The Monks of Norcia: Monastero di San Benedetto in Monte (Norcia, Italy)

One of the most peaceful places you will ever visit is the Monastery of St. Benedict on the Mountain in Norcia, Italy. I wish everyone could visit here. Personally, I was blessed to visit before the devastating earthquake of 2016 -- I had the privilege of serving Low Mass in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Benedict, since destroyed. Inside this underground cave is where St. Benedict and his twin sister were born in the year 480. Norcia is a perfect pilgrim destination. It conjures up images of the Middle-Ages, where the local monastery is the spiritual heart of the city with a flourishing liturgical life reflecting the cycles the seasons. 

Visiting Norcia is a step back in time, where visitors can worship with the monks in the land of St. Benedict. It becomes clear to all who visit that the monastic glory of the past in an obligation for the future. For many who visit, it is a first time experience to hear real-life monks singing Gregorian Chant live in choir. After praying in the chapel, visitors stop by the gift shop. Later they stroll through the cobbled streets of Norcia, with native meats and artisanal cheeses hanging from shop windows, where locals dine on wild boar with truffles at outside tables, with the sun shining and wine flowing, surrounded by soaring mountains. The old medieval walls still stand. 

Norcia is a special place. Umbria is where Benedictine monasticism has deep roots. Norcia is a city of churches, with Romanesque arches, decorative open timber roof trusses, and soaring bell towers. All of this bears witness to a spectacular past when Umbria was a land of saints and religious vocations. The landscape remains dominated with these monuments of faith and reminders from the past. This in some ways reflects an ever-present spiritual renewal in Norcia. While Italy in general is suffering under a great spiritual malaise which has suffocated the Faith. 

The newly restored monastery chapel

The Monastic Vocation

The restoration of man through the worship of God is the common life of monks, as described by St. Benedict himself. In Norcia, visitors see the restoration at work in real time. The liturgy provides the heartbeat for the life of the monks and thus the neighboring town. Witnessing the monastic life according to the rule of St. Benedict in a monastery built in the land of his birthplace is an invitation — an invitation not to be missed. Visiting the monastery is a chance to enter another world, where every detail is based on the belief that God is most important. As such it both shocks and soothes the soul, so accustomed as we are to a world which tell us we are most important.

The monks have attracted vocations from many countries

The History of the Monastery

The Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia is the only such English-speaking monastic community on the Italian peninsula. It was founded in Norcia in the Holy Year 2000. While Benedictines have had a presence in Norica for centuries, tragically, Napoleon suppressed the Benedictines in 1810 and the monastery of Norcia was sadly closed at that time and the property sold. After an absence of nearly 200 years, monks finally returned to Norcia in 2000, this time as a group of American Benedictines who came at the invitation of the local bishop. 

To have monks return after an absence of so many generations was nothing short of a miracle for the townspeople of Norcia. This fresh new start gave a rebound to the spiritual identity for the town. The locals always knew who their patron was, preserving his memory in their hearts as the founder of Western monasticism, but until they actually saw monks living the life of St. Benedict, something was still missing. At the same time, the citizens of Norcia have had to adjust their expectations. Some would like the monks to be stopping at coffee shops for frequent visits, but that is not the life of a monk. 

Today the monastery is flourishing with monks and observers (those discerning). To add to this, there is a growing number of ever-increasing guests. The monks now have twenty members from eleven different nations. The United States is represented by nine of the monks, and the ten other monks come from all over the world. Monastic life is strict and not every person has a monastic disposition. For this reason many young men come to visit and discern, but not all are called to join the community as professed members. 

Outdoor procession of the monks to mark the beginning of Lent

The Norcia Earthquake 

In 2016 Norcia, located in the center of Italy, was hit with a series of devastating earthquakes, the worst since the year 1900. The tremor destroyed much of the city, an area forever vulnerable to seismic activity. Norcia was the town closest to the epicenter. The process of rebuilding has been slow. In total, Norcia lost 13 churches and today there are still construction sites everywhere. The area remains on high alert because it is earthquake prone. This makes it very different from other Italian towns, but it has been home for centuries to the families living here. It is a land of striking natural beauty, with rural farm life thriving in the rolling hills surrounded by sylvan countryside. Earthquake preparedness is a way of life. That being said, the earthquake destroyed the imposing Basilica of St. Benedict adjoining the town's center square along with the monks' home that was attached to the property.  

