Week II, General Chapter, Camaldoli
It has been a very intense week, very good, but very intense. Alberto and I usually leave from here at the Eremo first thing in the morning and don’t really return until just before Vespers and dinner at 7:00. Though I have been walking the 3 km up the mountain each day after pranzo just to get a little air and exercise, having to turn around immediately and head back down for the afternoon sessions. (The Italians, by the way, are just mystified by this, the stuff of legends.)
We’re actually a little ahead of schedule, believe it or not, thanks to Alessandro being very firm about keeping us on schedule (responding a little to the gentle recommendations of the Americans).
Monday we began with the opening conferences, another one by Alessandro himself, a review of the last six years, newness and losses: “We are at a point of maturity in our communal and congregational journey. There are two possibilities: decline or regeneration.” And then he listed seven Christian monastic postures that are necessary for the future, and they were all titled “desires,” so you could easily say seven desires necessary for the future of Christian monasticism: the desire to stop––personal and communal stability; the desire for solitude and silence; the desire for communion; the desire for conversion, conversion of quality and continual conversion––the art of living before God and in front of our sisters and brothers; the desire for vigilance––“on the border between ritual and life”; the desire for waiting for (a phrase of Pope Francis that came up often) il domani di Dio-“the tomorrow of God”; and finally the desire for Easter––“to stay under the Cross, the justice of God, the wisdom of God.” Alessandro ended with a phrase that he borrowed from someone else that I just loved, which of course touches on one of my favorite topics: Uscire dalla gabbia antropologica–“to get out of our anthropological cage”!
Actually the phrase “monastic anthropology has come up quite often: what understanding of what it means to be human comes out of the monastic tradition. And when it doesn’t come up, I bring it up, adding that I am not sure that we all agree on that anthropology; I’m not sure we all agree on what it means to be a human being, and what are our goals, our scopos and telos.
Then there were two more, much shorter conferences offered, that were actually meant to be, and were, conversation starters. Alberto, vice-prior of the community at the Eremo and certainly one of my models for what it means to be a Camaldolese monk and a servant-leader of a community, gave an admirably brief talk on the Spiritual Life. He started out talking about the famous della Robbia bas relief of Saint Romuald in the side chapel here at the Holy Hermitage (actually in Italian it’s called an alto-relievo-“high relief”), and how Romuald holds in one hand a hermit cell and the other a bastone–a walking stick. “The cell evokes standing firm, the walking stick refers to continuing to walk.” He had his own interpretation of this (pace, Michael Fish!): “The monk who remains in his cell must fulfill the interior journey to meet the Lord who lives in his heart. When he walks instead, he must habitare secum–live with himself.” This is a Latin phrase that St. Gregory the Great uses in regards to St. Benedict (3:5-9). Benedict searches his own soul continually and keeps a close watch on his thoughts and actions; he lives “with himself.” Alberto then ended his talk with a list of words, which he did not mean to be exhaustive: the cell, attention, sobriety, silence, listening, emptiness, desert, forest, hospitality, pilgrimage. He and I have had many little conversations during our drives up and down the mountain and over dinner, and we agree that this emptiness (completely!) is somehow the very heart of our Camaldolese spirituality.
Then it was my turn, to speak of (the title I was given) “Fraternal Life in its Lights and shadows.” I had five points (the brothers will probably have this foisted on them at some point, but they will already recognize the themes): the energy and the vessel; Benedictine monasticism as the vessel for our wild Camaldolese energy, specifically humility and mutual obedience (stress on mutual obedience, not just to the abbot [prior] or the Rule) as the fundamental evangelical principles of communal life; the new asceticism, or new healthy versions of the old unhealthy ascetical practices, disciplines that are based not on hatred of the earth or the body, many of which I said come natural to young people but are not a part of our muscle memory; then the necessary ongoing ressourcement–going back to our sources to be re-inspired by them (as happened both in Camaldolese monasticism and in Catholicism at large before Vatican II), shake off unnecessary (but only the unnecessary) accretions, so as to be find both energy for the present day as well as hope for the future. The light is that our communal life is/can be a container for our shared values. The shadow is that we don’t always agree on the ancient values, and if we don’t find common ground in those we will not be able to face the challenge of the future.
Then Giuseppe gave a long discourse on formation, which was very detailed and exhaustive, and probably out of the interest of most of you (and besides that, I can’t find it to quote it). That took us up ‘til Tuesday afternoon when we began the discussion of changing of few things in our Constitutions. Oh. My. Gosh. Soooo tedious! It was supposed to be led by a good friend of the community, Fr. Sebastiano Paciolla, O. Cist., with whom we had already had a meeting last Fall when I was here, but he was unable to make it due to health problems, so Alessandro had to lead the discussions himself. I kid you not: we spent an hour each on two words (I am not sure I am liberty to reveal these changes yet, so I won’t). I had to keep reminding myself that entire ecumenical councils were held pretty much over single words (for example, filioque), and beneath every word there is (and obviously was!) a world of meaning and intention. The next day then we still had 12 more changes to discuss, which went a little faster, but still… In the end we voted for each one separately (changes in the Constitutions require a 2/3s majority) with the wooden chalice-like object and the tiny black and tan balls (black is Yes here, by the way, which had to be constantly clarified to those of us who are used to black-balling things we don’t like), and all were passed. It was interesting to have Don Emanuele here who was a main author of the revised Constitutions in the 1960s, to whom Alessandro continually deferred to explain to us the original intent of the wording. (Where is Justice Scalia when you need him?!) Quite an exercise!
Then Thursday we began to listen to the reports of all the individual houses, beginning with the Sacro Eremo and Monastero of Camaldoli, ending with Brazil this morning, with America taking up most of the afternoon yesterday. Those who have been at other Chapters are noting that there is a new spirit of openness and frankness about these sharings. And, as tedious as it can be at times to listen to the same themes come up over and over again, especially from the Visitators, it is quite moving to get an honest glimpse into the real life, especially of our very fragile presences in Tanzania and the heroic work of Andreas there, Brazil, where Emanuele has dedicated his golden years after retiring as Prior General to that foundation (he’s 79), and the new ashram in Kerala, India, Shanti-giri, with whose founders we in America have a special bond of friendship.
We kind of had this afternoon off, but I was asked to help write up the introduction to the Deliberations that will come out of the Chapter with Emanuele and Alberto, so I had some work to do. Now the bells are ringing for I Vespers of Sunday, and then it’s Pizza Night again here at the Sacro Eremo. Tomorrow Bede, Andrew, Daniel and I are going to celebrate Mass in English in the chapel of Our Lady of Comfort at the monastery and then head out for our one free day, to Anghiari and then lunch at our favorite restaurant in San Sepulcro (Raniero, I shall remember you fondly a both places!). And then back to work on Monday at 9. Big stuff next week––the confirmation of the Prior General (one hopes) and then the election of a new General Council and Visitators.
Sending love and prayers, with a grateful heart,