Articolo di Sandy Brown
As our small group of Way of St Francis pilgrims climbs on shaded pathways up through the fairytale forests of Monte Penna to Santuario della Verna our hearts are beating rapidly. It’s not so much the exertion, which is substantial, but the anticipation. We come to a meadow and see above us a stone building perched atop a high granite cliff — our first glimpse of anything human-made in this ancient forest. Sensing we are almost there, we continue to climb on stone footpaths around to the front, anxious for glimpses of the sanctuary which remains hidden from our curious eyes. Finally at the front gate we see only low, stone buildings with tile and slate rooftops. Excited, we forget our weariness and sense we are being pulled forward, up ramps and steps to a small piazza with low buildings on three sides and on the fourth side what we didn’t quite expect. We’re speechless. We stand together in awe at the extraordinary, breathtaking vista of the distant blue-green mountains and valleys of the Casentino Forest. We had thought we came to meet St. Francis, but instead we meet the beauty of Creation. Then we realize this is just how Francis would want it.
It’s the year 1213. Francis of Assisi and his friend, Leone, are wandering preachers in the region of Montefeltro. “I have cause to rejoice even for pain and sorrow,” said the saint, “if I think of how much good I am waiting for.” One member in particular of the audience was so taken by his presence that he asked to talk with Francis over dinner. “We can talk as long as you like,” he was told in gentle tones. Overcome by their meeting, Count Orlando Catani of Chiusi made the saint a gift. “I have an estate in Tuscany, a faithful mountain, called La Verna which is very lonely and covered by wilderness, and it is even too suitable for those who are willing to do penance in a forgotten place, or for those who wish for a solitary life. If you might like it, I could give it all away to you and your brothers, for my soul’s release.” The saint accepted, and the result is Santuario della Verna, one of Italy’s most revered and remote holy places.
Francis’ visits to La Verna are the stuff of legends. On his first stay, we are told, families of birds swarmed around him in welcome. He soon began work on a small chapel he named Santa Maria degli Angeli. He prayed and slept in a cold, wet and mossy cave near his project. Out of humility he kept secret what happened to him on his last retreat there. During Lent of 1224, we are told, he was visited by an angel who marked his hands, feet, and side with the wounds of Jesus from the cross. His followers discovered these stigmata only as they prepared his body for burial at Assisi in October of that same year.
La Verna’s buildings stand in memory of these events. There is the tiny Chapel of the Stigmata, the expanded and rebuilt chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and the largest of the buildings: a modest 16th century basilica that houses a small chapel of Franciscan relics under soft light. As visitors we gaze at a bronze vessel of his blood, a cloth used to wrap his wounds, one of his coarse robes, a bowl, a glass, and most interesting to us pilgrims, a walking stick that supported him on his journeys. We admire ceramic art pieces of Andrea della Robbia and his workshop, and nearby the Basilica we walk down narrow steps to a crack in the rocks where Francis prayed and slept.
Every morning and afternoon priests and friars lead a procession through the frescoed hallway from the Basilica to the Chapel of the Stigmata, a tradition observed for hundreds and hundreds of years. Legend says that once the snow atop the mountain was so deep the friars decided not to hold the procession, but when they awoke the next morning they found footprints in the snow of forest animals who had made the walk in their place.
If Count Orlando were to survey his donation 800 years later he would find the mountain largely unchanged, except for the asphalt road that carries automobiles to the sanctuary and the rambling stone structures that rest just below the peak. The buildings are neatly clustered within the forest, which is penetrated only by a ring of walking paths where visitors can stroll in the majestic cathedral of trees to find the same serenity found here by Francis. Because the friars have long protected the spruce and beech woods on the vast mountaintop they have preserved an unspoilt oasis of nature that is home to a mighty forest, to deer, boar, wolves, eagles, falcons, owls, and the wandering pilgrims like us who find ourselves here looking for refreshment and peace.
31 Agosto, 2021
Sanford “Sandy” Brown è uno scrittore di guide di pellegrinaggi che vive a Lucca, in Italia. Il suo primo libro, Le vie di Francesco: da Firenza ad Assisi e Roma, è succeduto dal libro Il Camino de Santiago e la Via Francigena. Per più informazioni, visitate il sito www.caminoist.org