Icon of Saint Benedict. Creative Commons CC0

In Front of Him

Silence, liturgy, work. We spent 24 hours at the Benedictine monastery founded in 1971 on the edge of Milan, Italy. It is a place where everything has value, because “it is in relation to Christ”.
Fabrizio Rossi

“Do you see this fork? You might not even notice it. Or you might be amazed, because someone placed it on the table. Nothing can spare you from having to move: in the monastery or in any other place, you are the one that makes the difference.” The heart of this place is summed up in these words. At La Cascinazza, the Benedictine monastery in the countryside outside of Milan, supper has just finished. The iron gate that separates this farm from the pastures, the fields, and the Milanese lowlands, is closed. By reciting the “Deo gratias,” the monks have broken their silence. Out of the 24 hours of the day, “recreation” is the only moment in which they can speak freely. And each word is precious, as I have just been shown by Giorgio, who was among the first men who founded this community almost 40 years ago (today there are 15 of them, including 2 Spaniards and a Brazilian, all with diverse backgrounds). As they gather together in the chapter room at the end of a day spent in silence, a certain confusion might be expected. Instead, no one talks over the other; they speak of how the work went, or they help each other to judge certain facts, or share prayer intentions. “It is not by chance,” explains Fr. Sergio, the Prior, “that it is in the free moments that what we care about most emerges. In any case, there is no lack of arguments…” Just like a family. Then, at 8:40 pm, all arguments must give way. As silence returns, a monk reads aloud two pages of a work by Fr. Giussani (lately, it is Qui e ora [Here and Now], a collection of dialogues with university students), before closing the day in the chapel with Compline and the singing of “Ave, Regina Caelorum” with the lights out, before the icon of the Virgin Mary.

The life of these men is like the sun rising in the world, for “it is the moment in which humanity begins to be itself,” as Fr. Giussani, who always felt close to the Benedictine experience, used to say to them. From the very beginning, he supported the vocations to the monastic life that began to spring up in the Movement, like those of the CL high school students who–having first lived at Subiaco, one of the monasteries founded by St. Benedict himself–were at the origin of La Cascinazza. These are men who are like a seed in the earth, destined to grow into a great tree–like the two cedars planted in the first years of the monastery, which now dominate the courtyard, facing the central wing of the farmhouse with the chapel on one side and, on the other, the tractor sheds. Ora et labora.

On the side, at the entrance beneath a small colonnade, is a schedule of the hours. Every day is the same: wake-up at 5:00 am. At 5:15, Divine Office in the chapel. Breakfast. Lauds at 6:50. Mass at 8:30. Then work. The Angelus at noon, then Sext. Lunch. At 3:00 pm, None. Study. Some work. The Angelus again. Vespers at 7:00 pm. Then, supper, recreation, and Compline… A routine? “The point is not to be constantly doing something different,” says Rafael, from Spain. For a dozen years, he has been tending the garden, the orchard, and now also the monastery beehives. “Just as with a married couple, there is newness if they relive the fascination of the day they first met.”

It is the newness that the monks are experiencing, also ever since they began to make beer, in the old stable converted into a brewery, the result of a search that took years. Ever since they discovered that what they grew themselves was not enough to sustain them, they have tried out a number of trades, even soldering microchips.

Malt and Valves
“Then a friend suggested, ‘Why don’t you try beer?’” recounts Fabrizio, 41, an architect from Alessandria, Italy. “This was a job that would allow us to maintain our rhythms, in addition to carrying on a tradition that owes a lot to monks.” So Fabrizio and Marco, an economist from Como, Italy, in 2005 traveled to a Trappist Monastery in Flanders to learn. After several attempts (“We started out in the kitchen with a pot!”), the first Italian monastic beer was born: “Amber,” to which the dark version, “Bruin,” was later added. “But the real novelty is what is happening amongst us.” In the brewery, along with Fabrizio and Marco, are Quique, who arrived from Madrid in 2000, where he was a diocesan priest, and Pietro, who entered a little over a year ago, fresh from completing medical school. So, an architect, an economist, a theologian, and a doctor… “Each of us is different from the others. But it is the work that makes us grow in communion. That is how Sergio proposed it to us: ‘Get together for one minute a week and ask yourselves why you are together.’ It is a continual discovery.” And there is no lack of struggle: “Think about the person that cleans the bathrooms,” recounts Quique, who spent the first six years armed with gloves and a cleaning rag. “It is not what you would choose… But, as Sergio said to me one day, “in obedience, everything corresponds to you even if nothing corresponds.” Sure, he needed time to understand: “Just as when I was asked to make beer. I objected for a year. ‘I studied philosophy and theology; what do I have to do with malt and valves? The most fundamental thing, however, is not to keep from rebelling, but to give in to the relationship with that You. Now I see that to face someone is worth my while.”

