Icon of Saint Benedict. Creative Commons CC0

The Silence that Fills Life

We went to visit the Trappist monastery so tied to our history, where 70 cloistered nuns dedicate themselves to God through communion, living an experience that makes them enter into the world more than those who actually live “in” the world.
Alessandra Buzzetti

When you hear the bell toll at 8:00 pm for Compline, you realize that you are exhausted, and incredulous. Who would have imagined that a day in a cloistered monastery would need so much energy to keep up with the life, which has made you feel literally overcome? As you climb the stairs of the visitors’ hostel, longing for your bed, in the countryside immersed in silence and in the last rays of the late-summer sun, you understand better the tuneful laugh of Sr. Giusy, the novice mistress, in reply to one of the first inevitable questions: What is new in a life in which the days are all the same? She replies, smiling, “Do you know, the first thing the postulants say once they enter is, ‘Help! Stop the world–I want to get off!’ Here, there is so much going on, because life has it own intrinsic force.”

Crossing the wall of the cloister does not help you understand more, unless you are ready to break down the barrier that is always there, that of appearances. This is because, at first sight, everything seems to go backwards, beginning with rising in the middle of the night. In summer, because of the heat and the legal hour, they get up an hour later. It is 4:00  in the morning when the sisters of Vitorchiano (a monastery near a small town of 3,000 people in the province of Viterbo, Italy) enter the chapel in silence for the Office of the Vigils. There are more than 70 of them filing in, headed by Sr. Alfonsina, who is celebrating 50 years of solemn profession, along with 5 postulants, who entered the monastery just a few months ago. It’s a large number when compared with the slow but steady thinning down of monastic communities, a number to which we should add the sisters in their eight foundations spread over five continents. “It is a fecundity thanks to grace,” says Sr. Rosaria Spreafico, the Mother Abbess. “In the confusion of our times, a monastic life that does not give a witness not only is not justified, but could even be harmful.”

Witness and cloister, two words at first sight contradictory... We had better refer to the concise Benedictine Vademecum, prepared by Mother Rosaria for the occasion. “The central moment of the monastic day, preceded by the two nocturns of prayer and personal meditation (lectio) that follow the vigils, is the Holy Mass. This time gives the tone to our life. It sets us in expectation for the Lord who comes; it is the breath that fills our whole vocation.” 
The encounter with the experience of silence–which here permeates in a mysterious way and orders the whole day–has the face of Sr. Maria Luce: 32 years old, from Piacenza, in northern Italy, a talkative university graduate with two strong arms (toned  at her parents’ carwash) and  intense blue eyes that never stop laughing. “The silence before the illuminated tabernacle, while all around is dark, is the moment in which I am most truly myself. You put everything before Him; you are naked and you cannot escape.”

The open suitcase. Once the sun rises, the community life moves on in the balance between work, liturgical and personal prayer, and lectio divina. The communitarian dimension characterizes every action of the monastic day. “You have to discover that life together is the main road to conversion in order to live communion,” explains the precious Vademecum. In the Trappist monastery, communion begins an instant after crossing the threshold of the enclosure, when the postulant, on arrival, opens her suitcase before the Mother Mistress. “At once we realize we no longer have anything of our own, a throwing away that every Christian sooner or later has to face up to,” Sr. Giusy tells us. “Christ’s challenge is this: I take everything from you  so as to give you everything back. At first we think it’s a question of our impetus of generosity toward Him, but it’s only when you begin to need everything that you feel really poor, that you begin to receive. There the experience of God begins.”

That God, who inhabits these walls, is not up in the clouds, but with His feet so firmly on the ground that no detail escapes Him. You understand this in the morning, as Sr. Alba collects “her children,” as she calls the six young sisters who made simple vows, but not yet their solemn profession. She is their Mother Mistress and her presence is impressive not only for her external traits, worthy of her roots in Emilia Romagna. She is most delicate in dealing with the four sick sisters she cares for every morning (“Seeing to it that they are always clean and perfumed is to affirm that an authentic life is possible, even in sickness”), yet Sr. Alba is against any “sweetening” of things around her, so much so that she calls the marmalade workshop a “house of correction,” where the young sisters, wearing their work aprons, spend at least half of the five hours of daily work in a shed transformed into an efficient production line, where the fruit comes in freshly collected and goes out perfectly packed with certificates of authenticity.

