Tuesday, February 24, 2015


When I moved into this flat, I discovered that it is a common practice in Italy to rent and sell homes that have no kitchen. That is, there is a room, and it has tiles on the walls, and water, gas and electric outlets, but no sink, stove, fridge, cabinets or shelves. It was just a room. With tiles.

I took the place anyway, even though naturally I've never bought a cooker or range, nor owned a fridge or had to install my own kitchen cabinets in any place I've ever rented in a lifetime of renting flats. It was such a nice place, and so ideally located, I couldn't resist.

I figured I could improvise and sort things out as we went along. So, as soon as I arrived, I marched off to the garden centre and bought a good quality three-burner camp stove, and a large bombola for gas and all the valves and hoses and whatnot, and have quite a good cooker out of it that is working perfectly adequately. A friend in Rome has donated quite a nice fridge (which I'm assured will eventually actually materialise... some day... ). I bought a very large microwave and have had a large freezer chest for some time. Between all that, and a camp cooler for the milk and an extra book case that can double as an emergency kitchen shelf, we're off to the culinary races.

Of course, it's all pretty much makeshift, and subject to putting things together more permanently. But I am not one for just running out and getting the nearest thing just to have a thing. I like to wait until the right thing materialises, and I'm not at all uncomfortable with a little minor inconvenience in the meantime. Shift is just fine for the time being. And it's sort of fun, in an empowering way, to figure things out for myself.

But since coming here, I've been thinking hard about permanence, "stability" as St. Benedict calls it. I've still not been made an official Oblate yet, having had a year of noviciate to think about things. The date is coming up though, the feast of St. Benedict, March 21st. And more and more the concept of Benedictine Stability is in my mind. It has a lot to do, I think, with the modern notion of "commitment" and how all people of my generation are supposed to be terrified of it.

It's all very well to gypsy around the world, moving here and there according to the various vicissitudes, but eventually one runs out of reasons. I'm going to be 49 next month. I knew that S. Mar was not the last place. But I don't have the same certainty about this place. This feels like the kind of place that could very well be the last place. Whatever it is I've spent all this time looking for, I'm getting more and more certain that I'll find it only if I stay here. Or, perhaps more precisely, whatever it is I need to do, I think I might have been sent to this particular place to do.

I came across an advert in town for a piece of agricultural land, with water access but little else. Just 1.7 acres of plain old land, for €22,000. Of course, I'm a long way off being able to put together that much money, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility. My grandparents built their own house, so I'm used to the idea that this is a thing one can do. I've been looking at the websites about "natural home building," straw bale, cob and other kinds of natural, "sustainable" materials and techniques. Youtube is full of stuff about homesteading and small-scale and niche-market farming. So, there's some thoughts developing about that...

In all my long pilgrimage through the last 30 years, I've known I would eventually fetch up somewhere and get the message from God that this is the place. And it is starting to feel like that. I'm reminded of the old Greek story of a seaman who one day realised he'd had enough of the sea. He put an oar over his shoulder and started walking inland. When he came to a place where they looked at the oar and said, "What's that thing for?" he knew he had come to the right place, planted the oar and set about farming for the rest of his land-lubbing days.

In any case, two things that made me think about it more have happened in the last few days. Just little things, and they would hardly have registered if I hadn't already been thinking about Things. They're just "dots" and I guess I can connect them if I want.

The other day I took my shopping cart down to the zona industriale, the place outside town, down on the valley floor, where the non-touristy, regular shops are. Things like the garden centre, the hardware store, the dollar store, the big supermarket...I wanted some weather stripping for the windows and needed a dish rack and some emergency candles. In the window of the ferramenta was one of these...

It's an Italian thing. A La Nordica Rosetta Range wood burning cooker. A modern woodburning range. And it was marked down to €1100. I have conceived a burning desire to own this gorgeous thing. And I've been thinking about what it would mean to buy one.

Owning and installing one of these would by a kind of symbolic thing. It would mean I had decided to stay put, and had plans for the future, that I would no longer be a person living on the fringe, not an outsider in the world, looking in, but someone integrated into the human world, into this community. It's a symbol of commitment. Stability.

