Why you should care

Because, when it comes to putting your best face forward, monks know best.

Forget beauty salons, massage rooms and healing spas. A new fad is taking hold in Italy at dozens of monasteries and sanctuaries dotting the cradle of Christianity. People are flocking to monks — not for a spiritual retreat, but for body regeneration.

Priests are well-known for pioneering good beer and wine (take Dom Pérignon Champagne, named after a high-ranking prelate), meats and cheese. Well, it turns out that they also have a penchant for making youth-enhancing cosmetics and anti-aging elixirs to rejuvenate the body … and by default, one would expect, the spirit.

During the weekends you can find folks lined up at these friars’ drugstores — dispensaries at the sanctuaries, open to the public by exception — to buy monk-made face creams, healing oils and lotions made with (ironically) devil’s claw and potions to target cellulite and wrinkles. And it’s nothing short of an event. The first time I visit Casamari Abbey, south of Rome, I wait 40 minutes to be served. The front parking lot is crammed with Ferraris and Harley-Davidsons, and women parade about in furs and jewels. Inside the pharmacy, priests — part shamans, part beauty gurus — have taken a break from meditation to serve patrons looking for the fountain of youth. Dressed in their brown robes and sandals and socks, they advise customers on which soap is best for their delicate skin: chestnut tree honey or white roses.

One granny lays out $215 for eight bottles of body oil made from the herbs grown in the monastery’s garden.

Wooden shelves are stacked with herbal hand and foot creams, shampoos to treat dandruff, conditioners made of stinging nettle (beware: It may itch a little) and seaweed body scrubs. For gentlemen: aftershaves made from horsetail plant. The hot-ticket item? “Imperial drops,” which are used to treat a variety of ills: rheumatism, stomach pains, seasickness, mouth infections, nasal congestion and bad breath. Just add a few droplets to water, coffee or milk. One granny lays out $215 for eight bottles of body oil made from the herbs grown in the monastery’s garden. Alba Piovani, 88, says that Father Giovanni’s ointments have helped her aching bones so much that she doesn’t “go to the doctor anymore.” She visits every weekend to buy products for her daughter and nieces.

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The cloister of Casamari Abbey, built between the 11th and 13th centuries, in Veroli, Lazio, Italy.

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Those who believe that inner happiness also contributes to well-being can also pick up some spiritual elixir — aka booze. Liquors that top the list are San Bernard’s Elixir, artisan grappa and boozy concoctions made of liquorice and nuts. Handmade beers cost up to $22 — more than a good bottle of wine.

Of course, all of the “remedies” are dispensed through places of worship, so don’t be surprised if you get a little preaching with your anti-wrinkle cream. As the young, blue-eyed Father Giovanni hands me face soap made of mustard seeds — which he assures me will kill all my zits in one single wash — he advises me on the need to give up “all earthly pleasures and the love of money.” Hmmm … isn’t that what he and his fellow priests are doing by running a flourishing beauty-based business that has nothing to do with the spiritual sphere?

This can perhaps be overlooked if the drugstores’ profits go into running the abbey. And if the feeling of well-being — however achieved — leads to internal peace, is that such a bad thing? As the famous Latin saying goes: Mens sana in corpore sano. A healthy mind-slash-spirit can exist only in a healthy body. It’s a question of finding the perfect balance.

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