Masks and poverty.
“More and more often, those who enter the monastery have no great sense of reality. You find their minds filled with many poetical images of mysticism and of the cloister,” Sr. Alba explains. “So working on the production line of marmalade is a good way of re-educating them about reality. You either learn to pay attention to the present, or you do a lot of harm. Then, next time, you learn!” 

Sara, one of the same group, acknowledges that it’s true. Her idea of Jesus had to come face to face with washing the plates and sweeping the floor for Sr. Rose, the Portuguese head cook. She has a very practical intelligence, and patented the use of a cloth hooked to the apron so that one’s hands are always clean during work in the kitchen. An exaggeration? “I thought so, too, when in addition to the marmalade I began helping in the kitchen,” answers Maria Luce. “Then, in the choice to love the head cook by obeying her, I began to understand the reason for it. Cleanliness is a way of serving the community.”

In order to let Christ transform you, you have to open up and let yourself be questioned by what happens, without being afraid of discovering your own poverty. Sr. Alba says, “Outside, people have a tremendous fear of this. It takes time, even here, for the mask we have made to fall off.” She looks at Sr. Maria Giovanni, 31, a Roman, who does not let the provocation slip by: “The disarming experience that makes you give in is to see your limitations like everyone else, limitations you would like to cancel and hide, but in a life where everything is before everyone’s eyes is a ‘mission impossible,’ but you are already forgiven and loved.”

Living together means conversion, it used to be said. The spectacle is to see your own limitations transfixed to the point of seeing the victory of Christ in them. The meaning of a cloistered life is to make your own life the experience of God’s love expressed as an experience of mercy. This is the victory of Christ in us and in the world, a victory that takes flesh in the bicycle ride to go and dig in the gardens and the vineyards, big and demanding as they are (it is worth noting that the wine from Vitorchiano mysteriously reaches tables as far as Japan and California), a victory that passes inevitably into obedience in every kind of work and service, in the photographs chosen for the images and calendars, and in the responsibility for the laundry and infirmary. In a word, life becomes “offering.”

At midday, in the refectory, a frugal meal is eaten, listening in silence to a reading. These days, it is a book by Jerome Lejeune, the founder of modern genetics. Other times, the reading may be a newspaper editorial on some pertinent argument. “Normally, today they try to look at once for the guilty party, because people are unable to reflect on the immediate facts. Life does not belong to us and, secondly, how can I say before all these deaths that nothing has been lost?” Sr. Giusy, for example, looked at the recent dramatic railroad crash in these terms. “It is important to take out of the news the passion for continuous updates and to ask ourselves at once, ‘What is the fact that remains?’” Mother Rosaria makes a deeper observation, “Capacity for judgment about reality is strictly linked with the judgment one has of himself. Our experience leads us to go to the heart, and even the abyss of evil in some realities that the world is passing through. In prayer, we realize what forgiveness means, especially for ourselves, of the need for a process of healing, and to learn to love others, because we touch with our hands how much falsehood we have in our hearts. In this way we can understand what the world is going through from within our own experience. The more you know yourself, the more you open up to the mercy of God. It is a very long journey, but it’s the fascination of our life in the cloister.”

Beyond the last barrier.
A fascination for knowing yourself and the world began for Mother Rosaria first in Lecco, when she met Gioventù Studentesca (GS: Student Youth), then in 1973, in the Vitorchiano Trappist Monastery, led at the time by Mother Cristiana Piccardo, who met Fr. Giussani after welcoming some CL girls into the monastery. This bond remains intact and fruitful even today, thanks to the profound harmony Fr. Giussani always felt with the Rule of St. Benedict, which alternates prayer and work with the aim of seeking God, without putting anything before the love of Christ. “It is a fact of disarming simplicity,” says Sr. Gabriella, whom we met at the end of the day, in the parlor. “St. Benedict teaches that the whole of reality is made so as to lead you to Christ. If you set something aside, you go to hell!” In order to discover this, Sr. Gabriella went through a lot: the revolutionary times of 1968, the protests, trips to India, conversion, the question of how to overcome your own evil and that of others, then the discovery, in the encounter with some Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that what fascinated her was not so much the service offered to the wretched, but the origin of that beauty carried by those damaged lives. “I had spent so much time avoiding reality, and I found in the monastery a place where, with the Lord, everything is possible, except avoiding reality.”

The bell tolls, and Sr. Gabriella goes off so as not to be late for Compline, the last prayer of the day. With the singing of the Salve Regina, the last barrier of appearances falls, and the feeling of exhaustion comes not from not being used to a rigid rule of life, but from not being used to really living.