Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Notes from Norcia [UPDATED]

Last week, I enjoyed the tremendous blessing of a brief visit to the great Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, at the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. I was in Austria giving a course on the theology of sacred music at the International Theological Institute, and, as I had long wished to make my final oblation as a Benedictine oblate of Norcia, it seemed the right time to do so. This post really is nothing more than a series of notes and pictures; perhaps on a later occasion I will have the chance to share some liturgical reflections that occurred to me during my stay with the monks.

The first thing that caught my attention, upon entering the basilica, was a side altar in honor of St. Peter Celestine. I had noticed the altar on previous visits but this time it really struck me, both because the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI tends to sharpen one's attention to his distant predecessor, and because the week before, on Sunday, May 18, when I happened to be dining in the refectory of the Cistercian abbey of Heiligenkreuz near Vienna, I heard the lector reading the Martyrology entry for St. Peter Celestine, which made me aware of his feastday on Monday, May 19. 
The refectory at Heiligenkreuz
(Curiously enough, the Heligenkreuz lector proceeded to give a rather lengthy description of the saint's abdication and mentioned that it was an historical precedent for Pope Benedict -- none of which could have been in the Martyrology itself. This must have been a local elaboration!)

Back to the Norcia Basilica of Saint Benedict and its side altar:
Side altar in Norcia to St. Peter Celestine
Close-up of the image of the saint
Another thing I was pleased to see was the subtle and powerful transformation of the sanctuary of Norcia thanks to the addition of an historic altarpiece, free-standing altar, and matching ambo. For many years, the sanctuary had a rather modern altar and a crucifix against the back wall, which did not have sufficient presence and beauty to focus the attention upon the center of the sanctuary. I'm afraid I don't have a very good photo of the "before" status -- this one was taken years ago with a poor camera.
Thursday, May 22, was the feast of St. Rita in the Diocese of Spoleto-Norcia, and I felt very fortunate to be there for the conventual High Mass of the community, because these propers are seldom used in traditional Catholic communities in the United States -- the general calendar of the usus antiquior does not include St. Rita, who, it would appear, was remembered only in certain dioceses or communities. In the Baronius Missal that the monks had left in the guest house, I found the propers for St. Rita on page 2087, which states: "May 22, Los Angeles, ST. RITA OF CASCIA, Widow." As the texts of this Mass are particularly beautiful, I offer here a few of them.

The collect makes mention of the stigmata that St. Rita bore:
COLLECT. O God, Who didst vouchsafe to confer on St. Rita so great grace that she loved her enemies and bore in her heart and on her brow the stigmata of Thy love and passion, grant us, we beseech Thee, by her intercession and merits, so to spare our enemies and to meditate on the pains of Thy passion that we may obtain the rewards promised to the meek and to them that mourn. Who livest and reignest.
The EPISTLE was from the Canticle of Canticles, 2:1-13: "I am the flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys..." It's always a delight to encounter a liturgical reading from this most sublime and mystical book of Scripture, more commented on than any other book and yet so rare in the liturgy itself (less rare in the traditional, but almost non-existent in the modern Roman rite). Hearing the Song of Songs chanted by one of the monks truly gave wings to these already intense words.

The Offertory strikingly takes a text from Genesis and applies it to St. Rita's husband and two children, all three of whom were converted before their deaths because of her prayers:
OFFERTORY (Gen 40:9-10). I saw before me a vine, on which were three branches which by little and little sent out buds, and after the blossoms brought forth ripe grapes. Alleluia.
SECRET. Pierce our hearts, we beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of St. Rita, with the thorn of that sorrow which is from heaven, so that, being delivered by Thy grace from all sins, we may be able to offer to Thee the sacrifice of praise with pure hearts. Through our Lord.
The Communion antiphon is a very familiar verse, Psalm 20:4, yet with a different twist than usual in its application to a female saint:
COMMUNION. Thou hast prevented her, O Lord, with blessings of sweetness: Thou hast set on her head a crown of precious stones. Alleluia.
POSTCOMMUNION. Regaled with heavenly delights, O Lord, we humbly entreat Thee that, by the intercession of St. Rita, we may bear in our souls the marks of Thy charity and Thy passion, and constantly enjoy the fruit of perpetual peace. Through our Lord.
The town of Cascia is a close neighbor to Norcia, so not surprisingly May 22nd is a huge celebration over there and throughout the region.

Immediately after Vespers on this feastday, Fr. Cassian Folsom, Prior of the community, received me as an oblate of the monastery in the presence of the other monks. The ceremony was short, solemn, and beautiful, culminating in the reading of the hand-written oblate chart, the signing of it upon the altar, and the chanting of the "Suscipe" together with all the monks.
The oblation ceremony 
The chanting of the Suscipe
Then there is the time for rejoicing! As many NLM readers know, the monks of Norcia are famous for their home-brewed Belgian-style beer, Birra Nursia, which has become so popular in their region that they can hardly brew enough to supply the demand. Br. Francis, the brewmaster, gave me a tour of the brewery, which had expanded considerably since my last visit.
Br. Francis and a tank

Br. Anthony with more tanks

Storage of malt

The bottling machine
One last highlight of the visit was hiking up into the mountains to see the ruined monastery that the monks of Norcia often flee to in the summertime for peace, quiet, and a bit of coolness -- a sort of earthly image of the locus refrigerii, lucis, et pacis. The regional government of Umbria has given the monks a grant of 400,000 Euros to continue the repair work on this beautiful structure, located in such a splendid spot, but of course it will cost a lot more, and take many years, to bring these buildings back into regular use. The monks have chanted parts of the Divine Office in the chapel here.
Entrance to the mountain retreat

The chapel in the mountains

A view from the path

May the Lord continue to bless the good monks of Norcia, whose warm hospitality is rivaled only by their edifying devotion to the Work of God, the sacred liturgy.

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