One of the high points of my recent vacation was traveling to the area of Italy where I was born: Calabria. This is an area of Italy that is still wild and unvisited even though it is very beautiful. The landscape is very verdant, where evergreens proliferate, even though it is next to Sicily which is more arid. That is because it is very mountainous and those mountains put it way above any African winds that blow across the Mediterranean. Getting anywhere is a dangerous proposition since the roads are circuitous and narrow. Its towns are usually perched at the top of a mountain, its streets dangerously steeped.
It is an area that is also dangerous due to a particularly violent form of organized crime called the ‘Ndràngheta.
But it is home to many wonders and beauties! One of the spiritual treasures of the area is Serra San Bruno, deep in the heart of Calabria. St. Bruno was the founder of the Carthusians, a religious order of hermits that live in deep solitude and pray for the Church day and night. They get up at Midnight and pray for two hours and then go back to sleep for 2-3 hours more, then wake up again for more prayer! It is the one order in the Church that has not been reformed because it has never needed reform. It is considered the most demanding order in the Church!
The first monastery of Carthusians established by St. Bruno (who was ethnically German) was the Grand Chartreuse in France. But then the Pope at the time asked St. Bruno to establish a Charterhouse (what a Carthusian monastery is called) in Italy. When St. Bruno asked the Pope what was the wildest and most uncharted area in Italy, the Pope told him to go to Calabria. It is there that he established the second Charterhouse and where he died and is buried.
Right next to the Charterhouse is the town of Serra San Bruno. I was there during the festivities of the feast of St. Bruno that occur on October 6th. This town of Serra San Bruno has a few thousand inhabitants and grew up in the Middle Ages because St. Bruno needed help in building this grand edifice in the middle of the wilderness. So a group of peasants and craftsmen settled there to be near work. If you saw how difficult it was to get here you would understand their desire to live near their work! When St. Bruno died, he was buried at the Charterhouse, but the people understandably had a fondness for him and a deep belief that he was a saint. Because of this, a devotion to St. Bruno grew up not only in the Carthusian Order but also among the townspeople. Almost 800 years later, the love for their saint was beautifully exposed at my visit. The town was decorated with lights and the Charterhouse allows his relics (beautifully contained in a silver bust of the saint) to be venerated in the principal church in town. The church was packed with people; standing-room only! They sang a service that was very similar to the Vigils in the Charterhouse. They sang with great gusto and devotion. Even before the service, families came in and hoisted their little ones up in their arms to kiss the reliquary. Here, I thought, were the relics of one of the most austere saints in the Catholic Church, and yet the common people loved and venerated him! He was the central embodiment for the town of the love of Christ and the willingness to devote oneself to God and accept whatever sacrifices one can to the honor and glory of God!
This combination of contemplative devotion and popular piety is very seldom seen today in the United States. It hearkens back to the age of faith in the Middle Ages when the daily life of the common man and woman was completely imbued with a sense of the sacred. In Serra San Bruno, I saw people dedicated in prayer to a saint that stood for a transcendence of all the values of this world. Yet he was celebrated by teenagers who go to school and families that struggle to put bread on the table (i.e. ordinary folk) who understand that St. Bruno did what he did for the Church and for their families and that it had value and honor. It brought worldwide ageless renown to their humble town. They have an honored place in the Universal Church, not to mention all the special graces given to their town by the intercessory prayers of this great saint.
We need to recover something of this daily, ordinary devotion to the saints, and we need to see their presence in the daily life of our cities. Is that at all possible today? To quote the Gospels “For man it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).