A Tuscan Sanctuary - Mount La Verna
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
EARLY in the morning of the 14th September 1224, on the Feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, ere day had yet dawned, Francis Bernardone, at that time the foremost Standard-bearer of Christ in all Christendom, received the marks of his Lord's Passion while keeping the Lent of St. Michael Archangel on the solitary rugged heights of Mount La Verna in Tuscany. The wild mountain has ever since been one of the chief objects of interest in the Kingdom of God upon earth, but fewer of the faithful go there than might be supposed.
For the way to Mount La Verna, like the narrow way, is beset with difficulties. To get there you must make as if you were going to Carnaldoll, the home of St. Romuald's children. Descend at Bibbiena station. Do not fear to arrive in the evening; you may sleep there in cleanliness and comfort, and eat of the wholesomest and best, if you take shelter in the little hostelry called the Albergo Amorosi. From Bibbiena a carriage, after three hours' toilsome climb up the roughest of roads, will bring you within measurable distance of the Franciscan convent at the summit. The last twenty minutes of the climb must be done on foot, so steep, so rough, so narrow, has the path become.
Arrived at the Convent doors, you will receive that hearty, cheery welcome peculiar to all Religious, whether Friars, or Monks, or Clerks Regular. If you are of the male sex, a bed and possibly a separate bedroom will be pre-pared for you in the guest-quarter of the Con-vent; if of the gentler sex, you must sleep below, where, at the point that your horses could go no further, stands a great barn-like building, kept for the purpose by two ancient dames of the Third Order of St. Francis. But both men and women may take their meals together in the guest-quarter up at the Convent. The food is homely, but seasoned with a piquant and appetising sauce—the cheery chat, the gentle humour, the exquisite courtesy of the humble Religious who wait upon you at table. They fall so naturally and tactfully into the menial office, they make you so thoroughly at home; yet I protest that it would be much more fit and natural that we, selfish and self-indulgent creatures of the world, should be at their feet, begging as a privilege to wipe the dust off their sandals. No charge is made by the Fathers for their hospitality, but every guest makes an offering according to his means, or, better still, according to his affections, which after the briefest stay here will surely far outrun his means.
La Verna (416o feet) is a wonderful mountain to behold. Bare and barren at first, and rising very gradually, it suddenly shoots up skywards in great perpendicular walls of rock. " The Ark of Noah petrified on Mount Ararat," is M. Sabatier's graphic description. To my imagination, as seen from the west, it seemed like some heraldic monster of the cockatrice order, and mentally I blazoned it against the heavens azure: combed vert and wattled tenne. The crest is covered with pines and huge beech-trees; all round the Convent, as if fallen from the skies, immense boulders of rock, piled one on the top of the other, show deep fissures, wide chasms, and dark caverns: a wilder spot it would be impossible to imagine. It was revealed to St. Francis that the rocks were thus upheaved at the hour of the Crucifixion, when the earth did quake and the rocks were rent; and even the flippant findesiecle sceptic forgets to show astonishment or express contempt at the statement, so marvellous, so unique, are Nature's freaks on Mount La Verna, so rarefied, so penetrating, is the atmosphere of the supernatural that hangs about it.
A shred or two of history before I speak further of personal impressions. It was in the year of our Lord 1213, Francis then being thirty-one years of age and his Order four years in existence, that Orlando Cattani, Count of Chiusi, a pious and wealthy noble, made the Saint a free gift of Mount La Verna. " My father," he said, " I possess a mountain in Tuscany that is very lonely and most suited to contemplation; if so be that you are pleased to dwell there, I will most willingly make you a free gift of it for the love of God, and I will see, too, that you are furnished with all things necessary for the life of the body."
Francis gratefully accepted the precious offering, and sent two of his Religious to take possession of the mountain. Fifty armed men accompanied them, so greatly was that country-side infested with robbers and wild beasts. The two Religious, with the help of the men-at-arms, cut down the boughs of trees, and, adding a plaster of mud, built with them a rude habitation, divided into a few separate cells. This was the original of the famous Convent of La Verna!
