Experience, Witness and Perspectives

Fr Emanuele Bargellini, OSB Cam, Prior of the Monastery of
the Transfiguration, Mogi Da Cruzes, Brazil

BargelliniLa spiritualità come esegesi was the title of a short article in the little monastic periodical Camaldoli, edited by the community of Camaldoli in 1952. It opened up a new horizon for understanding and living the spiritual journey of a monk, seen as an expression of salvation history, witnessed to by the scripture, celebrated in the liturgy, journeying towards its completion at the eschaton.[1] Its author, Don Divo Barsotti, a Florentine priest of deep monastic spirituality and a learned scholar of the Fathers of the Church, as well as of ancient Eastern and Russian monasticism, was closely linked to the movement of patristic ressourcement in the French Church which for decades had been rediscovering and promoting the theological and spiritual vitality of patristic exegesis and commentaries on the liturgy. In Italy, however, especially in the Camaldolese sphere, this perspective was still a novelty apart from certain circles which had been in contact in the 1930s with the French, Belgian and German liturgical movement.

‘One of the principal sources of Christian spirituality,’ affirmed Don Barsotti, ‘is to be found in the typological and spiritual exegesis of holy scripture. Typological exegesis shows us how events of ancient times, the works of God, are still present and actualised to this day, since they have been brought by God to completion in the human heart. Christian spirituality, specifically through this exegesis, is less a doctrine than a story, not so much the story of ancient Israel as the story of the Christian soul. Books of spiritual exegesis, therefore, are not doctrinal works, but rather witnesses to interior experience. It suffices to think of St John of the Cross’.[2]

Not long before, in the same periodical, Don Benedetto Calati, a Camaldolese monk already well-known outside his own community, introducing an extended study on the active and contemplative life, and the patristic tradition in the earliest Camaldolese legislation, wrote, ‘Not a few, perhaps, even among monastic scholars themselves, are unaware how much theological and patristic wisdom is preserved in the hermit-Camaldolese culture. The purpose of these modest notes is to reveal this rich doctrinal heritage. There are complete expositions of the Christian life and of theological doctrine, well worth reclaiming today, when we live in a world disoriented and divided. They are still more valuable for ancient monasticism, of which the Camaldolese Congregation is a noble branch because its distinctive orientation accords with the spirit and intentions of the Fathers. … But the most precious feature of the document of Rodolfo is that it is not only based on the Camaldolese viewpoint, but also offers a teaching wholly in conformity with the best and noblest patristic tradition.’[3]

This long analytical study of the primitive Camaldolese legislative and spiritual text, developed through a careful analysis of the text and its generous appreciation of the sources of inspiration in the patristic tradition, and in particular St Augustine and Gregory the Great, offered the Camaldolese glimpse of the sources of their own sources. In the same year Don Benedetto opened the doors of the Monastic Institute of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, where – at the invitation of Don Cipriano Vagaggini - he began to teach monastic spirituality, on the basis of the biblical commentaries of the Fathers and their lives of the saints. The work of Don Benedetto showed the Camaldolese a broader method and vision for staying close to their original sources. By means of the Fathers, he opened up the biblical ground which lay at the base of their vision of monastic life.

In Search of the Treasure buried in the Field

The editorial plan of Camaldoli, as it emerged from the first writings of Calati and Barsotti, was part of an ideally wider project aimed at the re-discovery and re-valuation of the patristic and biblical roots of Camaldolese monastic life which had begun some decades earlier in the monastery of Fonte Avellana. Its principal impetus was Don Anselmo Giabbani, with a few other scholars in the Camaldolese tradition such as Don Bernardo Ignesti, who in his turn initiated contact with the Greek Fathers such as John Climacus.