The monks lead a Marian procession with the faithful

The Old Monastery 

Before the earthquake, the monks inhabited a monastery in the center of Norcia, that included care of the Basilica built over the cave where St. Benedict was born. For centuries this had been under the care of the monks. Before the earthquake the cave was visited by about 50,000 people each year, before the quake of 2016 when the property was largely destroyed. 

The basilica is currently being rebuilt to be very similar to its pre-earthquake appearance. Local experts are searching through the rubble and comparing the stones with old photographs to rebuild the walls with the same stones in the same places where they had been for centuries. This is a time consuming process, and the reopening is likely still a few years away.

What precise role the monks will have once it is reopened remains to be seen but certainly their hearts will be there.  When the monks moved out, the old urban monastery reverted to the control of the local diocese. At the moment, the crypt, though almost fully restored, is underneath a massive construction site and inaccessible to pilgrims. Work on rebuilding the ancient monastery attached has not yet begun.

The monks had done a lot of work on the old property inside the city to make it more livable and adaptable to modern use. They refinished a lovely new refectory with custom wood paneling, a wall fresco of the crucifixion, and a new kitchen to support the needs of the monks and visitors. All of this has been done through the generosity of special groups of benefactors. Will the monks ever live on this site again? Was it quite loud at night given the proximity of restaurants and traffic? Is it better to be outside of the city? 

Only God knows what the future holds for the monastery as it continues to grow. After the earthquake the monks had to move their permanent monastery to outside the town on the edge of the city limits. This property they had fortuitously acquired some years before. At the time of the quake they were devastated and thought moving up to their property in the mountains was impossible, but now they are living there and flourishing. That being said, there are currently no plans for the community to move back into the city to their former location at the Basilica. As much as they loved their old home, it was a challenge to maintain the integrity of the monastic life in the middle of a town with all its modern attractions. To give one example, rock concerts were scheduled often in the summer in the central piazza which ended around the time monks were supposed to wake up.

The new monastery chapel restored to its former glory

Building a New Monastery

The monks have therefore rebuilt their new home at a new location outside town, amid the ruins of a previous Franciscan monastery. The property had been abandoned decades ago. This year with the newly restored permanent monastery approaching completion, the monks have turned their attention to building a proper guesthouse. As the Italian government is rightly protective of its beautiful countryside, the new buildings are required to be built in the traditional style of the area. 

With its strong Renaissance lines, the newly restored monastery church is already complete and open for public Mass every day. It was originally consecrated in 1592 and the restoration has been faithful to the chapel's late Renaissance roots. The new monastery is intended for a community of 30-35 monks, and this is reflected in the choir stalls where the monks sit in choir. 

The new buildings are built entirely on seismic isolators, the same kind that they build skyscrapers on in Japan, seen in the image below.

The new monastery is earthquake proof, build on seismic isolators

Once the guest house is finished, visitors to the monastery will have the feeling of staying in a country villa from the Umbrian Renaissance. It will be a hundred yards from the monastic church. The monks hope to be able to provide accommodations for men and for women. And while fundraising and construction for the guesthouse are underway (1.8M is still needed), local agriturismi (working farms that accommodate guests as a bed and breakfast) are available close to the monastery for those unable to stay in the monastery's temporary guest quarters.