It was not until August in 1215 that Francis paid his first visit to the holy mount, setting out from Santa Maria degli Angeli at Assisi. We may not linger with him on that memorable journey, which has been described for all time in the " Fioretti." It was near his journey's end, at a spot now marked by a little chapel called the Cappella degli Uccelli, while sitting down to rest ere making the last brief steep ascent, that a crowd of birds of all kinds, whirling in the air with every demonstration of delight, finally settled, some on his shoulders, some on his arms, some in his lap, and some at his feet. The dear Saint lifted a happy face to the Brothers who were with him and said: " Dear Brothers, it cannot but be that the Lord Jesus is pleased that we should dwell in this lonely mountain, for see what joy our brothers and sisters, the birds, show at our coming."
St. Francis visited La Verna six times altogether. We can only follow him on his last visit thither. This was in 1224, two years before his death, when he repaired to La Verna to keep the Lent of St. Michael, which commenced on the 16th August and ended on the 28th September. Being now more than ever joined in familiar intercourse with his Master, Francis desired to observe this Lent with more than customary strictness. He caused a little cell to be built for himself in a solitary spot of the mountain, only accessible by a plank bridge.
And then he laid upon his brethren the command that they should leave him entirely alone. "Only thou, Frate Leone," 1 he said, "thou, if I shall not have come at midday to share the usual meal with the rest, thou mayest come and bring me a little bread and water; and again thou mayest come at midnight, at the hour of Matins, but, before entering thou shalt say: 0 Lord, open Thou my lips and if I answer, then pass over and we will say Matins together; but if I answer not, then depart without further speech."
But besides Frate Leone, another privileged friend, Frate Falcone, was admitted to some intimacy with Francis during this long fast. Brother Falcon had his home in the rock above the cell, and nightly, with unfailing fidelity, awoke the Saint with his cries about the hour of Matins, so that he might in nowise fail to rise and say the Divine Office. Only Divine Providence had infused into Brother Falcon the bowels of human compassion, for, when he saw that his brother Francis was more than usually wearied with fasting and watching, he let him sleep in peace until the dawn. Thus did the birds of the air (what no human being ever could) temper a little the austerity of the penance which Brother Francis had set himself. Brother Falcon still, to-day, builds in the same rock, and though rude and inconsiderate hands have robbed him of his young, though he departs at times to launch his offspring in the great world, yet ever does he return to build in the rock that is hallowed by the memory of his pious ancestor, the Blessed Falcon.
Early on the morning of the 14th September, on the Feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, ere day had yet dawned, certain shepherds in the plain below saw the holy hill irradiated with a light as of the risen sun. And certain muleteers, believing that the sun had indeed risen, started on their journey to the Romagna, only to be overtaken by darkness when that supernatural light had failed. For the light came from heaven, and it shone upon Francis rapt in the love of God. And as he looked, he beheld a Seraph with six wings descending swiftly to-wards him; two of the wings hid the Angel's face, two others covered his body, while with the other two he winged his rapid flight to earth. And as the Seraph drew nigh, the Saint looked and saw that he was nailed upon a Cross like the Lord Himself. In that heavenly visitation, Francis was sealed with the Five Wounds of the Passion.
The case of St. Francis of Assisi is the first recorded case of Stigmata in hagiography, and it remains to this day the best authenticated and the most marvellous. The most marvellous, and in this unique, that through the wounds in the poor hands and feet there projected long nails of a black, hard, fleshy substance. The round heads of the nails showed close against the palms, and from out the back of the hands came the points of the nails, bent back, as if they had pierced through wood and then been clinched. And so with the feet: the nails had pierced them through, so that it was agony to the poor Saint to put his feet on the ground. The open wound in the side had the appearance of having been inflicted by a lance-head. There is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of this account of the nature of St. Francis' Stigmata. That he actually received the Stigmata is, of course, beyond all doubt, and no serious person any longer seeks to dispute the fact. M. Paul Sabatier, born a Huguenot and since lapsed into Renanism, while denying the possibility of all miracle, admits the essential fact to the full. " 11 reste," he says, "a examiner les stigmates au point de vue purement historique. Or, si sur ce terrain les difficultes petites et grandes ne manquent pas, les temoignages m'ont paru a la fois lrod nombreux et trop precis pour ne pas entralner la conviction." (" Vie de St. Francois d'Assise," 22me edition, p. 402. Paris, 1899.)