In 1935, after a painful internal controversy, the Holy See had decreed the suppression of the Camaldolese Cenobitic Congregation. A small group of its survivors was in fact incorporated into the Congregation of Etruscan Hermits of the Sacred Desert and Monastery of Camaldoli. Since the seventeenth century the cenobitic congregation had preserved the common life only in the monasteries, and the congregation of Camaldoli had preserved the eremitical life only in the Sacred Desert. This in fact constituted a divorce in the traditional monastic charism of St Romuald, although each party continued to display the same traditional symbol of the two doves drinking at a single chalice. For five centuries these two doves had remained the symbol of unity between the eremitical and cenobitic life, fed from the one chalice of the sacrificial love of Christ, reflected in the interior bond of the alliance of God with his people, symbolically recalled by the inscription underneath, ‘Ego vobis, vos mihi’ – ‘I am your God and you are my people’.

blasoncamThe concentration of young monks in formation, at that time in significant numbers, in the monastery of Fonte Avellana, inherited from the cenobitic congregation, had contributed to fostering a search for unity and integration between the two souls of the monastic charism characterized by Romuald and Camaldoli. Such a desire in Camaldoli had become urgent since the re-constitution of that community, followed by the dissolution which occurred in1870 as a consequence of the laws of the new Italian state, which suppressed monastic communities and appropriated their goods.

The re-opening of the community a few years later, in extremely precarious conditions as regards both the individuals and the cultural formation and material means of survival, bound the little surviving community in a more visceral way to the monastic practices of its exclusively eremitical tradition of the previous two centuries. This was accompanied by an almost total ignorance of the original and ancient tradition of unity and interaction between the cenobitic life and the eremitical life, and an equal ignorance of its foundation in the previous pluralistic tradition of Benedictine and Eastern monasticism. For decades the little community concentrated all its forces on researching how things had been and on a return to the essential for a Camaldolese monk, hermit and cenobite, and how this might be. The historical documents edited in the eighteenth century remained for decades the sole source on which the scholars, industrious but a little prejudiced, spent their best energies without managing to widen their horizons.

In France, Germany and Belgium in the late nineteenth century and in Italy from the 1930s the process of cultural and spiritual restoration and renewal was reviving old and new Benedictine monasteries, cultural centres and pastoral initiatives, enlivening liturgical, monastic, ecclesiological, ecumenical movements. It remained entirely beyond the horizon of the Camaldolese. The few pioneers, like the dynamic Prior Don Anselmo Giabbani, and the Master of the newly professed monks, Don Benedetto Calati, began their work in Fonte Avellano from 1935 onwards. However, they became perilously estranged from the Camaldolese frame of mind, intent on its own historical and ideological viewpoint.

Nevertheless, a few signs of renewal, whose importance was difficult to appreciate at the time, began to move the Camaldolese mentality forward. In 1934 the old Guesthouse of the monastery was returned to the monks and was re-opened. Thereupon the first groups of Catholic intellectuals arrived, professionals and university students. In succession to them, and inspiring them, came the most important theologians and pastors of the Italian Church, among whom was the future Paul VI, at that time Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, eager to set up a lively and fruitful dialogue with the cultural and spiritual monastic tradition, despite the fragile situation of Camaldoli at that time.

With them came important innovations, the first dialogued Masses, the celebration of some parts of the divine office shared between monks and laity, an approach to the sacred scriptures as founts of inspiration and life, the opening to the life of the Church and of society. As part of the return from exile away from their own historical and spiritual roots, the first overdue steps of the Camaldolese were taken from the exile from the Word of God and from the Liturgy of the Church. In a sort of inversion of the classic order, by which the interior reception of the Word opens the way to the reception of persons, making a unity between the first and the second commandments, in Camaldoli during those years occurred an inverse movement: the reception of individuals fostered an opening to the reception of the Word, expressed and recognized in the scripture, in the liturgy, in theological reflection, in the education of the laity and in the rediscovery of history.

At Fonte Avellana in 1943, right in the middle of the war, a retreat was preached to the community by the German Benedictine Don Anselm Stolz, professor of dogma at Sant’Anselmo. He put forward again the sacramental and objective foundation of Christian mystical experience under the influence of the Holy Spirit present in the sacramental action in the living body of the Church and in the spiritual journey of every believer. In this perspective, drawn from the Fathers, he stood out against the position, at that time widespread in theology and spirituality, which reduced mysticism to an exceptional moment of higher religious consciousness, divorced from its objective historical and salvific basis and from experience of the sacraments. This was another stimulus towards the recovery of monastic and Christian roots. The innovative lines of his Teologia della mistica[4] chimed in with the impetus of the Camaldolese to place again the Camaldolese Romualdine tradition in its broader context of the patristic, biblical and liturgical heritage.

