Br. Efrain is enjoying his studies in Rome. It’s always an education to meet nuns and monks from around the world; the experience broadens one’s perspective on the monastic life. The customs, the traditions, certainly the history, are so unique from one monastery to another; and yet, there’s such a kinship and familiarity because we share the same values, the same basic structures.
It’s also an education, in the narrower sense of the word, to be taught by monks and nuns, some of the most experienced teachers available, from around the world. Apart from their degrees and years spent in the classroom, there’s also the feet-on-the-ground experience of monastic living to illuminate their subjects. And then there are the opportunities that a place like Rome affords. The group of 27 monks and nuns celebrated Palm Sunday at St. Peter’s; Br. Efrain wrote that the liturgy was beautiful. Today they are celebrating the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass there at the Papal Liturgy. This afternoon, they celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the convent of Spanish nuns where they lodge. Br. Efrain will be singing in their little schola for Good Friday and will be a reader for the Paschal Vigil.
There are the unique opportunities for pilgrimage, too. Apart from St. Peter’s the group has also visited Subiaco, about thirty minutes by train, due east of Rome. Subiaco was the site of Nero’s hillside villa, built to beat the summer heat of Rome. He had an artificial lake constructed on the heights for his villa, so the town beneath the hill became known as Sublaco or “Beneath the Lake”, corrupted in the vernacular to “Subiaco”. By St. Benedict’s day, the villa was in ruins and it was in this vicinity that he began his monastic conversion leading the hermit life in the caves that perforate the hillside. He was so inexperienced in the monastic discipline that he had no idea that it was Easter Sunday until the local priest who brought him weekly supplies pointed it out to him. He then realized the dangers of living alone for one so young and untested. His Rule for monasteries, still many decades in the future, would compensate by fostering the communal life and a realization of the Church’s liturgy that gives particular emphasis to Easter.
The medieval monastery one finds at Subiaco is an elegant interplay of architecture, frescoed walls, broad staircases, bare cave walls, interior spaces opening onto the secluded, tree covered valley. Br. Efrain, a transfer to our Order from the Capuchin Franciscans, was moved by the St. Gregory Chapel, a thirteenth century addition dedicated by Cardinal Ugolino, the Cardinal protector of the young Franciscan Order. The dedication of the chapel is depicted in a contemporary fresco on the window wall and behind the Cardinal (the future Pope Gregory IX) stands St. Francis himself. On another wall of the same chapel is a full length fresco of St. Francis, the only likeness of him painted in his lifetime. Br. Efrain was also glad to have the opportunity to spend time to pray in the Sacro Speco, the “Holy Cave” where St. Benedict spent his earliest years as a monk. In a very real way, this spot is the cradle of Western Monasticism.
On Easter Monday, the seven Trappists in the Monastic Formators’ Program are invited to lunch at our Generalate on the Viale Africa in the EUR neighborhood of Rome. This was the area developed by Mussolini and boasts some ponderous, ugly buildings from the fascist era overlooking a well-equipped sports center developed after World war II. Not far away is Cinecitta, the film studio, Italy’s Hollywood, that was brimming with creativity in the 1950’s and ’60’s. The monastic students will not me hobnobbing with Giancarlo Giannini or Laura Antonelli in front of the cameras, but will be meeting with Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, our Abbot General. Dom Eamon, a witty and down-to-earth monk from Ireland will be leaving that week to visit some of the monasteries of the Order. It’s a generous gesture to our monks and nuns studying in Rome, that he’d make time to meet with them.