The Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy, are gifted listeners.
Part of a religious order that spends a portion of each day in silent prayer and meditation, open and receptive to whatever God might ask of them, they understand well the virtues of listening and obedience.
When a devastating earthquake rattled and cracked the walls of their monastery in the middle of the night last August, they heeded the warnings, evacuating their century’s old basilica and dwelling, the home of their patron, St. Benedict, and settling in the hills of Umbria, on a mountainside overlooking the town.
There they pitched tents and continued their life of work and prayer in spartan conditions, still ministering to the people of the tiny city below.
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Two months later, a stronger earthquake hit the region, its epicenter just north of Norcia.
The Basilica and Monastery of St. Benedict crumbed to the earth, leaving only its badly damaged facade still standing.
“The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict, who would soon take over as prior from the retiring Father Cassian, sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini had lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from earlier tremors and left town. ‘[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town.’ ”
On their perch above Norcia, the monks have already started to rebuild.
Their objective is to create a new monastery and church on the hill — an effort that will require $5 million, a difficult sum to come by for monks who live by a rule of no personal possessions.
It is the call to rebuild that brought them to Dallas last weekend to raise the funds needed to remake their holy sanctuary on a hilltop in Umbria.
At a benefit dinner and before an audience of supporters, Father Benedict described the monastic life of prayer, contemplation, Scripture study, work (they operate a small brewery), discipline, ministry and complete submission to God.
He recounted the life of St. Benedict, whom they seek to emulate, and whose monastic order helped restore Christianity to the people of Europe years after the continent had fallen away from the Church.
For Dreher, who offered the keynote address at Saturday’s dinner, the monks’ ordeal is a prophetic illustration of the state of Christianity.
Like the basilica in Norcia, where only the facade remains, Christianity in the West is but a shell of what it once was.
Secular forces, like the quakes that rocked northern Italy last fall, have successfully gutted its core, leaving the faith too unstable to withstand another blow.
In his latest tome, he describes the plight of contemporary orthodox Christians trying to live out their faith in a post-Christian society, and offers a strategy for navigating the uncertain terrain that lies ahead.
He advocates for Christians to meaningfully “withdrawal” from secular society in order to live out their faith and preserve it for future generations.
Dreher’s proposal doesn’t call for complete and total retreat, but like the monks of Norcia whose isolation on the hilltop does not preclude them from accepting guests or serving through ministry the people of the town, it will require that Christians thoughtfully engage in some earnest and deliberate separation from a world that threatens to dilute and erode their faith.
(His text is thoughtful and complex, and warrants further explication in a future column.)
As he writes in the book’s conclusion, “Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture,” but on the night of the quake, hope was also present with the townspeople gathering in the piazza to pray around the statue of St. Benedict.
There is still hope for the future of Christianity on the hilltops of Norcia and around the world.
To support the Benedictines of Norcia, please visit their website: en.nursia.org/donations/