A conversation with Sr Rita Piccione, an Augustinian nun chosen to write the meditations for the Way of the Cross [Good Friday 2011]
"It might seem strange but its eyes used to seeking in the dark that surrounds it have guided my inspiration". Sr Rita proudly shows the great wooden owl perched on her desk. "It was precisely in looking at this owl, thinking of its ability to see in the dark", said the Augustinian Sister chosen by Benedict XVI to prepare the texts for the upcoming Way of the Cross at the Colosseum, "that I found the key, I hope the right one, for the meditations to propose. If it represents night, then it is necessary to seek the Face of God who illumines even the thickest darkness". In the Roman monastery of the Santi Quattro Coronati, the Augustinian Rita Piccione, the third woman to whom the Pope has entrusted the task of preparing the meditations, tells in this interview of her fears, her expectations and her hopes in carrying out such a sensitive task.
The Benedictine Anna Maria Canopi was chosen in 1993, and in 1995 Sr Minke de Vries, the nun of the Protestant community of Grandchamp, Switzerland, and now it is your turn. What do you think impelled the Pontiff to entrust this year's meditations to a cloistered nun?
I did not think give it much thought. Moreover the Pope has recently dedicated so many of his Catecheses to great female figures in the Church's history. Rather than "why?" I wondered "for whom?". And I accepted, because I realized that I would be doing it for Benedict XVI and for the Church herself, hence for the Lord. For love of the Lord.
Can you tell us how you accepted Benedict XVI's decision and how you worked to prepare the texts?
It was communicated to me by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State. It is pointless to talk about the great surprise, the disbelief and then the fear that assailed me. I did not manage to realize what was happening precisely to me, a person so simple, without any particular qualifications other than a twofold great love: for God and his Church. I confess that I did not succeed in saying "yes" immediately, I was so bewildered. It was the Cardinal's plea that I abandon myself to trust in the divine plan and in grace that dissolved all my resistance. I entrusted myself totally to the Holy Spirit. And it was precisely this abandonment to the Spirit that decided the "how" to prepare the texts: by prayer. I simply put myself on the Way of the Cross, praying, listening to the word and letting the Spirit lead my heart and mind on his paths. I worked beneath the gaze of the Crucified One, of Mary Most Holy, and the profound and transparent gaze of the Pope, whose photograph I keep in the very centre of my desk.
Often, looking at the photograph, I would say: "for you". I was accompanied, so to speak, by the eyes of the large wooden owl that the Sisters of the Filipino monastery, founded by the Federation in 1993, gave me this summer. This night bird continually called me to seek the very face of God because only with God's eyes can the night become light. And isn't the Way of the Cross perhaps a stretch of night?
What are the principal themes of the meditation?
I do not feel at ease in describing or analyzing prayer. Prayer is prayed. One lives in one's own context of time and place; and to describe it seems to me would almost be to violate it. But I can say this: the basic theme is our gaze fixed on Jesus, on his humanity, on the footsteps he bequeathed to us in taking the Way of the Cross so that they may offer us an indication when we too are, or will be, called to this appointment in our life.
The texts of the Way of the Cross generally recall the dramas and tragedies that the people of our time live through, in the light of the mystery of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ. Will the fact that you are a contemplative be the key to the interpretation of the meditations?
I am not the most suitable person to point out what is the specific character of this prayer composed by a nun. Perhaps it will be those who listen to the meditations who will indicate it. In this regard I only want to remember a speech made by Fr Giuseppe Dosseti on the occasion of the conferral of the "Archiginnasio d'oro" prize by the city of Bologna. When I read the address of this monk of Monteveglio I was young, in a great inner turmoil, even though I was not yet thinking clearly and decisively of consecration. Fr Giuseppe compared the monastery with a "microcosm, a laboratory in which one can make experiments on a reduced scale that can be transferred gradually to an ever broader scale. It is in this laboratory that is demonstrated the monk's solidarity with the most universal and most troubling problems for any age".
I was deeply impressed by the truth of this affirmation — quite the opposite from a flight from the world or from the Church! So I believe it is possible to reduce further the scale of the world and to bring it to the level of the heart. Hence the key of interpretation is found here, in the human heart.
In what way will the figure of St Augustine, so dear to Benedict XVI, be present in the texts that you have prepared?