The day after the Feast of St. Michael, Fran-cis left La Verna forever. He could no longer walk, on account of the great pain of his wounds, but rode upon an ass which Count Orlando had sent up for his use. Before starting, he besought the children around him, and the children that were to come after him, to have a special care of the holy mount where God had wrought such wonders. " I desire," he said, "that this place shall ever be inhabited by God-fearing Religious, the flower of my Order. I command you under holy obedience to live in charity, to be instant in prayer, to have a diligent care of this place, singing the Divine Praises day and night. And suffer no man to profane this holy hill. I give my blessing to all who shall respect and reverence it. Ah!—Ah!—Ah!—Fra Masseo, I can say no more.
Fra Masseo, in a letter addressed to his brethren, has left a vivid record of the Saint's pathetic farewell to Mount La Verna. It runs something like this, but that so much of the savour has gone out of it in the English tongue:
"Addio! Addio! Addio! Fra Masseo! Addio! Addio! Addio! Frate Angelo!"
(And the like he said also to Fra Silvestro and to Frate Illuminato.) " Rest in peace, my dearest children. May God bless you. My dearest children, farewell! I am leaving you in the body, but I leave my heart behind with you. I am going away with Fra Pecorella di Dio; I am going to Santa Maria degli Angeli, and I shall return hither no more. I am going: farewell, farewell, farewell, to all! Farewell, 0 Mountain! Farewell, farewell, Mount La Verna! Farewell, Mount of Angels! Farewell, my best beloved; 0 best beloved, farewell! Brother Falcon, I thank thee for the charity thou didst use me. Addio, Sasso Spicco! Farewell, great rock! Farewell, farewell, farewell, 0 rock that didst receive me into thy bowels, confounding the wiles of the evil one. Alas! we may meet no more. Farewell, Santa Maria degli Angell!' O Mother of the Eternal Word, I commend to thee these my dear sons! "
" And while our dear father was speaking thus," continues poor Masseo, " our eyes were shedding fountains of tears, and he departed, weeping like-wise, taking with him our hearts, and leaving us orphans indeed, for the loss of such a father. I, Frate Masseo, have writ all this. And may God bless us! "
Before finally losing sight of La Verna, Francis turned and once more blessed the holy hill in these words: " Farewell, thou mountain of God, thou Holy Mount, Mons coagulatus, Mans pinguis, Mons in quo beneplacitum est Deo habitare. Farewell, Mount la Verna! May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost bless thee! Rest in peace, for we shall never meet again! "
Such then is the great fact, luminous and indisputable, which has made Mount la Verna famous in Christendom. Let us briefly glance at one interesting proof of it which has put the whole matter outside the range of doubt for sane and scientific historians,—imprimis for M. Sabatier. It fell out one day that Fra Leone was grievously afflicted with a spiritual temptation, and ardently desired, as the only remedy, to have some memorable passage of Holy Scripture written out by the hand of the Saint and briefly annotated by him. But he dared not ask it. St. Francis, however, divined his wish, and wrote on parchment with his own hand, signing it with his sign manual of a Cross Tau, the following memorable passage of Holy Writ, which is nothing less than the words in which Almighty God commanded that Aaron and his sons should bless the children of Israel:
Benedicat tibi Dominus et custodial to
The Saint, who has been speaking in Italian, here breaks into Latin of the Liturgy. " Ces paroles," says M. Sabatier, who defends the authenticity of Fra Masseo's letter, " ont du veritablement etre prononcees par lui."
Then follows the Saint's annotation, and surely since Moses wrote there has never been so eloquent, so touching a commentary on the Scriptures: Dominus benedicat te, Frater Leo—and may the Lord bless thee, Brother Leo.
