June 2023

Benedictine Footprints: a retreat that changed lives

Author and Benedictine Oblate Judith Valente was joined by 16 pilgrims for the Benedictine Footprints pilgrimage/retreat in the Abruzzo region of Italy last month for a contemplative, cultural, culinary journey.

There are some experiences in life that flash by so quickly we really only remember them as fleeting sights in a rear-view mirror. There are experiences that leave a memory for a time, then fade like the colors in an old photograph. Then, there are the experiences that we carry forever within the temple of the heart, which change us.

So it was with the Benedictine Footprints pilgrimage/retreat in Italy I had the privilege to guide in May this year. I was joined by 16 Americans, many of them Oblates, and together we added our footprints to many significant but lesser-known Benedictine sites in the Abruzzo region.

I have spent various periods in Italy and have always been struck by how joyfully and mindfully many Italians live their daily lives. We can learn a great deal from Italians about living more contemplative lives, and by planning this journey I hoped others would be able to experience the same kind attentiveness to the simple joys of living that I see in my Italian friends.

The hills and mountains surrounding the town of Guardiagrele. Image: Judith Valente.

Our home base was the history-and-culture-rich medieval town of Guardiagrele, where we were able to experience the joys of small-town life in what I call the ‘real’ Italy. From there we visited many marvelous, but still little-known, Benedictine sites, such as the 9th Century ruin of an abbey where you arrive after climbing a series of steep hills amid soaring stone gorges and penetrating silence.

Also the Hermitage of the Holy Spirit, an abbey dating back to the 11th Century built into the side of a mountain, and the Oratorio of San Pellegrino with its beautifully preserved frescoes painted by medieval Benedictine monks – a place referred to as the Sistine Chapel of southern Italy.

We also had lots of fun. Our group spent a night in the mountains at a guest house run by one of Italy’s last remaining shepherds. We received a lesson in cheesemaking. We ate a 10-course seafood meal in one of the traditional trabocco fishing huts on stilts on the Adriatic coast. And we enjoyed healthy doses of gelato and pastries.

As wonderful as those experiences were, they don’t compare to the close bonds we forged with each other and the inner transformations I saw in each individual who came on the retreat. Looking back on our time together, I feel as though we experienced a Pentecost-like experience. Our eyes opened to parts of ourselves that had remained undiscovered.

On the first night, I asked everyone to put aside their expectations of how things should be, or could be, and simply put themselves “in the way of grace”, to borrow a favorite phrase of the poet Mary Oliver. I felt sure the gifts of each person would unfold as they should in our time together; and unfold they did.

Alaskan author Kathleen Tarr wrote: “To become a pilgrim is to internally swear an oath to wonder.” Many in our group referred to the renewed sense of wonder they were feeling for the world around them as we traveled. Day by day, they embraced the practice of living joyfully the simple moments of daily life.

Members of our group ranged in age from the late 30s to 80 years old. One morning, Mary Jo, our oldest member, announced that before the retreat she felt her life was coming to completion, that few major events remained left to experience. It was one of the reasons she wanted to come on this journey.

After spending these two weeks in a new environment, trying new foods, seeing unforgettable sites and challenging her physical stamina daily, Mary Jo said she now felt that there was still much living left to do.

Mary Jo’s words remind me of the prophecy found in the Book of Joel: “Your old will dream dreams, your young will see visions.”

Sharing meals together, especially traditional multi-course Sunday meals, were sacred times. Image: Judith Valente.

We began our daily morning prayer with a few moments of silence and sometimes the breath prayer of the great Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Present moment, wonderful moment.” Many said that after being in a new environment filled with fresh treats for the eyes and unfamiliar tastes, sounds and scents they felt they would return home with a greater awareness of living in the now.

Their words recalled for me some lines from the Mary Oliver poem, Mysteries, Yes:

Let me keep company always with those who say

“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

And bow their heads.

During one of our final prayer times together, Bob, another of our retreat members, reflected on how, as we prayed together in the early morning hours in a small room in Italy, his grandchildren in Chicago were sleeping in their beds and people on the other side of the world in the Southern Hemisphere were already waking up to a new day. Yet, we are all part of this one world.

I thought of Jesus’ prayer at the end of John’s Gospel: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me so that they may be one, just as we are one.”

Several of us were strangers to each other before the retreat. Very quickly, though, we changed from being individuals on a personal odyssey into members of a single community. Each person shared his or her gifts, some by their singing, one by playing the guitar, others by sharing their photos and their insights. Many gifts, one Spirit, as St Paul reminds us.

The group met for prayer over Zoom in this lovely chapel, which once belonged to a group of Sisters in Guardiagrele. Here, we are praying over Zoom with a couple who couldn’t come on the retreat due to a last-minute illness. Image: Judith Valente.

As the Pentecost story shows, the early disciples’ spiritual strength came, yes, from receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also from sharing those gifts through the strength of community. I felt each one of us growing stronger as we coalesced day by day into a community.

For me, the retreat brought to the surface several of my strengths of character, but also those flaws that I need to continue to work on (my drive for perfectionism, for one!). There are areas of my life that cry out for what we Benedictines call conversatio morum, the constant need for conversion. I came away from the retreat dedicated to amending those parts of me that are in need of change.

Our experience in Italy reinforced for me as well the need to take retreats, to set aside time from our routines and usual daily lives so that we might begin to see with fresh eyes and meet new people who have gifts to share and wisdom to teach us.

Because it was such a meaningful experience, I plan to offer Benedictine Footprints again in late May or early June in 2024. We will change up the journey a bit, but it will essentially be the same contemplative, cultural, culinary treat our group of 16 experienced this past May.

At our final prayer time together, I shared with our group a lovely passage from John O’Donohue’s book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. It seemed apt as we were about to take up again our “regular” lives back in the US, touched and changed forever by our time together in Italy:

“Nothing ever disappears, nothing is lost. Everything that happens to us in the world passes into us. It all becomes part of the inner temple of the soul and can never be lost. This is the art of the soul: to harvest your deeper life from all the seasons of your experience.”

Here’s to continuing the harvest!

Please email me at JValente17@msn.com if you are interested in learning more about our Benedictine Footprints retreat/pilgrimage in 2024 and I will keep you posted as plans unfold.

The retreat group posed for a photo in front of Mount Maiella after spending a night at a guest house run by a mountain shepherd in the Abruzzo region. Image: Judith Valente.

Judith Valente

Judith Valente is an American broadcast and print journalist, and author, most recently of 'How To Live: What The Rule of St Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community'. She lives in Normal, Illinois, in the US and is an Oblate of Mount St Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. Her website is www.judithvalente.com

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