The ground beneath her feet

The epicentre of the Italian earthquake was by Nursia (Norcia in current Italian), birthplace of Saint Benedict, and his twin sister, Saint Scholastica, in the year 480. An oratory was built over the Roman foundations of their family home, for the pilgrims who came to pray with the founder of Western monasticism. Then, by the tenth century, it had become a thriving monastery itself. Fortified: for from the ninth century, Saracen invaders had found their way up the hills to it, in raids and spoliations. (Through four centuries before the Crusades, southern Europe was under constant Muslim attack, slaughter and pillage; then sporadically through seven centuries after.)

More recently, a cosmic artillery has been bearing down. The Umbrian quake of 1997 was centred a little to the north-west; that which levelled much of L’Aquila in 2009 a little to the south-east; yesterday’s hit was a bullseye. Tens of thousands are once again homeless in the region; less a few hundred who are dead. The Monastero di San Benedetto di Norcia took quite a shaking, through terrifying shock and aftershocks; plaster down and much broken glass. But not nearly as much damage as in the surrounding mountain hamlets and small towns.

(Here is a report from an old Toronto friend who lives there now.)

The Apennine range is itself the product of collisions and subductions. The continental plates of Africa and Europe are contending; faults run down the whole spine of Italy. Earthquakes are common in the mountains, and though painful, are no surprise. Nursia has experienced at least three hundred since Benedict’s time, including several much worse than the latest. It sits right over the “Norcian Fault System,” after all. The quake of 14th January 1703, for instance, was several times harder; opening chasms in the earth, and toppling statuary far away in Rome.

Lives and property are always at risk, as I mentioned a couple of posts back. Let us pray for the dead, and for the survivors, and help them pick up the pieces if we can.

Sometimes ancient monuments are cracked, though usually they are restorable. The frustration of the current Nursian monks — mostly traditionalist Americans who came in the year 2000 to resume its Benedictine mission — can be imagined. (Each year they provide hospitality for about fifty thousand pilgrims; they also brew a magnificent beer.) They have just watched sixteen years of their own heroic restoration efforts, dissolve in less than a minute. But the structural members were soundly laid. The old stone rocks with the waves, the great timbers creak and flex. But then they return to their original settings.

One might call this the editing function of earthquakes. The ancient and mediaeval masonry stands, as it has done through the previous earthquakes. More recent buildings collapse on their inhabitants. The former were raised up with humble prayer and hard-won experience; with native materials and by rule of thumb. The most recent were quickly jerry-built, in the cocky self-confidence of credentialled engineers, doing cost/benefit on money alone. Their pride is in themselves; the mediaeval architects, often anonymous, mortared their pride into their buildings. Yet some of the modern innovations are unquestionably improvements. (Perhaps one in a thousand.)

A comparison could be made with the works of Vatican II, or more precisely, with pre- and post-conciliar innovations which, by a little shaking, come down on the orphaned Catholic faithful, and drive them into the secular streets. Whereas, that part of the Church built solidly upon the Old Mass, and the words of Christ as spoken, remains standing, even by the epicentre of the “reforms.” She will need some repairs; she always needs repairs; but she will not need to be cleared by the bulldozers. Only the “modernist” part of our Church becomes uninhabitable.


An Anglican priest, of beloved memory — a man of genuine, simple faith, though of considerable learning — told me what follows, back in the ’eighties. That was when his denomination (and mine, at the time) was busily ordaining its first priestesses. He said that while he was personally opposed to the innovation, “We must wait and see how it works out.”

He said, “In a hundred years, we will still have women singing in the sanctuary, or else we will not. Over time, God will show us whether we have made a mistake. …

“Yes, God will decide,” he added, after a moment of reflection, and with a touch of horror, “if there will still be an Anglican communion in a hundred years.”

And in a hundred years, we will also learn if the ambitious contemporary innovations in our own Roman communion will be remembered, as anything more than a night fever, or very bad dream.

For the truth is, except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.