The original of this Blessing is preserved in the Sacristy of the Sagro Convento at Assisi. Precious as it is in itself, it has been made yet more precious by the statements which Fra Leone has written on the face of it in his own well-known handwriting. He has authenticated the Blessing itself, he has authenticated the Cross Tau, and above the Blessing he has written the following priceless witness to the truth of the Stigmata:
" The Blessed Francis, two years before his " death, kept a Lent at La Verna in honour of " the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, and of the " Blessed Michael Archangel, from the Feast of " the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary to "the Feast of St. Michael in September, and " the hand of the Lord touched him by the " vision and converse of a Seraph, and by the " impression of the Wounds of Christ in his own "body, &c."
The writer's fortunate discovery of the significance of the hieroglyphic out of which the Cross Tau rises, proves that St. Francis has himself, in pen and ink, witnessed to the fact that he did receive the Stigmata, and constitutes proof final and irrefragable of this interesting historical event.'
And now let us glance, brief as the glance must be, at the wonders which, if you will take scrip and staff and ascend thither, you still may see with your own eyes on the Mountain of La Verna at the end of this unbelieving century:
1. Of the Cappella degli Uccelli and what took place there, I have already spoken.
2. By a low gateway we enter the large court-yard of the Convent called it Quadrante. And in spirit we take the shoes from off our feet, for we are on very holy ground. The Convent itself is a large, low, irregular pile of buildings, rough, bare, and exceedingly severe. The present edifices date from about 1472. Very impressive is the dark quadrilateral corridor; cells, whose walls do not reach the roof, run round every side of it, and the great worm-eaten rafters above are dimly visible in the darkness. When midnight comes, one of the gentle Brothers, transformed, surely, for the nonce, into a fiend in friarly shape, walks round the extent of the great dormitory, wielding a cruel pair of clappers, whose inhuman din makes all the rafters ring as if the foul fiend were upon us. I was in the corridor at the time, and stopped my ears, but my eyes, by the light of a friend's lantern, saw the doors open and cheerful figures flit along to midnight Matins in the Church. A cheerfulness born of grace surely, for an old Friar confessed to me that all habits may be formed, but never in a long lifetime the habit of rising willingly at midnight. Usually, between Fathers and Novices and Lay Brothers, there are quite a hundred Friars at La Verna. Here, more than in any other place that I know of in old Tuscany, you may see what flourishing religious life was like, before a cruel and inconsiderate secular hand sought to stifle it. The Friars of La Verna have enjoyed a better fortune than many other Religious. When they were about to be dispossessed in the ill-advised wholesale suppression of 1866, the Municipality of Florence made good a claim to the property as against the Government. And though the Municipality, as present landlords, make the Friars pay rent for living in their own house, still, on the whole, they are left in peace to praise God, to the great contentment of the poor and of the tourist climber in search of refreshment.
3. Then there is the Cappella Bella Maddalena, which, it is thought, marks the spot of the original Tugurio or Convent of wattles and daub. Here the Master appeared to Francis, and seated on a rude stone which served the community as table, made four promises regarding his Order which have become famous in Catholic Christendom. Frate Leone coming in later to lay the table for dinner, the Saint stopped him, saying: " Brother Leo, wash this stone, first with water, then with wine, then with oil, then with milk, and then with balsam, for I tell thee the Lord Jesus has sat upon it." This stone is now used as the altar-stone of the Chapel, and the clergy account it a great privilege to say Mass upon it, for Francis called it also "the Altar of God." It was on this spot, too, that St. Francis wrote the Blessing for Fra Leone.
4. The little Church of Santa Maria degli Angell, or Chiesina, was the original Church of La Verna, begun in 1216 by St. Francis, after designs, says tradition, furnished by the Blessed Virgin herself. It was afterwards enlarged by St. Bonaventure. Even now it is but 29 feet long by 17 wide. 'Tis a spot very sacred to the Friars, but the increase in their numbers and the great concourse of the Faithful obliged them to build
5. The spacious Church of St. Mary, begun in 1348. It is 131 feet long and 33 wide, handsome in its proportions, and devout in the extreme. It is, moreover, rich in della Rob-bias, and contains, perhaps, the two most perfect specimens in all the world (the undoubted work of Luca himself)—an Annunciation in the Niccolini Chapel on the left, and a Nativity in the Brizzi Chapel on the right. Three colours only are used in these exquisite works—white, blue, and green; not even in the borders is there any yellow.
