Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Rod Dreher, in Norcia

The chances of being in Norcia, Italy are relatively low. The chances of running into fellow blogger Rod Dreher in Norcia are lower yet. Norcia is a small town that probably you wouldn’t even recognize the name of unless you were to recall its name being associated with Amatrice, which last year suffered two devastating earthquakes. I did not make it to Amatrice on this trip—indeed, I’ve never been, though as an adult I have eaten pasta Amatricana with great delight a number of times. And when I eat it now, I think of how hard things have been for the people of Amatrice, and I think of one person in particular, not from Amatrice but from nearby Norcia, who suffered through those quakes. His name is Carlo.

What am I doing here so close to Amatrice in Norcia, you might well wonder? Well, as it happened, I ran into my friend, that one who is a philologist, who travels in Europe quite often to study very old books written by people who lived a long time ago, most of them Greeks or Italians, most of them males, all of them now dead. Despite the specificity (and concomitant ennui) of his studies, as I often do, I decided to tag along with him for a few days. And, as I alluded to just above, we chose to meet in Norcia because he was already in Italy in his Renaissance-like pursuit of manuscripts.

Norcia is the home of a monastery where one might expect to find manuscripts. But paradoxically there are none there. Rather, one finds there a beautiful chapel, one that the monastic community has just built—it is still under construction, actually—out of fine local timbers, wood that hopefully will flex and bend when the next earthquake might come. It should do better, in any case, than the brick and mortar church did when the earthquake rocked and destroyed too much of the hitherto quaint, hitherto removed, and even untouched, Norcia. When you walk down that town’s streets, though you will see great beauty you will also feel pain, pain that you feel for Alessandro the local merchant, whose shop survived but whose town largely did not, or for Orieta, who skillfully mans the desk, along with Marco, at the Hotel Seneca, where my friend was staying with his friend, Tom Hibbs and his son, Daniel, of Baylor University. But I am speaking about pain, real pain. Yet in the midst of that very pain there are some signs of resurgence, even of joy. Life coming back like grass springing between cracks of a sidewalk.

Life and resurgence, like that of Carlo, whose thankfulness and cheerfulness was palpable as he drove us up to the monastery. He and his wife and two children miraculously survived their entire house falling in on them, as they managed to huddle beneath their kitchen table when the stronger of the two quakes struck Norcia. It was frightening, he told me, like bombs going off in wartime. He was grateful to God, he said, to have survived. He hurt his shoulder, he said, trying to protect his babies. And the rescue team had to dig them out, which they had just in time, just before, he thought, they were about to suffocate. “Un miracolo,” he said, “veramente un miracolo!”

But back to Rod Dreher, whose son, Lucas, it was a pleasure to meet, as well. This was the first time for me to meet Luca, but it was actually the second time I had met Rod Dreher, for Rod had given a keynote speech a few weeks ago at a fundraiser for the Benedictine monastic community of Norcia, to help them replace their former, now destroyed, monastery with a new facility, one in which they might slightly expand or at least update some of their brewing equipment.

Birra Nursia is perhaps the finest craft beer I’ve ever had. Not too hoppy, yeasty, not too grainy, it finds the perfect balance between all the shoals of poor coloring and Syrtes of harsh taste, for craft beers often are, as you may know, either too sweet or too biting. But the monks of Norcia, especially Brother Augustinus, know how to brew. Yet Birra Nursia is not the reason I wanted to participate in the expensive fundraising dinner when it was held last month in Texas. Nor was my desire to hear what was in fact a wonderfully thoughtful, even provocative speech by Rod Dreher. Rather, it was to help the brothers there recreate their Christian community, in and through which they seek to honor God and do good in their community. The beer is just a bonus.

And Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, is based on the way that that community functions. Of course, it owes its harmony, its rhythms to the fine medieval work entitled The Rule of St. Benedict. But Dreher’s argument goes deeper than just following a recipe for living, just as Brother Augustinus’ brewing goes deeper than following a recipe for beer. Dreher’s main point is that we all have choices about how to live in this dark world and wide, and the option he advocates for Christians is that of the Benedictine community, tangibly mapped on to the lives of those of us who do not happen to be monks, who do not happen to be single or celibate. But mapped on, in spirit (or rather in Spirit), nonetheless. The choice to separate ourselves from the ways of the world, to raise our families apart from rampant secularism, he argues, belongs to every Christian.

And thus happening to meet up with Rod Dreher in Norcia, something not unlike running into Paul McCartney strolling down the streets of Liverpool, was more than just a bonus. It was special to be there with him at the epicenter of his thoughts about the Benedictine order, about St. Benedict himself. And, there, even there, I gave him a copy of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, which I happened to have in my shoulder bag. What a crazy confluence of Welsh heritage, a Benedictine monastery, a world-famous blogger, earth-rambling (for globetrotting won’t do here) philologist, and an academic dean with his son in tow—all of these in one remote place at one unlikely moment. Which begs the question: coincidence or providence? But I leave that aside, as that could be the subject of another blog.

For the time being, I urge you to keep the community of Norcia monastic or otherwise, in your prayers, as the recovery will be a long time. The grass springs between cracks of the sidewalk, but it will be a long time until we see a plant grow. Yet the One whom those monks and the entire Christian community in Norcia honors is mighty to save and will make everything blossom in season. As a (prayer?) bench in the Hotel had inscribed above its wooden canopy, Ora et labora, “Pray and work.” Not bad advice, for that’s how miracles happen. Certainly Carlo and his whole family know that.

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