The second thing just happened this evening. I got home this evening and discovered my leather-bound note book was not in my bike basket. I wondered if it was left in any of the places I'd been today, a shop or the cafe or the church. I figured I would start a search tomorrow. It's such a small town that I was confident it would show up soon.

Then after I'd been home a couple of hours, the doorbell rang. It was the nice chap in town who runs a little restaurant next to the monastery I've had lunch in a few times and who I know is friendly with the monks. I've chatted with the guy a couple of times and learned that we live on the same street. He held out my book and said he'd found it in the street and thought it looked important. I suppose it must have bounced out of my basket without my noticing.

I thanked him most profusely, and he said not to mention it. "Beautiful drawings," he said, as he waved good night. It was only an hour later that it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't ever told him exactly where I lived. But he knew. And he knew the book was mine. It has occurred to me that it is likely quite a few people in town know who I am and where I live. And this does not fill me with dread. Quite the opposite.

I've wandered around life like a homeless person for 34 years. I've always known I was looking for something, some very specific thing, even if I didn't know specifically what it was. I was always very confident that I would know it when I saw it. I haven't been without a purpose in all this, but I know exactly what Pope Francis meant the other day when he said that many people grow up feeling as though they are on the outside, marginalized (to use the trendy jargon) and as though there is no real place anywhere in the world where they could possibly belong.

In a sense, this is a good thing, since we do not have a permanent home in this life. But at some point, the physical wandering will get in the way of the inner search. It will be a distraction from what needs to be done on the inside.

Well, anyway, I'm beginning to think that the wandering part of the journey may finally be coming to a close. And this is a magnificent place. It's not just the view. It's the people. I've come to the conclusion that there is a culture here of kindness, of generosity, friendliness and good will that I was rather skeptical about for a while. It's something I could certainly do to pick up.



Made a charming discovery the other day. Walked up the hill from town along the country lane which mainly runs parallel to the main road, but cuts off a big loop and runs through the fields, so gets you home faster and has lovely trees and fields and views of the valley, with birds, chickens and friendly dogs. Lots of times you see the remains of birds that have been "got" by the local predators, so I usually keep my eyes peeled for interesting nature-related things. This time, what caught my eye that looked a bit like a pile of black and white feathers on the path turned out to be the quills of a porcupine.

I was delighted with this find, since I had no idea we had them in Italy. But there is a species that is native to Italy and North Africa called the Crested Porcupine, and it has very elegant black and white quills. The longest as long as my forearm and the shortest no more than the width of my hand. I picked up a few and brought them home and am going to try my hand at making a pen from them.

I read a bit about them, and they're quite interesting. Apparently, unlike N. American porkies, these are not arboreal, but live in dens, into which they have the odd habit of collecting bones they find round about. I haven't found out whether they chew on these, like a parrot with a cuttle bone, for calcium or even if anyone knows what they're doing with the bones. Notably, Crested Porcupines are known to have dug up and hidden in their dens the bones of prehistoric animals like the Deinotherium.

I'd love to see one, but they're mostly nocturnal. And so are the wolves, so, I'll probably be leaving them alone for now. Still, I keep thinking it would be worthwhile to invest in and set up a webcam. There are lots of signs of interesting wildlife around, nearly all of which only comes out at night.


Saturday, February 21, 2015


What does St. Benedict say about Lent? Not what you might expect:

Although the life of a monk
ought to have about it at all times
the character of a Lenten observance,
yet since few have the virtue for that,
we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent
the brethren keep their lives most pure
and at the same time wash away during these holy days
all the negligences of other times.
And this will be worthily done
if we restrain ourselves from all vices
and give ourselves up to prayer with tears,
to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore,
let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service,
as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.
Thus everyone of his own will may offer God
"with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6)
something above the measure required of him.
From his body, that is
he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting;
and with the joy of spiritual desire
he may look forward to holy Easter.

Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot
what it is that he wants to offer,
and let it be done with his blessing and approval.
For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father
will be imputed to presumption and vainglory
and will merit no reward.
Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot's approval.

