Il Sacro Speco (The Holy Cave)
About forty miles east of Rome you run up against the mountains around Subiaco, the region to which a young St. Benedict retired around 500 A.D. to live in solitude and contemplation. An older hermit showed him a cave high up on the cliff of a canyon and there he remained until, drawn by appeals of others, he emerged to found the present monastery at Subiaco and the Benedictine Order which went on to civilize Europe’s barbarian ancestors. The original cave can still be seen within the walls of the precariously perched priory that was built around it ages ago. It has been incorporated into a series of three chapels dating from before 1100 A.D. There is a large upper chapel from which a stone stairway leads to the chapel built around the cave itself. Each chapel is a jewel. There are arches and slender columns, a marble altar covered with gold, blue and crimson mosaics. But most overwhelming are the frescos dating from as early as 700 A.D. which cover every square foot of wall and ceiling.
Obviously the monks who created these chapels were not content to hear the Gospel. They needed to see it happening all around them. And so they painted the walls and ceilings with splendid impressions of Gospel events. The upper chapel portrays the whole climax of Christ’s life, from his entry into Jerusalem, the kiss of Judas, the flight of the disciples, his crucifixion, the meeting with Mary Magdalene in the garden, his confrontation of doubting Thomas, to his ascension into heaven. There it is in reds, blues, purples, silver and gold. And then there are iconic images of Mary and saints. In the lowest chapel there’s even an image of St. Francis, painted from life when he visited the place in 1223. It’s tucked behind a corner at shoulder level and when you stumble upon it in all your vulnerability, his wide open, gracious eyes look right into your soul.
Well, as if the art weren’t enough, when Jane and I visited this treasure there was a wedding in the upper chapel. In other words, we were lucky enough to experience the place not as a mere museum but as an environment alive with faith and love. It was as though all those frescos were hardly relics of the past but beautifully present participants in the current event, beaming down with eyes strangely alive upon the equally beautiful bride and groom, family and friends - who were also beautifully attired. (Looking at them I understood why Italians rank among the foremost fashion designers in the world!)
Bellezza! Beauty! That’s what summed up for me the whole experience of that place and moment. Beauty. And after all, isn’t that what religion is ultimately about: becoming beautiful, perceiving and creating beauty everywhere, behaving beautifully and not just puritanically? And then I shuddered - for, standing there amid all that beauty dressed as I was in the khaki trousers, sports shirt and hiking boots of your standard American tourist, there came to my mind today’s Gospel about a wedding feast and I expected someone at any moment to approach me like the king in the parable and ask: “My friend, how is it you came in here not properly dressed?”
And I thought, “By golly, I’ve got to acquire a change of wardrobe. Not only literally but spiritually. I’ve got to divest myself of all the sourness and whining and grinding of teeth, the resentments, anxiety, excuses - the things that perpetually mute my beauty. I’ve got to get more joy, faith, love, vision, grace - in a word - more beauty into my life if I am ever to become eligible to enjoy the world of Christ so beautifully reflected here within this Sacro Speco of Subiaco.”