The liturgical arts flourish at the monastery

The Arts Flourish at the Monastery 

The architecture and paintings in the new monastery will be breathtaking, in Neo-Umbrian style, reminiscent of works by thirteenth century painters such as Giotto or Duccio. In the monastic tradition, the refectory is a place of spiritual as well as physical nourishment. Therefore, it, too, will have a wall painting. Although the church interior is finished, the monks will always be beautifying the interior. The local artist Fabrizio Diomedi who painted the crucifixion scene in the refectory of the former monastery is again one of the artists who is contributing to the interior decoration of the new chapel and monastery. He has already completed the magnificent mural of the coronation of Our Lady above the high altar in the main chapel. 

The monks sing the Mass and Office in Gregorian Chant

Several other artists have contributed as well, both Italians and Americans. There are paintings of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs in the side chapels, marble sculptures and reliefs by the local artist Lucio Saruggia, fine woodcarving by Lucio Ducchi, and many other notes of beauty. Also, the altars themselves, too, are works of art. The high altar and four side altars of the church were designed according to the ancient rules of form and proportion by the Italian architect David Napolitano and complemented by marble sculptures from the American sculptor Cody Swanson. The have followed 15th and 16th century models more than late Gothic.

The monastery is a place of beauty where the arts are embraced

Beer Made by Monks, as It Should Be 

The monks are by now renowned for their relatively new and fabulously popular beer, Birra Nursia. Their brewery was founded in 2012. The first beer produced at the brewery was presented to Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo in 2012. As a Bavarian, the pope surely appreciated this. 

True to the monastic tradition of beer making, the monks' beer is made by them. Their goal is beer that is both pleasing to the tastes and satisfying to the spirit. The motto of the brewery is taken from the Psalms: “That the heart might be gladdened” (104:15).  

Italians are noted for their wine, but not beer. Birra Nursia is proudly sold in all the restaurants in Norcia. Birra Nursia is available now online both in the US and in Europe as well as Asia, but always in limited quantities. The monks have a good following and sell everything they make.

Since the earthquake, the monks no longer brew on their own land. They hope to get back to that some day. Before the earthquake, the beer was made entirely in the monastery enclosure. It was not imported and relabelled, as with some other beers said to have been brewed by monks. The monks believe in quality, small-scale production. Umbria is the home of untouched Italian countryside, covered with working farms. The monastic distillery is part of a working farm that fits into the landscape, lovingly nurtured by the monks themselves.

One consequence of starting over from scratch after the earthquake was moving the site of the monastic beer production. While the production is still done by the monks, the damage was too extensive to maintain the old brewery in the center of town and now the monks' new focus since the quake has been on urgently building the new monastery with its chapel and living quarters. Therefore the monks currently use the facilities of another local brewery, while still maintaining the same recipe. The monks celebrated the 10th anniversary of the foundation of their brewery by introducing a new Trippel beer.

And while it may be a bit generous to describe it as a farm, the monks manage to draw some fruit from the land. They keep a large vegetable garden, and in the late summer visitors to the monastery can buy their surplus veggies at the gift shop. They maintain 60 chickens too, which keep them supplied with eggs. Out of the 100 or so acres of monastic land, most of the square footage is covered with forest, trimmed with the help of 13 goats. But even there, God has blessed this part of His earth with the Norcia black truffle. 

The monks' black lab, Charly, is an expert at sniffing them out. These truffles people can buy in the gift shop when they’re in season. The animals that most visitors will remember after coming to the monastery, though, are the monks' Maremma shepherd dogs. They are named: Prima, Secunda, Tertius, and Quarta. These faithful shepherds keep the enclosure safe from trespassers and wolves, but offer very warm greetings to the faithful who come to pray.

In the future when the beer is finished once again the monastery, it will be with fresh local water that comes from a deep well on the monastery land. This is all part of the continuation of a venerable monastic tradition of brewing and distilling with a time-honored mixture of work and prayer, “ora et labora,” something that stretches back over one-thousand years. 

The monks drink all the beer that can’t be sold, so every bottle that doesn’t meet their standards goes to their refectory where it can be tasted in moderation on Sunday and feast day nights. At the moment the monks are also making plans to install vineyards on their land and recover an ancient tradition of Pinot Noir wine making.

