Editor’s note: we received this photo essay before the devastating earthquakes that have recently afflicted Italy, and have damaged the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia. As the monks of Norcia pause to regroup and rebuild, we present this work as a reflection and reminder of the profound beauty and goodness of the traditional Benedictine monastic life that is found there, and the importance of restoring this vitality to the Church in its fullness.
This is part one of a two part essay. You can read the second part here.
The music of the Kyrie is a three-part piece in the Basilica of Saint Benedict in Norcia. The schola is singing the Kyrie “Rex Genitor”; the thurible makes a soft chink as the priest incenses the altar; the murmur from two confessionals and of Italian grandmothers praying the Rosary adds an additional drone. These are the three parts of the polyphony of life. What is in operation here to create such an atmosphere? It is holy Fear hand in hand with holy Joy. The penitential Kyrie and the stream of confessions show the need of repentance, while the bright vestments, golden vessels, and incense at the altar shows forth festive rejoicing. So it continues for the whole Mass, culminating in communion. “Let not the partaking of Thy Body, O Lord,…turn to my judgment…but let it, through Thy mercy, become a safeguard and remedy…” and when the ministers come to distribute communion, saying to each “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto life everlasting.”
It is this Joy and Terror that I wish to keep coming back to as I narrate some of our experiences of Europe in places where the splendor of Christendom remains, not only in the buildings and art, but in the people and liturgy.
Of the Town of Norcia Itself, and How I Came To Be There
Norcia, the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, is a walled mediaeval town with a population of about five thousand. It is surrounded by the high hills of Umbria and is famous for its truffles, wild boar sausage, and traditional Benedictine monks. Within the walls of Norcia there are about 14 churches, some in use, some closed, some ruined. This makes it rather like a parable of souls in the Church.
I came to be in Norcia because my father was one of the teachers for a summer theology course on the Letter to the Hebrews, run by the Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies. The whole family was able to go, so while my father taught, the rest of us were able to explore Norcia (at least, when we were not volunteering with behind-the-scenes kitchen work).
This two-week visit really gave me a chance to explore the town. During these explorations I found many beautiful things, a few of which I would like to draw attention to.
As you walk along the streets of Norcia, you must be very careful and attentive so that you can find the little details that give the town so much character and interest.
One extremely fun item, found all over Norcia and, it seems, all over Italy, are the faces of broken statues which have been recycled and set into walls. They are scarce and I have learned that you have to watch carefully for them, although not so scarce that you won’t be able to find one if you are attentive and have a bit of good luck. It is a little frightening to be looking at a plain stone wall and suddenly see a face in it. However, once you have noticed it, you smile with delight.
Norcia has an abundance of bells, and they do not collect dust! With as many functional churches as there are in Norcia, and the frequent tolling of the basilica bells for the office, Norcia is a town filled with the ringing of bells. In fact, one of the worst punishments that could be visited on a sinner in the Middle Ages was to be banished to live beyond the range of the sound of the bells. Such a person no longer belonged to the realm where bells cried out the Savior’s pity, and times for prayers.
This picture shows a good portion of the town, and illustrates the proliferation of bell towers in Norcia. I can count six towers in this photo, and I know there are many smaller ones that are not visible. It also gives a sense of some of the surrounding hills. This experience of bells is something that is, I think, foreign to most American Catholics. Unknown to most Catholics is that electronic bells were forbidden when they were first invented, because their sound is equivocation; they do not make a joyful noise from real metal striking real metal. For the same reason, it is forbidden to play a recording of music during Mass or Divine Office.
More common than the faces are the “IHS” keystones of many doors. This is so shockingly and obviously Catholic, and taken for granted in a place like Norcia!
Another neat piece of art, a dragon flag-holder. These were not so common in Norcia, but they were abundant in Assisi.
A lion from the steps of the town hall. I associate these lions with Norcia; they are always there, having such intense and lively expressions, while being completely immobile. I suppose the visual paradox is what makes them so interesting.
