Benedictine and Commercial Liturgies: A View from Norcia

Benedictine and Commercial Liturgies: A View from Norcia May 4, 2011

Norcia, a tiny town in the Italian region of Umbria, is noted for two things. It is famous for its boar sausages, and it is the birthplace of St. Benedict. Benedict’s statue overlooks Norcia’s main piazza, which is the convergence point of a number of rather commercialised streets, lined with sausage shops, cafes and restaurants. At the heart of the town is the Benedictine monastery, which was revived in 1998, almost 200 years after it was shut down by Napoleon.

The monastery performs the liturgy of the hours in the Extraordinary Form, and does so 8 times a day (not counting its public masses). This means that roughly every 1.5 hours of the monastery’s waking hours has at its heart a liturgical core. Through the abbey’s ministry of hospitality, the monks have also established supply links with the town’s other commercial providers, so as to provide for the needs of the abbey’s constant stream of visitors. By doing so, the monastery acts as a kind of discursive magnet that slowly brings the town’s commercial activity into a monastic orbit. In doing so, it brings the town’s activity towards a monastic liturgical pattern. This recalls an observation of Catherine Pickstock, who saw the Eucharist as a chain of commercial events that lead up to the production of bread and wine, and then culminate in a moment of Eucharistic offering to the God in which all live, move and have their being.

At the same time however, a guest staying at the monastery would become aware that not all visitors to Norcia come for the monastery, but for the town itself, In doing so, such visitors bypass the monastic liturgical centre. This does not mean a lack of a liturgical centre. Jacques Derrida reminds us that trying to bypass religion will always lead to another kind of religion being put in its place. Similarly, bypassing the monastery’s liturgical centre is bound to lead to the gravitation towards an alternative liturgical core, one that is marked by the pursuit of mammon as the highest good. Instead of a submission of all activity to the generosity of God, the secular activity of the town ends up becoming a liturgy that submits all activity towards the perceived magnanimity and security of the Euro, the stability of which has become so central to the European project that obscene amounts of resources end up being sacrificed to prop it up at the expense of truly local needs.

The Benedictines in Norcia thus become a microcosm of what the Church should be to secular culture, not a holy afterthought to what we habitually call “the real world”, but a crossroads of two competing liturgies, one with a Christic centre and another with a monetary one. At the same time, the Church should present itself as a sign of hope of redemption of the seemingly natural (and destructive) liturgy that demands human sacrifice at the alter of a god that is, as the psalmist says, literally made of metal.

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  • Matt, Thanks for the good news concerning the monastery and it's vibrant liturgical life and influence. Your insights concerning the Church and the “real” world are profound and should be at the heart of all pastoral activity.

  • Yes Matt – liturgical warfare is the center of the struggle of the city of God against (but finally for) the city of this world. Do we act out of love for God and others (true liturgy), or instrumentally out of self love (liturgy of the idol)?