In the footsteps of St. Benedict…

July 11, 2014 | spirituality, Travel

In honor of the Feast of St. Benedict, I thought I would re-post my Times Union story on my trip to the Monastery of St. Benedict in Subiaco, Italy, four years ago. 

With a breathtaking valley stretching out below and an ancient monastery clinging to the cliffs above, Subiaco, Italy, feels as though it is a world away from the chaotic streets of Rome, only 40 miles to its west. And, in a sense, it is.

Steeped in history that stretches back to the Roman Empire and the earliest centuries of the Roman Catholic Church, Subiaco is a place out of time, giving visitors a chance to step into the very same cloisters, caves and gardens that were once home to ancient saints and medieval monks.

During the hour ride by tour bus, past fields lined with cypress trees and tiny villages dotted with red-tiled roofs, the hustle and bustle of Roman life seemed to fade with each passing mile. Finally, in what can best be described as the white-knuckle portion of the trip, the bus wound its way up a narrow mountain road to what has become a spiritual pilgrimage spot for Christians and a treasure trove of artifacts for history buffs and art lovers.

Although today Subiaco is known as the birthplace of Western monasticism, thanks to St. Benedict of Nursia — who spent three years living in a cave there before starting 13 monasteries — it was first home to the Aequi people, who were defeated by the Romans in 304 B.C. The Roman Empire took advantage of the nearby Anio River and built aqueducts to bring water to Rome, but it was the Emperor Nero

who left his mark on the place. He built a villa there and created three artificial lakes, giving the area its name Subiacus, “below the lakes,” which became Subiaco.

Tour guides like to point out the ruins of Nero’s villa and the irony that the one-time home of this brutal persecutor of Christians would become the fertile ground in which the seeds of the great monastic orders of the Christian faith would be planted. Regardless of why you visit — for the history or the spirituality — Subiaco is a place of mystery and silence, natural beauty and artistic significance.

Monastic life certainly seems to have a pull on modern men and women. You can see it in the increasing interest in the simpler life, the quest for silence amid life’s daily insanity, and, even, on the big screen. No fewer than three recent movies have tried to capture the essence of monasticism: “Into Great Silence,” about the Carthusian monks of the French Alps; “Vision,” about the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, and, most recently, “Of Gods and Men,” about a group of Trappist monks who were martyred in Algeria.

Something about the solitude and silence intrigues people today, offering a glimpse of a different, albeit extreme way of life. For visitors to Subiaco, the sparseness, simplicity and spirituality of life as a monk is palpable, as if it’s in the very air you breathe. As you walk from cave to chapel to cloister, you begin to imagine the rigorous life that is easy to romanticize from the outside.

In Subiaco, two monasteries are available for touring: the Monastery of St. Benedict, at the top of the mountain and built over the cave where St. Benedict lived as a hermit, and the Monastery of St. Scholastica, halfway up the mountain and named after St. Benedict’s sister, who was herself a monastic.


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