Father Martin Bernhard of Norcia
Sylvia Poggioli Goes To Norcia
The church and a nearby monastery had been home to a community of Benedictine monks, most of them from the U.S. After a series of big tremors last August, the monks sought shelter at their dilapidated grange on the mountainside high above the town. For months, they’ve lived in tents while they built more permanent housing on the mountainside, in what will now become their new monastery.
Today, the hypnotic notes of Gregorian chants echo across the mountainside as the monks celebrate Mass inside a brand-new chapel, built in wood. Choirmaster Father Basil Nixen, a native of Arizona, says medieval Gregorian chants make up what he calls the “life-beat” of their lives.
“We are chanting, singing our prayers about four, five hours a day,” he says. “So it has a very important role, it is what unifies us as a community, brings us together.”
Piero Coccia, a mason who has been working for the monks for many years, is grateful for what they’ve done for Norcia.
“The monks have symbolically brought St. Benedict back to his birthplace,” he says. “And economically, they’ve been vital to our town, not just attracting tourists but also showing solidarity and helping those whose homes were destroyed.”
And, about Birra Nursia:
It’s brewed with the water from the nearby Sibylline Mountains and is called Nursia, from the town’s Latin name.
The beer has become a popular item in Norcia shops and restaurants, along with other local specialties — cured meats and truffles.
“We very intentionally chose the name of the town for the beer to involve the townspeople, involve the rich culinary and cultural and spiritual tradition of this town,” says Brother Augustine Willmeth, the brew master. He’s from South Carolina.
If you’ve read The Benedict Option, you know that these monks and the life they lead is one of the key inspirations. Here’s a passage about what they mean to all of us Christians, Catholic and otherwise, if we’re open to receive the grace:
As I was preparing to leave the Monastery of St. Benedict after my stay, I mentioned to Father Martin how unusual it is for a place like this to exist at all in the modern world. Young men taking up a tradition of prayer, liturgy, and ascetic communal life that dates back to the early church—and doing so with such evident joy? It’s not supposed to happen in these times.
But here they are: a sign of contradiction to modernity.
Father Martin flashed a broad grin from beneath his black beard and said that all Christians can have this if they are willing to do what it takes to mount the recovery, “to pick up what we have lost, and to make it real again. “There’s something here that’s very ancient, but it’s also new,” Father Martin said. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to turn back the clock.’ That makes no sense. If you’re doing something right now, it means you’re doing it right now. It’s new, and it’s alive! And that’s a very powerful thing.”
Leaving Norcia and going back down the mountain, a pilgrim might envy the monks the simplicity of their lives in the quiet village. The serenity and solidity of Norcia and its Benedictines seem so far from the tumultuous world below, and you shouldn’t be surprised if you miss it before you’ve even reached the train station in Spoleto. But if you have received the gift of Norcia rightly, you do not leave empty-handed and unprepared for what lies ahead.
For the brothers and fathers there will have given you a glimpse of what life together in Christ can be. They will have shown you that traditional Christianity is not dead, and that Truth, Beauty, and Goodness can be found and brought to life again, though doing so will cost you nothing less than everything. And they will have shared their ancient teaching, tendered by the hands of monks and nuns from generations of generations for a millennium and a half—wisdom that can help ordinary believers, doing battle in the modern world, not only hold firm through the new Dark Age but actually to flourish in it.
I am beyond thrilled that the major national media are discovering the secret of the Monks of Norcia. If it takes beer to get the media to Norcia, well and good. But there is something deeper and far more important brewing on that mountainside. If you want to be part of the rebuilding, here’s one thing you can do from where you are right now.