Our holy patron St. Benedict took many journeys throughout his life to visit spiritual friends or his twin sister St. Scholastica. In Norcia, we continue that tradition with a quarterly all-day pilgrimage to a nearby shrine. The winter hike this year brought us to Cascia, where St. Rita is buried. It took us 6 hours of walking through freshly fallen snow, the first snowfall of the season to arrive.
Pilgrims to Norcia from abroad often combine their visit to St. Benedict’s home with one to St. Rita, since, in this part of Umbria, the soil is rich with sanctity and one saint is almost always in reach of another. We pray the Divine Office on these hikes, sometimes while walking or sometimes at a roadside chapel. That way, even if we don’t see a passerby, we leave along the way our prayers that God might care for the locals.
Assisi is also nearby. Besides hosting many pilgrims who visit St. Francis, the town also hosts our monks who go there for Italian language studies. While our prayers and Mass are in Latin, each monk needs to be well-versed in Italian to be able to communicate with the local world when occasion arrises. Besides in-house classes with a local instructor, those learning Italian take a month or two away from the monastery for an intensive course. Fr. Subprior Martin spent the month of October there, and now Br. Paul is taking December to improve his Italian. For the monks who come from other countries, or who already speak Italian, we try to make sure that they have a good background in English, since many of our monks come from the United States.
Study periods of lectio divina or meditation on Sacred Scripture took up a large portion of a monk’s day in St. Benedict’s time. We try to do the same. After matins every morning, which begins at 3:30 AM, a 60-90 minute period of private lectio helps us start the day with our minds focused on God. For monks in formation, classes follow in the mid-morning period. The scriptorium where each monk has his own desk is a place of great peace and prayer where we retreat when time allows and where we bring the needs of the monastery and the needs of the world to prayer.
Christmas is a time when blessings abound, but when absence is felt all the more. Absence of material goods is always a challenge, and one for which we ask your continued support. But at the heart of the monks’ prayer is the knowledge that the absence of God is what brings the most suffering. Advent allows us to ponder the depths of that space in our soul where our sins and fallen human nature have closed off space to God. We wait with wonder and awe, with the Blessed Virgin today on her splendid feast, with the saints of Umbria of centuries past for Christ to return — and with haste.
Assuring each of you of our prayers this Advent,
Prior Benedict Nivakoff, O.S.B.