During his recent talk in Dallas at a dinner for the Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy, Rod Dreher, author of the much-debated book The Benedict Option, said,
I believe with all my heart that the Church of the future is being born right now in the ruins of Norcia, in the community of men who have given their lives to the service of Christ, following the rule of St. Benedict…. If you go there, you want what they have: above all, the peace of Christ.
Few sites can claim greater historical significance for monasticism than Norcia (Nursia), in central Italy; it is the birthplace of St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica in the 5th century. As far back as the 8th century there was an oratory for pilgrims. In the 10th century monks came and remained until 1810 when the Napoleonic Code forced them to flee. The current community began in Rome in 1998, where it was established by Pope Benedict, before moving to Norcia in 2000. The monks, which include many Americans, combine the old and new. They celebrate the ancient Latin liturgy of the Church even as they have recorded a best-selling CD of chant and produce their own delicious beer (birra nursia).
Then, in 2016 a series of earthquakes hit central Italy, the first one, in August, caused serious damage to the town of Norcia and to the basilica. It forced the monks to move out of their residence, a move that turned out to be a blessing, as they were not living at the original monastery, when the second, even more devastating quake hit the region in October. That one destroyed the basilica itself. The brewery, underground, was saved and the monks are in the process of relocating the brewing materials and have already begun producing birra nursia. The monks are now living in makeshift quarters, just outside the town on a hillside amid local farming communities. They recently made the transition from dwelling in tents to log cabins and have just begun use of a wooden chapel.
At a lunch preceding the evening festivities, my son, Dan, an amateur brewer who is writing his Baylor honors thesis on monastic brewing, and I spoke with Fr. Benedict, who was appointed prior just after the first earthquake. He stressed that their rebuilding effort will be funded almost entirely by private donations. He also stressed that the devastation and challenge of beginning again, this time from nearly nothing, has enabled the monks to live Benedict’s Rule “more fully.” As John Henry Newman wrote in his essay, “The Mission of Saint Benedict”: “Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins” and his mission was “to restore it.” The monks of Norcia are literally living among the ruins and engaging in the tasks of renewal, the humble activities of prayer and work.
At dinner, Dreher spoke about the fact that the only thing remaining of the basilica is its façade. Seen from one angle, everything looks intact but if we investigate further we can see that behind the façade everything is destroyed. Something like that, Dreher urges, is an apt description of contemporary Christianity. Dreher notes the decline in religious affiliation among the young, the failure of our churches, including the Catholic Church, to bring up our youth in such a way that they remain practicing, devoted, thoughtful believers. Combine that with an increasingly hostile secular culture and you have the recipe for rapid decline and loss of influence.
Whatever one makes of the overall thesis of Dreher’s book—and there is much to discuss and debate—the basic description of our current situation is hard to dispute. Dreher is, moreover, to be commended for avoiding the temptation to think that our salvation or even our cultural restoration consists primarily in winning this or that political battle. Instead, he sees what the monks of Norica see, namely, that no serious renewal is possible without a deep and lasting spiritual renovation of our lives and communities. Could it be that part of our problem as Christians is that we have devoted too much energy to political solutions and not enough to devotion to God?
In conversation, Fr. Benedict described the life of the monk as one that sets aside all secondary matters in order to focus on our ultimate end, “our telos, union with God.” The life of the monk is a reminder to the rest of the church of the true order and goal of our lives. Another way to talk about setting aside secondary matters is asceticism, a healthy sense of which is indispensable for any life of spiritual devotion. As Dreher puts it: “asceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness common in our culture, which teaches us that satisfying our own desires is the key to the good life. The ascetic knows that happiness can only be found only by living in harmony with the will of God, and ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self.”
There are paradoxes here to which the contemporary world seems increasingly obtuse: through emptiness, we find fullness; through silence, meaningful speech; through sacrifice, joy.
In a piece of good news, Fr. Benedict indicated that inquiries about vocations have increased since the earthquake. When asked about what sorts of traits are indicative or predictive of success in monastic life, he cited strong relationships with one’s parents and an avoidance of toxic habits, like pornography. Primarily, he noted, a monk’s life must be rooted in a “sense of one’s sinfulness, of one’s total dependence on God.” To deep devotion, he quickly added “flexibility.” Life in community requires an ability to adapt to others and to a way of life that may require different things over the course of a monastic life.
To flexibility, evident in the monks’ embrace of radically altered living conditions, one might further add an entrepreneurial spirit. These monks have produced a CD of chant and founded their own brewery. Instructively, they chose to name the beer, not after Benedict, but for the town (birra nursia). The choice reflects the traditional Benedictine commitment to stability. They hope to play a role in the revitalization of the entire town, just a monasteries did in the Middle Ages.
Both at lunch and at dinner, the monks invited the rest of us to participate in their work, through prayer and through financial support. In so doing, we might contribute to what Dreher calls the “birth of the future of the Church.” We might also be drawn closer to the joy for which our increasingly joyless world hungers. The motto of the brewery, taken from the Psalms, encapsulates their lives: ut laetificat cor, that the heart might be glad.