Let's look at the points, keeping in mind the things I've been told by better people than me over the years:

1. We ought to be living as thought it is always Lent, not, obviously, in fasting, but as an attitude of expectation, the attitude of a Christian expecting the Bridegroom at any moment.

2. But for this special time of preparation, we can use this as an opportunity to make up for the times in our lives when we were lax.

3. This is "most worthily done" first, and most importantly, by giving up our remaining vices and praying "with tears" that is, most fervently and earnestly; to spiritual reading; to "compunction of heart" - which I take to mean a kind of spiritual watchfulness of our own actions and words; and lastly, of "abstinence" in food and drink. That's important. The "giving up" part of Lent is all anyone ever hears about, but it's the least important part, and is meant only as as useful support for the more important things.

4. He says to "increase somewhat" our usual observances, just a little above the "measure required of him," that is, to just go a little bit extra. And again the priority is to private prayer with "refraining" moderately from food and drink as a support for the first, more important thing.

5. This is, again, to be done gently. As St. Philip Neri said many times, people who begin in the spiritual life are very eager to do a lot, but it's a good idea to keep it small and simple and most of all regular. If you take on a whole huge bunch of things, you're going to be "a saint for three days" and then get fed up and quit, and end up worse off than you were. Steady as she goes. Think of it being like weight lifting. If you're just starting, you're not going to bench press 300 lbs. Or at least, you're going to do it once, and then spend a day in the emergency ward, and not come to the gym again.

6. The point is to offer a bit more than your regular thing, and offer it freely and more than willingly, "with the joy of the Holy Spirit". Out of love.

7. Along with "food and drink" he suggests cutting back on "talking and jesting". This might be interpreted as "goofing off". And maybe for modern people, and for lay people in the world, this might seem difficult. You can't just suddenly start going around not talking to your family and coworkers. People in monasteries understand, but people in the world, not so much. But what about refraining from commenting on and "liking" every little thing on Facebook? What about restricting internet time to a certain time of day and only for an hour? Or not surfing at all? Or maybe not watching a lot of TV or playing video games (actually if you're an adult playing video games, you should maybe think hard about that)? Maybe just generally orient one's free time to thinking about and reading about God and holy things, instead of all the chatter of the world? Remember that "spiritual reading" (as a rule, by authors whose names begin with an "S") is pretty good substitute. Monks regard Lent as we do an extended retreat, where we pray, read and think about God n' religion, and go for a lot of walks by yourself. If you think of Lent as a kind of interior vacation from all that noise and worthless worldly rubbish, it will be a lot easier to offer it "with joy".

8. Now here's a difficult one for us laypeople. We don't have an abbot to give us permission or approval. If you have a spiritual director, this is the time for getting a concrete plan for the season. But most of us don't. With ascetical practices in general, the saints always say that when you take it on without the cover of obedience, you are not gaining any merit, but only working for your own "presumption and vainglory". There isn't much for most of us to do about this, but it might be an opportunity to get to know your parish priest a little better. Why not make an appointment with him to chat about Lent observance? Or just bring it up in the confession box? Couldn't hurt. (If you've got a halfway decent priest, of course. If not, maybe this is a time to go find one.)

If not, then a book can help. A lot of the saints wrote things down, and maybe you can take their advice as a kind of obedience to a saint to whom you have a special devotion. St. Francis de Sales is especially good for this sort of thing. But, as Philip was always saying, the big key is keep it steady and simple. Don't over do it, and don't change your plan half way. It helps to write it down, and maybe put it on the fridge.

The other thing I was always being told by my Oratorian overseers was to keep it secret. "Don't lose the merit," was a saying one was always hearing from them, which meant don't tell anyone about your good works, and it's good advice. Of course, as we see from the Rule above, Philip didn't invent it. We don't talk about our ascetical practices for the same reason we don't boast about what wonderful people we are, because in doing so, as Someone once said, we have had our reward already. It will be "imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward," so no posting to Facebook about what you're "giving up".

Especially annoying: all those notes and blog messages that you're "giving up Facebook" for Lent. As Kat said the other day, it all seems mostly calculated to make the rest of us schlumps feel bad. If you're giving up FB for Lent, it does kind of defeat the purpose a little to make a big deal out of it and trumpet your inspiration to everyone on FB. Why not just quietly bow out?

