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from issue no. 12 - 2005

Between Tiber and Arno

So Dante spoke of La Verna, the Franciscan hermitage that, along with the Benedictine one of Camaldoli, came to be defined by La Pira as «two missionary terraces looking out on Islam, on Israel, on the Slav and Byzantine East». An article by the Bishop of Arezzo-Cortona-San Sepolcro on relations between the monastic life and the great events of our age

by Gualtiero Bassetti

The ancient guest roomsof the Franciscan shrine of La Verna

The ancient guest roomsof the Franciscan shrine of La Verna

«I went to La Verna (because Francis, at La Verna, is like a missionary terrace looking out on all the nations, especially those of Islam and of Israel); I went to Camaldoli (because Saint Romuald, in Camaldoli, is like a missionary terrace looking out on the Slav and Byzantine East: a disciple of Saint Romuald – Saint Bruno – went in the year 1000 to Kiev itself, where he was the guest of Saint King Vladimir»1.
It was in these terms that Giorgio La Pira, at the end of 1959, described to the cloistered nuns (privileged interlocutors and collaborators in all his political action) his spiritual preparation for his first journey to Russia. The Soviet Union represented the «new Jericho» that the mayor of Florence had laid siege to – from as early as 1953 – not with the weapons with which the powerful had founded their “balance of terror” but with the arms of contemplation and incessant prayer of the cloistered nuns of the entire world, as to «knock down the armed and closed walls of Jericho and enter the city of Jericho and take into it the message of Mary: a message of grace, a message of joy, a message of love, a message of peace!»2.
All of us know that the walls of Jericho, crumbling ever more inescapably, ended by collapsing exactly thirty years after the first perigrinatio made by La Pira to Moscow and Kiev, in 1989. This event stands as a watershed in the history of the second half of last century, which is still our history, and opened new and unprecedented prospects enabling men to organize their coexistence throughout the world. The process of European unification is perhaps the greatest opportunity that men have won among the possibilities opened up by the events of 1989. It has to do – even with great difficulties and serious contradictions – with an unprecedented event in the history of Europe and the world: for the first time in history people, different peoples and nations of an entire continent, once enemies, are striving to build a unity not through the violent abuse of power of one against the other, but through diplomatic efforts in meetings and discussions aimed at the common interest and good. Men of peace today cannot but look with understanding and hope on this arduous European gestation. Our shoulders also bear the weight of the responsibility of doing so in such a way that the men of peace of tomorrow can look to Europe with gratitude and a spirit of emulation.
I am happy that Camaldoli and La Verna are seen as enclaves in Arezzo territory of European spirituality: reflecting on this subject, in fact, forces us to measure ourselves against a triple power without which no solid construction is possible: the power of the “soil”, of “spirituality”, of “memory” .
The soil means concreteness, particularity, attention to values and to the particular and variegated needs that form the multiform richness and the plural potentialities of all the “soils”, the cities and regions of Europe. Spirituality – far from opposing the concreteness of the soil – means the soul, transcendence, beauty, the oboedentialitas itself of the stature of man, through which that stature increases, re-finding itself through a continuous overcoming that bases its vocation in the stature of God, through which civilizations also grow in harmony, beauty and justice. Memory, finally, means our capacity to gather in synthesis both the soil and the spirit, so that it does not reside only in the genes and the instinct, but is first and foremost the action of our intellect, is creative and critical memory.
Without memory of “the soil and the spirit” Europe cannot grow, just as a vine does not thrive if it is not well grafted onto the roots and if those are not well grounded in soil rich in life-giving humus.
Critical memory, therefore, allows us to look at the events of our recent history with the profundity of the believer, who seeks tentatively to distinguish beneath the soil of history the karstic springs of grace; this is knowing memory that avoids all Manichean and triumphalist temptation.
The memory of the events of 1989 imposes three questions on us as believers.
The first is this: Did the walls of Jericho of the atheist and communist Eastern bloc fall because of the power of the siege of prayer, or did other forces also contribute to accelerating the collapse? In other words, keeping in mind the logic of faith that inspired the action of La Pira, we must ask ourselves: were we capable of believing in the possibility of the “conversion” of Russia, as La Pira had intuited meditating on the Marian messages of Fatima and as Pius XII had “pressed” by consecrating Russia to Mary? Did we know how to read the signs and await the times?
The second question is this: Once the walls had tumbled, what was taken inside? Into these lands famished of freedom and spirituality by seventy years of atheistic and communist materialism was the freedom of the sons of God brought or the oppression of another materialism, of which we also had become slaves, the materialism of money and profit?
The third question involves our faith directly: Did the Christian Churches know how to profit in depth from the time favorable for a new witness to the presence of the living Christ through the transparency of their reciprocal charity and their organic unity? Was the Church capable of grasping the unity of the Body of Christ rendered mystically evident by the grace granted in the blood of so many new martyrs?
The answer to these questions can probably contribute to giving us a more understanding vision of how it is possible to have passed so quickly from the hopes of 1989 to the tragedy of 2001, of how we have passed from the “balance of terror” to a “terror” that seems to be almost “without balance”.
The shrine of La Verna

