the hazard tape around the church facade. You pass the shuttered monastery shop and continue to the corner. The dry-cleaner’s shop is in front of you. You turn right, and then look right at the great honey-coloured doors of the monastery. Iron rings are embedded in the wood, but the doors are locked. A sign in the gallery to your left indicates that a first-century house lies beneath it. Tradition holds that this is the birthplace of the holy twins.
You wait until 5:50 when a monk opens the door. He looks to see if there is anyone else, and then locks the door behind you. If you want to go to Lauds in Norcia, you must be at those doors by 5:50 AM. Once they are shut, they are shut.
The monastery quadrangle has flags of grey stone crossed by reddish bricks. To your immediate left there is a staircase blocked by a sign reading “Clausura: non entrare.” When you walk a little further into the atrium, you turn left and go through windowed doors to a wooden staircase leading down into a chapel built over the ruins of the first-century house.
There are abbreviated choir stalls in the sanctuary. A Renaissance fresco of Madonna and Child—rescued from a ruined church—serves as an altarpiece. The sanctuary is raised and composed partly of safety glass looking down into the excavations. This is mostly covered by an oriental-patterned carpet. The nave of the chapel has a sturdy, clean floor of wooden planks interrupted by an ancient well in the middle of the aisle. There are no cracks in the white plaster of the ceilings and walls. Visitors are provided with canvas-backed chairs but no kneelers. When you kneel, you kneel on the floor.
The monks, hoods pulled up against the cold, file into the chapel, their heavy black robes rustling. There is silence while they take their places in the choir stalls, and then plainchant fills the air.
“Deus in adiutorium meum intende.” O God, come to my assistance.
“Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina.” O God, make haste to help me.
The monks sing their Offices in Latin, as Latin monks did for centuries. If you wish to follow along silently in English, you may borrow a monastic diurnal from the bench on the left. Perhaps Brother Ignatius, upon coming in, will point out to you the propers of the day. Using the diurnal can be quite confusing at first. Fortunately, most of the prayers are set according to the days of the week.
When the monks file out, Brother Michael stoops over the recording device to the right of the sanctuary. Eventually the Office will be uploaded to the Internet. The monks’ way of life is ancient, but their outreach is not.
On Sunday at 9:55 AM I was amazed to discover that the chapel was almost full. But I shouldn’t have been surprised: all the churches in the area have been closed indefinitely. It makes sense that even those Nursini who don’t go to the Traditional Latin Mass would go fulfill their Sunday obligation at the monastery.
The big crowd provided a festival atmosphere, as did the presence of the monks from up the hill. All the Monks of Norcia were together with the exception of the prior Father Cassian, Father Benedict and Brother Augustine, who were in the United States. There were three ministers at the altar: the Mass was what in traditional parlance is called a Solemn High Mass, a service in which the priest-celebrant is assisted by a deacon and a sub-deacon.
Visually the service was spectacular. Three black-robed monks stood in the stalls to the left of altar. Three black-robed monks and a dark-haired guest faced them in the stalls to the right. The three ministers wore green vestments. The three monk altar-servers to their right were also in white. The guest wore dark clothing. All the monks had hoods, black or white; only the sub-deacon—a visiting priest—and the guest did not. Three white pillar candles burned on either side of the tabernacle on the altar, and the altar lamp to the left shone red. Above them all, the altar piece glowed with blue, scarlet and ochre as painted angels caught the Sacred Blood flowing from the crucifix above Mother and Child.
The Gospel, repeated in Italian, was about the healing of the official’s son (Jn 4: 46 – 50). Father Basil, the black-bearded homilist, reminded us (in Italian) that we had to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and warned against “superbia” or pride. The crowd joined enthusiastically in the Nicene Creed and, against traditionalist custom, the entire Pater Noster.
After Mass a few of the monks mingled in the monastery quadrangle with some of the visitors. The walls were bright yellow in the sun, and a few green things still straggled in planters. We were greeted by red-bearded, Scottish Brother Aidan, who asked us how our “pray-cation” was going. He introduced us to Canadian Brother Andrew, who has a dark beard and glasses. Currently a novice, he will take vows as a claustral oblate this month. I remarked that it was nice to see the brothers all together.
“We’ll all be here for Vespers tonight,” said Brother Aidan.
At Sunday Vespers the chapel is gloomy. I have reached the age in which it is difficult to read in certain lights. As I struggle to see the words on the page, I remember my father—when he was merely middle-aged as I am now middle-aged—whipping off his glasses to peer at the TV guide. It made me a little sad then, and the thought makes me sadder now. If I am growing old, my parents have grown older. It is a melancholy thought. Vespers comes at a melancholy hour. No wonder it contains a hymn about light.
Lucis Creator optime,
Lucem dierum proferens
Primordis lucis novae,
Mundi parans originem.
O blessed Creator of the light
Who makes the day with radiance bright
And o’er the forming world didst call
The Light from Chaos after all.
Two candelabras have been added to the six pillar candles on the altar for Benediction. The golden monstrance enthroning the host is delicate yet ornate. There is, I see afterwards, a jewel-like Pietà scene painted on the doors of the Tabernacle. Despite the earthquake damage to their home, the Monks of Norcia worship amid breath-taking beauty.
At the beginning of our visit to Norcia, we were joined by a young Scottish family with two children. The little boy was fascinated by the Benedictines. When we were all at Mass together for the first time, I overheard his gleeful whisper of “Monks!”
“Tell Brother Ignatius what you want to be when you grow up,” I told him afterwards.
“A monk!” declared Tomas.
Brother Ignatius smiled down at him. The adults shared some learned conversation about the history of boy monks. The next day Brother Ignatius asked the boy to tell another monk what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“A monk!” repeated Tomas.
The other monk looked equally pleased.
“To be a monk, there are three important things,” said Brother Ignatius. “The first is obedience.”
He stopped there, perhaps reflecting that he didn’t want to discuss poverty and chastity with a six-year-old.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked the boy
“I am thinking about obedience,” said Tomas, and we adults laughed like drains. I wonder if Tomas will remember all this when he is older, old enough to begin thinking seriously about his future. And I wonder how many more vocations to monastic life there would be if parents took their children to see it.
On Monday morning we leave for Florence, but not before going out into the cold and dark to Lauds. Mark has forgotten to turn off the heater. He blames me for rushing him. I blame him for getting up so late. An unmarried friend arrives and asks mildly what the fuss is all about. We subside into grumpy peace. At 5:51 Brother Ignatius lets us in.
About 40 minutes later, he lets us out again. We shake hands and assure him that we had a wonderful time and that we will be back—as soon as possible.
Brother Ignatius smiles. There is, we have sensed, a delicate balance between monastic solitude and monastic mission to the flock. When we all climbed the hill to peek at Fuori le Mura—unwillingly accompanied by curious sheepdogs—the gate was politely but firmly closed in our faces. Fair enough. But Brother Ignatius is the current porter of the older monastery and personifies Benedictine hospitality. He smiles warmly when we vow to return.
“Tomorrow?” he suggests.