Thursday, June 21, 2012

Magical Holy Place

I wrote last week of my coming to admire and seek the companionship of various saints as I grew in my Catholic Faith. Later as a priest, on a visit to Italy, I discovered a monastery which combined several loves: my devotion to St. Benedict, my love of St. Francis and my enjoyable interest in architecture, especially church architecture.

I had read a little in a tour book about the monastery of St. Benedict in Subiaco, about 40 miles south of Rome. My traveling companion and I rented a car and drove up the mountainous region where Subiaco is located. The setting was kind of magical because there are lots of woods and it was a cool light misty, rainy October day. There were only two others there that day and so there was a beautiful quiet.

As you can see from the picture to the left, the monastery is built on the side of a mountain. It is a very important mountain because it was there in around 500 AD that St. Benedict lived temporarily as a hermit in a cave. [Read more about the life of St. Benedict HERE] The cave is venerated today, a place of pilgrimage, and the monastery and church were built to enshrine it. Benedict would later become the founder of Western monasticism, a communal way of life devoted to prayer and work.

Fortunately, we went down some stairs on the mountainside and entered the church from a lower level. Then it really was magical. There were all these flights of stairs and levels, one after another that one climbed, with side chapels and many painted frescoes, mainly from the history and legends of St. Benedict. The ascent was a kind of prayer experience in itself.

It is interesting to learn that at one time all churches had their interior walls usually covered with frescoes and paintings of the saints and biblical scenes and images of Mary and Jesus and the angels. Over time some of these frescoes faded and were painted or plastered over. In some countries that turned Protestant (beginning in the 16th century), sometimes the holy images were deliberately removed. In Catholic countries, statues and stain glass windows became the more preferred decoration for churches. But still in Eastern Orthodox churches one may see the ancient style of walls covered in icons, i.e. holy images. One worships surrounded by the images of the saints and the Bible. [See this example HERE]

Unexpectedly in Subiaco, I wandered into a small side chapel and was excited to find there St. Francis! There was a painting of him that is believed to have been painted while he was still alive. St. Francis liked visiting monasteries and spent prayer time in many Italian caves. Experts think that the rather primitive painting of St. Francis was done while he still lived because it does not show him with the typical halo or the stigmata, received in his later life. He was obviously famous enough to get his portrait in the church, however. It is thought it might be very close to what he actually looked like.

I truly enjoyed that visit. It still works its imagination upon my mind. Our Holy Faith property reminds me a little of Subiaco because of our trees and the closeness of nature, which itself speaks of God’s glory as do churches.

[See a Youtube video of St. Benedict’s, Subiaco HERE. It captures the mood of the place]