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The ‘via pulchritudinis’ of the Benedictine women of Orselina

“Come and see” (Jn1:39) the Sisters of Orselina in Canton Ticino say often. A glance at a website is not enough, it is necessary to come, to enter and to stay. What Jesus offered the first disciples was participation in an intimate domesticity which involved the intellect and the senses, the fertile beginning of many new things.

It continues to happen: separating out the forms and colours of a house’s life is very difficult, especially if the ora et labora et noli contristari make them a hotbed of spiritual, artistic and artesanal charisms. The work of the Benedictine Sisters of Santa Ildegarda flows from a stabilitas loci which only subsequently floods the liturgy of churches and cathedrals in Europe with beauty. “Our daily concern is to detach ourselves from the ephemeral and to let ourselves be led towards God. Only in this way is life interesting, when we become aware that it leads us to God. If, in prayer, we are with Christ, we know intuitively that everything within us that is disordered differs from Christ. He would have done so many things in a different way”. Brotherhood, song, the daily work among silks, sewing and looms. This “handmade” quality of his vestments refers the priest presiding at the Eucharist to bodies occupied day and night with the mystery: the via pulchritudinis [way of beauty] is different from the commercial routes, foreign to the “throw away” mentality which has even reached the altar. I spoke about it to Fr Nicola Zanini, Rector of the Seminary and Director of the Diocesan Liturgical Centre of Lugano. “On their arrival at Orselina, a small centre above Locarno, in the mid-1950s, the Benedictine religious found themselves immediately inserted into a favourable context. The artistic sensitivity and religious charism of their Foundress, the German woman Hildegard Michaelis, was married perfectly to the activity of reform in the spirit of the liturgical movement, animated by the great precursor, Fr Luigi Agustoni. Professor of liturgy at the seminary, in close contact with the Abbeys of Solesmes and Maria Laach and a most refined teacher of Gregorian, he promoted an international liturgical Congress in Lugano in 1953 and later became parish priest at Orselina, a village which permitted him to pursue his studies and research. It was he who encouraged the bequest of a piece of land and a small house so that in 1957 Mother Michaelis and her Sisters found a place in Ticino: the Orsa Minore Foundation – known subsequently as the Monastero di Santa Hildegardis – came into being”. What Fr Nicola depicts is the vivid atmosphere of the Council; taking part in it was a local Church which, while remaining popular and faithful to tradition, dared to take paths of renewal, aided by her strategically unique position as a crossroads between the regions north and south of the Alps. “The relationship between the monastic community and the diocese was most interesting. While the Sisters developed contacts and collaboration with half Europe, at the same time in Ticino a decisive match was being played thanks to their own sensitivity. Attentive to the local needs, they were working out a style that increasingly pleased both themselves and the surrounding area. Thanks to Fr Valerio Crivelli, successor of Agustoni, their relationship with the liturgist of the diocese grew very strong: for decades the Benedictine religious ensured that important celebrations had the very best that could be found; every time there was a new bishop they intervened to offer a chasuble and mitre for his ordination; parish priests and parish communities became acquainted with and welcomed their work. It was a service offered free of charge, just as beauty is free. This began during the years of Paul vi, when openness to art and to new forms of expression was truly total. The Sisters felt confirmed by the Church in their courageous search.At the same time, in many parishes of the diocese the updating of liturgical focuses was being provided for in the same spirit, opting for solutions of noteworthy quality”. I asked Fr Zanini whether times had also changed at the foot of the Alps: everywhere cold currents had deadened the conciliar fervour, often in reaction to the many abuses or excesses, precisely in the liturgical field. Moreover, is a proposal that constitutes a continuation of those years still plausible today, with a pope of sobriety who urges people to go to the peripheries and relativizes forms and rites? “The liturgical vestments created in the monastery’s workshop correspond perfectly with the reform of the Second Vatican Council, which asked that ‘The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity’”.

A reform, that of the Council, in many ways has yet to be implemented.It is true: there has often been a return to seeking on the altar nobility rather than simplicity. Nineteenth-century taste is made to coincide with solemnity of the signs. Moreover, sloppiness does a lot of harm, and likewise the confusion between sobriety and ugliness. Instead, the nuns’ work on colours, their genuine attention to materials, a rigorous compliance with the non-banal, the resonance of intuitions matured in prayer: all this leads to an essentiality that ennobles their innovative products. It is not only an education in beauty but also an offering of theology through vestments: behind the images and colours there are study and meditation, not mere aestheticism. It is a question of icons, within their fabrics”. Every unique piece can demand from between some days to several months of dedication in a symphony of skills that today sees side by side elderly religious and young lay women: women, in any case, at the service of a Church full of light and colour, a reflection of God’s beauty.

Sergio Massironi




St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 21, 2019