Ensconced amid the olive groves and the golden hills of wheat, one chances on an old road sign, rusted and bent with wind and time. Hesitation sets in, as the road looks precarious and dusty. There is no asphalt here, no direction beyond this twisted marker to signal the way up. A short drive past this sign the cypresses begin to emerge among the groves. There is no town or home in sight; no people moving about a quotidian routine. To the left, the slowly setting sun turns the valley an apricot rose. To the right of the road is a precipice of cracking clay baked in months of intense summer heat. It is late summer, and the sun sets on an endless vista of gold and silver. It is as if time stands still here. Modernity remains a distant visitor, yet unannounced, still traveling a long distance.
The aged road sign directs along the road up to an abbey. Forgotten, unknown to the anglo-visitors who love to ride these hills on road bikes, this haven has stood the test of almost seven hundred years. It is one of the few in this land that has not yet become a five star vineyard estate. After all, this is the land of vino nobile, and for good reason. They say the dirt is noble dirt — it grows a crimson gold in arid clay.
Conquering hesitation, we make a left and proceed up a single lane road, dirt rising in a cloud behind us. If there is a watchtower ahead, they know we are coming. Proceeding, the fortified walls of a castle-like structure are a silhouette in black against the evening sky. Partially hidden, a tower rises and the sound of bells rings loudly, resonating across the valley. A closer look reveals ropes; electrical bell towers do not exist here. And yes, there is a small moat, complete with a wooden drawbridge to the castle gate, beneath which a valley stream must have once flowed to irrigate the surrounding vineyards and fields of golden wheat. We are standing at the abbey doors, visitors from a modern world seeking entry to this medieval enclave of silent prayer. Cars must remain below, as another rusted sign directs. The walk to heaven is a personal one, to be made on foot.
Soon, past the alley of cypresses and the hillside of vines, amid the sounds of bells and silence, figures in white emerge. The solemnity about this procession tells this is second nature to them. Their lives are structured by hours of prayer and the pealing sounds of old bells that announce them. They are unknown to the world and seem happy this way. Old and young alike, they walk in silence. They have somewhere to go, and Someone to see.
What sort of compelling force could make our contemporaries seek this ensconced life? To outsiders, they seem strangers from a strange land. Yet these unconnected, reserved, medieval sacrificing lives exteriorly reveal a strangely unexpected inner wealth of joy. How could they leave all things behind?
The procession enters the abbey church. The abbot, an elderly man holding an olivewood cane, is last. Two beeswax tapers light an altar otherwise illumined by streaming rays of evening light. The structure is entirely white, an architectural sonata of romanesque and later renaissance and baroque influences, in parts more ornate than expected for such a monastic setting. Once upon a time this must have been a fortress of historical influence. Now it is a hidden enclave of prayer, and work, and chant.
As this gathering of orating souls congregates, a brief side visit to the cloister leaves one gasping at the beauty of the frescoed walls shrouded in the delicate evening light. On the floor a Benedictine emblem reveals identity in the Order’s motto ‘ora et labora’. This community of Benedictine monks, founded by the Sienese scholar and now Blessed Bernardo Tolomei, is dedicated to the Virgin. The fresco cycle, a first masterpiece by the renaissance painter Luca Signorelli, depicts important moments in life of St. Benedict, to whom we owe the origins of structure in Western monasticism. As the bells continue their call to evening prayer, another hooded soul emerges from a frescoed corner, enrobed in white.
Back in the Abbazia, a choir of eighty stalls lines the center nave. Each is intricately carved: renaissance intaglio work creating exquisite paintings in wood on the back of each seat. It is a fascinating thing to see a choir like this one actually used; most by now have become museum pieces, roped off and appreciated only by more serious students of the history of art.
The evening hour of prayer begins and an ethereal chorus rises in the now darkening nave. They alternately pray psalms in Latin — Gregorian chant so beautiful it sounds like a digitally mastered recording. Such care and beauty are striking in a place where no one sees and hears them apart from a handful of straggling visitors who conquered hesitation and made the turn at the lower crossroad. Who is it all for, and why?
It is a fascinating phenomenon, given all the things the world offers, that some would still today be called to leave so much in desire for a life of such radical monastic enclosure and stability. I found myself wondering for a moment whether walking around those grounds, iPad in hand, was a violation of the space and respect it commanded. Modernity had visited and it felt out of place, albeit temporarily. Each step in that place is an experience of a backwards adjustment, of realizing that contemplation commands a greater attention from us, enshrines an infinite desire — one that far surpasses a modern attachment and dependence on the temporary distractions and material possessions we have, however good they might be. So still and untouched is this place, it has the look and feel of something from the realm of the sacred. It is a timeless icon of heaven on earth.
It is amid this kind of rare pausing that we can come to see how truly reverent worship in liturgy and prayer is a natural habit of a soul in love with it’s maker. There is no one to impress in that abbey enclosure that stands hidden in the middle of nowhere. Yet, in the peaceful recesses and silence of the place, some antiphons speak louder that most of the mass communications we have at our disposal — they harken the heart’s desire for the infinite, and invite a contemplation of the truly good. They nourish the needs of the heart, feeding it an everlasting sort of joy. They tell a glorious love story in ancient tones.
Perhaps, after all, it makes sense that some would leave the world for this, that they would live now a part of a hoped for future glory. It makes sense that evening refrains ring forth among the fields of grain and silver vines set against the sun, and rise again in morning laudatory song. There is something Eucharistic about that valley, where grapes and wheat grow side by side as days come and go. Among the bounty, souls sing in praise and thanksgiving; icons of a paradisiac assembly, aware that their very being is held in being by the One to whom they sing. This is the home of a multiplied medieval sort of love, that still stands the test of time and modernity — an ancient love the modern world ought reclaim, for the sake of its soul.
And all that hidden devotion, that reverence, that care and lyrical beauty is for God, to whom this medieval sort of love gathers daily in chorus of evening praise. The interior of the heart is impelled to sing richer harmonies and stronger prayer:
I have cried to Thee, O Lord, hear me: hearken to my voice, when I cry to Thee.
Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.
Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth: and a door round about my lips…
But O to Thee, O Lord, Lord, are my eyes: in Thee have I put my trust, take not away my soul.
– Psalm 140 | Douay Rheims. 1-3,8
The apricot rose of sunset turned a purpled hue of blue. They processed out, singing in unison, a Salve Regina intoning. Dinner was waiting, down the lane of the abbey walls. In the Abbazia di Santa Maria a Monte Oliveto the Incarnation continues; the love story of God and man surviving another sunset, here some seven hundred years long.
We left — that nameless dusty road now a known path to the heavens, under a sea of Tuscan stars.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com