In 1959 Don Benedetto, at that time confirmed as professor of monastic spirituality at the Atheneum of Sant’Anselmo, and in close collaboration with Don Cipriano Vagaggini, Dean of the Faculty of Theology, published in Camaldoli a careful work of synthesis, which both gave direction to his future researches and his ministry as inspirer of the renewal of Camaldolese life, and marked his cultural activity and pastoral service outside the community: Historia salutis, Saggio metodologico per una spiritualità monastica.[5] The opening of this shows its full force and its methodological orientation, ‘Here we find an essential aspect of monastic spirituality which, quite apart its fundamental importance for monastic life itself, illuminates its various manifestations in the Church, regulates its possible evolution and guarantees its stability. It is therefore a matter of seeing how the whole monastic experience is intimately connected with holy scripture in such a way as to make monastic spirituality a historia salutis. In its most luminous phases it finds its perfect completion in the eschatological Kingdom of God.’[6]

A Personal Experience: ‘Come into the Ark yourself.’

As a young professed monk and his disciple in the community of San Gregorio al Celio in Rome, I received my first personal Bible from Don Benedetto in 1956 with the inscription, ‘The unfolding of your Word gives light, and teaches the simple’ (Psalm 118. 130). Next he entrusted to me for my own meditation the Letters of St Paul and Christ in his Mysteries of Don Columba Marmion, meditations on the principal festivals of the liturgical year. In addition, the spiritual climate in the Camaldolese house began to change decisively with regard to the prevailingly moralistic and devotional formation received a few years earlier in the noviciate. In his Saturday conferences to the community Don Benedetto developed the great biblical themes and the main stages of the history of salvation with its principal leaders, Noah, Abraham, the patriarchs and prophets, not to mention the apostles, called to follow Jesus and to share his lot. The first community of Jerusalem, as the holy city of the Book of Revelation, became familiar themes, as did other stages of the spiritual journey of each individual open to the future in God.

camaldulearbreOne day in my twenties I anxiously sought out Don Benedetto, my heart crushed by sorrow and my eyes full of tears. An intense emotional crisis had been tormenting me for days without my being able to see any way out. Tumultuous waves of emotion were turning me upside down. Don Benedetto received me kindly and listened to me for a long time in silence. Then he opened the Bible and read, ‘The LORD said to Noah, “Go aboard the ark, for I see you as a just man in this generation”’ (Genesis 7.1). Alternating between readings of the text and short commentaries, he made me see that God was standing at my side, as a defence and support. I found myself in Noah’s ark, with his family, in the company of representatives of all the animals, solicitously received and saved. My floods subsided and the ark opened to me as a haven of peace beneath the troubled skies of my heart. My life was changed for ever, and so was the Bible. No longer was it a book which told stories of others and taught the correct way of life. It was the mirror of my life, reflecting my past, my present and my future.

I did not yet know the text of Cassian in which the great spiritual master asserts that to a certain extent the monk who meditates and prays the Bible and the psalms with humility and perseverance himself becomes their author.[7] But I experienced the truth of this. I re-read the 1952 article of Barsotti and the recent article of Don Benedetto with different eyes. They threw a different light on my little personal experience and predisposed my ears to listen with due tranquillity to the first lectures of Don Vagaggini which I was just beginning to attend. In his rigorous historical and metaphysical approach to the Trinity, ecclesiology and theological method Vagaggini laid out as weight-bearing axes the great theological lines of the Fathers of the Church of East and West, with all their vigorous biblical and theological meaning.

The principal sources of the patristic and liturgical ressourcement began to pass through our hands, from the J. Daniélou of Sacramentum Futuri and Bible et Liturgie to the L. Bouyer of La Vie de la Liturgie, to the H. de Lubac of the Histoire et Esprit and Exégèse Médiévale, to the H. von Balthasar of Liturgie cosmique. Vagaggini’s own recently published Il Senso Teologico della Liturgia with its synthesis of scripture and liturgy, its experience of the sacraments and spiritual progress, its focus on the category of history of salvation, put in our hands a demanding and unsurpassed instrument for work. Joining the newly founded Pontificio Istituto Liturgico of Sant’Anselmo in 1962 was for me the natural outcome of an interior and academic journey. It signalled a first response to a yearning for a deeper link to the daily monastic practices, a conscious re-discovery of its roots and potentialities, a fitting preparation for the exercise of a welcome into the community, aimed at being a significant aspect of Camaldolese life.