The shrine of La Verna

These questions force us to take the path of memory in the sackcloth of the penitent, but also carrying, in Christian joy, the pilgrim’s staff and the knapsack of all of humanity’s steps forward and of all the graces men have known how to receive and transform into good works. And here we are, finally, at the memory of La Verna and Camaldoli, at La Pira’s «missionary terraces looking out on Islam, on Israel, on the Slavic and Byzantine East». From these two terraces on the soil of Arezzo the contemplative look of La Pira succeeded in going beyond in a global embrace of history and the earth of men. There seem to be two points of support in this global look: the knowledge of history, in particular the history of monasticism and the mendicant orders, and the knowledge of God whose «tenderness expands to all the ends of the earth», a tenderness of which the monasteries themselves are the burgeoning expression as the outposts of the Church in non-Christian lands. For La Pira there existed already in the history of the world a “globalization of grace” which must imbue the commercial, economic, technological, social and political globalization to generate the «unity of the human family».
Camaldoli and La Verna are two terraces looking out on the world and the path of unification of the family of all peoples and nations.
Allow me to indicate three of the issues that seem to me among the most urgent, relative to the process of globalization and therefore tied to Europe if it really wants to make its contribution to making a new face for the world.
The issues are: democracy, the safeguarding of the created and justice.
Democracy is going through a critical phase; it must succeed in finding modes and structures to form the new world governance that conditions ever more noticeably the existence of every citizen of the earth. The Western democracies, in fact, live in symbiosis with the crisis of the structure of the States: the result is a crisis of participation (the latest sign, the turnout of less than 40% at the Polish polls) and also the crisis in the capacity of democracy to generate and regenerate itself. Democracies in fact are struggling to grow where they never existed, not only because of the cohabitation with cultures and religions not immediately congenial, but also because any political community today struggles much more than fifty years ago to believe itself the protagonist of its own destiny. And in effect, the manner prevailing today in the exporting of democracy doesn’t seem particularly efficient and coherent.
It is necessary then to rethink democracy and these terraces of Camaldoli and La Verna can help us to draw up some basic values to hold on to. Naturally there is much to be gone into and I can only share some of my reflections.
I also think that merely by looking at the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Franciscan rules, we can outline some values that, once sown, have enriched traditions that in their turn – in an almost absolutely hidden way – have influenced the shape and practice of modern democracy.
The structure of coexistence planned by Benedict is founded on the authority of the abbot: through obedience the monks can proceed on their path of human and spiritual growth, because the will of God passes through the will of the abbot. It would seem almost unimaginably distant from the modern concept of democracy. And yet, take note: the contribution of incalculable value that the Rule of Benedict made to democratic thought was the fact of having diffused, through the multiform flowering of the Benedictine traditions, an evangelical concept of authority. In effect, it has to do with an authority based on hearing that expresses itself in service, aimed at the good of the community and the enhancement of every individual person; on the practical level as well it is subject to the Rule and is born through free choice.
The authority of the abbot is directed toward the good of the monks, it is a paternal authority that has no meaning without the presence of children. It doesn’t have to do with the dominium of man over man, but with the service of man to man of which it is necessary to render account to God. Further, the authority of the abbot, exercised within the criteria furnished by the Rule, draws force from the reciprocal listening that characterizes the life of the monks so much so that much attention must also be given to the youngest and the last to arrive, through whom the wisdom of God may speak. The authority of the abbot is exercised in the understanding of souls and is therefore capable of considering and enhancing the uniqueness of the person: discipline without levelling. It is not all-embracing, so much so that Benedict conceived his Rule as an outline for beginners, and consequently the authority of the abbot does not consist in having everything depend on him, but he is open to discerning in his monks the signs of a life trajectory that may continue beyond the walls of the monastery. Saint Romuald was able to find an original synthesis for this necessity, attentive to seeking Christ whose Word and whose Spirit - as he said - «lives and presides in the conscience of every monk». Furthermore the authority of the abbot is the interpreter and intermediary of the will of God, but that loses nothing of its transcendence, so that the will of God and the will of the abbot are called to meet in the discernment and the path of sanctity without melding, so much so that a divinized authority cannot be given in the monastery as in the pagan world. And finally, the election: the power of the abbot is obviously not transmitted - as that of kings and emperors is – from father to son, nor is it transmitted by designation, it comes from election by the monks. The history of Benedictine monasticism shows us – also dramatically – how often the instances of reform and of renewal are accompanied by the jealousy with which the monks defended, protected and renewed this elective principle. It is not a matter here, anachronistically, of assimilating the election of the abbot with the spirit of modern popular consultations, but simply of considering that this electoral practice strove to resist even in periods of imperialism, absolutism and of totalitarianism. Undoubtedly this institution of monasticism functioned as a paradigm throughout Europe. In fact monasticism had a missionary diffusion and an ingenious capacity to organize communion and solidarity among the various monasteries: I am thinking in particular of Vallambrosa and of the Cistercian Carta Caritatis.
The cloister of Maldolo in the monastery of Camaldoli

