Since last Fall, when Pope Francis visited her room and her monastery, I felt drawn to the story of Sr. Nazarena, an Italian American who became an anchorite at a Camaldolese monastery in Rome in the 1940s. For more than 40 years she lived alone and hidden in a small room off of the chapel. She died in 1990.  I tried to find out more about her and found an out of print book by a California Camaldolese monk – Fr. Thomas Mathus – that was published in 1998. Because of the demand for the out of print book, they were selling for several hundred dollars. I contacted Fr. Thomas directly and asked if he knew where I could find a more affordable book. He referred me to the Big Sur monastery bookstore and they couldn’t find one. Finally, I found one on Google books that I was able to download.


When we decided to go to Rome I thought that I would like to see her monastery and her cell. So I contacted Fr. Thomas again, as well as my cousin who is a Benedictine priest and lived in Rome for a number of years, asking both of them for help and insight into how to get into a cloistered convent. I did not hear from either of them. I was disappointed, but I let go of it.

Funny thing, late in the evening on Holy Thursday we had been up to the Santa Sabina church and were coming down the Aventine Hill a different way and lo and behold, there was the convent/monastery! I rang the bell, but not persistently, and no one answered. I spent some time walking around the place, getting a feel for the PLACE of this monastery and its stunning sobriety. I felt very close to something. (like in the child’s game, “you’re getting warmer”) … then we went on our way.

A couple of weeks after I got home I discovered the email replies from my cousin and Fr. Thomas (in that email account that I rarely used), and both were strongly encouraging me to go, telling me who to call, what time of day to call, what to say. Fr. Thomas was insisting that I ask to be let into St. Nazarena’s cell and allowed to stay for as long as I wished. I know that if I had seen these emails before I left I would have had surely gotten into the convent and Sr. Nazarena’s cell.

I then felt very disappointed – but it seemed also that things were somehow contrived so that I would not go into that cell. That in some way my soul would have misinterpreted the power that I would have felt in that room, and I would have been misdirected and distracted from finding my own way. I was going to have to somehow carve out Nazarena’s cell within my own soul, rather than finding it over there in Rome and calling it HER cell. I was not to follow her, but some other way that is completely unknown to me. I am thrust into the world, not an achorite’s cell.

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After showing him these photos, Fr. Thomas told me that I certainly saw the window to her room, “which was on the top floor looking out over the narrow side street toward the city rose garden). The room itself was a place she looked out from — out toward the roses and the ancient Roman ruins, out through a small window into the chapel, out through the eye of her mind into the vast mystery of God and Love).”
I may have to get back to Rome …