6. Just outside the entrance to the Church is the covered loggia, which leads to the Chapel of the Stigmata. For you must know that twice a day, the first time after Vespers, and the second after midnight Matins, the Friars go in procession from the Church to this Chapel, which now covers the spot where the great miracle took place. The loggia is 250 feet in length; on one side of it is a Via Crucis in bas-relief, on the other frescoes representing scenes from the life of the Saint. It was built in 1582. Before this, the Friars had made their procession in the open, even in the terrible storms and bitter cold of winter time. There is a tradition—one of those characteristic traditions of the Catholic Church which, if lacking in scientific precision, have yet never harmed a living soul—a tradition that, on the night of a fearful snowstorm, the Community turned fainthearted and remained indoors. Next day the path to the Chapel was deeply marked in the snow with the footprints of all manner of birds and beasts who had gone in procession to do duty for the Friars. After this reproof from dumb animals, the Community was never known to fail again, however bitter the cold, however deep the snow.
7. The loggia leads, as I have said, to the Chapel of the Stigmata. Behind the High Altar of it is a della Robbia Crucifixion with life-size figures. It is the favourite with many people in this museum of della Robbia. On the top of the Cross, in a green nest—how touching the idea, how fitting the place—is a pelican in her piety. The spot where St. Francis knelt when the Seraph flew down to him is in front of the High Altar, and covered with an iron grating.
I can do little more than just mention by name:
8. The Cappella della Croce, adjoining the Chapel of the Stigmata, and marking the spot where stood the cell in which St. Francis kept the Lent of St. Michael in 1224.
9. The Oratory of St. Anthony of Padua, where the great preacher compiled his " Sermonario.
10. The Oratory of St. Bonaventure, where the Seraphic Doctor wrote his " Itinerarium Mentis in Deum."
Do not fail to see
11. The Sasso Spicco, most characteristic of all the great rocks of La Verna. It hangs to the mountain-side seemingly by a mere thread of itself, and yet is a great solid mass, 43 feet wide and 13 feet deep. As you walk underneath the huge monster, it seems as if it must surely slide down and grind you to powder. Under its shelter St. Francis used often to pass hours in prayer and meditation.
12. The Bed, or Letto, of St. Francis, a dark cavernous nook, situated in the very bowels of the rocks, where the Saint delighted to rest and pray.
13. Then there is the spot in the sheer precipice, now accessible by a practicable way, where the solid rock turned to soft wax, receiving into it the Saint's body when Satan attempted to throw him over the cliff. It is to this rock that St. Francis so tenderly addresses his thanks in the " Addio " to La Verna which has already been quoted.
14. Leaving the Convent to walk up to La Penna, the highest point of the mountain, you will pass the cell of the Blessed Giovanni della Verna, a very holy Religious who died in 1322. The Lord used to come and walk familiarly with him there, as by walked with Enoch of old, and on that spot touched by the Divine feet the grass has ever since refused to grow. In fact, in front of Giovanni's cell there is a bare space some 50 feet long by 20 wide, now walled-in, and the grass is rich and green all round the outside of the walls, but there is not so much as a tuft within.
15. Proceeding, you will come to the Sasso di Lupo (Rock of the Wolf), a rock split away from the mass, and rising up like a great granite tower It was the refuge of Lupo, the cruel robber chieftain, until Francis converted him and made a Friar of him. In Religion, so gentle had he become, that he was known as Frate Agnello (Brother Lamb).
16. And finally you reach La Penna, marked (like so many other points) with a Chapel, and protected, for the safety of the giddy, with a stout iron railing. For we are on the very brink of the sheerest precipice of rock, 700 feet in height. From La Penna you may gaze over the whole extent of the smiling fertile Casentino, and likewise behold all the splendours of the Valleys of the Arno and the Tiber, the Perugian Hills, the Umbrian Plains, and the wild country of the Legations and the Marches.
