Monks of Norcia praying with 'greater intensity' during coronavirus

The Benedictine Monks of Norcia process around their property with relics of the true cross Courtesy Photo The Benedictine Monks of Norcia process with relics of the True Cross. Courtesy photo.

In the central Italian countryside, at the edge of the Umbrian woods just outside Norcia, a group of Benedictine monks prays and works from well before the sun rises until it sets.

This much has not changed in the monks' lives during Italy's coronavirus lockdown; but what has is the visitors they receive at the monastery.

"Usually we have some guests coming from all over the world... visitors coming from Italy or the U.S., friends or retreatants," Fr. Benedict Nivakoff, O.S.B., told CNA by phone.

"And so, the total absence of those people, of that presence, has just focused our prayer all the more and we try to do what we are called to do more seriously," he said.

"The main thing is a greater intensity of prayer for all those who are suffering."

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."

He added that silence can be a really useful tool in these circumstances: "Not speaking, not responding to the irritating or difficult or perhaps provocative things … people we live with say."

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"Especially under quarantine, the people we live with are probably going to still be with us in a few hours and maybe our passions will have calmed down by then" to respond in a better way, he said.

The second principle he drew on is for those who are living alone, such as the elderly or the young.

"For them, the quarantine really means an eremitical lifestyle. And for them the hardest temptations are sadness, acedia," Nivakoff said.

"Sadness, which can be good because it can help us to lament our sins, lament not being with God, but at the same time can be a very inward looking and very self-pitying emotion, that stems from expectations not fulfilled."

He recommended lots of humility and accepting that you are not in charge, not placing hope in things one does not have any control over.

"We have a lot more control over whether we say our prayers at noon than whether the government stops the lockdown in one week," he pointed out. "The ways to combat sadness are this: to make goals that depend on me, and to put our trust and hope in God."

Nivakoff also noted that there is a lot of talk right now about the importance of regaining the liberties men and women have had and avoiding "overreach of the government."

"And that might be true, but from a Christian perspective, it is that we men and women need to accept the limitations that this disease brings on us," he said.

"So even this terrible virus we need to see as permitted by [God] for some good purpose and the most traditional understanding of that is for some kind of purification."

"So, we ask for God's mercy because we need it."

So during the coronavirus pandemic, the monks continue their prayer and their work taking care of the animals, gardening, cooking, cleaning, and managing the nearby forest.

To support themselves the monks also brew beer, and because it is sold through the internet, the coronavirus has not negatively impacted sales.

"And thank God, that model has really been blessed at this time because with so many people not being able to leave their home, many have taken it as an occasion to sample some monastic beer," Nivakoff said.

"We continue to export from Italy to the United States and beer is available and it seems to delight many hearts there and we are very happy."

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