To Face Someone, in Each Instant
The psalm sung a few hours ago, before the world had awoken, comes to mind: “To You I cry out day and night…” Or Mass, celebrated today by Fr. Claudio–who came from the city of Varese 35 years ago and who has the task of guiding the novices–in which one by one the monks brought the intentions that relatives and friends have asked for: “For Silvia’s studies,” “For those without work,” “For Paolo and Pino’s journey in Novosibirsk,” “That Your face may illuminate the desperate…” Behind these walls, where news enters only if someone brings it, such attention to what is happening in the world–in real time–is striking, even if, apparently, not even L’Osservatore Romano or the Italian Bishops Conference newspaper ever arrive on time!

“We are here to carry the cry of each man to Christ,” explains Fr. Sergio who, in the 1970s, worked on the railroads and, hoping to respond to his own desire for meaning and for justice, threw himself into politics as a labor union activist. “The point is to be serious with one’s own question; otherwise, you can look at any tragedy and remain indifferent. It is what I told the monks this morning in the chapter, reading a letter of St. Bernard: we cannot care for others if we forget ourselves.” Hence, the value of silence: “To help each other recognize Someone present. Far from being mortification, it is what you do when faced with something beautiful: you are speechless. Imagine if Fr. Giussani lived upstairs: you would never hear the vacuum cleaner, but we would always be tensed toward his presence.”

We are interrupted by the bell for lunch
It rings seven times a day just for prayers. And it reminds everyone of the same thing: “It is the Mystery calling. Perhaps you were in your cell, meditating on a wonderful text, and then the bell rings and you are provoked to look at something even greater.” On the way to the refectory, we pass a painting by Letizia Fornasieri: two sunflowers on a table. It is like an offering on the altar: “This is why we are here. And those sunflowers remind us that even eating is a liturgy.” In fact, when the horseshoe-shaped table is full, with the Prior at the center, the food is blessed. Today, there is tomato pasta along with a potato and walnut soufflé, thanks to Pippo, an architect who has lived here since 1985. While the other monks pass the dishes in silence, one of them reads aloud a passage from the Bible or from the Rule, along with other texts for meditation (for the record, today it is Fr. Claudio’s turn, and the texts are some articles from the latest issue of Traces). Everything is for the glory of God. Whether you eat, whether you drink…

Even a Coffee
St. Benedict had not foreseen it, but even this is part of his “welcome guests as you would Christ.” The Prior offers it to us after lunch. And, in the meantime, he tells us the story of this place, about the two who had been CL high school students and how in 1968 they entered the monastery of Subiaco, about those who weren’t accepted in 1970, about the esteem of the Abbot-President of Subiaco, Gabriel Brasó, for the experience of those young men and Fr. Giussani. And about this farm south of Milan, discovered by their mutual friend, Paolo Mangini, that would be the place for the monastery, born as a result of all these factors and the proposal of a new community. The proposal came from Bernardo Cignitti, an abbot from Savona who, on the heels of the Council and the exhortations of Paul VI, was deeply concerned about the rebirth of the Benedictine experience: “God writes straight with crooked lines,” comments Bruno, one of the young men not accepted at Subiaco, who 40 years ago was a book binder and now does the same thing in La Cascinazza. On June 29, 1971 (Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, to whom the monastery is dedicated), eight monks attended the Mass that inaugurated La Cascinazza. During the homily Fr. Cignitti said, “I offer my life as fertilizer for this community.” In September he died of a tumor.

“For us, the relationship with Fr. Giussani was fundamental, above all in those years,” remembers Fr. Sergio. “He always repeated to us that at the center of monastic experience there is no particular practice other than Baptism: if Christ is everything for me, He is for everyone.” In the 1980s, the relationship with the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, was also decisive. He granted recognition to the community and in 1990 erected it as a Priory sui iuris according to diocesan law.

The Shadow of the Moon

With time, a whole host of relationships has been added to these ones, relationships one would least expect, like the Buddhist monks from Mount Koya in Japan who come to visit them annually, and like the friendship with the American painter William Congdon. Two of his paintings of La Cascinazza by night are hanging on the walls: “The monastery represents the self. The moon is the Mystery present, which illuminates it. From there, the shadow cast onto the courtyard–because out of that relationship a people is born.” In 1959, after a long quest, Bill–as they all refer to him–met the faith, and lived the last 20 years of his life in a small house on the monastery grounds. “He was like one of us: a wounded man, facing the Mystery.” A wounded man. But a man in relation with that You. Or, precisely because he was in relationship with that You: “When you fall in love, you are restless until you see that woman again,” explains Rafael. “You miss her, precisely because she exists. She is part of you. That is why we experience nostalgia to the extreme: we are wounded because He exists.”

Time is Up
The monks have to return to work. As I pass by the two sunflowers, only one sound breaks the silence: silverware. In the refectory, someone is setting the table.