|Today is the Feast of Santa Scolastica, hermitess and patron of Benedictine nuns, the saint under whose protection I place myself and my future life in Norcia.|
Scolastica, rimasta unica erede del ragguardevole patrimonio della famiglia, rifiutando ogni attaccamento ai beni terreni, chiese al padre di potersi dedicare alla vita religiosa entrando in un monastero vicino a Norcia.
Scolastica remained the sole heir of the remarkable heritage of the family, by rejecting all attachment to worldly goods, her father asked her to devote herself to religious life entering a monastery near Norcia.
He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength.
Who has hardened himself against him and succeeded?
He who removes mountains, and they know it not
when he overturns them in his anger;
Who shakes the earth out of its place;
and its pillars tremble…
How strange the paths of our lives seem. From time to time we stop and look back and think, “Who would have thought things would have turned out like this? How could anyone have guessed I’d be here?” And yet, here I am, preparing to return to a half-ruined town and to try to recalibrate my life along new lines. Or maybe we could say, very, very old lines.
If you are over 50, you might have experienced this feeling of remoteness from your past. It seems as though we look back and down on a long road, as though we have spent many days climbing a mountain trail. And in some places the trail turns and you can sit down on a stone or a bit of grass and see the way you’ve come, with the place you started perhaps just visible, far off in the misty distance. Then you see this other person, a little dark figure toiling uncertainly up the long way and you can pity that person because you know what lies ahead. But it’s just a phantom, a distant memory.
Converts will recognise this strange feeling of detachment from our past. And the moreso if we are converts not only from secularist modernism to a serious-minded Catholicism, which is rare and alienating enough, but to the far less likely “second conversion” to a realm even further in and higher up, to Traditional Catholicism.
Many who read him wonder how C.S. Lewis could have been so insightful, to so accurately identify human failings. But he answered the question himself, saying that he was a Christian "not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else". In reality, to be a Traditional Catholic is to live every moment of every day in an entirely different country, a dazzlingly illuminated parallel world of meaning, of rationality and coherence that seems to exist slightly out of phase with the rest of the world and from which we watch the world moving farther away every day.
So we have become interior expatriates. And the longer we stay in this realm, the more distant and vague and shadowy the World Outside becomes; the less it has to do with us, the less we can even understand the old language, the old ways of our previous lives. We can remember them, but they are no longer ours.
We converts, we newcomers, stop now and then and wonder how we came into this brilliantly lit place whose walls are clear as windows, pouring light onto the shadowy World Outside. I know people who have lived their whole lives in that bright house and have never known the vast and terrifying gloom outside. But their native language is the one we have had to adopt. This is the value of converts to the Kingdom, since we can remember how we used to think and see and feel. We can, if we try, even still understand and speak the old Black Tongue, and know it when we hear it.
I am often asked, “How did you know so quickly that Bergoglio was going to be such a disaster?” I try not to say the first thought that comes to mind: “How is it that you didn’t?” The moment he walked out onto the loggia, he was sending the signals, his dress, his gestures, his words all speaking the language he intended us to understand; it was as though he was looking straight at us. Those first hours and days he was all but shouting his blasphemous intentions. I have not yet met a Traditionalist Catholic who did not understand him almost immediately. By its light we see everything else.
How did I get here? There is one constant impulse I’ve felt throughout life that I don’t know the origin of, this drive to know what’s really true. The need to know the truth has been a lash prompting this long chase half way around the world. Searching for the One True Thing has been Ariadne’s thread, unwound behind every step through the strange labyrinth of this life. But however strange it seems, here I am and I've had my answers and know what to do.
And now I’m going back to Norcia, but not immediately and not all at once. There are some things to be done first, and some precautions and preparations it would just be sensible to make. As strange as it may sound, and ongoing quakes notwithstanding, I’m going to go out on a thin limb and say that I think I’m being “called” to go back and that whatever is going to happen next is going to happen there.
The time has come. The basic necessities are there: supermarket, bank, pharmacy, hardware store etc are all running out of portables. The weather has eased off a bit and it’s not so cold and the early signs of spring will show in the next few weeks. But it’s still no time of year to be sleeping outdoors in Umbria. And the monks have warned me that the earthquakes haven’t stopped; they feel every one of the shakes.
"Yes we’re feeling all of them. You could keep your apartment down there for another few weeks so when you come back here you could set up a tent outside when its less cold to sleep in to be safe? Many people still aren’t sleeping in their houses even if agibile, for the same reason."
