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The love of a good convent

  • 16 February 2024
  Many convents in Europe offer accommodation. Not least to so-called pilgrims. It suits both parties. Many pilgrims feel iffy about doing the walks in style, and convents are not five-star hotels. Many convents, besides their monastic tradition of hospitality, are glad of the income. Most of the nuns are formally retired. Presumably they are on a pension, but otherwise any income for the convent would be meagre. Nuns offer strikingly more accommodation than do their male counterparts, monks in their monasteries. Over three weeks in Lazio, I stayed four times in convents, but not once in a male house of religion. Accommodating monasteries rarely appeared in the guidebooks. And once, at Monte Cassino, the great mother house of the Benedictines whose rule demands hospitality, I was told no accommodation at all was available. I was told they were renovating. Nuns’ hospitality on the other hand was plentiful and warm. In May 2023 it was more than that.

I was some four-fifths of the way down the trail that leads from Norcia, birthplace of St Benedict, via Subiaco to Monte Cassino, his final monastery and resting place. I had walked out that morning from Collepardo, from the Augustinian convent, where a young nun from Kerala came down the road with me to point out the multi-levelled sequence of steep stairs that took me into the valley. This was not a heartening beginning. For every step down there always seemed to be two up. These steps came soon enough to a road, and that was easy walking, and the way signs of the ‘Path of St Benedict’ were regular. In any case I had a near enough goal, the Certosa di Trisulti. Two hours it took me, although the guidebook had it marked as only four kilometres from Collepardo. I was annoyed by that, but the site itself settled me. It was a majestic, classical Cistercian, monastery. Or had been until 2019 when the last Cistercian monk moved out, into a sister house in nearby Casamari where there were still some twenty monks. Hence what I visited at Trisulti was a museum, beautiful, oddly pristine, but melancholy in the purposeful life that had gone from it.

I moved on. Casamari, my destination for the night, was fifteen kilometres more walking. Initially the going was along the easy surface of the little used road. Then the signs pointed off the road, downwards on to a