Along the Via Appia about two miles outside of Rome is a large country manor converted to a monastery. In early 1966 I visited here to interview a lay brother about his work as a guide in the nearby Roman catacombs. His name was Don Carlo. The title “Don” was a northern Italian sign of respect.
After we had concluded our conversation the aging brother invited me to accompany him up three flights of stairs to a tall, large-windowed tower built above the roof. He asked me to take a seat and then opened a battered case and removed a violin. For the next hour I remained there surrounded on all sides by the spring-green fields of the Roman countryside as the chamber resonated with beautiful music.
In the opening narration of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, the story’s protagonist explains that “Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to stretch out a pleasant simple tune.” For Don Carlo, the music of his violin, was only a faint reflection of a life lived out in prayer and service to others.
The lives of a lay brother such as Don Carlo occupies uncertain place in the thinking of many Catholics. In the fifties I recall how happy my mother was to learn that a young movie starlet had left her career to enter a cloistered convent. I remember fondly the time I spent with members of a religious community who taught technical trades in a Los Angeles area high school. The humor, energy, and dedication of the men left a lasting impression. Yet, though many Catholics accept the idea of religious life as a feature of their faith, they find it difficult to imagine themselves following such a path. Instead we unconsciously follow a culture that weighs, counts, and measures success in terms of wealth or power. We find it difficult to hear the sounds of a life played in the prayer and humble service.
Sitting with Don Carlos was a strange mixture of history and melody. Outside the windows the Roman compagna stretched out in green fields to the far distant Alban hills. Midway the stately remains of the great aqueducts marched single file toward the Eternal City. Far below us was the Via Appia, Rome’s highway to Brindisi and the ships connecting its legions and diplomats with Greece and Asia Minor. But the violin music transcended all of this. We were in God’s space, in God’s time.
For many who give a superficial ear to such witness, such melodies are at odds with contemporary values. The lives of religious men and woman affirm an absolute truth, in a world that wants to hedge all bets and keep all options open. In sharp contrast their example testifies to the words of St. Paul. “I am sure that neither death nor life nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord.” The decision to lead a life requiring the renunciation of marriage, possessions, and personal independence, represents a commitment to God that is an all or nothing proposition.
When the aging brother had finished playing, he put away his violin, accompanied me down the stairs and said goodbye at the monastery door. In his lifetime, he had fathered no children and achieved neither fame or fortune. From a secular viewpoint where he had ever lived at all was of little significance. But from the perspective of faith, the melody of his life soared bird-like over the cacophonies of the world and evoked the truest, deepest mysteries of creation.