Taking a Benedictine Breather
Venerable Monte Cassino Offers Rest and Retreat
Monte Cassino belongs to the Benedictine Order and is located in southern Italy’s Lazio region. It sits high above the quaint town of Cassino, about 136 km (84.5 miles) from Rome.
Its founder, St. Benedict of Nursia, now rests in the basilica crypt, alongside his twin sister, St. Scholastica.
St. Benedict is well known as the author of the Benedictine Rule and the motto ora et labora (pray and work), which defines the life of the Benedictine Order. As the Monte Cassino website says, “The Rule in its entirety encourages love, prayer, work, respect, chastity, moderation and community.”
Guiding retreat participants into St. Benedict’s original room, Father Giustino, a visiting monk from Brazil, recounted a tale harkening to the superiority of love. The story, about the saintly siblings, has a sixth-century textual source, St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues:
“Meeting once a year, St. Benedict and St. Scholastica would spend an afternoon together in ‘holy conversation.’ On one occasion, St. Benedict was about to depart for the monastery when St. Scholastica implored him to stay and continue their spiritually enriching dialogue.”
When Benedict said he could not stay, “St. Benedict witnessed his sister begin to pray. A storm immediately erupted, which deterred St. Benedict’s departure.” When Benedict questioned his sister, St. Scholastica responded, “I asked you, and you would not listen. So I asked my Lord, and he has listened to me.”
Chuckling, Father Giustino concluded his storytelling, “‘Love is greater than the law. Here, St. Scholastica’s love was greater.”
Besides its spiritual patrimony, Monte Cassino is a historical landmark for many reasons.
Initially erected in 529 A.D., the abbey was built over a third-century B.C. pagan temple, whose walls are still partially intact.
It became a center of culture and learning through the Middle Ages.
More recently, it is known for the famous Battle of Monte Cassino during World War II. From January to May 1944, the Allies launched assaults against the German-occupied abbey, serving as a strategic breakthrough to regain Rome.
Though not for the first time, Monte Cassino was razed during the battle. After years of major reconstruction, it was formally re-consecrated in 1964 by Pope Blessed Paul VI. On the same occasion, Blessed Paul VI named St. Benedict patron of Europe.
While Monte Cassino has not regained its former vibrancy pre-World War II — 60-70 monks, a school and college attached — it’s slowly picking up the pieces.
In 2006, Monte Cassino opened St. Benedict’s School in Cassino, under the headship of Father Luigi Maria di Bussolo. There are a total of 360 students between the preschool, elementary, middle and high school. It’s the only remaining school attached to a Benedictine abbey in Italy.
Today, history is still being made at Monte Cassino. For the first time, Monte Cassino held a women’s spiritual retreat, intended to be the beginning of a series. In preparation for Holy Week, from March 27-29, Father di Bussolo, one of 12 Benedictine monks living at the abbey, led meditations.
Besides guided meditations, participants joined in the monks’ prayer life, attending Liturgy of the Hours and Mass.
When asked what led to the unprecedented decision to host a women’s retreat, Father di Bussolo explained, “We can no longer restrict ourselves only to men. We can carry out a service of spirituality and welcome, of encounter with the Lord for all, as all greatly require it. I would say here that charity understood as love, the welcoming of the other, needs to be superior to the law.”
The retreat theme, from the Gospel of Mark 14:8, served as a reflection for Holy Week, as it was linked to Christ’s passion.
“I chose this theme — betrayal — because it was … decisive in the life of Jesus and is present in the life of all: how many betrayals, not only within families, but also friendships and all relationships?” Father di Bussolo said.
To enrich meditations, Father di Bussolo used the image of a 16th-century painting, The Kiss of Judas, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, drawing upon two aspects of the painting: the play of light and shadow and betrayal within a gesture of communion.
“Shadow is not simply a background,” Father di Bussolo said, speaking of natural light. “It always serves as a contrast to light; even more, it exists because of the light.” Correlating this dualism to the spiritual life, the retreat master continued, “We must not let [darkness] envelop the light and abandon ourselves to darkness, as Judas did.”
According to Father di Bussolo, Caravaggio’s painting also captured the dynamic of Judas’ betrayal. The kiss of Judas is representative because, “through this gesture, this sign, which is a symbol of affection and friendship, of communion, is inserted the betrayal.”
While Christ was betrayed by one who “broke bread” with him, and though fully aware — “One among you will betray me” — he never withdrew the gift of himself. Christ proceeded with his passion and death to redeem mankind, the priest explained. The difference between Peter and Judas was hope and trust that God’s love is greater than human sin — a lesson for all of the faithful to ponder.
For Lorenza Larossa, a nursing student at Sapienza University in Rome, “It was an experience without equal. It was a swelling of emotions, especially for us women. The kindness and patience of the monks, the truly Christian spirit fostered between all, was unforgettable.”
Cecilia O’Reilly writes from Rome.
- May 3-16, 2015