The house has stood up well so far, almost miraculously, but it is impossible to know how many more large shakes it will withstand. So, I've decided to buy a little wooden “casetta,” essentially a garden shed to put in the car port, since a tent isn’t going to do. The one I found is 550 Euros, including delivery, comes flat-packed like Ikea stuff, and can be put together with hand tools.
I’ll run my extra-long cable to it from the house for an electric heater and a light, put in the air mattress and sleeping bag and wait it out the same way my neighbours have.
The quakes won’t last forever, but before they stop we don’t know what will come. There are still hundreds of small tremors per day, and a couple of weeks ago we had another “swarm,” a series of bigger shakes followed by a few days of constant smaller aftershocks. The geologists say there is no reason to think there will not be more severe quakes coming before it’s over.
Despite this, since I’ve been down here in the swampy lowlands, I’ve given it a lot of thought but keep coming back to the same thing: where else can I go? What else is there to do?
It seems a strange choice because in its current state, the Norcia we knew is gone and will not come back for a long time. There is little in the human sense to recommend it. It is certainly possible to live there, but the charming tourist town with its medieval streets and sausage shops is closed, “red-zoned,” occupied only by busy emergency construction workers, piles of rubble, scaffolding and cranes. Its picturesque medieval walls are partly collapsed, its people living in trailers, portables, campers and inflatable tensile structures in the never-picturesque “zona industriale” down the valley.
Norcia’s churches are all – every one – reduced to heaps of rocks, and Mass is offered daily by the monks in a tiny portable up on the hill. The nuns have fled their monasteries and our monks have moved up into a fenced-off solitude on the mountainside. There are no more Psalms chanted to the glory of God in the home town of St. Benedict and the church down the road that stood where his sister Scolastica once lived her early monastic life, 1600 years ago, is ruined.
The little tourist town that was so attractive to the pleasure-seeking Roman tourists is shut now, but I lived there long enough to have found something else. Yesterday I was talking to a friend about it, saying that I was having difficulty giving a logical, rational reason to go back. He said, “Well, it’s home.” And it is.
The day we left Norcia – four adults and a huge box of cats jammed into a tiny car – with no luggage and no plan except to get somewhere else, reminded me of the night I left my parents’ home, in 1981 at the age of fifteen. Not since then had the immediate future been so completely unknown. I had no plan at all then and no idea what was coming – nearly forty years of wandering. But like that other time, it wasn’t aimless. There was never a moment when I didn’t know I was looking for something.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with vocation directors and novice mistresses since then and in every one I was told the same thing: “When you find the right place, you will know.” Frankly, this sounded like drivel. It sounded like “feelings.” And I never felt it. I lost count of all the monasteries I visited where I didn’t feel it. There was always that nagging urge to keep going, keep looking. It went on so long that I came to assume I was either emotionally deficient and couldn’t feel it, or that it was nonsense.
But the evening I first came to Norcia, even before I’d met the monks, I finally felt it. My friend and I had come there in late February and we got off the bus in the dark, not really knowing where we were. We muddled our way to the Basilica and caught the monks’ shop just before Br. Ignatius closed up. He gave us the key to our lodgings and we went to find something to eat before Compline.
But the five minute walk, through the Porta Ascolana and up the back way to St. Benedict’s piazza, was enough. This was it. I finally felt it deep in my guts, though I had no words for it except: This is it. I couldn’t explain it, but I knew, I recognised the thing I had been looking for and there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. During that visit, my friend and I went to a realtor’s office and started enquiring about rents. (And a little bird whispered to me to get a house well outside the walls.)
It wasn’t all perfect, and the War of the World was present there very obviously. Especially in the summer. Before the quakes it seemed as though there were two towns, competing for the same space. In summer, Norcia’s identity as an ancient and holy place was submerged under its modern disguise as a tourist mecca – the standard Italian programme of turning one’s town into a loud, tawdry theme park of itself to rake in a season’s worth of cash.
Though not well known outside Italy, it was a major destination for Romans escaping the heat of the City in the summer holiday; the town took pains to entertain them with the kind of racket and blare that Romans seem to like, with loud concerts day and night in the Piazza.
