Norcia Monks Rebuild the Foundations of Christian Culture
By R. Jared Staudt
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.)
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