In the valley of humility. Golden Chapels, a war torn town, and cloistered nuns at the foot of Monte Cassino
During our Italy pilgrimage one morning we woke up in the Monastery of St. Scolastica, at the foot of the mountain of Cassino, on whose summit Benedict founded his last (and some say greatest) monastery, Monte Cassino. St. Scolastica is a striking contrast from the gold and power of Monte Cassino at the top of the mountain.
On the crown of the mountain is a rebuilt renaissance Monastery that has the form of a monastery (cloister walks, wells, gardens, enclosing walls, chapel, workshops) but the substance and decoration of a palace and fortress of a powerful Italian Duke. There are patios with stone balustrades that look out over the surrounding land, land which was likely a gift to Benedict to support the foundation of his abbey. Benedict’s buildings were smaller, and later Abbots built the palace, built the gold trimmed chapel it contains, and brought artists from Constantinople to do mosaic work.
In the museum, there is one preserved early medieval cloister and chapel that felt to us like a place of prayer. So we stood there and prayed, and grieved, and then went outside the museum to sit on some grand steps with views of the surrounding lands. Later in the evening, we made our way down the mountain to the cloister where we were staying.
The town of Cassino was bombed into rubble by the Americans in WW II. There is almost nothing left of the rich architecture of this market town that belonged to the Abbot of Monte Cassino. The destroyed 13th century St. Scholastica was rebuilt on the edge of town in modern style, with square corners, new stone, and I am sure, better plumbing. From the street it is an imposing, white, square block with only a few small windows. To support their Abbey, they rent rooms to boarding school students. We shared a kitchen with some of these hopeful men and women, and often heard their late night conversations.
The chapel is lovely inside, with modern art, and altar cloths and festive robes dug out from the rubble. A wonderful nun in her 80s showed us the collection of these when we were given a chance to tour a bit of the cloistered part of the monastery. The current Abbess entered the monastery in the 1960s, when she was ten, and received her schooling there. She is a warm, fair, and wise woman. Much of the guest house (and many other things) is run by her colleague, Sister Martha, who is from Brooklyn, NY, and took a long and winding road to her monastic home here.
After morning prayer on our last day there, the nuns assembled at the cloister grille in the chapel for a picture. We left that morning with memories of women who were grappling with large and small challenges, but who persevered in living the life of the Gospel, caring for each other and the world, and praying.