—or Suddenly This
(some of this material is also in other entries on
It really was sudden. Dangerous heat and
humidity came over us, so we hastenedback up to
the Camaldoli convent a week or so ago. Late in
the evening of the first day I asked two nuns for
an electric fan for my wife. They hemmed and
hawed: "—maybe tomorrow morning—we're busy
with our prayers right now." So I did my
best to look pathetic (imagine that!) and turned
to trudge off. I started to say "Is this how
you answer our Lord's call to clothe the poor,
eat the hungry and fan the fanless? By
sending me away?! Is this what Jesus would
do? O woe to you, scribes and Pharisees..."
but I didn't. I simply looked at the elder of the
two and said, "Say, didn't I see you in The
Bells of St. Mary's with Bing Crosby?"
Her eyes went distant
into long tunnels of guarded memories. "Oh, no,"
she said. "That was...that was Ingrid. But I get
that a lot. Great song, too. Robert Emmett Dolan.
Hold on a sec." Turning to young number 2, she
said, "Young number 2, plug your index fingers in
your ears and babble loud nonsense syllables until
I tell you to stop". Then she whispered to me,
"OK. Let's go find you a fan. Keep your shirt on.
That's a figure of speech." She forgot to tell
number 2 to stop babbling.
Now that I have that out of my system it
occurs to me to mention that the Camaldoli hill is
of great geological interest. It is what is left of
the northeastern rim of the immense Achiflegrean caldera collapse,
alias the Campanian Ignimbrite explosion of 40,000
years ago, which created the Fiery Fields (Campi Flegrei
—everything in the photo between the camera and the
island of Ischia in the far background); that is, it created all of the western
side of the entire bay of Naples. You can stand at
the convent and look across the 20 km diameter (!)
of the ancient volcano and see what is left of the
southwestern rim, the hill above Baia and Cape
Miseno, the strip of land in front of the island of
Ischia. (This is a larger
image.) That strip is the end of the Bay of
Pozzuoli and the Gulf of Naples. It is where, in
Greek mythology, Aeneas' conch-horn player, Misenus,
would one day trade choruses with Triton, lose and
pay dearly. Consider that the entire distance you
are staring across was a single volcanic crater! Do
the math on how big the caldera was: it's roughly a
circle. From the convent (the point where the
picture was taken, straight across to the other rim,
Cape Miseno and the Baia ridge is about 20 km. So
the radius is 10 km. The area of a circle is pi (use
3.1416) times the radius2. Big volcano,
huh? It certainly was.
Also, not to leave the impression
that I am only out for a bit of levity at the
expense of nuns and convents, there is something
serious —indeed, even more serious than geology—
going on in all of this. The current (since 1979)
Abbess General of the Bridgettine Order is Mother
Tecla (also Tekla) Famiglietti (image, with Fidel
Castro). She has been called the most powerful woman
in Rome and was a close friend of Pope John Paul II.
In an era when Western religious orders are
shrinking, the Bridgettines have 800 members and a
growth rate of 4 percent, adding 30 women a year.
Many —most— of them are Indian and Asian. (There is,
for example, only one Italian sister at
Camaldoli—elderly, born nearby.) Famiglietti
presides over a network of religious homes around
the world (in Cuba, the USA, various places in
Europe, India, Israel, the Philippines) that double
as hotels and guest houses (The headquarters is now
at Piazza Farnese in Rome.) Friend Larry writes, "I
loved the flap in Cuba when Mother Tekla
blew off the Catholic Chain of Command, by-passed
the parochial Bishop, and went right to Fidel to
get the old, centrally located building in Havana.
And it was not acquired using eminent domain, but
perhaps by Eminence domain!"
However, Familgietti has also
had troubles with Italian state authorities on
charges that she has kept some of the nuns prisoner by taking their passports.
The charges were brought in 2004; one nun apparently
went missing. (I am not aware that the situation has
been resolved one way or the other. State
prosecutors that were pursuing the matter do not
seem to be doing much more about it.)
Main Church at the Camaldoli Convent
The Mother Superior here at Camaldoli is
from India. She looks taller than she is; maybe it's
her bearing—stately, poised, a "handsome woman."
Their habit is the usual black Bat-Man getup, but
the headgear is unusual—a white band at the forehead
crossed by two over-the-top strips, one front to
back, the other side to side, pinned at 12, 3, 6 and
9 o'clock by metal studs plus a fifth stud on top to
join the crossed strips (note image, above, right).
The five studs are supposed to represent the wounds
of Christ. I can't count anymore. I only get
four—three nails and a lance. What's number 5? [Ah,
I found out. What Catholics call the Sacred Wounds
of Christ are called the Five Sacred Wounds of
Christ in the Eastern Orthodox faith because their
representations of the Crucifixion show Christ's
feet side by side and pierced by two separate nails.
