Norcia: A Year Later, An Eternity Ahead
"I give no thought to what lies behind but push on to what lies ahead. My entire attention is on the finish line as I run toward the prize to which God calls me – life on high in Christ Jesus." – Philippians 3:13-14
In 1880, St. Benedict returned to his small, mountainside, hometown in the form of a white granite statue in the principle town square. The Italian founder of Western Monasticism – and arguably one of the most prominent saints in the Catholic Canon – gestures with one finger toward a globe and a pile of books at his feet; and with his other hand strongly extended, the chalky, bearded likeness strains all fingers both outward and upward.
It is as if he came back to the world he left at age 20 to tell us something.
A series of earthquakes, most notably a 6.5 magnitude upheaval on Oct. 30, 2016, toppled this Saint's hometown. The square is now dominated not by quaint restaurants, smiling tourists, and resolute 13th century church edifices, but by stainless steel braces fastened to newly-poured concrete pads, rounds of nylon straps wrapping wood-encased corners of towers, and a sobering silence on the faces of would-be tourists.
Pity might be the first feeling drawn forth in a visitor. Surely despair or sorrow is not foreign to locals, either.
But if one heads out of town to visit the men who continue to follow the Rule of St. Benedict, a long walk on a solitary gravel road terminates at a monastery filled with young "brothers"—as the locals say—monks who left their homeland in search of the spiritual life their beloved monastic father prescribed for them centuries before.
And what is truly astonishing isn't their likewise-crumbling church piled and held up next to their simple new quarters, or even the beautiful views of Italian towns dotting the valley below, but how pity seems so foreign to these monks.
“One year from the first earthquake, our mission as monks is clearer than ever: to live as witnesses to the power of the truth that God is love,” wrote Prior Benedict Nivakoff, OSB, on the monastic community's blog recently. “The suffering and death of Christ on the cross is the only answer to our experience of suffering and death. God let His only Son die for us out of love. Every time we look to Christ in our suffering, in our own moments of loneliness and sadness, we can experience that love and have real hope, real joy. We can experience a joy that stands even when buildings fall, a joy that perseveres through tragedy."
There has been heartache and sadness, living in tents in the shadow of what remains of this precious church, but those feelings recede against the power of Christ. These monks aren't primarily caretakers of a physical building, as noble as taking care of churches can be. They are first and foremost Christians. And Christians are defined primarily and maybe summarily by one thing: being called by Christ to come to know Christ. This is so even if it means—and perhaps principally by forsaking everything else in the world for Jesus Christ alone. Beloved, historic Church buildings included.
Back in town, like the monks of Norcia today, the statue of St. Benedict stands resolute, unshaken, untouched. And maybe that is because Saint Benedict, like the men who take his name and follow his Rule today, really isn't attached to anything else in the piazza or in the world. His 1880's likeness mirrors his life. It is founded on the firm ground of Christ alone. Now, having returned to his hometown, he gestures today—both in his statue and more importantly through his modern day "brothers"—reminding the shaken people of Norcia and of our world one thousand five hundred years later of the truly, indeed only important thing.
“Prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” –Rule of St. Benedict
Father Tenbarge, a priest of the Diocese of Evansville, is studying Canon Law in Rome. We are grateful for his contributions.