So, there you go. St. Benedict's advice, peppered with Philip: make prayer and intimacy with God the goal and priority, with fasting and abstinence a little bit as a support for the first thing. Don't over do it, but just aim a bit higher than the "usual measure". Keep it steady and simple and don't talk about it.


Friday, February 20, 2015

The Secret Hobbit Undergound

Dr. B. the vet came over yesterday to look after Winnie, who was going down a bit. He gave her some stuff and said she's still pretty much stable, but the anaemia is pretty bad. It's still palliative care. She's perked up again and seems happier.

Dr. B. is a terrific vet, and told me that when he was younger, couldn't decide what he wanted to do. Then he watched the English series All Creatures Great and Small, and knew, that was it. And his work is pretty much exactly like that. He does all the pets and farm and hunting animals in town, and lives in a big rambly country house with his wife - who is also a vet - two sons and 34 animals (18 of which are fish).

I told him I'm jealous. I love animals and I love being outdoors. I wish he needed an assistant, but he seems to get on pretty well.

I think he's secretly a member of the Hobbit Underground. I must remember to give him the secret handshake next time.


Saturday, February 07, 2015

Santa Scholastica,

My drawing of the statue of our local saint in the basilica built over her birthplace.

Ora pro nobis

O God, who for a testimony to
the path of innocency didst cause
the soul of Thy Virgin to enter heaven
in the appearance of a dove:
grant unto us, that by her merits and
intercession we may walk in such
innocency of life; that we may be worthy
to attain to everlasting felicity,

Through Our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who liveth and reigneth with Thee
and the Holy Ghost,
One God, forever and ever

This week we are having the celebrations of Santa Scholastica in town, the twin sister of St. Benedict and the first Benedictine nun. Though very little is known of her life, her legend says that she lived here as a religious for a time.

The town of Norcia, in the diocese of Spoleto-Norcia, begins four days of celebrations, a mini-octave, today with a talk by Fr. Cassian Folsom at the Monastero di Sant Antonio. Tomorrow the town is invited to join the nuns at Sant Antonio for Vespers and a lecture, and then a procession with the reliquary of the saint. Mass (Novus Ordo) at 5:30 on Sunday with the archbishop of Spoleto-Norcia, Renato Bccardo is at the Basilica followed by Benediction.

On her feast, which is Tuesday, Fr. Folsom will celebrate Mass in the forma straordinaria.


So ancient is Scholastica's memory, dating from well before the first schism that separated the eastern and western Churches, that she is held in veneration by both.

Her legend, described by St. Gregory the Great (OSB) is that she created a community of women following the rule of her brother the Abbott Benedict, near Monte Cassino. But an earlier local tradition holds that she spent the first period of her religious life right here, in a convent about half a mile outside the town of Norcia.

Now there is a church at the site that, I can see from my living room windows, dedicated to her, which is not in use at the moment. Until the 1960s it had a convent of Benedictine nuns attached. Now, however, the land that was their cloister garth is used as the local cemetery and the nuns who had been buried there were moved into a single, rather splendid, mausoleum.

The various bits of ancient Roman stonework in the medieval church of Santa Scholastica certainly indicate that it was built over the site of an earlier structure, so it seems certain that she lived here, quite likely with a group of religious women, before moving to Monte Cassino.

I light a candle every day at the base of her statue.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Little Winnie's back from the edge

She's still very thin and has slowed down a lot, but the palliative treatment seems to have had the desired effect. She's eating again regularly, meows in my face in the mornings to get her breakfast, and is much more lively. Dr. B said that this therapy has worked well before and can sometimes extend an animal's life for quite a while.

Anyway, we don't know of course, but she does seem much better. For a while there, I was giving her a poke every few hours to make sure she was still alive. But now she seems not only not distressed or in pain, but a little lively as well.

Thanks to all the nice people from all over who have sent little notes and emails. I really do appreciate them.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Norcia pics

Just some pics from the last few months...

A sparrowhawk, female I think, perched the other day in a tree across the street, keeping its eagle-eye out for mice in the fields.

