Thursday, May 27, 2010

"And they were afraid when they entered the cloud." Luke 9:34

Though we spent almost three days exploring the Eternal City, the day we left it felt as though we could never exhaust the wonders of Rome. One could live a year with the Romans, I think, and still not absorb even half the rich heritage and history so deeply embedded in the Roman streets and Roman walls. However, we were soon busily occupied ascending the Italian hills as we passed out of Rome into a new region, Umbria.

Two places in Italy, though separated by time and distance in our trip, seemed to have a unique connection to each other, at least in my memory; it was as though they possessed in common some fundamental spiritual quality that was distinct from the areas surrounding them. The first was Monte Cassino, the sacred monastery founded by St. Benedict, and the second was Monte Sant'Angelo, also known as the Cave of Saint Michael.

It was not just the fact that both were pilgrimage sites atop mountains, though oddly enough there was a distinct outward similarity between them. When we visited each place, it was a wet day, cold and rainy, with misty white clouds hanging low all around the horizon; and the higher we climbed, the colder it became. We had to wend our way up narrow switchback curves of the dark Italian hills, at times very slowly because the white mists prevented us seeing the road more than a few feet in front of us. When we finally rose above the initial layers of foggy cloud, we could see down into the valley, and it looked as though the mountains on the other side were floating above the town in a sea of mist.

As we approached Monte Cassino, our guide told us that this ancient monastery, founded by the Father of Western Monasticism himself, was destroyed and rebuilt no less than seven times in history--rebuilt most recently after the Allies demolished it in World War II. This little historical tidbit presented a bitter contradiction to my mind when I at last viewed the sacred monastic walls; the very first thing any visitor sees is one sweet Latin word above the arc of the first doorway: PAX.

The impression recurred to me as I marveled at the powerful beauty of the great church; Forgive us our trespasses, I murmured, as the thought passed through my mind of bombs ripping through that beautifully intricate roof. However, I soon left behind all mental lamentations about the sad errors of war, for the atmosphere of Monte Cassino transcends mere history; there is something intangibly eternal in the very air of the place.

We descended to the chapel crypt, and there we were privileged to hold Mass at the tombs of Benedict and Scholastica. The upper church was stunning enough, but the crypt was, on a smaller scale, beyond compare. Beautiful, delicately-patterned mosaics, mostly gold, lined every inch of the walls. Two graceful statues of the saintly twins stood behind the altar, gazing heavenward. The scripture we read and the hymns we sang reverberated and echoed, almost as though the voices of past Benedictines were joining us in the eternal Sacrifice of the Mass at the tombs of their spiritual parents.

In the presence of these holy siblings I began to realize that it was their spirit that pervaded the air, and the spirit of all their followers who gave up everything to follow Christ. Benedict and Scholastica lived in the Dark Ages, which G.K. Chesterton once compared to one long Lent for the whole world; the great Roman Empire had collapsed upon itself, had come crashing down and brought the world with it, and civilization had not yet emerged from its ruins. In those already harsh and dark days, Benedict and his followers chose to abandon all and seek first the kingdom of God. They mounted the mountain, as if to get farther from the world and closer to heaven; as if they were searching for the light of Christ on the mountain of the Transfiguration; they pursued sanctity in a simple spiritual rule of ora et labora, prayer and work. And climbing that mountain, through the white clouds, the pilgrim really does feel as though he were abandoning the world and venturing into the lower levels of heaven.

This, in a sense, is what connected the mountain of St. Benedict to the mountain of St. Michael. As we approached Monte Sant'Angelo, we had to undergo an even more nerve-wracking drive up steep, twisting mountain roads, in a mammoth bus that had to inch along because of the impenetrable fog that surrounded us. Once we arrived and had to walk through the small mountain village to reach The Cave of St. Michael, each step forward we made into the blank wall of mist made what was behind us disappear into it again.

