Friday, May 24, 2013

Francis and Benedict — Subiaco

In February, I visited Italy — a combination of vacation, retreat, and pilgrimage — to celebrate my 65th birthday the previous June.

Florence, Ravenna, Assisi, Rome, and Subiaco were my destinations. Assisi was the highlight and my five days there were a real retreat, like hearty pasta and wine

But Subiaco was a delicate taste of heaven, like a delicious gelato.

It was easy to get to the town – a simple bus ride from Rome. But once in town, getting to the monastery of St. Benedict was a bit more complicated.

I bought a bus ticket that would take me part way – but by the time I got to the station, the bus had already left. I started walking. Luckily I got a ride up the hill from a man with a great long beard who looked like a monk but was a local forest ranger.

The monastery clings to the side of the mountain. It is built around the cave where St. Benedict spent several years as a hermit, subsisting with the provisions a monk sent down in a basket.

No photos were permitted in the church. Even though, there was no one around, I obeyed. And thus I have had to remember then with my eyes and heart, rather than with a camera.

The churches (since there are several levels) are adorned with incredible frescos. One of my favorites was the meal of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. Shortly before her death, they had met to talk but, as dusk approached, Benedict insisted he had to get back to the monastery since that was the Rule. Scholastica stopped and prayed; a great rainstorm came and prevented Benedict from leaving. Since Benedict didn’t listen, his sister sought the intervention of God.

There are also beautiful frescos of Benedict and two of his monks, Mauro and Placido, on the walls and ceiling of a lower part of the church.

Near these frescos is the cave of Benedict. I entered but I couldn’t pray well there. The marble statues – Benedict, the raven, and the basket – were distracting. I would have preferred a bare cave. (My visit to the cave of Brother Masseo in the Carceri was one of the most profound moments of my visit to Assisi.)

But the beautiful surprise is a little chapel nearby, at the end of a little hall. There on the wall is the oldest fresco of St. Francis of Assisi, probably painted by a monk about 1223.

As I sat beside the fresco, protected by glass, I gazed into the eyes of Francis and felt a sense of intimate connection with him. The conversation was wordless – heart speaking to heart, again calling me to live the Gospel in the footsteps of Francis. I have no idea why that face pulled me, almost into the soul of Francis. 

At one point I stood up and looked closely at the face of Francis. I noted that the iris of the eyes was not painted – but just the wall or some plaster.

I must have stayed there for almost 30 minutes. But, before I left a family entered and showed their two little girls the fresco of Francis. I soon understood that one of them was named Francesca. The loveliness of a child added to the sacred beauty of the tiny chapel.

I left and dropped by the gift shop.

Then I walked back down the hill to town, on a road through the forest. 

Walking along the river in town, I looked up and saw the back of the town’s church, several stories descending from the level of the upper city where one could enter the church proper.

I got a bus back to Rome – with a sense of peace that the presence of Benedict and Francis had engendered in me.

A few months later while reading Julien Green’s remarkable book on St. Francis, God’s Fool, The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, I came across Green’s account of his visits to Subiaco. His account says much of what I felt (p. 181):

Where I am now, he once stood and prayed. His picture on one of the walls looks out at the visitor, smiling, youthful, joyous, with his bright eyes, his thin beard, and his protruding ears. Tradition claims that an unknown monk of genius painted that slender face and those hands not yet wounded by the stigmata. Next to his head an inscription bears his name: Fr. (Frater) Franciscus. Nothing more or less; he was still just a brother, a brother passing through, whom they loved.


Charles said...

Thanks. Beautiful post.

Unknown said...

Ahh beautiful Italy! It has and never will be a wrong decision to choose Italy as a vacation destination with its many beautiful attractions and endless supply of historic stories to share with its visitors. The various building architecture alone is enough to excite people, even before unleashing the precious stories of the past. It is definitely a storage place full of exciting memories to be shared with everyone who visits. It is most certainly worth a stopover in your travel list.