Camaldoli – Culture, spirituality and hospitality

by Lorenza Cerbini

Today it is called “style of life” or lifestyle. That of the Camaldolese monks devoted to the care of the mind and body is a thousand years old. The pharmacy, the guesthouse and the farm “La Mausolea” are inseparable from the monastery itself and, in this cybernetic world shaken by climate change and by the strong trust placed on the saving technology of human efforts, represent the element of conjunction with that rule originally dictated by Saint Benedict: pray, work and read. The Camaldolese monks are Benedictines, people who on labour, study and reflection built his permanent revolution. The monastery as we see it today, to which is added the famous Sacred Hermitage, is an entity that breathes of its own life three kilometers away from the monastic heart – it is a work in progress founded on those first stones placed at the beginning of the Eleventh century by Saint Romualdo, a Ravenna monk in search of the most contemplative aspect of Benedictine thought. Located at 840 meters above sea level, Camaldoli was a place inaccessible and isolated enough to suit his needs.

A place of cultural interest

The current structure is the result of successive enlargements. There are four cloisters with distinct architectural shapes. The last renovation is still in progress, a new library (inaugurated in July 2021 for those who will read this written “posthumous”) containing 35 thousand books (www.camaldolicultura.it/biblioteca-moderna/), a place of research and not only study to strengthen that exchange of ideas and reflections that leads the Benedictine monks to pray with heads down and their guests to join in the lotus position. Contemplation has brought these monks closer to the Hindu and Buddhist world. In Camaldolithe interreligious exchange and openness to lay society are consolidated realities since Father Benedetto Calati (elected prior in 1987, died in 2000) favored the trips abroad of his confreres, promoted the Jewish-Christian talks and also the “Itineraries and Meetings” of the hermitage of Montegiove started by Benedetto Calati and Adriana Zarri.
Today, the most mysterious aspect is that this way of life works and “black-on-white” is also an annual program with a structured calendar of spiritual exercises, conferences and biblical language courses. “Consciousness and artificial intelligence”, “The differences among Christianity, Islam and Buddhism”, “The Gospel according to Caravaggio”, “The breath of the forest, silence and God for an eco-spirituality of creation”, as well as Hebrew and Greek lessons, are just some of the themes (and seminars) offered and attracting scholars and people from all over who can stop in the guesthouse, equipped with 70 rooms ensuite and able to accommodate up to 150 people. The most awaited day is that of Pentecost. “For three decades we have held an interreligious conference and a prayer vigil with the invited representatives of the confessions present in the local territory” says Brother Axel, a monk of German origin, HYI (Himalayan Yoga Institute) yoga teacher and meditation teacher.
“In this particular year, the conference was held in digital form. The theme was “The other”. We Camaldolese brought a text from the Exodus, the common book with Judaism”.

The library that containing 35 thousand books is a place of research and not only study.

From Camaldoli to India

To really understand more about the dynamics of Camaldolese one should take a plane and go to Southern India, where these monks have their own ashram, the one of Shantivanam defined by Paul Trianni (Pontifical Gregorian University) “the place where Christian spirituality most magnificently met with that of India, and then put in place a great evolutionary and pacificatory force”. The saio is replaced by the orange dress of samnyasin. “Christian liturgy is made in a typically Indian manner”, says Father Axel. “In the morning you start the day with mantras and you read the psalms. During the mass you make the ploughs, the blessing through the fire”.

Prayer leads to India as well as to Casentino. Today the Sacred Hermitage welcomes a dozen hermits. They live in their cells, structured as real houses (with bedroom, study, bathroom and chapel) which is accessed from a common avenue. They form a sort of village immersed in silence. Tourists are allowed to visit only the cell where Romualdo lived for about two years. The Saint is represented in a painting of the Seventeenth century during one of his miracles. Among the works to be admired, there is also a precious high relief in glazed ceramics by Andrea Della Robbia, located in the chapel dedicated to Sant’Antonio Abate.

The keepers of the forest

Until a few decades ago, the Camaldolese were the guardians of what is now among the most beautiful forests on the planet (now managed by the Carabinieri forestali). The spruces were planted in an arithmetic sequence. The precious wood was useful to the Tuscan notables for the construction of commercial and war ships, for scaffolding palaces, sacred buildings and monuments. The wood arrived at its destination also transported by the floods of the Arno river fed by the streams that cross the Casentino Forest Park. The forestry was therefore the main source of subsistence of the monks who found in the woods also the medicinal herbs used to treat pilgrims and travelers (in the premises of the ancient pharmacy are still preserved pots, presses and alembics used to extract from flowers and plants their healing power) and still today are the base of the lines of natural cosmetics sold under the brand “Ancient Pharmacy of the Camaldolese Monks”.

The monastery of Camaldoli and the Sacred Hermitage (also equipped with a small guesthouse to accommodate individuals, families and groups) are the destination not only of scholars, pilgrims and occasional tourists but walkers from all over Europe. The two structures are located along the path Italia Cai (in total about 7,200 kilometers through the Apennines and Alps) of which the GEA is part. The Grande Escursione Appenninica is a 425 km itinerary divided into 28 stages (conceived in 1981 by two trekking experts, Gianfranco Bracci and Alfonso Bietolini – source Wikipedia) and an integral part of the E1 European path.

Two sections arrive and depart from Camaldoli (Badia Prataglia-Camaldoli of 19.75 km through the Calla Pass; Camaldoli-Passo del Muraglione of 14 km). From the monastery you can also reach the Franciscan Shrine of La Verna through the so-called Holy Valley. A fascinating landscape but also very challenging for the ups and downs. It is well known to Angela Seracchioli, expert walker and author of a bestseller on Italian paths. “I was a teenager when I first set foot in Camaldoli. It was the mid-sixties and I was part of a group of scouts from Ravenna, my home town. At the time, women were not allowed, but we were two women. We asked to stay for the night and we were so heavily dressed that none of the monks noticed. Since then, I have returned to Camaldoli many times. I will never forget a New Year’s Eve about ten years ago. There was a torchlight procession at night. There was a lot of snow. It made the atmosphere even more enchanted”.

The Sacred Hermitage is equipped with a small guesthouse to accommodate individuals, families and groups.

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Hermitage and Monastery of Camaldoli

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