The Monastery of Città della Pieve in Italy. / Credit: Monastery of Città della Pieve
ACI Stampa, Dec 26, 2023 / 08:00 am (CNA).
Sister Chiara Antonella has a very special story. Blind from birth, she has been able to put this adversity to good use, with love, and she has never given up in the face of difficulty.
Now 57 years old, the Poor Clare sister has lived in the beautiful Monastery of Città della Pieve in Umbria, Italy, since 1988. A graduate in piano in 1987 from the Bergamo Conservatory of Music, she studied as a private student with a teacher who is also blind. Her fellow Poor Clare sisters have benefited the most from her musical talent. In fact, she composes music and scores for celebrations at the monastery.
ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner, recently spoke with Sister Chiara Antonella about her love of music and her greatest task — prayer.
Sister Chiara Antonella, would you tell us a little about your story?
It is never easy to tell one’s story; every time I happen to tell it, I add details and surprise myself.
Because the Lord gives us an understanding of our story also depending on the spiritual period in which we live, however, I can basically say that I am 57 years old and am originally from Bergamo. I was born blind, but I had, thanks to God, the possibility to have so many people around — my family, first of all, who raised me with so much love. This detail is important because at that time there was no integration in schools with blind people. But my family was supported by associations in Bergamo, and they gave me the possibility to have peaceful relationships with my classmates and in my context.
From a very young age I was given a piano, and I remember that at one point I played one of the songs that my mom used to sing to me. I played exactly that sound. So she was singing and I was playing. My relationship with music started very early. At 7 years old I had already learned to play the piano and graduated from the conservatory in Bergamo.
And then the calling to religious life came…
Yes, then the Lord inserted himself; he was able to break through.
My relationship with God was always fundamental; I would like to be “of the Lord,” I used to say. For me, the Lord’s presence was constant. And at some point, as it happens for everyone, I asked myself questions like, “What will become of my life?” Embedded in the search for my path was what I wanted to do. Music was not enough for me… I also had a desire to study psychology.
In the meantime, however, there was a great discomfort, a search, a sense of something I was missing. I was volunteering, and although it filled my days, I would get to the evening and feel a sense of emptiness. “What should I do?” I said to the Lord.
Then I went to Assisi, in 1985. I met some Poor Clares in Perugia. I had strange feelings, I felt like I was in the right place, and there were several young Poor Clares. We were in the parlor and one nun electrified me with a sentence: “I know that you are seeking God’s will for your life. I will confide to you a little secret: God wants happy and full people. When you put yourselves in prayer, you ask for a joy that lasts; this is God’s will for you.”
And was it there that you understood this call?
I could tell by listening to them that they were experiencing exactly what I was looking for. Coming out of that meeting I thought that the Lord was asking this of me. The more I thought about it, the more I imagined myself there. I knew that [it] would fill my heart. Being cloistered was challenging, it seemed like a closed life, but during one Mass I sensed the Lord’s thought: “How did I save the world? I did many things, but I saved the world when I was on the cross doing nothing.” And from there my journey began…
The Monastery of Città della Pieve in Italy. Credit: Monastery of Città della Pieve
What is the history of the monastery in Città della Pieve, where you live today?
St. Clare began in 1211 in San Damiano. In the meantime, many communities heard about this new form of life and young people were enthusiastic and followed. Among them was the community of Città della Pieve, a Benedictine community. St. Clare thus sent some of her daughters on a mission, and it seems that one of her sisters came here. In 1252 we received the approval of this form of life, and we see it every day represented in this bull [editor’s note: a likely reference to a bull that approved the form of life of Città della Pieve] as the monastery has grown and there have always been sisters.
There is also another beautiful episode as initially they lived the rule of Urban, but they wanted to live the rule of St. Clare: poverty. The sisters from before got that as well. And so from 1931 they resumed the rule of St. Clare. There were no vocations then, especially during the war.
One of our sisters, who was from nobility, had a brother who had studied with [Father] Don Orione, who was the saint of vocations, and decided to do a vocations quest. “You write to all the pastors in Italy,” he said. “Write to the pastors if they have any girls who could be initiated into religious life, and you pray.”
And so it happened; sisters started arriving. The monastery had to be restructured, at that time in keeping with the council, and the enclosure also had undergone changes. Many of us were born in the 1960s, and it was a difficult time for restructuring. But now the monastery is one of the most beautiful in Umbria. We filled it. Only one of the sisters who took us in is left. She was 108 years old and another made it to 105. We found a welcoming community, but there were dizzying changes. They really had a strong form of obedience. We came in and envisioned a different kind of seclusion. And now we are 23 sisters, [ranging in age] from 73 years old to about 35 years old. We are from all over Italy and some even from Poland.
How do you manage to live with blindness?
I have always been used to being around sighted people. For a blind person, seclusion can make life easier… I’ve always had a good sense of direction; I’ve never had relationship difficulties; and I’m also a person who approaches all this with a certain sense of humor. I’ll tell you this, it happened to me that sometimes we have a blackboard where the notices are written, and I didn’t know this. It is true that I have been to Lourdes five times, however, I still haven’t had that miracle! I say jokingly to my sisters.
