August 16, 2013

Reflection / Daniel Conway

For the Benedictine monks of Norcia, prayer is work

Following our pallium pilgrimage to Rome earlier this summer with the delegation from Marian University in Indianapolis, my wife, Sharon, and I had the privilege of visiting the Monastero di San Benedetto (Monastery of St. Benedict) in the Umbrian town of Norcia, the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica.

The prior of the monastery, Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom, is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad. He has been a good friend of mine for many years. He welcomed us graciously in the best Benedictine tradition of hospitality.

This small but rapidly growing monastic community is only 15 years old. But the roots of Benedictine life in this place date back more than 1,000 years.

The monastery that was originally founded here in the 10th century was forced to close in 1810 because of laws imposed on the monks by the Napoleonic Code. The new community, which was founded by a group of Americans in Rome in 1998, was invited by the local bishop to move to Norcia a few years later to care for the Basilica di San Benedetto—built over the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica—and to minister to the many pilgrims who visit there each year.

Sharon and I really appreciated the opportunity to pray with the monks for at least some of their hours of prayer, and to experience the Latin chant which they sing beautifully (and often)!

We also were privileged to attend daily Mass which the monks celebrate in the “extraordinary form”—the Latin Mass celebrated prior to the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council.

Ora et labora—prayer and work—is a traditional Benedictine motto that refers to the balanced way of life that St. Benedict proscribed for monks who live according to his “holy Rule” (his program of daily monastic life).

After spending just a few days with the monks in Norcia, I was struck by the ways in which the monks’ prayer is their work, and vice versa. St. Benedict’s Rule admonishes his followers to treat the goods of the monastery, including the tools of their manual labor, as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. The work monks do and the lives they are called to live are meant to be holy—consecrated to God and therefore sacred rather than profane.

Like most monastics, the monks of Norcia engage in work that is designed to support themselves. They also depend on the financial support of friends in Europe and in the United States. Some monasteries make cheese, sell wine, operate schools or do parish ministry—or many combinations of these or other good works. The Monastero di San Benedetto brews and sells beer (Birra Nursia) in a former garage that has been converted into the monastic brewery. The monks’ brew is sold throughout Italy, and is growing in its popularity.

But when I say that the monks’ prayer is their work, I’m thinking specifically of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Opus Dei or Work of God, that the monks of Norcia celebrate seven times each day—from the wee hours of the morning until late at night.

The traditional observance of monastic prayer is hard work, especially when a small community of monks dedicates itself to singing the psalms and hymns in Latin using the traditional plainsong chant developed by monks more than 1,000 years ago.

Listening to the monks of Norcia, whose chant appears to be effortless, we were tempted to think that it was easy for them to get up before dawn and sing God’s praise. The truth is that the monks’ prayer is also their work. Sometimes it comes naturally, but often it’s just plain work!

The Church in central and southern Indiana is blessed by the witness of women and men who live the Benedictine way of life wholeheartedly, and whose monastic witness is a great gift to all who share in their prayer and work. I know this—beyond any doubt—from my years of close association with the monks of Saint Meinrad and the Benedictine Sisters in Beech Grove and in Ferdinand, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese.

Still, our visit to the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica was a vivid reminder of how much our Church owes to the monks who first evangelized Europe and then traveled to the New World to serve the needs of our parents and grandparents in the faith.

It’s truly amazing to see Americans—as well as men from other countries—providing an authentic monastic witness in the place where St. Benedict was born.

The new evangelization is happening now in Norcia along the lines of the Benedictine motto “Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus” (“That in all things God may be glorified”).

(Daniel Conway, who serves as senior vice president at Marian University in Indianapolis, is a member of The Criterion’s editorial board.)

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