It starts with a table set for one.
Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those love-found, love-lost, I-learned-to-love-myself-more kind of stories but it does seem important to start it off here.
The table set for one is cloaked in a checkered cloth, wrinkle-free with crisp, folding lines to prevent the massive boats of food from setting sail. The view from where I sit is vine-encroached and bright, sunblock-penetrating green. Lizards plod along the crackled window ledges, uccelli (Italian birds) coo into the quiet. A table set for one in a monastery that houses a hundred is where this connection-found, confusion-lost, I-learned-to-love-others-more kind of story begins.
I arrived just before lunch along with the rumbling racket of tires against cobblestone. Thanks to a friendly woman I met at the art shop by the train station, I was dropped off at the entrance of the San Luca Monastery by car.Dressed in a stony overcoat, the monastery exterior was cool and collected as I brushed against it. Madre Laura stood at the opposite end of the pinching alleyway, a small yet dimple-laden smile upon her face and I knew, right then, that I liked her immediately.
Madre led me through the brass-nosed doors that somehow managed to loom over me in a loving way. Love is the way, a direction, a stone-ground presence in the monastery, present in the building and present in everyone beneath its unshakable roof. After I met Lucia, a bouncing beam of sunlight (as strong as an Italian espresso ), and Madre Baptista, a woman in her eighties who seems to grow stronger with each passing day, I took notice of a small, ceramic tile that read “Lavoro e preghierea”-work and pray. The perfect recipe for connection-to people, place, and self.
After settling into my cozy room and weaving through the sprawling collection of connecting corridors, Lucia called me down for pranzo (lunch).
My plate guards a small patch of the table against the massive fleet of impossibly delicious food steered towards me by Lucia. I’m the only workaway/guest here right now but the food says otherwise. There’s a basket full of bread, a casserole dish full of lasagna, a whole ball of mozzarella resting against a tin dish. There’s even an additional plate heaping with potatoes that I’m now certain are seasoned with spices directly from heaven. I want to try to eat it all but I shouldn’t…but I will, everyday, for the next few weeks. Also, there’s an amazing gelateria just down the street that I will soon discover. There’s so much here that I will soon discover.
My first day of work involves peeling apples, the second weeding stone paths in the motto bello gardens. By the third day, I’m shredding plants with a noisy machine that gobbles up the twiny branches and spits them into the compost pile. I’m now certain that sexism does not translate here. Woman’s work is dirt-speckled and deeply satisfying, always rewarded with a bevy of scrumptious carbs. Seriously, those potatoes have added a new light to my life.
Shortly after I’m introduced to the mouth-watering potatoes, I meet some supremely interesting workways hailing from Britain, Ireland, and Brazil. They are even more awesome than I imagined, filling the accommodating silence with music, laughter, and scuttling flip-flops.
Everyday, I meet a new face in the monastery, whether it’s a matte-loving guest from Argentina or a benevolent sister hard at work in the kitchen and garden.
I meet Guido, the sweet and charismatic, albeit hard-to-understand groundskeeper. “Non capisco” or “I do not understand” becomes my new catchphrase when I’m around him but we always seem to reach understanding. The most common and universal languages, of course, are unspoken.
Under Guido’s guidance, I sand, paint, and spill varnish on my hair alongside Laura, a lovely girl from Ireland.With Madre Baptista, I prune roses and dig up weeds. And with Gabrielle, a nun who soon becomes my best friend :), I clear away the richly colored petals that blanket the stunning courtyard, frequently encouraged with a big hug and kiss on the cheek from my new best friend.
The days pass quickly, too quickly, and I start to hope time will take a break from this dimension. It doesn’t and goodbyes inch closer but I make like a nun and live in the present. I spend hours sitting in the garden, scrawling over my journal, drifting in and out of sleep. I journey into the mess of hills that peer into my window. I work, I rest, I eat a lot of food, too much for my stomach, the perfect amount for my soul. I snuggle into a humble and constant form of happiness.
I imagine the idea of living and working in a Benedictine monastery might perplex and even intimidate some people but I feel absolutely spoiled by the experience. I miss it dearly already and have every intention of returning someday soon. In fact, I even promised the nuns I would return and I wouldn’t dare break a promise made with a nun, let alone fifteen of them.
My memories of this place compose a mountain I’ll always be climbing but one of several peeks of this experience involve music, ice cream, and a fan club of nuns.
A few days before I left, Fabio and Riccardo, two crazy talented yet humble workawayers, serenaded the ice-cream munching nuns with guitars outside on the lizard-guarded patio.
It was moving to see how easily music connects people, spouting a language that needs no translation. The nuns were beaming, tapping their feet, swiveling their phone cameras. Like I said, I was spoiled by this experience.
I realize now that words have so many forms and they are all cultivated out of a desire to love others more than yourself. It’s such a rare and special transformation to witness because when words strum softly against guitars, when they scrub into kitchen floors or coat door frames in pastel yellow, when they arise from a life of hard work and hard loving, they sprout wings and nest overheard. They gain an unrelenting magic.
The words I hope for, the ones that could possibly do this gorgeous monastery justice have escaped me but I hear them still in the cooing uccelli. I see them in the dimple-laden smiles of the most spectacular women I now have the pleasure of calling friends, sisters even.
By recommendation of a friend and my wallet, I’m currently in Naples, a city that’s absolutely bonkers in the best way possible. It promises an increased dosage of sun along with a high probability of death via vespa but as long as that happens after I try a true Neapolitan pizza, I have no complaints.
At the San Luca monastery, I lost my ability to complain. It’s a language you forget how to use so quickly when instead you discover the ease and power of connection. And much like the winding corridors that connect the many rooms of the monastery, I realize now how easily beauty connects to beauty and love, in the company of others, disposes of all complications. Work, pray, and love in abundance, even when life is finicky and furiously fickle, and the dimples will not dissipate. The uccelli will continue to sing so long as you lend an ear.
Life was born from spectacular simplicity and beneath our stony overcoats of complication, I like to think we’re all pastel yellow corridors with a desire to connect to one another. And thankfully, we don’t need Duolingo to understand this important truth, just a week to spare at the San Luca Monastery 🙂
Ai miei amici di San Luca, grazie mille di tutto. Questo non è arrivederci!