A day in the cloister
The wooden lattice of the chapel becomes a sign of connection. It unites worlds. It holds together that of the 68 cloistered nuns, aged 27 to 91, of the Benedictine abbey Mater Ecclesiae and that of the guests of the monastery on the Island of San Giulio, on Lake Orta, in the province of Novara, in Piedmont. In this network of intertwining planks, prayers, songs, and lives, fleeting glances and much more besides, one finds oneself, some on one side and some on the other of the grille, “united” seven times a day for the Liturgy of the Hours, from 04.50, with the recitation of Matins and Lauds, to Night prayer, at 20.45.
The abbey chapel stands way up high. It soars, and from its stained glass windows, the lake cannot be seen. One perceives its presence and that of the coast of Orta St Julius - 400 meters from the island - together accompanied with a custodial silence.
In a harmonious voice, Mother Maria Grazia Girolimetto, who has been the abbess of Mater Ecclesiae since 2018, and also of the priory of Fossano (Cuneo) says, “The monastery is a place of disembarkation. It is not out of this world. It is a harbour”. The Benedictine nuns live inside the abbey and in the buildings surrounding it. There are times during the day when -after leaving their cells- some of them can be glimpsed as they cross the ivy covered bridges that lead to the chapel, to community prayer. “We make our pilgrimage to Zion,” the abbess points out.
And so do the guests of the monastery. The psalmody, the chants, the lectio divina, the organ music, and the silence that accompanies the nuns and those who come to Isola di San Giulio. The latter find welcome flowers picked in the garden in their rooms and a note with their name on one of the benches in the chapel, the ones facing the wooden lattice. Mother Girolimetto comments with a welcoming smile, “It only indicates the sacred space of those consecrated to the Lord. The outside world has other metal fences, other walls that divide”.
On the Island of St Julius, just 275 meters long and 140 meters wide, it feels as if time is suspended. Next to the monastery is the basilica of St Julius and a few houses, which are inhabited mainly in summer. “There is only one street here, there are no cars, mopeds, bicycles,” notes the mother superior. “Guests who come here seek a space for prayer, to give meaning to life, to ease burdens. There are many who come here, be they visiting in groups, school groups, young people, women, people of faith and non-believers. One desires an experience of depth. One starts out from here different from how one arrived. Many write to say thank you, and then return”.
The Benedictine monastery Mater Ecclesiae located on the Island of St Julius was built in 1973 on the site of an old seminary, which in turn was built in 1844 on the remains of a Lombard castle. This year, on October 11, marks its 50th anniversary.
This monastic community was founded and led until 2018 by Mother Anna Maria Canopi, who died in 2019. Mother Canopi, a bearer of deep spirituality and poet, was also the first woman to be called upon to compose the Pope's Way of the Cross text for at the Colosseum in 1993.
Today, to guard the legacy is Mother Girolimetto, born in Figino Serenza, in the province of Como, in June 1963, with a degree in pedagogy.
“I was chosen by the community and she also voted, who had resigned at the age of 87”, she says. And she recalls, she who was beside Mother Canopi for 30 years: “She was slender and could have appeared fragile. Instead, she was strong, very entrusted to the Lord; she had that kind of strength that comes not from trusting in oneself, but in God. She knew how to teach the art of listening, of standing aside to let the Lord act”.
In the words of the abbess, spirituality, everyday life and community go hand in hand.
“After dinner, there is a sororal meeting us present. This is the moment when, as can happen amongst family members, we talk about the day, the guests, the world, the daily events”, Mother Girolimetto lists. “Of course, it sometimes happens that in living together, hardships and hindrances emerge. Among the tasks of the abbess is also that of putting out any fires that may flare up. Nowadays it is difficult for two people to live together and one can well imagine that in a community with so many women, like ours, difficulties can arise. Asking each other for forgiveness is also a shared moment that helps to break our presentable selves”, she explains. A slight blush appears upon her face when speaking of Mother Canopi’s publications, then confides that, like the foundress of the cloistered monastery, she also writes poetry.
Thoughts turn to the anniversary of the Mater Ecclesiae. “There will be no self-celebration, but a simple celebration,” the abbess foresees. From the St Julius monastery other communities were also founded: Saint-Oyen, in Valle d'Aosta, and the priory of Fossano. From the Piedmontese island came the support that brought vigor to those of Ferrara and Piacenza.
In the Benedictines’ cells, with a mat spread out on the floor for prayer and a kneeling-stool, the day starts early.
“The bell rings at 04.20am, but the alarm clock rings even earlier. The night is precious time for prayer. Its quietness brings a rich harvest. It is then we bring many prayers, those of all peoples,” says Mother Girolimetto.