Summer in Norcia was rather a trial and the only time its real identity peeked out was in the quiet of six in the morning, time for Laudes, when the only sounds were the bells, the Chant and the high-pitched cries of swifts wheeling overhead. I think I was not the only one to breathe a sigh of relief when the nights shortened and the September rain started and sent packing back to Rome the whole noisy, ugly, yammering horde.
The quakes have put a stop to that rivalry, at least for a while. It is not Norcia they destroyed. I believe the town will still be a place to go, but not for the reasons the well-heeled Romans came. For the time being, that Norcia is gone. But this leaves room for us to build the other Norcia. The people who come now won’t be there seeking pleasure, five star restaurants and entertainment but something more Real. Something you can’t pay for. Something perhaps that they will have to help build themselves.
When I was trying to decide in November where to go or what to do next, I received many invitations, the most tempting of which was from a group of traditional nuns in Germany. They offered a place in their guesthouse for me and the kitties, as long as we needed it. But it didn’t feel right. I had a chat about it with Fr. Spiritual Director, and he said no, come back. Come home as soon as possible. There are things to do there and perhaps a role to fulfil, a “niche” as he said.
And there are things to do. There needs to be a place for women to go, a real place of spiritual retreat and not merely lodgings to stay in, and I’ve been asked to start thinking about that. An annual theological conference there is going ahead, I’m told, even if they have to sleep in tents (in July). I have had conversations with my artist friend who agrees we should start organising painting and art history courses. There’s a lot of work to be done.
This is the spiritual and cultural warfare that is needed even more now that the crisis in the Church has reached its current dog-whistle pitch. The confusion and darkness in the World Outside has reached a point where no one is sure how to proceed. Father agreed that the time of activism is closing, and this is a time for the supernatural response.
There are still some practical, logistical difficulties I could use some help with.
First, I could use some help buying the casetta, the shed to sleep in. And for March, I will have to pay rent on two places. It’s annoying but unavoidable; since the house in Norcia was listed as agibile, the rent has to be paid, starting February 15th, but at the moment I still can’t live in it. So it was a choice of paying up or moving out. But because I wasn’t expecting to be going back so soon, I’m still contracted on the flat in S. Marinella until the end of March.
Donation button is at the top of the page, and I would be very grateful for any assistance. And I want you to know that I remember your intentions in the Holy Rosary and at Mass.
Second is something rather different and more difficult and long-term: I could really use some actual physical, bodily help. That is, a person. At least for a while.
I’ve decided to start canvassing the Traditional Catholic world to find a… well, a “spiritual roommate,” let’s call it for now. I know there are many out there who have told me how much they would like to visit Norcia, but of course the quakes have meant we had to put plans like that aside. But when they are finished – and they will eventually – I could really use both some help and some company.
First, the spiritual life – that is, the day-to-day routine of the Divine Office (just three times a day, not eight) is a lot easier to do on the buddy system.
But to be honest, I’m just plain starting to feel my age. I’ll be 51 in March, and the long-term after effects of chemo and cancer surgery have begun to catch up to me. It’s getting more difficult to do alone all these fun, rustico, outdoor things like chopping wood and turning over the veg bed and building bean trellises. I have ambitions to get a place with a larger property and keep bees and chickens and maybe a goat or two. Maybe even a donkey. But I have to admit, it would be difficult to do alone.
As life stabilizes in Norcia, and things settle into a routine, the time will come to start a kickstarter or other crowdfunding campaign to buy a piece of property, something well outside town in the countryside, close enough to the monks’ land to participate daily in their Offices and Mass. This, we hope, can be made into a place for prayer and contemplation, for solitude but also community for women, for those who want to visit, but also for those who might want to stay a while.
Of course, who would dream in such a time of founding a religious community? It would be madness, no? So obviously no one would dream of suggesting such a thing. But no bishop, no pope, no authority in the world can stop someone from praying together with one's roommates. And even praying quite a lot, in an orderly, "regular" way... Right? Certainly Santa Scolastica, having been born at the end of the Old Empire that was about to collapse, would not have thought that was what she was doing. She merely lived with a group of ladies of like mind, and prayed.
God has not finished telling us what His plans are for Norcia or for the Church or for the dark and sad World Outside; things have not settled down. But there are plans afoot. It’s time to get back to them, somewhat chastened though we might be. I can’t help but feel that these disasters in Norcia and in Rome are a kind of recalibration. A chance for God to turn things in a completely new direction, both for me and for the town. And maybe for others.
And thank you, especially to those who have stayed steadfast internet friends all this time.