SUBIACO, Italy – If the guy had stayed underground, well . . ..

“Well,” says Brother John with a chuckle, “if he had, I wonder where . . . where, indeed, would we be now?”


Tall and good-humored, a gray-haired man in a long black robe, Brother John O’Shannassy, a Benedictine monk from Australia, has lived in this monastery called Santuario Sacro Speco (Sanctuary of the Holy Grotto) on a rugged Subiaco mountainside for half his life, 35 years. He knows his life would have been very different if the man in the cave – St. Benedict – had remained there as a hermit instead of taking his faith on the road.

Not only Brother John’s life. Once Benedict, who lived in these parts between 480 and 527, eventually to be canonized, went public early in the 6th century, he began making the rules of prayer, study, and work for an austere monastic vocation. After he established 13 monasteries in Italy, housing 12 monks apiece, a long Christian clerical line – the heavenly blues brothers? – began marching through the centuries. Other orders followed the Benedictine example, a franchise chain effect. Although monks were scattered out and about, before Benedict, he was the first to organize them. A sort of beatified Jimmy Hoffa?

My interest in the Benedictines began a few years ago, since a tolerantly operated monastery, Christ in the Desert at Abique, N.M., allowed me (of undetermined faith) to spend time there, recharging neural batteries as a room-and-boarder. The boss, Abbot Philip, suggested, “The next time you’re in Rome you ought to drive out to Subiaco. Although our principal monastery is farther north at Monte Cassino, Subiaco’s where it all got started.”

Where Benedict went underground?

“Exactly. To get away from it all in his remote cave, meditate, and pray in severe solitude. But God had other plans for him after three years of that. He wasn’t meant to be a career hermit.”

That remark brought to mind Brother Aquinas, who had been the contented house hermit at Christ in the Desert. Living by himself in a hut in the Chama Canyon wildernesss over the river from the monastery, he used to row across to show up for early morning Mass, a hooded figure departing as quietly as he arrived. But Aquinas, a computer pro as a civilian, is now wired to the world at his keyboard station in Santa Fe, helping design Web sites, a source of monastery income. “God’s will at the moment,” is his belief. He has even been bustled off to Rome to advise the Vatican on webbery.

The story amuses Brother John: “There are no computers in our life here, thank God. Yet.”

It takes about 90 minutes to make the pleasant journey by auto, southeast from Rome through low green hills. Somehow we got lost. But in the village of Roviano a jovial, toothless old woman identifying herself as Signora Salvatore stopped weeding her garden long enough to give directions in Italian that we could understand. Down a rutted lane, through olive groves, until the main highway reappeared.

Passing one of Roman Emperor Nero’s villas, left as rubble by a long-ago “terremoto” (earthquake), we entered the town of Subiaco, went over the arching San Francesco stone bridge where fisherman lazed, then uphill, through a marble arch and into church property. Immediately prominent was the five-story bell tower of Santa Scholastica, an 11th-century abbey named for Benedict’s sister, and distinguished by a beautifully walled and columned cloister.

The car stops here, at the foot of a steep beige brick stairway through clusters of oaks to Sacro Speco – the faded brick church and monastery – scrunched against a limestone cliff, and hanging over a narrow, deep gorge in the Simbruini Mountains. A masterpiece of plucky, keep-the-faith medieval construction, it is a monument to Benedict’s memory and his youthful spelunking.

Luckily we encountered Brother John because the other half-dozen monks, friendly enough, speak only Italian for which neither my friends, Aurelio and Sampson, nor I am prepared beyond the usual how-do-you-do’s and the weather.

As he shows us around the 14th-century church, and a passageway that skirts it – up pops the devil: a fresco confronting anyone using the passage. “The message is,” John says with a smile, “if you avoid the chapel and Mass, you go to the devil.”

Benedict’s basement, of course, is the main attraction, the grotto that was the solitary residence of the subterranean saint. Down, down winds the stairway below the main church. Down through anterooms, the lower church, and St. Gregory’s Chapel. And down some some more to rock bottom. Illuminating the way are Biblical mosaics and frescoes. The prize is a life-sized (hardly 5 feet) portrait of St. Francis, done in 1223, the only one known to be painted while he lived. Francis supposedly performed a miracle here, inducing roses to grow on thornbushes where Benedict threw himself to atone for almost succumbing to a physical temptation.

Maybe Bill Clinton should try that in the White House rose garden.

“St. Francis’s roses come out in our garden every year,” says John, “but you won’t be excommunicated if you don’t believe the story.” He points to a nativity scene. “Doesn’t Joseph look sad? Must be the rising cost of living and another mouth to feed.”

Nearby, on another wall, St. Lawrence’s face is pinched in a viselike headgear – “doing penance” is the explanation – that looks like earphones. “Maybe listening to a Bach Mass?” says Sampson.

The naturally jagged ceiling of the grotto seems a bank of low, heavy clouds. Seated within the roughly-walled gray chamber is Benedict in snowy marble contemplating a cross and a wicker basket of the same stone.

John explains, “A monk named Romanus kept him alive by lowering food in a basket through an opening in the ground. Pretty sparse fare most of the time probably. I doubt that it was ever tasty pasta, lasagna, or prosciutto.”

Aurelio responds, “I don’t think saints in caves ever had to watch their waistlines.”

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