In the 1960s the group of young monks who attended Sant’Anselmo and breathed the atmosphere of its theological wisdom was fairly numerous, while at San Gregorio there was ample opportunity to share the fervour of the Council which was in progress, and of the first reforms which were just under way on the theological, pastoral and liturgical plane. The salvation-historical aspect of Christian and monastic life, brought back to its vital roots in scripture and the liturgy, would give new life to the formation of the young monks, to the spiritual climate and to the style of daily life of the Camaldolese community. Through this gift, in a way which could not have been envisaged a few years previously, the same process of revision of Camaldolese monastic identity and its juridical and organisational basis led to the drafting of new Constitutions in the extraordinary general chapters of 1968 and 1969. Camaldoli faced up to the Council, after a painful journey of about 40 years. If this journey had profoundly scarred its body, it had also predisposed its soul to open itself to the new and wider horizons that the Council opened up for the whole Church.[8]

The Council at Camaldoli

The Council gave new vitality to the Camaldolese family, contributing to outlining a new face, and opening out new spaces and new challenges to set the potentialities of the charism of St Romuald free with a dynamic and creative fidelity. The great documents DV, LG, SC, GS, UR, NAE constituted the major pillars on which, gradually and with reciprocal interaction, were built the process of formation, the style of the spiritual life and the ministry of vitality towards the Camaldolese community. Dei Verbum was the main innovative element of formation for theology and the spiritual life of the monks. Theological research as a process of formation of new generations of monks had brought out the need for a sapiential theology, capable of linking the spiritual heritage with the major contributions of modern thought, in partnership with the progress made in its time by ‘monastic theology’. Lectio divina regained its centrality in the life of the monks, in study, the weekly conference, hospitality, the teaching given in several faculties of philosophy and theology, and the various cultural and spiritual services which today characterize the community. As with the Fathers, lectio divina became a standard method of reading and interpretation, in the light of the Spirit, of the experiences of life, starting with the biblical text to reach the events of daily life and of history.[9] The link with liturgical celebrations acquired a new breath of life, giving interior continuity to the tapestry of daily life.

This multiform relationship with the Word initiated an attempt to build the process of interior unification of a person which alone can lead to celebrating the development of the spiritual life, and admits of no distinction between liturgical and profane time. Consciousness of the single history and the single Word entrusted to all the children of Abraham has, since the early 1970s, developed into a fruitful Jewish-Christian dialogue in the Camaldolese community, in collaboration with the network of friends of Jewish-Christian Friendship.

In direct connection with Dei Verbum a second pillar has been Lumen Gentium. Through the theological category of the Church, understood as participation in the mystery of Trinitarian communion as a communion in a diversity of charisms, the people of God on pilgrimage ‘from Abraham to the last of the just’ (Lumen Gentium 2) has stimulated a profound rethinking of the meaning and style of life in community, and the modality of its presence in the Church today. This is a style which hinges on the Word of God meditated and celebrated, and on its faithful fulfilment, on the sense of responsibility and reciprocal co-responsibility of every individual rather than on discipline and regular observance and uniformity. It stimulates communication and collaboration between members, a more fraternal relationship between superior and the brothers.

As an ecclesiological key to communion in diversity, the traditional Camaldolese dialectic between monastery and desert, has also been rethought. The desert, before being a logical and juridical structure of the community, is an existential dimension which constitutes the Camaldolese monk as a human person. It is a way of being and existing in relationship. The gradual development of events has shown that here one comes across a life-changing nerve-centre of personal and community life. The process of the Word made flesh intimately touches the path of initiation into monastic life in the call to integrate into the cultural context from which the monastic community lives. Monastic hospitality in its turn has been re-thought on two convergent lines, a welcome through spiritual withdrawal and the proposal of spiritual formation on the basis of scripture and liturgical celebration, hinged on sharing the interior and practical rhythm of the community.