When we passed through the mist and at least reached The Cave of St. Michael, I somehow felt that it was, like Monte Cassino, a place of unfathomable spiritual significance. Above ground, everything was swathed in a layer of cloud; entering the cave seemed like stepping behind the cloud. The rough, natural roof seemed to lower overhead like a solid, dark storm cloud, and incongruously at the edge of this, like a temple on a mountain, was carved out a beautiful altar and sanctuary. Behind the altar, a marble St. Michael, white and gold, raised his sword with an air of power and calm, to strike the demon cowering miserably at his feet. Beside him, and in many other places about the Cave, was etched out the battle-cry that once echoed in heaven: Quis ut Deus?---"Who is like God?"

It felt sacred, separate, removed from the world. The intangible character of the place is captured best by the words of St. Michael himself, passed on to us from ancient tradition: "I am the Archangel Michael, and am always in the presence of God. The cave is sacred to me, it is of my choosing. . . It is not necessary that you dedicate this church that I myself have consecrated with my presence. Enter and under my assistance raise prayer and celebrate the Sacrifice. I will show you how I myself have consecrated that place."

Undoubtedly, that was the spiritual connection between the two holy places, the mountain and the cavern, Cassino and the Cave. They were sacred with the presence of God, raised high on the mountaintop and separated from the world, shrouded with mist as with a veil because what is sacred always ought to be shrouded, like Moses conversing with God on Mount Sinai, or the presence of God in the Cloud guarding the Israelites, or the closed golden door of the Tabernacle in church. And somehow, there was a fitting fear I felt as we approached each place, an uncanny hesitancy and doubt that accompanied me as we entered the mist. I could not identify it at the time, but I knew it had something to do with unknowing, with not being able to see what was ahead of me in the fog. Now, as I think of another holy mountaintop, where Christ revealed Himself in His glory, I know why I had simultaneously a sense of the sacredness and the fearfulness of both Monte Cassino and Monte Sant'Angelo. We cannot see God fully on earth; we cannot know what lies ahead of us in the future. Yet, we must trust Him totally and step forward knowing that while we pursue Him, we tread on holy ground, even when we cannot see the pathway. We must follow Him, search for Him; even if it means, like Benedict, abandoning the world and climbing the mountain, or embarking on a pilgrimage to holy sites like the Cave of St. Michael, to remind ourselves why we are following the light of Christ in dark and clouded times. It is the same reason that Jesus revealed His glory to His disciples on the mountain of the Transfiguration, to strengthen them for the days of darkness ahead.

"...He took Peter and James and John and went up into a mountain to pray. And whilst he prayed, the shape of his countenance was altered and his raiment became white and glittering. And behold two men were talking with him. And they were Moses and Elias, appearing in majesty. And they spoke of his decease that he should accomplish in Jerusalem. But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep. And waking, they saw his glory and the two men that stood with him. And it came to pass that, as they were departing from him, Peter says to Jesus: Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for you, and one for Moses; and one for Elias: not knowing what he said. And as he spoke these things, there came a cloud and overshadowed them. And they were afraid when they entered into the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud; saying: This is my beloved son. Hear him. And whilst the voice was uttered Jesus was found alone. And they held their peace and told no man in those days any of these things which they had seen." ---Luke 9:28-36


  1. You've captured the mystery and awe of Monte Cassino and Mont San Angelo beautifully!!! Well done!

  2. Beautiful post! I didn't actually know that Monte Cassino had been rebuilt after the second war... sweet! Wasn't Aquinas there for a time?

  3. Yes, Thomas Aquinas was there for a time. In fact, Thomas' family was responsible for sacking Monte Cassino for Frederick II. His family was arranging for him to be the Abbot of Monte Cassino as a sort of "goodwill gesture" after the sacking. Thomas, however, had other plans. He preferred to be a begging friar in the Dominicans. As G.K. Chesterton put it in his biography of the Saint, "he had the tall and towering ambition to take the lowest place".


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