The cloister of Maldolo in the monastery of Camaldoli

In his rules Francis radically underlined the need for evangelical authority, translatable only in the form of service, not likely to be confused with dominium. The authority of the “ministers and servants” within the Order is subject to the rule of fraternal correction. In a letter to a minister he expresses in terms of extreme radicalism the limits of authority in respect of the person: «I tell you as best I can, for what regards your soul, that those things that prevent you from loving God, and every person that is an obstacle to you, whether friars or others, also if they beat you, all of this you must consider as grace received. And you must wish it so and not differently… and love those who do these things to you and don’t demand other from them if not what the Lord will give you, and love them in this, and don’t wish that (for you) they become better Christians. And this will be more for you than being in a hermitage»3.
How can these centuries old forms of exercise of authority, incarnated in the practice of hundreds of monasteries and convents spread throughout Europe not be taken into account in seeking the roots of European democracy?
We say this not only to pride ourselves on an identity, but to reaffirm its values. They are values that cannot be renounced in terms of which world democracy must be rethought if it is not to be emptied of meaning.
And now briefly, the other two terms: the safeguarding of the created world and justice.
Also as regards the safeguarding of the created world the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions have, in my opinion, transmitted an evangelization of earthly realities. The relationship with nature is in fact dominant in the spirituality of the monks both because the beauty of nature is a vehicle of contemplation, and because the monks are bound, by law, to interact with it, through their work, to draw sustenance from it. Thus these witness in the course of centuries the double vocation of man in relation to the created: the “contemplative vocation”, through which nature refers back to the Creator, and the “productive vocation”, by which nature, through the work and application of technologies (it is not by chance that monks figure among the precursors and pioneers of agronomy), is transformed to give sustenance. Nature, in fact, refers back to the Creator, but is entrusted to the intelligent care of man.
In a somewhat paradoxical synthesis we could sum up the rapport of Western man with nature as bracketed by the two extremes of “magical man” and “technological man”: the first, in a confused vision of nature and divinity, tried to condition nature through the magical manipulation of the divinity; the second, through a plainly materialistic vision conditions nature through the technological manipulation of nature itself. Both the first and the second remain deluded because nature doesn’t seem to want to respond to their will to power. The evangelization of earthly realities refers back, on the other hand, to a sacramental vision of nature and because of this to a perception of the rapport with nature under the sign of “guardianship”: a balance – we can say – between contemplation and production, the utilization of the resources and respect, because nature belongs to the Creator and therefore to the future generations to whom He wants to make a gift of them.
Look how a document of the thirteenth century describes the organization of the buildings of the monastery of Clairvaux: «There where the orchard ends the garden begins, subdivided into many squares, whose limits are traced by small rivulets of water: This water serves two uses: to nourish the fish and water the vegetables, and serving it is the ever plentiful course of the Aube. A branch of the river, crossing the various workshops of the abbey, is everywhere blessed for the services it renders. The waters of the Aube come to the abbey through great (hydraulic) works and if they don’t arrive there in their full flow, they do not however get lazy through inactivity. In fact, not by nature, but through the industry of the monks a bed was dug out whose banks cut the valley in two and in this way the Aube sends half its waters to the abbey, as if it wanted to come to greet the monks…»4. Useless to talk at length about Saint Francis whose Cantico delle Creature constitutes a sublime poetic synthesis of this sacramental vision of the created.
The taking of vows in the monastery of Camaldoli

