report from Cyprian, from General Chapter at Camaldoli

30 settembre

festa di san girolamo

Ciao tutti!

The open week of the General Chapter concluded today. It has been a good, full week. The best part of it all of course is being with our monks and nuns from all over Italy, and some from other parts of Europe and the world as well––Africa, India, China, Brazil. Our speaker yesterday made a special note of this. She was speaking of that turn that Karl Rahner had noted––from a European church to a world church. (Remember Bruno made much of this as well.) And this woman yesterday was pretty impressed that for such a small congregation we would have such an impressive presence throughout the world, and in places where real cultural and religious dialogue necessarily take place.

I’ve been staying up at the Sacro Eremo since I arrived Sunday. Thanks be to God, it was a very smooth flight across the Atlantic last Saturday and Sunday. (I am a total weeny when it comes to air turbulence, I’m not proud to say.) I had really nothing at all to do for the first two and a half days here at Camaldoli, so I just slept, walked in the woods, crammed myself full of Italian, and basically got over jet lag. By the time we started up Wednesday evening I felt pretty much “here and now––qui ed adesso.”

The Prior General, Alessandro, gave a rather long but very powerful opening conference Wednesday on the problems facing the world right now, and then on our response to it. I was glad to see him address again some of the issues that he brought up in his letter convoking this General Chapter. It was also interesting that for all of his involvement and interest in current affairs and modern currents of thought, he still thinks the first solution we Camaldolese have to offer is our contemplative life, our fruitful silence and solitude as moments of encounter with God and one another and the All.

We then had a very dense presentation by a New Testament from Rome named Romano Penna on Easter as the Fundamental Event of the Christian Faith, in two parts. Actually, it was in three parts because after the speakers end both sections of their presentation there is always an hour (it goes over most of the time…) of interventi e domande–comments and questions (short speeches and provocations!). It was a very fine presentation and very dense.

Abbot Bernardo of San Miniato, with Fr. Joseph Wong on the right.

There was a last minute cancellation for Thursday afternoon. A certain Pierfrancesco Stagi, professor of philosophy from Turin (and Freiburg), was supposed to speak to us on the current relevancy of the Rule of Saint Benedict. But, perhaps upping the ante on what it means to be an absent-minded professor, he had the right date but the wrong year. So at the last minute Abbot Bernardo of San Miniato came to speak to us. He is an old friend of Raniero and mine from when we stayed there studying Italian in 1999, when Bernardo was just a simply professed monk. He has only been abbot a short time but he has sunk into the role with great ease, it seems. He comes from a very cultured background from a prominent Florentine family and yet is also one of the warmest people you will ever meet. He came with a pile of papers and spent the two sessions quoting poetry and opera libretti (some by heart) as well as monastic sources and sociologists, all the while shuffling through papers and rubbing his bald pate. The folks loved him. Many of them knew him already, and he spoke often of his love for and appreciation of Camaldoli in many of its aspects. I understood most of the words (in Italian), but I had a hard time putting them together. It was very poetic. We had a wonderful exchange afterward.

Then yesterday we had two sessions led by a woman I had met in Berkeley at Incarnation, Serena Noci, a theologian from Florence. I have never heard anyone speak so fast in Italian or just about in any other language. Twice she was asked speak slower. The first time she said, “O-kaee.” And then took off again like a bat out of hell (come un pipstrello dall’inferno)! The second time she was asked she said, not in the least apologetically, Non posso (“I can’t!”). It was like an entire course in ecclesiology in two hours. Very informative! And exhausting.

Today was easier, a liturgist who is a friend of the community, and one of whose books I had read, Andrea Grillo, on “Liturgy and the Spiritual Life in the Monastic Life.” It was very good, and very much in line with what we have been discussing in our Saturday Chapter meetings at home. He was tracing current thoughts about liturgy back to the late 19th century, pointing out that what most people don’t realize is that in the late 19th century not only was their little connection between liturgy and spirituality, but there was such glaring oddities such as the fact the Pope Pius X declared that the Easter Vigil could not take place at night because it was against natural law––but at the same time some Jesuits were writing that segregation was justified by it!* So the revolution in thought of the Second Vatican Council cannot be underestimated, and pray God it is irreversible. Dr. Grillo framed the whole liturgical debate within a larger context of what was going on in the Roman Church––the conflict between authority and freedom. I can’t even start to write about this because it was, of course, right up my alley.

There was a lively discussion about translation! The most interesting thing Dr. Grillo said was that, given that Latin and classical Greek are not living languages, there are concepts that simply cannot be expressed in them. Our Fr. Thomas, himself a translator, of course loved that. The Italians were complaining that their new translation of the psalms is incantabile–unsing-able. Thomas was lamenting passionately about the new translation of our Missal and said the prayers were this and that and the other thing and I yelled out without thinking––“…e anche incantabili!”––, which they all thought was funny for some reason. (Though to be honest, they’re actually a little easier to pray singing than reciting.)

Fr. Benedikt from Germany and Fr. George of Shantigiri, our new foundation in Kerala, both of whom were here for the open days this week.

We were free this afternoon. Those monks and nuns who were here only to attend these open days have mostly gone now. Our two new German brothers, Benedikt and Jeremias have both been here. Jeremias, who is an old friend of ours at New Camaldoli, has come up to stay with us at the Eremo, as well as our two brothers, Vincenzo and Luciano, from Verona. I didn’t know it, but Saturday is pizza and beer night here at the Sacro Eremo, so after an afternoon walking and talking and practicing some recorder/guitar music with Axel for tomorrow’s Mass, there was a lovely gathering for cena in the refectory. This is by far the best part of these gatherings for me, to feel the closeness, the kinship with these folks. At lunch yesterday, without planning it this way, we were a German, a Chinese, two Indians, an Italian and an American at the table, yet the sense of kinship was so strong. I’m just delighted to meet my “cousins.”

Tomorrow my old friend Stefano, with whom I spent many happy hours translating Abhishiktananda and doing Yoga (and learning Italian at his mother’s kitchen table) is coming with his wife and kids. I did their wedding in Florence in 2008 and I met his son Francesco, but have never met his daughter Alice (pronounced Ah-lee-chay) of whom he is so proud that you can hear him beaming even in an email. I expect it will be a light day full of friendship, but then the real work starts on Monday as General Chapter begins. I have to give my conference in the afternoon that day, preside and preach on Thursday, and then present New Camaldoli on Friday. I will be happy when all that’s over, though I am pretty well prepared.

Sending you all light and peace, love and prayers,


*This is updated to read “segregation” not “slavery.”

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