This Crucifix resides in a splendid but decrepit oratory from the 17th century. It is a very mournful corpus that is positioned over the altar of San Augustino.
This beautiful fresco of the Madonna and child flanked by Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica is located in the co-cathedral of Norcia.
Of the Town of Leonessa
A little farther afield, here is one of the main gates of Leonessa, a little town about an hour’s drive from Norcia. I find the crenellated tower with the alcove fresco of the Virgin absolutely delightful. What a town is in the medieval sense is actually beginning to dawn on me.
On the far side of the gate tower of Leonessa are these lion fountains. The lions look as if they were from some other sculpture or building, but, after many years of use, repurposed for the fountain. What mischievous faces they have! They look much naughtier than the lions of Norcia.
Of the Byzantine Liturgy and Our Departure from Norcia
Back at Norcia, Fr. Yosep Verish celebrates the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. He is an old family friend and, by God’s wonderful Providence, was able to spend a week in Norcia, celebrating Divine Liturgy every day in the crypt chapel of the Basilica.
It is not often that a person can go to a Low Mass at 6:40 in the morning, a Missa Cantata (or even a Solemn High Mass) at 10:00 in the morning, and Byzantine liturgy at 4:00 in the afternoon, not to mention the Divine Office interspersed throughout the day. What a privilege to have this concentration of liturgical activity and splendor! This gave me a unique opportunity to participate in the catholic prayer of the Church, both lungs in full operation, and both very healthy! Although I am a Catholic of the Roman Rite, the Byzantine liturgy is very dear to me; I had my first confession and received my first communion in this rite, and have been attending it sporadically for many years, alongside the more readily available old form of the Roman rite. But never was I able to see both rites, both fifteen hundred years old, in such close proximity. And what struck me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, was the Joy and Terror present in these rites. They are so rich, so ancient, so full of mystery, that there is something overpowering about them, and at the same time, utterly just and right. Aslan is not a tame lion; and these rites are not tidy either. They are filled with the foolishness of God that is wiser than the wisdom of men.
This is one of the most beautiful postures I have ever seen, liturgical or otherwise. With the position of the celebrant, the altar, and the crucifix, it shows so clearly the dialogue of the priest and Christ, and the remembrance and making-present again of the Sacrifice of the Cross. The priest is praying for us through the Mass in a way we could never pray for ourselves, by ourselves. This is a truth I was very attuned to at these liturgies. At the Low Mass, I was sleepy and suffering from jet-lag; at the High Mass I found it difficult to concentrate sometimes because of how many people were crowded around me; at the Byzantine liturgy I was sometimes experiencing the afternoon slump. Because of this fatigue I could not always pray as I wanted to, but I began to realize the way that the liturgy is independent of me and still incredibly efficacious for me as a member of the Mystical Body.
Farewell to Norcia. Our last night in Norcia was very magical. The next day, we would be leaving Norcia to embark on the second stage of our journey—to Silverstream Priory in Ireland (to be discussed in part 2). But we had different business now.
As I think every person should do, I went on this trip with scores of a number of songs from the Liber Vermel de Monserrat, and I carried them with me on a regular basis. Having discovered several other amateur musicians taking the theology course, the singing of these medieval Spanish songs came about speedily. We sang them wherever we went; in the bus to Assisi, in this church and that chapel, in one of the lecture rooms, and finally, on the last night we were in Norcia, we sang them in the Mater Dolorosa church in Norcia. The church was dark, except for the light illuminating the miraculous image of Mary above the altar. We lit votive candles, and standing in a circle we sang Spanish medieval songs in an Italian church, by candlelight.
The haunting Imperayritz de la ciutat joyosa and vigorous Stella Splendens rose and throbbed through the Baroque space, and we were jubilant.
(Part 2, discussing Ireland, is available here.)
Julian Kwasniewski is a homeschooled junior in high school who has a strong interest in the fine arts: he is an avid harpist, lutenist, illustrator, and printmaker. This is his first article at 1P5.