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.