I have also had my little difficulties, but I look at life as not a fulfilled path but as a pilgrimage in the making. In the face of new challenges, I am ready. The important thing is humor. I realized that we have to be educators to others. Try to think that those who do not see are you. Even with all the empathy you want, you are the one who has to help them. It is a charity you give to the other person. You have to help yourself. If you can experience it that way it almost becomes an extra gear. When they describe a landscape to me, I add things. Hearing, scents, a distant sound… I can offer another way. Let’s help each other with humor and without fear. I like to be autonomous, but I have to ask [for help].
Have you ever tried to ask for help? Love always helps. Love given and received. It happened to me that in school even my classmates were curious about my instruments. I got here and I didn’t see this curiosity and that created questions for me about them. Why were my sisters not entering my world? Then one day a note came from a sister, written in Braille… I was moved. It said “tell me what you need.” I feel welcomed now. They used to call me “poor girl,” especially when I was young. Not here, and it’s beautiful. And now I also have a tablet with which to connect and be able to read and keep in touch with the world.
A nun prays in the Monastery of Città della Pieve in Italy. Credit: Monastery of Città della Pieve
You compose beautiful music, and your community uses it for celebrations in the monastery.
Yes, I have a program that allows me to write music. At first, I dictated the notes to my sisters, but I could not check them. It is not easy to dictate the music, but now I have the ability to write the scores for my sisters. I enjoy writing these compositions. Once, almost as a joke, I tried to put down a hymn and enjoyed doing it. I also wrote a Mass for an event. And then again several chants, like for the Abbess’ name day. I like it… it’s my way to express my inner way and what I feel and live. I did not study composition, however; the notes come out of my heart. When I had just entered, I set the “Canticle of Creatures” to music. After more than 20 years in the monastery this desire was fulfilled. And now I have music for this canticle. The sisters like it very much. I play the organ for Masses, then I have been using the zither for a few years.
How do you spend your days?
Here’s a typical day: There is an alternation between work and prayer. We wake up at 5:15 every day or 5:45 on Sundays. Then we have Lauds immediately together, always together, then 30-minute meditation. Then we have the Office of Readings at 7 a.m. Then we have Mass at 8 a.m., breakfast, and until noon we do cleaning, tidying up; everyone has their own place… some are in the kitchen, some in the infirmary. Then we have the sixth hour. Following that we have lunch together followed by free time, which everyone can devote to their personal things. Then we have a time of strict silence until 3 p.m. The ninth hour comes and until 5:30 p.m. we have activities like formation meetings, decision-making chapters, family time. There is also personal reading until 6 p.m. And again vespers, then meditation. At 7:30 p.m. we have dinner, community recreation, and sharing. At 9 p.m. we have Compline, the last prayer of the day.
How do you deal with social media?
This is something we have yet to define. Right now we use the internet for business purposes, as well as liturgical. With Mother’s permission we use it to read newspapers. Also we use e-mail to do catechesis for people in the parish. So we use social media for information purposes.
And do you meet with your family?
For personal visits, we see our family members two or three times a year. We are all far away. They can stay for a few days. For everyone else we have to arrange visits with Mother. We see friends once a year. If there is a person in need, we get more people to come. We have two periods during the year when we do not receive at all: Major Lent and Easter and St. Martin’s Lent (from Nov. 2 until Advent.) During these times we do not receive calls. We try to limit ourselves. It is our rule. It is our time of recollection.
Nuns work at the Monastery of Città della Pieve in Italy. Credit: Monastery of Città della Pieve
How can nuns in a monastery be “useful” to society and the Church?
I’ll answer you with a simple thing: prayer. There is this “taking to heart,” an aspect of motherhood that is very strong for us. Every reality and situation, we carry it as our own, as a mother takes situations and people to heart. I carry everyone in prayer, you are part of the womb, giving birth to Christ to the world, giving birth to a new humanity… “I’ll pray for you” has an absolute meaning, you are delivered to Christ with my prayer.
Another aspect is to put ourselves in the middle. Our prayer is not just pointing out a situation to the Lord, but we put ourselves in the middle between God and humanity. We are here to intercede. We are the medium where humanity meets God through us standing on the mountain. And God meets humanity through us. This sounds like an impractical thing, but it is not. This offering falls for the benefit of the whole world. Our life is a constant offering. If you think about it, we are always in communion with the whole Church. By some mysterious design that we do not understand, but it benefits the whole world. We carry the anxieties of everyone. What God sees mysteriously comes to you too. So many people come to us attracted by these songs, by the music, then they are impressed because they find a listening ear. A desperate person came and was struck by our attention to his problems. Listening is everything.
Can you share a wish for the season of Christmas?
I am wishing everyone peace this year. That sounds trite, but peace is rediscovering the beauty of healthy and beautiful relationships. We have beautiful things to give and say to one another. Peace includes many things. It is not only the absence of wars. Peace is awe. One wish is to rediscover the beauty of the body, the flesh, the incarnation, the created realities. To know how to ask the Lord to understand the beauty of creation. I say let us learn to understand how to rejoice. Rediscovering peace, awe, joy.
This interview was first published by ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.