Halfway between Milan and Turin, in a little hollow below a glacial morain, with the foothills of the Italian Alps providing the distant horizon, sits the monastery of Bose, one of the most important religious foundations in Italy since the Second Vatican Council. On the day the Council closed, December 8, 1965, Enzo Bianchi, a 21-year-old layman, began to live a monastic life in an abandoned farm house. It would be only in August of 1968 that three others decided to join him at Bose. One of them was a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, and one of them was a woman. With them two of the chief characteristics of the monastic community of Bose were established: it would be ecumenical in membership and would include both men and women. The experiment had to survive the opposition of the local bishop, but thanks to the support of the cardinal archbishop of Turin, the community survived and grew and eventually won the formal approval of a later bishop.
Forty years later the community consists of some eighty members, with the men in a slight majority; the median age is around 40. Most of the members are from northern Italy, but several other European countries are represented, and there is one American. One member is the retired Orthodox Metropolitan of Sylivira, Emilianos Timiadis, who had served as personal representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch at the World Council of Churches; there are at least four Protestants in the community. The primary vocation is monastic and so only five of the monks are ordained priests to see to the sacramental needs of the community and of the thousands of guests who descend upon the monastery throughout the year. The community has its own monastic rule, which borrows from earlier monastic traditions but follows none of them exactly.
The day is structured around the common prayer. The monks arise at 4:30 for private prayer and then join in common morning prayer at 6:00. The rest of the morning is devoted to the various activities that monks perform (from iconography to tending the gardens; from carpentry to writing; from translating to bottling teas, condiments, olive oil, and spices). Midday prayer is at 12:30, and after an afternoon of work and study, evening prayer is chanted at 6:30. The altum silentium runs from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM.
The common prayer is sung in Italian with an adaptation of Gregorian chant sung in lovely harmonies. The texts of the Psaltery have been newly translated from the Hebrew and with an eye also to the traditional christological interpretation of the Psalms. The antiphons are always drawn from the Scriptures, and they constantly invoke the redemption effected in Christ, with particular, continuous insistence on Christs resurrection. The Sunday liturgy especially focuses on the resurrection. At a Saturday vigil, one of the monks leads a public lectio divina of the next days scriptural passages; Sunday morning prayer is called a celebration of the resurrection, at which, following an Orthodox tradition, one of the Gospel resurrection narratives is read. The spirituality cultivated at Bose is wholly centered upon the Word of God in the Scriptures, illumined also by the meditations of the Fathers and of the great spiritual masters.
The community has its own publishing house, Qiqayon (the Hebrew name of the shrub that grew up to shelter Jonah from the heat), which has published many texts of theology and of the various schools of Christian and Jewish spirituality. The monastery has hosted scholarly symposia on ecumenical, inter-religious, spiritual and theological subjects. Monks offer regular courses in biblical Hebrew and Greek. Enzo Bianchi offers frequent Encounters, talks on spiritual and theological themes. The Sunday I was there he gave the second in a series of meditations and reflections on The Experience of God in the Old Testament. Over 500 people attended, and I was told another 250 had to be turned down for lack of space.
Bianchi, prior of the community but never ordained himself, has become an important figure in the Church in Italy. He is regularly called upon to give retreats for bishops and priests. He writes regular columns on contemporary affairs for newspapers: one recent one was on the code of mediocrity exemplified by a certain popular novel. He was asked to compose the liturgies of repentance that Pope John Paul II led on the first Sunday of Lent in 2000.
To accommodate the growing number of people who want to come to share the experience of prayer and spiritual commitment, the community recently opened a new guesthouse, and the monks are now constructing a better facility for those who wish to camp out at the monastery. Guests are welcomed regardless of their ability to pay, although, of course, recommendations for daily expenses are provided for those who can pay. Guests are welcome to attend and participate in the daily prayer and in the twice-weekly eucharists. Priests are available for confession, and monks for spiritual conversation. The area is very quiet, and walks are possible along rural roads and on paths through the woods, where, however, one may find oneself pausing at the sign that announces that the hunting of wild boar is permitted in these woods. A ten-minute walk brings one to the restored Romanesque church of San Secondo, built in the eleventh and twelfth century, the main church being the simplest of constructions to which was added a bell-tower that is considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in the region. There are various views of the church that enable one to imagine how it must have looked in the Middle Ages, quiet opportunities to reflect on the living of the faith in tiny communities like the one that built this church: the Church alive then, as now, only in and as Churches like the community of men and women of San Secundo.
The monastic community of Bose has its own Web site with information about the community and a few photos.
Perhaps others can comment on their experience at Bose. In any case, if you ever wish to include time for personal spiritual reflection on a trip to Europe, give some thought to going to Bose.