The taking of vows in the monastery of Camaldoli

And thus we come to justice: I believe that the most astonishing contribution the monastic and mendicant traditions made to the formation of the sense of justice resides in the testimony of evangelical poverty. It is in fact rooted in the mystery of God who empties himself of his divinity to enrich all of humanity, every man, no one excluded. The mystery of Christ realizes the radical solidarity of God with man, it sanctions in this way also the solidarity and equality between all men. Evangelical poverty lived in its religious radicalism is the anticipation and prophetic annunciation of this reality set in history as eschatological vocation. As for what pertains to our discussion, I believe that the witness of evangelical poverty lived (notwithstanding everything) by many in the history of monasticism and the mendicant orders has underlined the primacy of man over possession. The experience of Francis then, in an urbanized society, where the use of money had created even stronger and more visible discriminations, charges evangelical poverty with further social significance, because the yardstick for judging the authenticity of religious poverty becomes the poverty of the pauper: Francis «once met a beggar and, noticing his poverty, said to his companion: The poverty of this man stirs great shame in us and greatly rebukes our poverty. I am never so ashamed as when I find someone more abject than myself…”»5. In Francis, in eminent fashion, poverty coincided with the choice of following and of living in communion with Christ through the sharing of the life of the most wretched and excluded. This sequence and solidarity is so central in the life according to the Gospel proposed by Francis that it excludes in an absolute and unequivocal manner the right to property. It is a position difficult to absorb in the institutional realities of Western man, whether civilian or ecclesiastical, and perhaps it is normal that it be like this because the poverty of Francis is living prophecy of that solidarity of God with men which has regenerated universal communion and fraternity: it is incarnate reality but awaits its fulfillment with impatience. And yet however this eschatological dialectic takes nothing away from the historical power of prophecy. The assimilation of Francis to Christ, poor and humiliated, glorified and risen, received at La Verna the last and most luminous “seal”, to remind humanity that man can resemble Jesus completely. This makes of La Verna a missionary terrace looking out toward all the poor of the earth. Whoever researches with coherence into the memory of the Christian roots of Europe, must cry out to society that solidarity comes before the right to property; if we don’t do so, the stones will shout it, as perhaps already happened when men and women who had not received, or who had forgotten, the grace of knowing themselves sons, shouted out their hunger and thirst for justice. It is urgent that our prayer, our intelligence and our industry should be turned toward acting in such a way that the hearts of millions of people who knock at the doors of the opulence of the Western world, or who live there without rights or voice, do not harden and turn to stone. Not least because stones that come down in landslides do a lot of harm.
These reflections reminded me of the letter that the prior general Dom Emanuele Bargellini sent to the Holy Father on the occasion of his election: «We are profoundly grateful to Your Holiness who, by assuming the name of Benedict XVI, wished to recall to the common conscience the precious testimony of the holy patriarch of monastic life in the West, whose industrious faith was able to give to the Christian West that creative depth that has for centuries forged its soul and also its civil institutions. An inheritance capable of inspiring new spiritual prospects and new solidarities between different peoples and cultures, as Your Holiness also recalled a few days ago in your authoritative speech in the abbey of Subiaco». Alcide De Gasperi was an industrious and rich depository of the richness and potentiality of this inheritance: he knew how to receive it in a new way, that is in secular manner. In his European vision the nostalgic ideologies of the medieval Christian are absent, as are defensive attitudes against the modern world; on the contrary, with him the Christian roots of Europe open for the first time to the construction of a genuinely democratic Europe.
Such was his convinced perception, as these words taken from one of his last speeches testify: «If I affirm that at the origin of this European civilization Christianity is found I do not intend by that to introduce any exclusive confessional criterion into the assessment of our history. I only want to speak of the common European heritage, of that unitary morality that exalts the figure and the responsibility of the human person with its ferment of evangelical fraternity, with its cult of law, inherited from the ancients, with its cult of beauty refined over the ages, with its desire for truth and justice acquired from a millenary experience».

1 Giorgio La Pira, Lettere alle claustrali. Vita e pensiero, (Letters to the cloistered, Life and thought), Milan 1978, pp. 213-214.
2 Ibid.
3Fonti Francescane, (Franciscan sources), p. 234.
4 Quoted in Marcel Pacaut, Monaci e religiosi nel medioevo, (Monks and religious in the Middle Ages), The Mulino, Bologna 1979, p. 211.

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