Addicted as I am to alliteration, the title of Karl Keating’s new book was an attraction, but more attractive was the prospect of reading about his hike along the Cammino di San Benedetto–one of the long distance footpaths in Europe. This path–starting in Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict and ending at the great monastery of Monte Cassino winds through the Italian countryside stopping at various sites associated with the saint. Karl had mentioned to me some time ago that he was heading out on this trek and I was eager to read how he got on.
I enjoyed the Sun, Storm and Solitude, but travel books are a unique art form, and I’m not sure Keating has quite mastered it. While the outward journey gives the story substance, one also looks for a whole range of further information and entertainment from the intrepid traveler. We want to learn about the curious local details, the eccentric people the traveler meets, the scrapes and adventures, the near disasters and lucky escapes. We also want some entertainment–the amusing story of the raconteur, the jolly pilgrim or simply the rascal having a good time. Bill Bryson is the master of this kind of travel book, and I suppose I was expecting a kind of Catholic Bill Bryson–the galumphing American in Europe at once awe struck and bewildered, amused and enchanted by the old country.
Keating’s book is not without these features. He meets some interesting fellow travelers, but just when I was getting interested in them he moved on. I learned about the local saints, picked up some historical details and made some new connections with Italy. Having visited some of the sites myself over the years it was good to re-visit them with Keating on foot. However, Keating’s record of his trip did seem heavy on personal detail–the number of times he set out the things in his backpack, double checked them and told us about his rain pants was perhaps too much information? The details of this right hand turn and that left hand signpost, the gravel on the path or the dirt road, the overgrown foliage or the steep steps–this level of detail is not surprising from a trained lawyer and Catholicism’s top apologist. Detail is what they do, but it was hard to visualize the detail if you weren’t there.
If Sun Storm and Solitude lacks the fun factor perhaps it is because the trek turned out to be pretty dreary. Keating was cursed with bad weather almost from day one. The weather was filled with days of cold, driving rain forcing him to hitch a ride or take a bus because the paths were unpassable. I think, however there was another cause for the dreariness. Keating touches on it early on when describing one of the ubiquitous roadside shrines one finds in Catholic Europe. The little shrine is filthy, decrepit and clearly unloved and uncared for. Keating quotes the French writer Jacques Riviere:
I see that Christianity is dying…we no longer know what those spires are doing above our towns since they are no longer the prayer of any of us. We do not know the meaning of those great buildings, surrounded today by railroad stations and hospitals, and from which the people themselves have chased the monks. We do not know what those stucco crosses stand for on garves, encrusted, moreover, with a revolting art.
Time and again Keating will visit a church to find it locked or if it is open, badly neglected. At the huge monastery of Monte Cassino there are only twelve old monks. The grand buildings echoing and empty, the bookstore which should be filled with Benedictine literature and full, perhaps of monastic produce from around the world, is forlorn with one sullen woman sitting behind the counter. Here a convent has been turned into a hotel, there a church has been turned into a restaurant. Elsewhere a grand Carthusian monastery is occupied by one ancient monk, a village church reduced to rubble by an earthquake will most likely not be rebuilt.
This, perhaps is the real reason why Keating’s pilgrimage is itself, dreary, cold and wet. The good thing about a travel book is that the outward journey reflects the inner journey and amidst the hijinks, the fun, the education and entertainment the travel writer takes time to muse on the deeper discoveries, shares some of his own inner life and meditates on what he finds and how it reflects life’s larger concerns. Keating might have taken more time to delve into these matters and give us some thoughts on the declining state of Catholicism in Europe and the West and what the future might hold. The fact that it was the way of St Benedict was an opportunity perhaps to discuss what St Benedict still has to offer the world.
Which brings me to the most glaring omission in the book. How could Keating have traveled to Norcia to begin his pilgrimage without taking us to visit the monks of Norcia? Since the year 2000 a group of mostly American traditionalist monks have returned to the birthplace of St Benedict to restore monastic life there. Before the 2016 earthquake they lived in the town of Norcia and worshipped in the basilica built over the birthplace of St Benedict. Since the earthquake they have moved to a new site a few miles outside town and have built a new monastery and restored an old Carmelite convent. With new, young monks and living a traditional Benedictine life (and brewing excellent beer) a visit there would have given Keating’s trip and book a definite positive boost. The monks of Norcia remind us that Benedict’s vision and life is perennial. Like weeds, the monks come back, and that is an encouraging thought. Visit their website here.
The book would have been better with a map showing the path through central Italy and perhaps an appendix with contacts for future travelers would have been an good idea. Despite some disappointment, I enjoyed Sun, Storm and Solitude. It is crisply written and is a relaxing read–it was a pleasant break from the heavier research and reading I usually have on my desk. Like most travel books, it has also whetted my appetite to get out and travel once this bug is lifted from us. As an experienced hiker and backpacker, Keating has also given me a good kick up the backside. We’re in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains here in upstate SC. We have excellent state parks and hiking trails. I need to get myself out on the open road a bit more and find my own sun, storm and solitude.