The Valnerina at the end of March

Frescoes above one of the city gates.

Italian graffiti in San Pellegrino

Frescoes in the Church of Santa Scholastica, built in the place where she lived in the early days of her vocation, about half a mile outside of town.

San Pellegrino, about 8 miles down the valley from Norcia.

Castellucio in November, about another 1100 m. higher than us. It's all under snow now.

Still a very rural place.

My trusty bike, in town.

Playing with fire. December 9th, the vigil of the feast of the Translation of the Holy House of Loretto. Since the 12th century, people up and down the Valley light bonfires (and eat grilled pork and drink mulled wine) to help the angels find their way to Loreto with their precious burden.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Winnie update

Dr. B. thinks she has bone marrow cancer. Her red blood cell count is way down, and her organs are failling.

This would be the explanation for why none of our antibiotic therapies have worked.

He's going to keep her for another night and try some palliative therapies, but that's the final word.


Update to the update:

Walked up to the vet's this afternoon to pick her up. She is very weak and has trouble walking. But Dr. B. has given her a palliative therapy of cortisone and antibiotics and she doesn't seem to be in any pain or distress. She isn't producing enough red blood cells. The tests showed her number is half of what it was two weeks ago. Anaemia is leaving her very weak and her temperature is down, so I've got her favourite big white blankie and she's curled up in it.

She's very still right now. She had a little something to eat and drink when we got home, and she wandered around a bit as though reasserting her home rights. She sat in my lap for quite a while, and rested her head on my arm, very quiet and still. Dr. B. said that he doesn't think she will last very much longer. The cortisone treatment may slow the advance of her symptoms, but I think we both expect her not to last more than a couple of weeks.

I think I'm OK with this now. She's had a good long life with me, and I know that, medically, there wasn't anything I could have done. I missed her terribly when she was in hospital, and I knew that it was going to be very, very difficult to adjust to her not being there any more.

He gave me some more of the same stuff and we walked home. She's back in her spot on the chair again now, and I have to admit that it is a relief to have her home. What a strange feeling it was to be so used to her presence and have her suddenly not there. Every time I was in the kitchen I expected her to come in and bug me for something to eat. Whenever I sat in the living room, I kept looking up expecting her to be on her cushion.

The other day a friend suggested that I go ahead with my trip to England, which was to start on Monday, and the vet can cover her last days, to spare myself the pain of watching her go. But I just can't carry that. The world has become a horrible place mainly out of people indulging their desire to do anything to avoid suffering. I can't go there.

Dr. B. did, however, say that there is a spare cat ready for me as soon as I'm ready. He mentioned that perhaps it would be indelicate to talk to Winnie about the new cat, though. He's been great about this too. He said, "If anything happens, if she goes up, or down, call me. If you wake up one morning and she's died, call me. I want to know."

As I was carrying her home I said, "You're a world-famous cat. People from all over have sent us nice notes."

Thanks, everybody.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Loss and pet-love

The first picture I ever took of Winnie, about two days after she came to live with me. She had refused to come out from under the bath tub. One evening, she crept downstairs while I had the fire on, and hopped onto the back of the sofa cushions, and that has been her Spot ever since. 

I feel guilty. I've been distracted, out of sorts and unable to concentrate (more than usual), emotionally fragile and whatnot.

Every night that I've spent at home for the last seven years - which, of course, has been pretty much every night, since I hate to leave the house - I have had the same routine. I feed the cat her dinner, make sure there's water in her dish, power down the house, and say, "OK cat, time for bed." We get in, she walks on my head a few times before she either takes up her spot in the crook of my knee or burrows under the covers (depending on the time of year).

Every morning is also the same. She walks on my chest and meows in my face for her breakfast and I wake up and say, "Oh, hi Fur-face."

If I stay up too late, she starts meowing and circling the furniture: "Go to bed, Monkey. Why are you still up?"

All through the days, we have kept each other company in the kind of companionable and understanding quiet that I think most old married couples aspire to. Cats aren't complicated creatures. You feed them, pet them, play with them and give them a warm, safe place to sleep and they bond with you.