The Feast of the Stigmata is kept on the 17th September, the day on which the event took place being already dedicated to the greater festival of Holy Cross. It is observed by the whole Church as a "double," with proper, introit, collect, gradual, and offertory in the Mass, and by the Franciscan Order as a " double of the second class " with proper hymns and antiphons for Vespers, Matins and Lauds. Our first visit to La Verna was paid on this, to that Community, greatest of all Feasts. We arrived on the afternoon of the 16th, and it was well that the good Fathers knew of our coming and had reserved comfortable quarters for us, or we should have fared but roughly. For it so fell out that the 17th was a Sunday, and the toilers of the countryside were free to come in numbers. Hundreds of peasants had already poured in. Every square inch of sleeping room had long since been allotted. We rose at midnight for Matins. The weather had changed. A mountain storm was raging in full fury. The rain poured in tor-rents, the wind howled, distant thunder rumbled angrily. What a spectacle the Church presented! On the benches, in the Confessionals, underneath the Altars, on the Altar steps, lay the recumbent figures of a hundred or two peasants who had found no other place to rest their heads. Great green Ginghams were stretched out to dry; dogs slept by their masters' side; nearly every man had his bundle of provisions. Verily these Tuscan peasants are at home in their Father's house. As the Matins' bell rang out, the dripping creatures rose and shook themselves, and soon the rattle of Rosaries showed that they too were joining in the Divine Praises. Matins and Lauds were chanted to the Tones (not monotoned) in honour of the great Feast. And then followed that wonderful procession along the loggia to the Chapel of the Stigmata. Crucifer with his Crucifix, on either side of him two acolytes with octagonal lanterns raised aloft on staves, led the way of the long pro-cession of St. Francis' sons chanting the Miserere, and we followed with the medley group of motley peasants. In the Chapel itself there was room only for the Friars, who knelt in a double row with outstretched arms; the rest of us remained crowded at the open door. And, presently, on the very spot where the Poor Man of Assisi was trans-formed into the likeness of his Crucified Master, the rich clear voice of the Versicularian intoned the versicle:
Signasti Domine servum tuum Franciscum: —
Signis Redemitionis nosing! came the answering shout from hundreds of throats, some of them choked by the tears which it was so difficult to keep back.
It was half-past two in the morning ere the long religious function was over. Many of the Fathers did not go back to bed, but betook themselves straight to their Confessionals. The long series of Masses began about three o'clock. That day some two thousand confessions were heard; some two thousand souls received Holy Communion. Communion was still being given after midday to people who had been waiting hours for a chance of going to Confession,—and they were fasting be it remembered. Many had to go away with their devotion unsatisfied. The Fathers fed, entirely, about a thousand people, and, partially, quite double that number. And all this—all this—because the son of an Umbrian cloth merchant, now nearly seven hundred years ago, chose the better part, and loved God above all things, and his neighbour better than himself!
The hour of our departure had come, and our kind friend the guest Father brought us the visitors' book and asked us to write in it. A difficult task at all times, and we would fain have been excused. But it was impossible to refuse the polite request, and taking the book we wrote in halting Tuscan:
" N N were the guests of the Franciscan Fathers here from the to the , and departed from this dwelling-place of the Poor Ones of Christ richer men than when they came."
Our mules were at the Convent gate. One last brief hasty visit to the Chapel of the Stigmata. The Novices are there with the Novice Master, engaged in a service of prayer. We can hear the words of their prayers, and how can we help joining in them:
ANT. Facts est super me manus Domini, et adduxit me super montem excelsum.
Signasti Domine servum tuum Franciscum: R, Signis Redemptionis nostrae.
Domine Jesu Christe, qui frigiscente mundo, ad inflame mandum cords nostra tui amoris igne, in carne beatissimi Francisci Passionis tux sacra Stigmata renovasti: concede propitius; ut ejus meritis et precibus crucem jugiter feramus et dignos fructus poenitentiae faciamus. Qui vivis et regnas per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.