The presence of Augustine, even before the texts, dwelled in the inner attitude which guided me in this experience based on the "yes" of acceptance. I want to refer to the interpretation that Augustine wrote to Eudoxius, Abbot of the Monastery of Capraia, and which I have reread precisely in order to relive his service as an Augustinian. I have taken Augustine's exhortation as addressed directly to me: "and if the Church, your Mother, calls you to active service, guard against accepting it, on the one hand, with too eager elation of spirit, or declining it, on the other, under the solicitations of indolence; and obey God with a lowly heart, submitting yourselves in meekness to him who governs you, who will guide the meek in judgment, and will teach them his way".
Then one breathes the presence of Augustine, this good "travelling companion", as the Pope defined him at the Audience of last 25 August, in the gaze turned to the humanity of our Saviour, to his humility; one breathes in the call, more or less constant, of the truth and in a few brief words of the Bishop of Hippo that enrich the texts here and there. Even the theme of the truth is a meeting point, a point of harmony between the Pope and Augustine: the sincere search for the truth led Augustine to God and the service of the truth has always been the centre and soul of Joseph Ratzinger's ministry.
What has been the influence on the meditations of your vision as a woman at the service of the Church?
Rather than having the vision of a woman, I am a woman, I am a woman glad to be a woman and I believe it is this that permeates the style of the meditations, the being that is expressed in doing. Being infects feeling and seeing; identity is reflected in sensitivity. It is very lovely and significant that — over and above myself — not only should a woman have been chosen for the ecclesial prayer of the Way of the Cross, but a nun. It is beautiful and significant that the Church asked this of someone in the Church who embodies the contemplative dimension. It is the Church who addresses her heart, hidden yet present and vibrant.
The illustrations for the different Stations were also chosen by an Augustinian religious, Sr Elena Manganelli. Can you tell us what perspective and technique have been used?
It was a very beautiful and meaningful collaboration for our Augustinian charism based, precisely, on communion of life, hence also on the gifts. When I was asked if I had a preference regarding the illustrations I thought of this religious, a sister of mine, who on previous occasions had already found illustrations for a Way of the Cross. Sr Elena Maria accepted this proposal joyfully. We worked contemporaneously, in other words without her being able to draw on the prayer that I was composing. Nevertheless I had spoken to her of some of my guidelines. It was very lovely to see that after we had discussed it, something changed in our way of seeing starting from the Crucifixion of Jesus, as regards both the text of the prayer and the illustrations of the text. A film-director from On High has certainly coordinated everything. Sr Elena Maria used a mixed technique on paper. In her illustrations the essential features dominate, both with regard to colour and to the possible accessory elements. Indeed, Jesus is portrayed only in his Passion; yet the presence of the gaze of the Father and of the Holy Spirit is always shown. With his sojourn on the
arid earth Jesus, as it were, ploughs a furrow watered by grace: the ground in which the seed dies to generate new life.
How can the message of the contemplative life interest the secularized world today?
The contribution of contemplative life to today's world — and this has always been so — is the sense of giving freely. The beauty and joy of giving freely. Free giving cannot be purchased. Perhaps the secularized world has lost this good, thereby losing the source of genuine joy. Freely-given love is the actual message of Jesus on the Cross: "God shows his love for us in the fact that while we were still sinners Christ died for us". Love is not deserved: it is a gift. And when we let ourselves be reached, be touched by this love, we cannot but love. God, in loving us, makes us loving. However there is also another message which contemplative life, with its simple existence in the world, offers to it. The life of monks and nuns, so simple, apparently insignificant, is a living memorial of what, for man, is essential: the Father's love which was given to us in Jesus through the Spirit.
One can live without other things but not without this love which is, precisely, the necessary and sufficient condition in order to live and taste life. We are never alone. The great difficulty is only to let ourselves be loved by the Father. There is an important prayer that moves my heart with regard to the upcoming Way of the Cross and to every future Way of the Cross on Good Friday: that it maybe an event for one and all, whether or not they are believers.
An event of prayer before God and of reflection before our humanity which shines out in Jesus; an event, above all, that takes place before the Crucified One whose image can only give to every heart, independently of the person's faith, the word which every human heart needs, the word of love given freely. When we let ourselves be touched by this word we can understand what Augustine understood through his experience: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you".