You will be spared my amateur photography today because the nifty little Nikon that I picked up at the last minute to take on the trip finally wore its battery out, after a week, and I had to risk electrocution to figure out how to use the adapter so it could charge. Pretty good, except I had no photos of St. Rita's birthplace or, of greater interest to me, the birthplace of St. Benedict.
One thing that strikes you immediately upon arrival in Italy is the unfortunate epidemic of graffiti and unfortunately, churches and sacred places are not exempt from this destructive behavior. The home where St. Rita lived after her marriage to Paulo Mancini was converted into a little chapel complete with confessional. Some depraved souls decided to mark up the box. In the home where she was raised as Margarita Lotti, there were several signs in Italian that translated to: An educated person does not write on walls. At least there, it seemed to do the trick.
After our visit, we departed for Norcia. I was in for a real treat. We were not going to a restaurant for lunch. We were going to a Benedictine monastery, where the nuns both prepared our food and waited on us. We went to the designated place to knock at the turn. The porteress slid open the little hatch and directed our guide to go to the next building and wait there. I saw a sign that advertised some of the goods that the nuns sold to support themselves and I thought I saw that milk was one of them. But we were whisked away by our guide before I could read it.
We were taken to a dining room on the second floor. I sat at a table with my roommate from a few nights ago as well as another single woman, a single man and our friend J. I saw J looking for a place to sit and since we had a seat open, I overcame myself and invited him to sit down. He proceeded to tell me how much he appreciated the invite because, in his opinion, whenever he tried to sit down at a table, he was told the seats were being held for someone and there was no room. I assured him that due to some of the people who were traveling together (two couples, for instance, and 4 sisters) I, too, was sometimes told the same thing.
"I know, but it's so hard to be rejected everywhere I go."
I asked J to consider the lot of Our Lord, Who is still rejected by so many and at least for the moment, he was mollified.
The nun who waited on us was a tiny wisp of a thing who spoke perfect English. In fact, I had the feeling she had grown up in the states when she asked: "Where are you all from?"
First, she brought out a tray of heavenly tagliatelle tossed with pesto that the nuns make themselves and sell. Then she offered us penne pasta in marinara sauce. Next, she came out with a tray of three kinds of meat with roasted potatoes. Mind you it was Friday, and I don't eat meat on Fridays, but I felt it would have been insulting to refuse, especially when I heard that the nuns had prepared for our visit for days. So on a Friday, I indulged in chicken, sausage and beef, all of which were to die for. I'm ashamed to say this but I considered my kindness toward J that day as my act of penance and mercy.
The meal was complete with a salad made with the greens grown by the nuns in their garden.
I pointed out the white covers that the sisters wore on the sleeves of the habit. The sleeves are called manicotti and it's where the pasta gets it name. My friends wanted to know how I knew this and I reminded them that I have many of Lydia Bastianich's cookbooks.
The nuns bustled in and out of the kitchen, which prominently displayed a sign reminding everyone that entry was strictly forbidden. I saw a friar attempt to enter and he, too, was barred . As good as they cooked and as gracious as they were to us, I felt no one should dare test the sisters, not even a friar.
For dessert, we were served zuppa Inglese, or English trifle. Then I truly believed I had died and gone to Heaven. The sponge cake was perfect, the custard even more perfect and the fruit that topped the custard perfectly candied. It's unfortunate that this was the one day I did not have a camera but truth be told, I would probably not have photographed the nuns anyway. Some memories are best retained in our hearts.
After we couldn't possibly eat another thing, our little nun wheeled out a cart containing jars of honey, pesto and marmalade that the sisters put up and sold to support their monastery. The cart was full when she wheeled it in and nearly empty when she wheeled it out.
Unfortunately, it being siesta time, the church was closed, so we had to content ourselves with walking around and spending more money on souvenirs. I saw a little chocolate shop with sign so adorable, I had to buy something from them.
"We have the bestest chocolate in all of the world, made right in here".
I picked up a box of chocolate torrone for a friend who had requested it. Then it was back on the bus for the short ride back to Cascia.
One of the nicest things about staying in Cascia is that the basilica inferiore opened very early and didn't close until about 8 pm, and it had a tiny little adoration chapel off the main entrance where Gregorian chant was piped in through the sound system. After putting my things away in my room, I decided to spend some time in Adoration, and I had just settled down when I heard the sound of chanting coming from the chapel. I didn't bring my breviary to Italy with me, but it didn't matter as they were praying in Italian. The Augustinian nuns in Cascia were not at all friendly or warm, so imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw one of the sisters smiling at me. I looked behind me to see who she was probably actually smiling at, but there was no one, and I don't know why, but I burst into tears and had a very hard time not sobbing out loud. There was a beautiful image of Christ revealing His Sacred Heart behind the altar, and fixing my eyes upon this did not do much to quell the emotion. Just the opposite. Try as I might, I could not stop, but at least I had enough control not to make any noise. That would have been disruptive. It was some time before I could look over at the sisters again and there she was again, smiling right at me. I have no idea why. Some gifts, we just don't question.
After the conclusion of prayer, some of the nuns stayed behind to pray the Rosary. I did the same, mentally saying the prayers in English since they were praying in Italian. When we finished, I went back to the Adoration chapel, where I had the audacity to ask the Lord why He permits people to suffer, as J was. And I had the further audacity to ask Him why He continued to put such people in my path when He knew how difficult it was for me to be around people who do not respect the inner sanctum, the part of us that people should not attempt to traverse. I got no response, but I don't know when I have felt the Lord's Presence more than in that tiny little chapel.
I went back to my room to slap some cold water on my face before showing it in the dining room. I looked dreadful from all the crying and I knew I would be asked a lot of questions. Dinner began with cream of mushroom soup. I decided soup, bread and wine would be all I would have. Afterward, I took a walk in the town and met up with the friend who had invited me on the trip to begin with. We dodged the bats that were whizzing past us, giving credence to the term "bats in the belfry" as the bell towers of the basilica seemed to be their home base. Then we took a walk down a darkened room, looking up that star-blanketed sky. I reminded my friend that the region was known for cinghiale, or wild boar, and that perhaps we should pick a more populated route, in the event one decided to pop out of the woods at us.
"You think St. Rita would let us get attacked by a wild boar?"
Nope, but let's not take any chances.
Tomorrow was the feast of St. Therese, and we would be having Mass celebrated for us in the Basilica of St. Nicolas in Tolentino. I had no idea what a treat this would be.