An earthquake turns everything upside down: the roof over your head – that very symbol of safety and security – suddenly becomes a source of danger; that which is designed to protect becomes itself a threat.
In August 2016, the first of a series of major earthquakes struck central Italy, with our monastery in Norcia at the heart of it. While badly damaged, Norcia escaped without casualty. But the nearby town of Amatrice was flattened (despite being further from the epicentre) and hundreds of lives were lost.
With the Basilica of St Benedict and much of our monastery badly damaged, half of us moved up to the former Capuchin monastery on the hillside, which we had been in the process of restoring. With the help of friends, a potato patch was turned into a living monastery: a greenhouse tent was converted into the chapel, while a larger marquee was erected to house a dormitory and living area.
In a weekend, monastic life was restored, with the monastic schedule and community life overcoming the lack of structures. Or nearly so: doing Lectio Divina in a tent the temperature of a fridge is challenging, to say the least, and by mid-October the outdoor showers were somewhat more than penitential.
Thanks to the generosity of benefactors and other monastic communities, we were able to move into our first solid structure, which in reality was little more than a couple of oversized garden sheds. When another earthquake rendered the remainder of the monastery in town uninhabitable and the rest of the community came to join us, a space that had been cosy was suddenly very cramped indeed.
And then the great earthquake of October 30 hit. Our new home shook alarmingly but remained standing. Rushing outside, we watched Norcia crumble in the valley below. The town is often buried in fog but that morning it was a growing cloud of dust and debris that hid it from view, with similar clouds rising across the valley.
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