I Lived and Worked in an Italian Monastery
I am not a religious person. I consider the existence of god with an agnostic shrug and struggle to understand the conservatism of my church-going acquaintances. Yet on a warm evening in late June, I stood in the mountainous Le Marche region of Italy, knocking on a Benedictine Monastery door.
“Are you sure they know we aren’t married?” Josh asks.
“I think so,” I answer unconvincingly.
Two women dressed in habits opened the door.
“Buona serata!” The youngest nun smiles warmly at us, “Parli Italiano?”
“No…piccolo,” I said, generously describing our language skills.
“I am Lucia and this is our Madre Laura,” Lucia said, stepping aside to let us in.
The air is cool inside the building’s stonewalls. Madre Laura motions for us to follow her up a winding staircase. I catch a glimpse of the worn terracotta rooftops through the rising windows.
“Sister Lucia is very good at English,” Madre Laura tells us as we climb.
“I only know a little English,” Lucia says waving her hand away at the suggestion.
We stop at the third floor where Lucia points to a doorway.
“This will be your room,” she says.
I step forward to look inside. It was a simple room with a washbasin and two single beds. Someone had placed a folded pink towel at the base of one bed and a blue towel on the other. I glanced at Josh, hiding a smile. They are more open-minded than expected. Once they leave, I unpack my creased travel clothing from my backpack and into a wooden dresser.
“Do we push the beds together?” I ask, staring at the small single beds.
“Would they be offended?” Josh wonders.
“Let’s decide tonight.” I said, flopping onto a mattress that creaked under my weight.
It’s early when the nun’s singing echoes through our open bedroom window. We wake up sticky from the midsummer heat and I push the sheets back to a mosaic of red mosquito bites along my legs. In a futile pursuit of Internet connection I hold my laptop out of the window. Nothing. The nuns dedicate their first hours of the day to meditation, prayer and song. Our lack of Internet motivates our own commitment to a routine, as the nuns have done all of their monastic lives. Josh takes my airline pillow and finds somewhere quiet to meditate. While I roll out my towel onto the cold, concrete floor in an attempt of a yoga practice.
Breakfast is coffee and biscuits. The coffee is boiled bitterly over the stove and drank out of ceramic espresso cups. We share the kitchen with the other volunteers; Swedish, Argentinian, Texan and Italian. Guido arrives in the kitchen at ten. He has worked as a handyman for the monastery for over forty years. He is followed by a group of nuns. They eagerly embrace us and ask for our names.
“Joshua!” they exclaim happily as Josh introduces himself. “Biblico!”
“Mi chiamo Teneal,” I say clearly.
Guido waves a hand in front of my face, “No no, difficile!”
We are led to Guido’s workshop. It smells of paint and wood polish. He roughly tears pieces of sandpaper from a thick roll and hands them out. Our task is explained in a combination of fast Italian and vigoro-us hand gestures.
“Capito?” he asks, noticing our blank expressions.
We nod hastily and begin to sand.
Our days move slowly between long lunches, work and siestas in the thickly humid afternoons. The bells ring on the hour as they have done for the last five hundred years. My thighs stick to the church seats as I listen to the nun’s sing Latin hymns. We are taught how to treat woodworms and maintain antique furniture in Italian. Guido squeezes all of the volunteers into his fiat and drives us into the countryside to pick ripe peaches. Josh is pulled into the kitchen to help prepare the enormity of food needed to feed the monastery. The nuns work quickly, slicing vegetables without chopping boards; de-stoning fruit into buckets for jams. Madre guides us through the monastery’s labyrinthine passages. She lights candles in stone vaulted rooms and burns incense under paintings of the Madonna. I dust the church benches and sweep the prayer rooms, feeling like an intruder in their sacred spaces.
“Brava, brava!” The nuns squeeze their hands together in gratitude of our mediocre labour.
Lucia rushes into the kitchen while our coffee boils.
“There is a mosquito infestazione in the village!”
“Infestation or infection?” Josh quickly attempts to clarify.
Only an infestation. A small relief.
“You must close the windows at night,” Lucia continues, “but I can not do so while it is so warm!”
I sit in bed swatting mosquitoes off my arm. We only last an hour before shutting the window and laying cold, wet flannels across our chests to keep cool. Each day the skies darken with heavy clouds that do not open. Cammie, a volunteer from Texas, strides into the kitchen holding a fan.
“I’ve had enough of this heat!” She exclaims in her thick southern accent and begins unloading her purchases onto the countertop; insect repellents, creams and mosquito coils.
Sister Gabriela gestures at the sky and whispers, “Stiamo pregando per la pioggia.”
We are praying for rain.
The town priest is joining the volunteers for dinner and Lucia takes the day off to go hiking in the hills.
“I need a break,” she says laughing, “a lot of problems between the sisters to solve!”
She is right. The kitchen is in a flurry with preparations for the priest’s arrival. I scrub a pot beside Sister Theresa. She is in her mid-sixties and learnt English on the Internet three years ago.
“Your path does not have to be religious,” she says while rinsing a plate, “you might have children or a career.”
I am astounded by her willingness to speak so openly about our different lives and her refusal to judge another’s choices.
“We believe that God asks you to be a good person, that is all,” she says.
The nuns are the most devout and committed religious people I have met and unexpectedly, they have also been the most open-minded. In the afternoon, Josh and I eat gelato in the piazza. We notice Lucia returning from the hills. Her long hair bounces as she walks past us. In a long-sleeved t-shirt and pants, Lucia could be anyone else coming home from a day’s walk.
The night before we leave the monastery, the nuns place a carafe of wine on our table with dinner. The village priest takes all of us volunteers on an evening walk, excitedly unlocking doors to theatres and crypts with his special set of keys. We farewell the nuns with long hugs and blinked back tears. We hitch our bags onto our backs as dark clouds roll in above the rooftops. A thin drizzle of rain begins to fall. We grin as the droplets roll down our faces, imagining the joyous energy in the monastery now the rain has finally come.
Photos by the author