This, as opposed to western depictions, which
typically show the feet overlapped and pierced by a
single nail. I don't know why a western religious
order would use an eastern form.]
The headgear looks
like the very old protective headgear that
bicyclists used to wear. I said as much to my wife
and she said that they looked like motorcycle
helmets and wondered if the nuns, in fact, were a
coven of bikers who rode out at night and terrorized
the locals while we were asleep. That appealed to
me... "She wore a black denim habit with
motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket with
an eagle on the back!" Vroooooooooom!
Occasionally you see
groups of young or middle-aged persons up here
sitting around discussing their faith. That's fine
and many of the Bridgettine guest-houses in the
world advertise themselves as spiritual retreats. On
the other hand, there are a lot of elderly lonely
people up here, some able-bodied, some not so.
That's a bit depressing; it's as if they're here
hedging Pascal's Wager—that is, you never can tell,
so you might as well get in one more mass before you
take the Big Nap. There's a crass Italian expression
for the elderly—P.C., meaning pronti per
crisantemi, that is "ready for
chrysanthemums." They are the traditional flower of
death in Italy—you bring them to funerals. It's not
a good idea to give them as a gift since you may
awaken superstitions. There's probably a
mythological connection, although I don't know what
it is. It's like the English "pushing up
daisies"—same idea, different flower, although I'm
not aware that daisies are a bad omen. It's even a
nice name—Daisy, as in "Daisy, Daisy, given me your
answer true; I'm half crazy all for the love of
you..." ["Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)", 1892,
by Harry Dacre] I don't know any Italian man or
woman named Chrysanthemum, but if I did I might
hesitate before asking for their hand in marriage.
If it's any consolation, P.C. can also mean that
you're a member of the Communist Party (partito
comunista), but maybe that's even worse.
(Today's papers reported that a series of robberies
have been committed at high schools in Naples;
members of a "PC gang" are being held for
questioning. I'm pretty sure they're not talking
about the old-timers up here on the hill.) As it
turns out, the ominous aspect of the Chrysanthemum
is not nearly universal. In Japan it is a fortunate,
even glorious flower. The Japanese Imperial dynasty
is called the Chrysanthemum Throne.
In totally unrelated news, on Day 2 I
couldn't find my wallet. You know the feeling
—credit cards, money. I searched the room, moved
furniture— full-fledged panic. I often leave my bag
untended; this is a convent, right? (The sisters
don't rifle your belongings unless they're looking
for smokes.) Some creep guest had probably robbed me
blind while I was meditating. I went running out and
apoplectically asked the first nun I saw, "Did you
find a wallet!?"
"Found some keys. You got your
"Of COURSE I have my keys!!" I
reached into my bag. No keys. She walks to a cabinet
in the kitchen, reaches in and hands me my house
keys and wallet. "You left them on that table over there."
Indeed, I had been examining a
painting of the Archangel Michael (image, right). He
is one of the four archangels who stand around the throne of God, the angel who wrestled
with Jacob, the angel who handed down the Torah to
Moses. Indeed, all that, and like others of the
righteous before me, I was so taken in the throes of
religious ecstasy, that I had laid my earthly
belongings at the disposal of whoever needed them. I
am so benevolent, I make me sick.
Tiny Nun said, "I bet you looked
everywhere." Twinkle in her eye.
"No. You're the first one I've
Big dark Sri Lankan smile with a
boatload of teeth. Then she gives me a thumbs-up
I also report
sadly that a sweet Polish nun, the Leader of the Pack
of black denim habits and motorcycle boots, is no
more! No, she has not gone to "be with Jesus" or (in
more Sicilian terms) does she sleep wit' da fishes).
Much worse...she was transferred... shipped out...got
her marching orders...to SWEDEN! I guess that makes
sense—it is the Order of Santa Brigida, a Swedish
order, after all —and she was from Poland, which is up
Missed the frisfans
I don't know why, but
the sisters have no frisbee/fans this year—or at
least I have not been winged by one yet. These
little sweethearts will look you right in the eye
and—standing, yea, in the shadow of a statue of the
Blessed Virgin—lie! They had me convinced that they
were fanning themselves with a legitimate round
flexible fan! "Of course, it's a fan. Look (image),
you twist it in the middle and fold it to get
half-sized and it slips right in your pocket. Then
you pop it out, it springs back into shape and you
can fan away!" Again, friend Larry tells me.
indeed, a promotional cloth frisbee, not a fan. They
are made in China and cost two and a half cents in
lots of 5,000. And printed around the bottom are
cell telephone numbers in the Philippines and
Indonesia where Bridgettines operate lodging at
prevailing commercial rates. Two of the locales at
the bottom of the divine disc are popular beach
resorts like Davao and in Bali. The Frisbee with a
prayer would be a popular souvenir to play with on
the resort beach served by the lodging."
