With a small snip, a bundle of browning roses gently falls to the cobbled patio. I prune the large and fragrant rose bush just as Madre Baptisa taught me last year-at an angle by the leaf so the buds can regenerate quickly. Like Madre, a strong and compassionate nun well into her eighties, I do so without gloves. Every once in a while, a finger or nail is nicked by a throne but gloves only get in the way. At the San Luca Monastery in Fabriano, Italy, bare hands are meant to touch the warm earth and thorny stems that breed such heavenly beauty.
I first discovered the monastery and the medieval town it resides in last summer during a time of mass uncertainty in my life. I was less than a year out of college and already lost, touched by the travel bug yet fully aware that pursuing my passion would cost money while my dreams of travel writing in some remote corner of the earth would not exactly be lucrative. So I did what any responsible, unemployed graduate would do; I spent all the money I earned in the summer on a two-month trip around Italy.
Through the website Workaway, which offers short-term volunteer experiences all around the world in exchange for housing and food, I found the San Luca Monastery. Within a month, I was boarding a plane to Italy, ready to spend three weeks at an old and gorgeous monastery sanding furniture, painting around fifteenth-century frescos, and pruning a jungle of gorgeous roses.
The experience was incredible, to say the least. I befriended devout yet open-minded and fun-loving nuns who dedicate their life to hard work and shepherding beauty to the earth. I did hard, manual labor with old-fashioned tools and rediscovered my childhood love of digging my hands deep into the dirt. And I sometimes even had sword fights (in this case broom handles served as the swords) with a particularly joyous nun named Enrica. My time at the monastery brought clarity and simplicity to my life that I had spent too much time trying to complicate so naturally, once I settled into my new life in Slovakia, I just had to go back.
My return to the monastery was all that I hoped it would be. The nuns hugged me tight, fed me well, and congratulated me on my new life in Slovakia. And while we pruned roses, weeded vegetable gardens, and mopped floors side-by-side, they asked me about all my adventures in the past year that they read about on my blog (they may live in a fourteenth century monastery, but these hip nuns have smart phones and know how to use them). Through broken Italian and elaborate sign language, it was hard to say everything I wanted to but perhaps in the silences, it was crystal clear: these nuns, who have become dear friends, remind me how much I love the life I was given and the one I’m working for, understanding that all the moments-in-between, all the challenges and rewards, unexpected twists and turns, are simply part of the fun.
Prune a tired and wilted rose at the base of a leaf, and something more beautiful will sprout in its place, provided a quick sword fight with a nun is involved in the process.
Befriend Some Nuns,
This piece was originally published in The Keene Sentinel as part of my Back to Bratislava column.
PS: I managed to capture something quite incredible while hiking through Fabriano. Enjoy!