Monday, September 16, 2013

The Twin Benedictines and The Beer

The twin saints:
Convent of the Monastero di S. Antonio Abate, Norcia
The town of Norcia, in Umbria, likes to remind its visitors that it is the birthplace of a great religious personage, Saint Benedict. Benedict was a very influential saint - his ‘Rules’ are generally accepted by most in the monastic movement. He spent a number of years as an eremo (hermit), then founded a great monastery at Monte Cassino, which lies on a hilltop between Rome and Naples. Today, San Benedetto himself stands atop a tall plinth looking over the central piazza of Norcia.

San Benedetto
Detail from a fresco by Fra Angelico

But Norcia doesn’t leave it there. Benedict supposedly had a twin sister, whose name was Scholastica. She too went on to become a nun, and a saint. So in the year 480 the twin saints were born -- in Norcia. The crypt of the Basilica of San Benedetto is venerated as the actual birthplace, and there’s no doubt that the site was a Roman house. Excavated ruins can be viewed, as well as the crypt itself, with what the Rough Guide derisively refers to as “a few paltry frescoes.” It’s thought that an oratory was built on the site of the birth of the twin saints, which subsequently grew into a church.
Santa Scholastica
from the San Luca Altarpiece
Sadly, Norcia is subjected to the occasional devastating earthquake, the last big one in 1971. This explains why it has no buildings over to storeys high; and also why the interior of the Basilica is an unattractive mish-mash of cement and plaster repairs.

The piazza at Norica
Basilica of San Benedetto, with the saint himself on his plinth.
But the real story here is the current community of monks living in the monastery behind the Basilica. They’ve only been there for about 15 years, having been offered the place in return for looking after the birthplace of San Benedetto. They sing beautiful Gregorian chant services several times a day -- one of their jobs is to keep the liturgy in Latin going.
Check out the full story on their website...but here’s a snippet:
After several years of preparation, the monastery was founded in Rome on September 3, 1998. For two years we lived in a rented novitiate building, which was really just a glorified apartment in which one room had been changed into a chapel. I vividly remember the barking dogs under the chapel window. Since there wasn’t enough room for all of us, we renovated the garage and I moved in there. We were poor, but zealous and on fire with the monastic ideal. Two years later, toward the end of the Great Jubilee Year, after searching vainly for a more suitable place to live, we were offered the possibility of moving to Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict. Here we were, a community with no monastery; while Norcia had an empty monastery but no community. After many negotiations involving abbots and bishops and cardinals, the deal was made. We rented a van and moved our few belongings, to be welcomed with huge enthusiasm by the clergy of the diocese and the people of the town, First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, in the Jubilee Year 2000. Since then we’ve tripled in size, and we’re starting to run out of room…(Some reminiscences from the founder, Fr. Cassian)

Beer fit for the Pope (this one and the next one).
Excitingly also, they brew their own monastic beer! Check it out here. It was big news when it was launched in 2012. Apparently their beer was the exclusive brew on offer at the recent Papal Conclave when Papa Francesco was voted in with such alacrity and general happy agreement. The Benedictine monks of Norcia like to claim a little credit. Also, it seems that the head monk in the brewery is named Franceso! So! (He's from Texas).

The modern monk, hard at work on something of great importance to the community.

But back to things historic and religious. Saint Benedetto’s ‘Rule’ is credited with being the most common and influential Rule used in monasteries, and so with the rise of western monasticism. According to Wiki, “In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the influence St Benedict had on Western Europe. The pope said that “with his life and work St Benedict exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture” and helped Europe to emerge from the "dark night of history" that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”

In the crypt of the basilica San Benedetto
"birthplace of the twin saints"
San Benedetto is remembered as a particularly saintly fellow, and his ‘Rule’ as having a unique spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. Never read it? Me either, but Wiki says:
Its wisdom is of two kinds: spiritual (how to live a Christocentric life on earth) and administrative (how to run a monastery efficiently). More than half the chapters describe how to be obedient and humble, and what to do when a member of the community is not. About one-fourth regulate the work of God (the Opus Dei). One-tenth outline how, and by whom, the monastery should be managed. And two chapters specifically describe the abbot’s pastoral duties.
And Santa Scholastica? She established a nunnery not far from that of her twin brother on Monte Cassino, and they used to visit each other...awww. Scholastica is the patron saint of nuns, convulsive children, and is invoked against storms and rain. Wiki repeats a probably apocryphal (even assuming the twin saints are not) story that is rather amusing, though I'l leave you to figure the moral:
One day they had supper and continued their conversation. When Benedict indicated it was time for him to leave, she protested, and begged him to stay with her for the evening so they could continue their discussions. He refused, insisting that he needed to return to his cell. At that point, Scholastica closed her hands in prayer, and after a moment, a wild storm started outside of the guest house in which they were housed. Benedict asked, "What have you done?", to which she replied, "I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery." Benedict was unable to return to his monastery, and they spent the night in discussion.
Stay with the nuns in Norcia. 
San Benedetto died at Monte Cassino not long after his sister, Saint Scholastica, died. He died of a high fever on the day God had told him (!) and was buried in the same place as his sister. According to tradition, this occurred on March 21, 543 or 547. He was named patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared him co-patron of Europe, together with Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Patron Saint of Europe! Norcia reminds everyone of this as they drive into town.

Norcia reminder.
Footnote: If you would like to, you can stay with the nuns in Norcia - at least one of whom is named Sister Benedetta - at the Convent of the Monastero di S. Antonio Abate.

Footnote 2: In Western Australia, there’s a community out in the back of beyond called 'New Norica'. It is the only town in Australia established specifically as a monastic community. It is, of course, Benedictine.

Where to buy your monastic beer in Norcia.
San Benedetto.

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