Nivakoff is the prior of the monks living at the site of St. Benedict’s birth. After religious life was suppressed in the area in the 1800s, a group led by Fr. Cassian Folsom was given permission to re-establish the monastery and moved there in 2000.
The prior said when the coronavirus was at its height in Italy, the monks did a traditional procession around the property with relics of the true cross.
“And that’s a way of praying for people, invoking the saints and calling down God’s help and his mercy on the country and on the world,” he said.
St. Benedict himself “experienced plagues, famines, sickness, death, not to mention relentless attacks of the devil on him and on his monks. He saw all of those as occasions for the monks themselves and for him to renew his trust and his faith in God,” Nivakoff said.
There is a “sad and persistent temptation,” he explained, to think “the world can solve these problems, but in fact, this world is passing away and God is the only answer to the suffering that we see.”
“So St. Benedict’s message, if you will, would be that all these things that happen can work for the good, and that is for the good of … each man and woman, each monk, in drawing closer to God.”
The monks in Norcia experienced tragedy first-hand four and a half years ago when several earthquakes, including one of 6.6-magnitude, struck central Italy and Norcia in August and October 2016.
The earthquakes destroyed hundreds of homes and the monk’s own buildings, including the Basilica of St. Benedict.
They have been rebuilding, but construction has been on hold during Italy’s lockdown, Nivakoff said, noting that it may, God willing, be able to start back up in a few weeks.
“The earthquake taught us many things and maybe one of the more relevant lessons for today is to resist the temptation that everything should go back exactly as it was,” he said.
“We thought after the earthquake, ‘well the answer is [to rebuild] everything as good if not better than before.’”
“But at the root of that is a fallacy, that this is a world, and we are men touched by original sin, who will only really have happiness and completion and real restoration in heaven,” the prior said.
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He noted, “we can and do and need to work to improve things and to bring order where there is chaos and disorder but not at the risk of making this world into the destination and the goal,” because “it isn’t; it’s our temporary place so that we might get to heaven.”
“The earthquake really helped us to see that in a visible form, because the ground was literally shaking beneath our feet,” he said, “and the buildings we had called home to us and to our neighbors, our families, our friends, all the people here in Italy that we know, in central Italy, as all that fell apart.”
He said this “has called for trust and faith that is hard to muster in these days when the faith is so minimal.”
According to Nivakoff, “there are so many” lessons from monastic life that could help people quarantined in their homes right now, but he emphasized “two principle challenges to solitude.”
The first is for those who are in quarantine with others. As for monks who live with other monks, charity is very important when living in the midst of many people, he said.
“This really calls for lots and lots of patience, [and] to remember that patience with others always begins with patience with ourselves,” he explained. “Accepting our sins, accepting our faults, accepting that God is patient with us, and being patient with ourselves, helps us to be more patient with others.”