I had long hours to myself. I was free to go hiking in the mountains or sit in a comfortable chair in the walled garden of my cell, where I’d read and write in my journal during the quiet afternoons. In this tranquility I learned more about myself, and more about Antonio, too. He was from an old aristocratic Italian family (there’d been princes, cardinals, and popes among his ancestors) but in his mid-twenties he had decided to give everything up to pursue a hidden life of poverty and prayer. His renunciation of power made me feel I could trust him even more.
Yet, for all of Antonio’s professions about poverty and solitude, he’d stayed in contact with what he called “his world,” and soon began bringing me into it. That July I found myself at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence, sitting with him in the director’s office. The two were friends, having organized a major book exhibition the previous year. After I was presented as Antonio’s friend, an aide took me to the manuscript section for a rare viewing of Galileo’s hand-drawn maps of the moon. We also saw the oldest extant manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, copied by the poet’s son. Riding back to the monastery along the River Arno, I told Antonio how grateful I was. “This is what your vocation was meant to be,” he told me. “You’ll become our rare-books librarian, you’ll teach in Rome, or France, or England. You’ll organize shows, and participate in Italian cultural life at the highest level.”
It was everything I’d always wanted, a monastic vocation and a call to scholarship. It seemed to me that Antonio was the person who could help me achieve it. So after a conversation with the prior, Don Bernardo, we decided in August that I would return for a year of postulancy, the first stage of monastic formation. Right after Christmas, on December 29, 2014, I entered the monastery. I had every intention of staying for good.
A victim of clerical abuse is rarely aware in the moment that he is being “groomed.” Things just unfold, playing out gradually and cryptically over a period of weeks, months, or even years. You only realize what’s happening once it’s already too late.
Still, from the moment I arrived to begin formation, part of me sensed something was off, that things weren’t going to be the way they’d been in the summer. A few days before my arrival, Don Bernardo had sent me a long confidential email with a few “pointers” for how to behave upon entry. Most of his suggestions were straightforward and unsurprising: cut your hair a bit, keep quiet in the hallways, and listen to the relatively conservative opinions of the older monks with a grain of salt. But Bernardo warned me to maintain a “safe distance” from Antonio, and not to become too involved in his “projects.” In the few months I’d been away, Antonio had been elected novice master. As such, he’d exert enormous influence over my daily life.
There were only three of us in the novitiate, and we spent almost every hour of every day together with Antonio. It didn’t take long before his initially euphoric spirit of welcome turned into a dour, controlling, and unpredictable moodiness. He kept me constantly on edge by insisting I change my routine in ways that struck me as arbitrary and counterintuitive. With respect to my spiritual life and methods of personal prayer, I was forbidden to keep a journal or pray the Ignatian examen—because these things were too focused on me rather than God. I was also told to stop going for runs. Antonio claimed that this old habit of mine betrayed an inner anxiety I needed to overcome. He told me to be wary of close relationships with friends and family outside the community. I needed time to adjust to my decision to become a monk; the anxieties and suspicions of my parents and friends back in the United States would only confuse me. Whenever I objected to these instructions, or told him about my misgivings, Antonio would remind me that monasticism was all about learning to “let go of my ego,” to die to myself, to relinquish the well-polished “mask” I’d spent so many years cultivating and hiding behind.
But it wasn’t just Antonio’s incursions into my spiritual life and physical routine that I found so disturbing. The community itself was also in constant disarray, lurching from one crisis to the next: the buildings needed costly repairs; dwindling vocations had left many of the monks feeling demoralized and fatalistic; there were even problems with the ingredients in the natural products sold in the gift shop, one of the community’s main sources of income. There always seemed to be some new battle in the community, and Antonio invariably found himself at the center of it. He often lamented that his intellect wasn’t properly valued by his brothers; he felt overworked and underappreciated.
I tried to keep all this in mind whenever he lashed out at me, as he did with increasing frequency and ferocity in the first months of my novitiate. The pretexts for his rage were always minimal, and his reactions disproportionate. Once, during morning prayer, I’d gotten up and adjusted a staticky microphone. Antonio berated me for my presumption and “privileged” attitude: I needed to know I wasn’t special. Another time, serving Mass, I’d taken a few extra hosts to him after he’d already closed the tabernacle, so that he had to unlock and reopen it. Embarrassed in front of a few dozen guests, he shouted at me, threatening reprisals if I ever got on his “bad side” again.
I complained to Bernardo, but was brushed off. Antonio’s astrological sign was Cancer, he said, so of course he had a crabby disposition. But he was harmless, and I shouldn’t take his outbursts so personally. Antonio said the same thing: I was too sensitive, and I should learn to cultivate indifference.
But Antonio’s aggressiveness also began to express itself in physical ways. It would start playfully and innocently enough: he’d snap dish rags at me as we cleaned the refectory, or he’d shake me by the shoulders when he caught me yawning. But sometimes he came at me more forcefully, punching me in the chest, or trapping me from behind with a wrestling hold. I told Giovanni, the vice-prior and Antonio’s superior, that such behavior made me uncomfortable. He agreed that it was inappropriate and asked Antonio to stop. Incensed that I’d given Giovanni the wrong idea, Antonio refused to speak to me until, days later, I finally confronted him. I’d misinterpreted his behavior, he said. It was all a sign of his esteem and affection for me. And if I didn’t like it, or couldn’t understand it, perhaps I ought to go back home to America. Maybe the monastery wasn’t the place for me.