It’s a month since I returned from the 5-week Rome Renewal Program. I haven’t finished sorting out the small treasures of post cards and pamphlets I brought home – and I have barely begun to see how the hundreds of photos turned out. If I close my eyes, I can see the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, walk through the doors of the Basilica, and hear the beautiful voices of the Sant’Egidio Community – lay people who gather every night to chant vespers and consider how to live out the Gospel.
What is renewal? I never stopped to ask myself exactly what a Renewal Program was supposed to accomplish; the experience was so deep that I didn’t question it while I was there. It was not a tourist trip; as my Prioress said this morning, “Renewal is not a vacation.” For me, Renewal is like a second honeymoon of Benedictine life.
Initial Formation. In the first years in the monastery, I studied the life of St. Benedict, his Rule, the history of the desert monastics who came before him and the great flowering of monastic life that followed. But I didn’t really know how to use it all – I was even more of a beginner at monastic life than I am now. It was a guide in trying to be a better Benedictine in my own community. After making my monastic profession, it was easy to take it for granted – appreciated, yes, but not contemplated deeply or often.
Encountering St. Benedict. Just like a second honeymoon, the Renewal Program took me out of my usual surroundings and invited me to truly encounter the person of this remarkable man. In visiting his birthplace, the home in Rome where he lived as a student, and the sites of his later development as a monk, he became more real to me. How different Rome must have been from the remote village of Norcia high in the mountains. I could share his surprise and dismay at the contrast of the ordered life of his family (and the monks of Sant’Eutizio) with the frenetic and licentious student life in Rome. The facts of his life-story took on flesh and blood.
The need for renewal. A lifelong monastic commitment follows some patterns similar to a marriage. There are treacherous transitions in married life – sociologists track them – when the busyness of family and work life reduces time to talk things through, or the quiet of the empty nest reveals that a spouse has changed into a near-stranger over the years. A friend describing a long vacation with her husband said, “I’d been lamenting that he wasn’t the same vigorous young man any more, and I discovered this witty, kind, generous middle-aged man in his place – and I really fell in love with him!” The same is true in religious life: we may not see how we have changed, nor take the time to build and rebuild our relationship with Christ, and our understanding of the charism, the spirit of St. Benedict, that we are living out.
“Loving what St. Benedict loved and practicing what he taught.” This phrase from Brother Benet Tvedten’s book, which I’ve been reading with our Benedictine Oblates this summer, captures the essence of this renewal. As a novice, one is only introduced to St. Benedict. With more experience, Benedict becomes a brother, someone else whose love for Christ is preferable to anything else in the world. Having found that soul mate, my desire to learn from him and to practice what he taught has been fanned into flame.
And? The second honeymoon usually doesn’t require a third honeymoon and a fourth honeymoon. Instead, a couple remembers often how much they enjoy each other. The second honeymoon never really ends; the love simply grows deeper and stronger with the passage of time. It’s my hope that Renewal follows the same path.
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