After breakfast, the Benedictine women devote themselves to their tasks. These include, handicrafts, printing, weaving, tailoring, cooking, and preparing for the liturgy. “Everything happens in silence”, the abbess points out. It is only the island’s nature that speaks. The mother superior explains, “In the afternoons, the nuns who have taken solemn vows still dedicate themselves to work, while the seven novices study, which includes Latin, Greek, monastic literature, and patristics. They attend courses held by the sisters or those online, specifically for monasteries, at St Anselm University”.
After Vespers there is time for personal prayer in one’s cell or in the garden, then follows supper, the sisters’ meeting, then Night prayer. Between 21.30 and 22.00 we go to bed.
The Religious dedicate themselves to prayer and work, according to the teaching of St Benedict, opus Dei, opus manuum. “The work of the hands is, however, all permeated with the work of the spirit, since prayer does not cease with the leaving of the choir, but continues in the heart”, Mother Canopi wrote in her book Una vita per amare - Ricordi di una monaca di clausura [A Life to Love - Memories of a Cloistered Nun].
“The work we do is a song rendered to God”, notes Mother Girolimetto. The work of the hands of the Benedictines of St Julius also bears the mark of the restoration and embroidery of the sacred vestments of Saint Ambrose, Charles de Foucauld, and John Paul II. And in Santa Marta, at Pope Francis’ home in the Vatican, there is one of their icons of Our Lady of Silence, symbolizing a warning against chattering. This icon reinterprets an 8th century Coptic fresco depicting St Anne, found in Faras, Egypt, and kept in the Warsaw National Museum.
For Mother Girolimetto, Francis is a “prophetic pontiff”.
Silence at Mater Ecclesiae appears as a doorway to enter the Mystery. Guests are also invited to respect it.
At the monastery, there are no TVs, and no social media. Mother Girolimetto explains, “We inform ourselves with the L'Osservatore Romano and Avvenire daily newspapers. Internet access is limited, but every evening a sister updates the community on what is happening; she does a sort of small news programme”.
At a time when vocations are diminishing, the Mater Ecclesiae, founded 50 years ago with six sisters, appears to be a beacon. “We do not campaign for vocations. Nevertheless, Mother Canopi’s spiritual legacy, the secluded dimension of the Island of St Julius continue to attract. Perhaps the value of a strong proposal in a time dominated by fragmentation and fragility also plays a role”, the abbess ponders.
In this desire to dock somewhere, the decision to cast an anchor requires an authentic journey to get to the depth of one’s motivations and God’s real call. The mother superior emphasizes, “The first years are about discernment. A nine-year journey fosters awareness of a choice”.
Today, at Mater Ecclesiae, we find a 25 year old graduate who has started a vocational journey (she is an aspirant), a 50 year old who has lived in the community following her discernment path (she is a postulant), a mother of five who lives outside the abbey and faces the process of entrustment to the Rule of St Benedict (as an oblate).
Maria Grazia Girolimetto began her journey towards a cloistered life at the age of 26. After graduating with a degree in pedagogy, she started teaching. “I thought I would get married, have a family of my own. Then the call came”, she recounts. “At first I thought of a life given, perhaps a missionary commitment. Then I realised, even while going through an inner struggle, that the way to reach everyone was to be closer to God in prayer. My parents did not take this decision of mine well at first, but then they understood that cloistered life is extended, not closed. I cannot go out, but I can meet the people who come here”, says Mother Girolimetto.
Those who arrive find on one of the abbey doors the rule Hospites tamquam Christus suscipiantur (Guests are welcomed as if they were Christ).
The guests of the monastery gather for breakfast, lunch and dinner and listen, like the nuns, to readings that draw images. Here is the monastic cell that becomes a chosen place of prayer according to the teaching of St Jerome, here is the diary of Father Giovanni Salerno, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor of the Third World, who died in Peru last February.
Sometimes, during meals, we play classical and sacred music instead of the readings.
On the boat leaving the Island of St Julius, heading towards the shore of Orta, the gaze rests on the water that creates small waves, like certain ripples of the soul, and moves upwards. The abbey recedes, while the vision of the Mater Ecclesiae monastery brings a promise to return.
It appears shining on the horizon and at the same time a mysterious casket. “We do not see all the way ahead, we must entrust ourselves,” Mother Girolimetto exhorted in prayer. Beyond the grille. That grate that once a day, for the celebration of mass, opens a little door to the enclosure and the Mystery.
by MARIA GIUSEPPINA BUONANNO
A journalist with the Italian magazine, “Oggi”