The Stars and the Universe as Seen from the Cloister
A most unusual invitation: to give an astrophysics lesson. For more than two hours, seventy-five nuns, aged between twenty and eighty, followed the lesson enthusiastically. In the “enclosure” of the monastery, they are actually wide-open to the world or, rather, to the universe
by Marco Bersanelli

When I got a letter from Fabiola at the end of June, I could hardly believe it. I had come to know her twenty years ago–she was called Paola then–when she was studying mathematics at the university. She had joined a friend of mine, Francesco, another mathematician, in a great friendship that was to lead her to discover her exceptional vocation. Her letter, written on behalf of the whole Trappist community, was to invite me to their monastery at Vitorchiano to speak about the more recent scientific discoveries regarding the origins of the universe. Strange, I thought. Is it possible that cloistered nuns are interested in these things? However, I was both surprised and irresistibly fascinated by the invitation! So it was that one Saturday in September, along with Francesco–today we both belong to the Fraternity –and my wife Antonella, I took the road to Vitorchiano.
We reached there around midday and went to the “parlor” to meet the Mother Abbess Rosaria and Fabiola. With Fabiola we recalled the friendship of the university years. They asked about us and our families. Then it was our turn to ask about them, how they spend their days. “We live the simple and unconditional offering of our lives,” the abbess told us. Liturgy and work are the heart and the rhythm, ora et labora; but the horizon reaches the furthest boundaries. They pray for the whole world, they lay down roots in the most distant and varied places. “From Vitorchiano we have founded new houses in Italy and also in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Indonesia and the Philippines, and recently in Congo.” Their horizon is the whole world. The universe.

The scientific point of view
They want to know about the origin of the universe from the scientific point of view. Good, I thought: “I could speak for three quarters of an hour, and then, we’ll see, if there are questions…” The abbess replied, “I don’t expect three quarters of an hour will be enough. We have set aside an hour and a half and I imagine you have quite a lot to tell us. Expectations are great. Let’s make it an hour and a half.” Okay. We take a break: it’s time for Midday Prayer.
Their prayer is a song that goes up clear and intense. You seem to feel supplication, desire, suffering, and gratitude, the breath of all men.
It’s half past three; the time has come for the lesson on astrophysics in the Chapter Room. I get the computer ready and the screen for projecting some images. At the back of the room, I see a fine bookshelf, all in wood, full of books. “We use it often during the time dedicated to meditation and reading,” explains Fabiola. The sisters begin to enter the room. It’s truly a unique sight, this assembly, seventy-five of them, ages ranging from twenty to eighty, a wide variety of faces of many nations and races. They ask me to use a microphone so that the two nuns on duty on the upper floor can follow. It’s probably not often that a scientific presentation has been looked forward to so eagerly! I feel honored and privileged.

Total participation
I begin to speak, “See the sun here, on the edge of our galaxy. See what a huge family of stars we are part of, two hundred billion of them.” Their participation in my account is total and this encourages me; I’m more confident now. The immensity of the cosmos is dizzying: “The Milky Way is only one amongst billions of galaxies spread across an area of billions of light-years. And every light-year is ten thousand billion kilometers.” I had the impression that more than “vertigo,” the immensity of the cosmos was evoking in them admiration, perhaps gratification, almost as if they were seeing the reflection of a greatness they already knew. I described the boiling infancy of the universe, the first stirrings of the cosmos 13.7 billion years ago, the expansion of space. “The conditions that allow life and ourselves to exist seem to involve and to run through the whole of physical reality, from the elementary constituents of matter to the first instants of the history of the universe.” I went on to talk of various facts and discoveries. Their attention didn’t flag for a moment. I’ve never had a class so attentive, even in my courses of astrophysics. “In the cosmos, man is almost nothing, and yet he is the point in which all that exists becomes conscious. He is made for the Infinite. Man is relationship with the Infinite, and that’s all,” I said, quoting Fr Giussani. And I think how it must be evident for them that man is relationship with the Infinite, for them who give their lives completely for the Infinite-become-man. The hour and a half was coming to an end. “Thank you. That Mystery that we glimpse, as we study nature, behind the order and unity in creation, for you is a sure and familiar presence, a ‘You’ whose praises you sing every hour of the day. Thank you.” And I realize that their presence is the most precious reminder of rationality and passion for my work that I could find. Mother Rosaria asked me to say something more about the space project I am working on, as I had mentioned it earlier in the parlor. Then, while the nuns were leaving the room, the Abbess took me aside. “There was no time for questions; I think the sisters would be very glad to go on with the discussion. Could we carry on tomorrow?” So we made an appointment for Sunday morning at nine o’clock, an hour before Mass.
What creativity, what openness, what a thirst for truth develops here, among these women “moved by the Infinite.” “Virgin mother….” Fr Giussani’s words come back to mind: “Virginity is real being….” What purity and what sensitivity for all that is true, good, really existent. You feel yourself encouraged to look and live. Here there is nothing vague, nothing faded or virtual. Everything is real.

Extra-curricular science
Sunday morning, extra-curricular science: round two. The previous evening many of the nuns had sent me notes with questions, observations and thanks. Back we go to the Chapter Room, here they are again, all in their places. A shower of questions covering the whole subject, on the relationship between science and the Scriptures, on the experience of the researcher; but above all they touch on what I had tried to explain, the scientific evidence I had presented. Once again, we were interrupted by the timetable of prayer, this time the Mass. Even here, they by no means cut off from the world. They pray for the conversion of the peoples, for persecuted Christians, for an end to the assassinations in the Holy Land, for the Church in the Far East, for the Pope’s health. And then, as if it were not enough, they thank God for the meeting with me, and pray for all scientists and researchers, that God may bless their work, that they may recognize with love the face of the Creator through the beauty of His creatures.
It’s surprising that those lives, apparently segregated, are so enthusiastic for Being, from the smallest detail to the supreme synthesis. In that enclosure, curiosity and freedom are at home; you breathe fresh air. On the contrary, in our universities, for all the good will, you always feel rather closed. It is paradoxical. Many researchers seem to slide into a forgetfulness of beauty and of truth, of what is real, and in the end of what is material, more and more intent on details with no hope of an aim. And no-one is exempt from this risk. It is right to be in the vanguard and try to survive. But maybe in the end it will be places like that monastery–perhaps not made of walls, but then, who knows?–that will defend the human feel for things, that will guarantee the survival of true curiosity, of cognition, of science… human places where the Mystery is acknowledged as present and familiar, the Mystery that is the source of all things, known and unknown, and to which belong also the contingency, the materiality, the beauty of the universe. Perhaps a recovery could start off from such a place in which a few men, with a heart overwhelmed by love for Christ, can embrace all things and, bit by bit, patiently win back for Him the whole of reality. Our Fraternity is the beginning of this. The beginning is now–or rather, we have already begun.