Saturday, September 18, 2010


I’ve mentioned that I have some classmates who happen to be monks.  They live in the convent of San Bernardino, right around the corner from school.  And they invited a few of us to dinner at the monastery on Tuesday night.

Only B. and I were able to go that night.  I thought it would be pleasant to have dinner with friends, see the monastery, e basta.  We ended up staying until after 10pm, and it was a marvelous and memorable evening.

Our friend V. met us in front of the school at 7:30 and walked us into the convent.  C. was waiting in the first cloister and the four of us walked in together to the refectory.

I don’t know if I can explain the layout of the religious complex without a picture, but I will try.  The central building is the church of San Bernardino, built in the fifteenth century.  There are three cloisters around the church.  The first, the Cloister of St. Anthony, is the largest, and is at the entrance to the grounds; south of the church, I think.  This first cloister and the church are open to the public.  On the west side of the church are two more cloisters: toward the back (north?), the Cloister of St. Francis, which runs alongside the church, and toward the front, the Cloister of St. Bernardino, which runs alongside the first cloister.  Are you with me so far?

The first cloister is public, but to get into the other two, you have to either live there or know someone who does.  The Franciscan brothers, naturally, live around the Cloister of St. Francis.  They have their own small chapel, separate from the church, which they use for their daily prayers.  Upstairs are the dormitories, which we were of course not able to visit; downstairs, the kitchen, the refectory (dining hall), and the breakfast room.  The monastery also runs a soup kitchen, daily if I understood correctly, and two or three times a week they open up showers for the homeless.

 The brothers were just sitting down to dinner as we arrived.  C. and V. were gracious hosts and barely let us lift a finger, insisting on carrying the water and all the place settings to our table, and bringing us each our plate of pasta.

Dinner was simple but hearty, exactly as you’d expect monastery food to be.  There was, of course, pasta to start, short twisted noodles in a spicy tomato sauce with ham and black olives.  For the secondo there was an airy ham-and-cheese frittata, salad, bread, coldcuts and cheeses.  Dessert was fresh fruit and a fabulous cake, hazelnut cake layered with berry jam.  The monastery employs a cook who makes lunches and dinners Monday-Friday.  She has weekends off, so then the brothers take turns cooking.  Everyone is on his own for breakfast.

While we were eating C. asked me if I knew the technical word for a monastery’s dining hall.  I remembered that it was “refectory” (refettorio) because, I confessed, The Name of the Rose was one of my favorite novels.  Fortunately, there was no murder mystery at this Italian monastery; unfortunately, there was also no Sean Connery playing a monastic Sherlock Holmes.

After dinner, the brothers all stood—so did B. and I—and the guardian (I think that is what he's called?) said grace, and publicly welcomed us, C. and V.’s classmates from Germany and the United States, and thanked us for sharing their meal.  We in turn thanked them.  As the brothers started to clear the tables, he came over and shook hands.  So did several others who were curious about why we were studying Italian, what we thought of their home.  “Which one of you is the American?” was often the first question, which made me feel a little self-conscious, but then again, Germany is right next door but America is far away--they probably get German visitors on a regular basis, and Americans once in a blue moon.  And while most of these men will have lived in several countries by the ends of their careers, the US is not likely to be one of them.  There are only two Franciscan monasteries in the whole country, I was told, in Chicago and New York (or was it Washington?).  But I encouraged them all to visit California, if for no other reason than to visit the chain of Franciscan missions up and down the coast…including one that’s practically in my backyard.

We offered to help with the dishes—the brothers do all their own cleaning—but C. and V. gently refused and steered us into the breakfast room, where C. whipped up a couple of superb cappuccinos.  (When B. and I went to grab our purses, the boys said, don’t worry about those, we’ll come back in this room in a bit.  We both hesitated, but then realized that a monastery was probably the safest place in the world to leave one’s bag unattended.)  Another brother joined us for coffee.  We talked about the history of cappuccino.  B. and I gawked at the five-kilogram barrel of Nutella on one of the breakfast tables:

We were encouraged to have a second helping of cake, with Nutella on top.  It was ridiculously good, and rather decadent.  (I can't resist pointing out that the joys of the palate are among the few sensual pleasures allowed to those who have taken a vow of chastity.  But the monastery does not purchase luxuries even for the kitchen; the tub of Nutella, like the restaurant-quality espresso machine, was a gift.)

After more chatting and more cake and coffee, we wandered back into the refectory, now empty, and offering superb acoustics to those who, like us, loved to sing.  The problem was trying to come up with songs that all of us knew!  We thought of melodies we all knew, but no one knew the lyrics.  We all knew “Silent Night,” which we sang even though it’s nowhere near Christmas, and the four of us sang in three languages at once, English, German and Russian, none of us knowing the others’ lyrics.  I wanted to sing a medieval Tuscan hymn to San Francesco but couldn’t remember any of the lyrics past the first couple lines.  The Beatles were suggested, and Green Day.  Then someone suggested Blowing in the Wind and C. actually had a copy of the lyrics, so he went and got them and we sang it together.  I remembered the first time I learned that song; I was in sixth grade and we had to sing it in a school play.  Since then, I’ve sung it around campfires, at college parties (oh, those freshman boys and their guitars…), in the car on road trips across the state.  If someone had told my eleven-year-old self that I would one day be singing it in a Veronese monastery…

We had so much fun that the next day, we were invited back during our coffee break with two more classmates in tow.  We had more excellent cappuccinos by C., more Nutella (on biscuits—the cake was all gone), and took advantage of the daylight by taking photos.

I know it sounds like the monastery excursion was about nothing except chocolate and socializing.  That’s not really true.  As we were waiting to be picked up for dinner, B. and I wondered to each other what had made these men choose this path—there are ways to express religious faith without making it one’s sole career.  To enter a monastery, it seems, one has to cut oneself off from the world: you can’t live with your family or friends, you can’t have a private home or private anything really, you can’t have a romantic relationship, you can’t start your own family.  But once we had caught a glimpse of their life—of its rhythms, its peaceful harmony, its contemplativeness, its fellowship—I think we began to understand a little better what drew them in.  I even begin to think that I could live as a monk!  (We’ll ignore that little issue of gender.  Frankly, I don’t imagine that nuns have nearly as much fun.)  When V. asked me what I thought of my visit, I told him how much I liked the sense of community—“It’s almost like a family,” I said.  He replied solemnly, “It is a family.”