Alas, I so
enjoyed the thought of the young nuns out in fields
fanning themselves while plantin' taters for the
flatlander tourists. I see now that they were just
having fun. That's fair, too.
So, on day
three I found myself wondering if religious orders
will ever start taking LGBT nuns. I always thought
that stood for Lettuce, Ground Beef and Tomato.
Helluva sandwich. I have so much to learn.
something like this cousin
The next day I made
inquiries of the Mother Superior as to the existence
of a grotto supposed to be beneath the convent and
down the hill a bit. First, I used the Italian word,
grotta, which in English is grotto.
I am not certain why one is -a and the other
-o, except they say that Grand Tourist Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe thought that things as cool as
large holes in the ground should at least rhyme with
something German and suggested Otto. (It
was, by general consensus, better than his first
choice—Durchgangshöhle.) In Italian, however,
grotta is usually a natural
formation. The word I wanted, was really cava,
a quarry. There are 700 man-made holes in the earth
beneath Naples, going back to the time of the
Greeks, and many of them were stone quarries for
mining the yellow tufa stone to build houses and
city walls. The Mother Superior said that there was
a place "down there" where they once cut the stone
to build the convent, church and other buildings on
the premises. She wasn't sure if it was open to be
seen by guests. I did a little research and found
out only that the term cava Camaldoli now
refers to a modern site nearby, part of the hillside
gouged out to harvest the rock, leaving a large flat
area with substantial sloped sides; it's ideal for
very loud motorcycle nonsense. The single male
cleric at the convent, a priest, told me that the
quarry used to cut rock for the buildings on the
premises (presumably the 1580s version by Domenico
Fontana) was below the church. That
does make sense and is in keeping with the way they
built many buildings in those day—find a
good source of rock and build above it,
gradually funneling down to expand the quarry as the
structure grew above it. The quarry was used
as a bomb shelter in WWII but was sealed
afterwards. The priest says you cannot get in to see
it. Will that discourage me? Yes, probably.
at Capodimonte, maybe...
other hand, a normally reliable source, who always
knows someone who knows someone [sic] says,
A friend who lives
in the area (admittedly, you may need a grain of
salt with some of the things he tells you) says
that when he was a little boy he got into that
quarry from an entrance in the woods and then
through a trap-door [ed. note: a trap door?!
Aw, come one!] right into the kitchen of the
monastery and always helped himself to ham,
salami, cheese, wine...
If all that (or even some
of it) is true, then it must have been well before the
current residents, nuns of the order of Santa Brigida,
took over in the 1990s. I am trying to think if I
recall semi-transparent glass blocks or panels
anywhere along the walkways of the premises. Can't
remember. I don't know about any trap-door, but I'd go
back just for that! I know there's a well (image,
above). You mean all I had to do was move the flowers?
If you look down into
the well [image, right] next to the church you can
see part of the quarry. Members of a committee
operating in the area told me that the refuge was
restructured such as to permit visitors. It was
even equipped with lighting (that you could see
through a series of glass blocks set into the
walkway that leads to the monks' quarters.
Also Missed the Rock Concert
At least so far. Last year, at the
open-air amphitheater in the woods adjacent to the
premises, obnoxious music started at 11 pm. At one
o'clock it stopped. Peace & Quiet. Suspicious.
Some minutes later I heard a thump-thump-thump and a
creaking noise. How cool, I thought, that's either a
demon-possessed sprinkler system or a Tell-Tale Heart
plus a coffin opening in the cellar of the convent!
Golly, I bet there's a 16th-century murder mystery
going on down there right now! The thumping then
turned into a boom-boom-boom rhythm section, and the
creaking turned into croaking and then into a
tone-deaf human voice. The concert cranked up again
and ended at three. We couldn't keep the windows open
because of the noise, and it was too warm to sleep
with the windows and shutters closed. Actually, even
without the racket you couldn't have the windows and
shutters open because our room was on the side of the
main building that faces directly east over the city.
The building is illuminated nicely and stands out at
night when you view it from Naples (or the moon)
because that side is flooded by light thrown up onto
the façade by a row of heavy-duty JFK-runway lights
that line the pathway below the building. With the
window open for the cool night-time temperatures, the
inside of our room was as bright as Hollywood on Oscar
I can't believe my wife swipes those little packets of
sugar that come with the coffee at the convent.