Rorate Caeli

Monks and Nuns: Contemplatives are light and oxygen for the "outside" world

[Monks at Our Lady of Fontgombault, France]

Stefano Chiappalone
La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana
Aug. 17, 2023

The era of the monks is not over: far from the legacy of a distant past, cloisters and hermitages take today's man out of the frenzy by restoring him to a renewed relationship with space, time, creation and the Creator.


If the common mindset recognizes some merit to the religious who runs the oratory or cures the ills of the body, it struggles, however, to understand the one who withdraws to devote himself totally to prayer and worship.

Understandable perspective, perhaps (except to discover later that even the Missionary of Charity draws her strength at the foot of the tabernacle, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said). Less understandable is a certain mistrust of contemplatives that is widespread in the ecclesial sphere itself, insofar as it infiltrates that activism and functionalism that constitute the dominant tone of today's society. At best, monks and hermits are placed as icing on the cake of the great edifice of the Holy Roman Church: as high and as far away as possible, but practically considered little more than decoration. At least until, by chance or choice, sometimes out of devotion or even despair, we stand at the threshold of their cloisters or hermitages.

Sometimes all it takes is a brief visit to a hermitage in the woods, on the edge of what we are wont to call "civilization," to discover that the latter should more fully be called a "civilization of frenzy." And to realize that the much-misused contemplative life possesses within itself reserves of supernatural life and peace that are all the more regenerating precisely for those who live in the world. Here emerges the difference between the misanthrope who turns his back on his neighbor and the monk who turns his gaze to Christ, entrusting his neighbor to him as well and offering the latter to quench his thirst at the same fountain.

Each one thinks of his or her own "oases of recharging"; as for these lines, they are inspired - also as a sign of gratitude - by a recent visit to and 20-year frequentation with the hermit community living in Garfagnana at the shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Perpetual Help in Minucciano, diocese and province of Lucca. The current community has been there since the 1980s, when Fr. Mario Rusconi picked up the baton from Fr. Marco Cortesi, an epigone of a line of "Romites" who had alternated on the site since the 17th century. To reach it one has to climb a bit, between curves that seem like tunnels covered by the branches of trees: certainly the landscape already in itself contributes to the feeling of an "elsewhere," like a huge natural vestibule that stretches for a few kilometers around the temple proper.

Will it be illusion or mere psychological well-being that of a teacher, a journalist, an employee who at some point feels the need to go up here to "disconnect" and turns to the modern anchorites to carve out a few days or hours in which to turn off the noise and pacify the heart? Could it be a placebo effect induced by the evocative locations in which the hermits live? But if it were all a matter of location and, absurdly, once we got to the top, the structure was nothing but a museum, with anonymous handlers instead of our bearded friends, it would only take ten minutes to visit and no one would come up here to seek peace, or to lay down their burden of human concerns, but at most a bit of coolness and relaxation.

Instead, it is precisely the centrality of divine worship that shapes the soul of this place and others like it. Here, every prayer, every gesture, every volute of incense constantly digs the gap that unites visible and invisible so that even when they are at work in the garden or in the woods, the monks seem to be performing a liturgical act, merging the ora and the labora and infusing natural realities with supernatural grace from which visitors then benefit as well. This is the first gift the hermits offer to those who climb up here: to breathe in the supernatural in order to lift their gaze upward more easily. After all, it is precisely the constant immersion in the divine that makes these ascetics so open to the human as those who come to submit their doubts and afflictions to their sapiential vision know well.

The second gift is that of another timeframe, no longer engulfed by haste and urgencies but marked by bells and cadenced by the interweaving of the rhythms of nature and those of liturgical hours. At some point one realizes that the clock counts less and less in this dilated but far from empty space-time. And if "out there" five minutes late is enough to generate anxiety, here one can catch oneself "wasting" time observing the variety of flowers and leaves, each designed by the inexhaustible imagination of the Creator. But above all, between a walk in the woods and the singing of vespers, one has the luxury of rearranging one's thoughts, letting them be enlightened by a higher Light, to return with a more ordered mind to ordinary life.

Last but not least is the gift of silence, so much so that there are even those who come to do what the monks jokingly call the "sleep cure." Where external noises are silent, the sounds of creation resurface; and inner turmoil is succeeded by the calm that often seems like a luxury itself. From a brief immersion in this renewed harmony even the most troubled hearts can build within themselves a small oasis to refresh themselves once they return "to the ground." It is an ever-increasing need as our societies become more convulsive and our lives clogged, stifling not say the spiritual yearning but even the more human "know thyself." Far from being legacies of ancient times, contemplatives are all the more necessary nowadays and all the more so for those of us in the outside world who also breathe because of their oxygen reserves.