April 7, 2010

The Abbey of Piona

It’s always the same story when I have to deal with monks—a question I should not ask (but which I regularly ask), and an answer I would not like to hear: “How many of you are there in the Abbey?” to which the answer is, “Not many, as you can see, but this is not the problem… the problem is the future, there are few vocations!” This always fills me with sadness...

This time, however, the old Cistercian monk was far less laconic than most of the other monks to whom I asked the same question. “You know, the youngest among us is 65… Yeah, when people come here they say, ‘Wow, you live in paradise, what an amazing place is this!’ But when I tell them ‘Then, why don’t you join us?’ well, they have a good laugh and say ‘Oh no, thank you Father…’” He laughed in turn, but after a while, shaking his head, he added, “I really don’t know what will come after us.”

Yet, to see the glass half full, I must say that the Abbey of Piona, where I have just come back from after attending Easter Triduum, is really an amazing place. And that’s also why I feel like I have to write about it.

The Abbey of Piona stands in a wonderful position, on a promontory at the top of Lake Como—where Hollywood superstar George Clooney owns a villa (showing a certain talent in choosing where to live!)—in Lombardy (North-western Italy). It was founded by Cluniac monks in the 12th century, but now, after centuries of abandon, is run by the Benedictine Cistercian congregation of Casamari, who had been given it by the Rocca Family in 1937. “When we came here,” the old monk told us, “we found just a heap of ruins.” Now everything has been restored to its former glory: an immense effort, crowned with complete success. “After all it was we Cistercians and Benedictines who drained the Po Valley, back in the 12th century, did you know?”

Of course I know, Father. And it’s not the only nor the greatest debt we owe to you all. I personally owe to you—si parva licet componere magnis—three days of perfect happiness, and it was not just because of the absolutely breathtaking beauty of the place (“We have always been good at choosing places to live…” ). In fact, the first thing that strikes you about the Abbey of Piona is the atmosphere, which is made up with a lot of “ingredients,” most of which are too impalpable to be expressed with words. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to pay tribute to such ineffable experiences.

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