Unfortunately, as soon as you decide to get any pet, you are taking on the future inevitability. One day, and sometimes not too far off, the hard days will come. You will be emotionally and psychologically attached to the pet that is bonded to you. Your life will have revolved to some degree around looking after it for years. Your routines will have your pet integrated with them in a very intimate way.

And the day will come when all that structure will have to be abandoned.

Winnie doesn't like sudden noises, or loud noises. We've had a very quiet life, and she has made it clear that loud music of any kind is unacceptable. If I have dropped a pan or closed a door too sharply or made some other noise, I have fallen into the habit of automatically saying, "Sorry, cat."

I've sometimes thought about what these habits are going to do when there is no longer a Winnie to hang them on.

Tonight is the first night Winnie has slept over anywhere but home in the whole time I've had her. I've been away sometimes, but she's always been here. When I was moving over to Italy, she had to stay for a short while in a cattery in Cheshire. I found myself talking to the empty room in the same way I would have if she were there. For seven years, every time I've opened my front door, I've said, "Hi sweetie!" (like a girl, I know.)

I don't know what to do with myself. And though I know she will probably come home from the hospital tomorrow and we will carry on, it will, I fear, not be for much longer, and this feeling of being uncomfortably alone and at loose ends, will become a permanent state.

Add to this discomfort the feeling I have that this is inappropriate, that I am somehow transgressing in the moral realm by having allowed myself to become so attached to a pet that the thought of her death is distracting me from work and other important things. I keep saying, "She's just a cat." Cats aren't people. We do wrongly to become inordinately attached to them, and the whole of our civilisation has done wrong in trying to replace our children with our pets.

This hyper-sentimentalisation of pets is something I have struggled against. I've had conversations with friends who refer to their cats as "my babies". They're not your babies. They're cats. I know that farm people don't have such attachments, even though I know that they do become fond of their animals.

I've been struggling with this for some time, and all the while Winnie has been sick. How much money is appropriate to spend on vet bills and medicines? How far is it appropriate to go to save her life? Dr. B. told me about a couple who brought their cat to him. The cat was suffering kidney failure, and as he put it, "was already more on the other side than this one." He mentioned that in Paris they are actually doing kidney transplants on pets. He was shocked when the husband pulled out his phone and started looking up flight times to Paris for the same day.

I got Winnie at a time when I was very keen to become settled in life. I wanted to become more involved in life and with my family and community. I had felt, since the death of my friend John Muggeridge, that I needed someone to care for and be responsible for. And having Winnie has certainly made me a better person. It's going to be very difficult to let go of all that.

Anyway, I've been reading a bit of theological stuff about the affections and how they are to be correctly ordered by the intellect. Thomism 101. But I keep looking up in the midst of this and not seeing little Winnie perched on the back of the arm chair, and it all falls apart.

One thing I have decided to do is not wait. When the day does come, I'm going to give it a few days, maybe a couple of weeks at most, then ask Dr. B. for a new cat.


Winnie's off to the kitty hospital

Well, that's it, Winnie's off to spend the night in the kitty hospital, and I'm suddenly horribly lonely and rather weepy, I have to admit. The nice doctor has come and fetched her and said he'll sedate her and do some tests, and get a good bit of food into her through a tube, and we will see if she's responding to the therapies. After that we can decide what to do.

But honestly, I think the answers won't be very good. She's been quite fragile. Some days good; some days really bad. She's eating, but only barely, and still having ... ermm... gastrointestinal distress, which is a very bad sign. That didn't clear up at all from the antibiotics, so he says it's probably a result of kidney trouble.

She's got high blood pressure and I've been giving her the pills for it (which are not expensive) by crushing them up and mixing with a teaspoon of tuna (so she thinks this is the best thing evah!) But the big worry is her kidney function.

The vet is really the nicest guy in the world, and I know he'll be straight with me about her prospects. I've told him that as long as she isn't suffering unduly we'll just let things take their natural course if her condition isn't improving. She was horribly distressed on Friday and kindly came over and gave her a bunch of shots of various things and after that she was much better. Able to rest and eat something and slept the whole night.

And I've been thinking a lot about life and death, and the meaning of happiness.