Sacrosanctum Concilium has brought about a new theological and spiritual understanding of the liturgy. This remains at the centre of the structure of community life (the divine office and the conventual Mass), but no longer constitutes its living centre. The first duty that the community has taken on is theological and spiritual formation. Don Cipriano Vagaggini, an habitual visitor to the Camaldolese community from the 1960s, definitively transferred his stability to it in 1979. With his classic work Il senso teologico della liturgia, and its great contribution during the Council and the subsequent phases of liturgical reform, combined with his enriching fraternal conversation, made important contributions to the consolidation of the deep liturgical spirit at Camaldoli.

The decision to undertake a profound re-structuring of the liturgy was spontaneous and almost taken for granted. It brought the immediate introduction of Italian and the creation of new chants, inspired by the meditative style of the Gregorian tradition, but easily sung by every participant in the celebrations of the monastic community. Sharing in the liturgical celebrations, together with lectio divina, stands at the heart of the spiritual pathway offered to guests. This plan offers an open pathway which has already afforded genuine fruit for the community and for guests. It is expressed in Italy by the Salterio Monastico of Camaldoli and the weeks of liturgical formation organized by the community since 1963. Engagement in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, nourished by the fruitfulness of the Word working mysteriously throughout history, have become integral parts of the Camaldolese monastic landscape. They have also become constitutive parts of Camaldolese life, and therefore introduced into the new Constitutions of 1968-1985, commended as a special task by John Paul II in his pastoral visit to the Sacred Desert in 1993.

In this year of 2012 we find ourselves charged with the celebration of the millennium of the foundation of the Sacred Desert (1012), conscious of the precious spiritual legacy received from our fathers no less than the new tasks brought to the Church by the Council. This legacy continues to bring its fruit, nourished by the new impetus given to the Church in our days by the Holy Spirit.

[1] D. Barsotti, ‘La spiritualità come exegesi’ in Camaldoli – Bolletino Trimestrale, VI, no 31 (1952), p. 124-129.

[2] Ibid., p. 124-125.

[3] B. Calati, ‘Vita attiva e vita contemplativa. La tradizione patristica nella primitiva legislazione camaldolese’ in Camaldoli VI, no 28 (1952), p. 10. The document to which he refers is the Constitution and Rules for the Eremitical Life attributed to Blessed Rodolfo, Prior of Camaldoli.

[4] A. Stolz, Teologia della Mistica (Morcelliana, Brescia, 21947). Many years later Calati, in homage to the impact which this encounter had on him, developed the potential of Stolz’s positions, writing an extended introduction to a new edition of his works, A. Stolz, La Scala del Paradiso. Teologia della mistica (Morcelliana, Brescia, 1979), p. vii-xxxv.

[5] In Vita Monastica XIII (Brescia, 1979), p. 4-48. This collection of Don Benedetto’s writings presented 17 of his main and extended studies on spirituality, preceded by an analytic biography (the work of Innocenzo Gargano) and followed by his full bibliography.

[6] B. Calati, Historia Salutis in Sapienza Monastica, p. 69.

[7] ‘Strengthened by this food, he receives in himself all the treasures hidden in the verses of the psalms. He sings those verses not as works composed by the sacred writers, but as if he himself was their author, as a personal work in the deepest compunction’ (Cassian, Conferences 10.11).

[8] Compare E. Bargellini, ‘Monaci Camaldolesi nella chiesa postconciliare’ in A. Barban and J.H. Wong (editors) Il Primato dell’amore. La spiritualità benedittina camaldolese (Ed. Dehoniane, Bologna, 2011), p. 76-101.

[9] Prolonged association with a friend and exacting biblical scholar like Dom Jacques Dupont, monk of the monastery of Saint-André de Clerlande (Belgium), contributed to showing the community the need and fruitfulness of engaging on a historico-critical series of scripture and its polyvalent spiritual interpretation, so typical of the Fathers of the Church and of the liturgy. Cf. G.I. Gargano, Il sapore dei padri della Chiesa nell’esegesi biblica. Una introduzione (Ed. San Paolo, 2009). This is the first of a series of volumes on the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church in the course of publication by the author, monk of Camaldoli and San Gregorio al Celio in Rome, professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.