The monastery chapel with choir stalls

A Day in the Life of a Monk 

Pope Benedict once said: “What we need are men like St. Benedict.” In this spirit, the daily schedule of the monks is intense. Like St. Benedict before them, the monks' day consists of prayer and work. The monks arise for Matins at 4:00 a.m. (3:45 a.m. on Sundays). After a full day of prayer and work, they pray Compline at 7:45 p.m. and then retire for their evening rest. The Conventual Mass on Sunday at 11:45 a.m. is a good time for visitors to visit and hear Gregorian Chant sung by monks in the splendor of their liturgy. 

One thing that has changed since the monks moved out of the city in 2016 is their daily timetable. Now that they are no longer surrounded by a busy town with its own schedule, they’ve been free to adopt the traditional horarium laid out in the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. This means the times of prayer change throughout the year according to the length of the day and the length of the fast. 

On Sundays and days of precept, the monks always have public Masses at 7:30, 9:00 (the solemn Conventual Mass), and 11:00 for the faithful to attend. But on other days, the schedule will vary with the season. The rising time varies from 1:30 am in winter to 3:30 am in summer. The schedule of prayers for each month is posted on their website. 

The Gift Shop

A major highlight for many visitors is the gift shop. First opened in 2001 at the former monastery location, tourists and pilgrims have flocked to admire and purchase cottage industry products from the monks which have included hand-crafted items made by Benedictines across Italy. And now the beer made by the monks is available for purchase. 

The monks were finally able to reopen the gift shop “in Monte” in 2022, six years after the earthquake. Apart from the monks' beer and a good selection of religious articles and books, they also sell a variety of products produced by their own hands. This includes homemade bread and jam, locally hunted black truffles, and hand-carved walking sticks finished by the monks. Visitors can ask the monk at the cash register when fresh veggies from the garden are available, or when the monastery's Maremma sheepdogs will have puppies for sale. The gift shop is open also for a time on Sundays for visitors who travel from afar, many who enjoy a picnic lunch in the shade of the summer heat. 

Architect's rendition of what the completed monastery will look like

Hope for the Future

The monks are still in need of many items and depend upon the generosity and support of lay and religious faithful alike. What are some things on their wish list? Monthly recurring donations are very helpful, of 10, 50, 100 dollars or more, but the monks have been blessed with much help. As a destination place of pilgrimage, Norcia is very popular for Italians, even though it is a bit off the beaten path for many English-speaking travelers. This is partly because there is no train that goes there (it is located in the mountains of Umbria). However, it is near Cascia and Assisi, popular pilgrimage destinations. 

The monastery offers an enticing place for pilgrims who may be visiting Rome to extend their stay and explore Norcia. Precisely due to its remote location, Norcia has maintained a connection to its past that many Italian cities have not. The isolation in the Umbrian mountains makes it harder to find, but that very challenge is what draws many visitors. The steep peeks and gentle valleys have nurtured the vocations of many saints over the centuries, Benedict, Francis of Assisi and Rita of Cascia being just a few. The saints themselves provide the invitation so that a visitor might fill his belly with the delights of the earth and his soul with delights of heaven. 

St. Benedict’s axiom is that all guests be received as Christ. This the monks pay careful attention to according to the Rule. Groups can be accommodated for Mass and Confessions. Men and clergy can stay for retreats. The monastery has hosted many notable visitors, including Cardinal Burke. Also Cardinal Ratzinger visited in 2003, two years before his election to the Chair of St. Peter. 

The monastery looks to the future, preserving authentic contemplative Benedictine life, offering a different vision of a life where true happiness is possible. Historically, for many people, they can see this only gradually otherwise the light blinds them and they turn away. Meanwhile, some young Italian families have started moving to Norcia to be closer to St Benedict and the monastery at his birthplace. With these families and the monks in prayer, the monastery hopes the Faith might once again penetrate in a new way the hearts of a land which gave birth to so many saints.

N.B. Parts of this article were taken from an interview with the kind prior, Dom Benedict Nivakoff, OSB.


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