by Lorenza Cerbini
The hermitage of Montecasale
“Once rabbits and piglets were raised here. Today we are only three friars and we have seven chickens for fresh eggs. Father Giovanni takes care of them. Despite being 92 year old, he is still a rock”. Father Antonio is the last to arrive in the hermitage of Montecasale, which was a former fort and former leper colony where Saint Francis stayed in his travels between Tuscany and Umbria.
The tiny stone bed, where the Saint slept, is still visible today at the top of a ladder. There, the faithful deposit little books of prayers, drawings and photographs of their loved ones. The hermitage is reached leaving behind Sansepolcro. You climb up the mountain for a few kilometers along a comfortable road which is entirely paved. The pilgrims or walkers, however, do not come from there, but from the path of the Franciscan way so well documented by Angela Serracchioli in the guide “From here passed Francis” (Publisher Terre di mezzo), bestselling in Italian, but translated into English, German, Portuguese and Hungarian .The the hermitage of Montecasale is located in an excellent position, almost halfway between the sanctuary of La Verna and Assisi. “Until a year ago, we welcomed Germans, Dutch and Belgians. Italians were few. Covid changed habits,” says Father Antonio. A statue of a sitting Saint Francis is placed on the wall of the terrace from which you can admire the view of woods and the plain which stretches up to Anghiari in whose plain took place the famous battle with the victory of the Florentines over the Milanese troops in 1440. “One day a Belgian pilgrim told me that every year he came to Italy to enjoy this view which is impossible to see in his country”.
Wayfarers have the option to stay overnight. “We provide a lounge room where you can lay the sleeping bag. The toilets are in front. We do not offer the kitchen, so dinner must be organized”. The living room is worth the stop. A rock spur surmounted by frescoes extends from the main wall. The emotional impact is strong, and those episodes of life told in brush strokes trace the most important moments of the life of Francis who received the stigmata in La Verna in 1224 and two years later, sick, died in Assisi.
Le Celle Hermitage in Cortona
A few months earlier, returning from Siena, Saint Francis stopped to pray at Le Celle, a hermitage located two kilometers from Cortona and it is now an international centre for prayer. There, Father Antonio discovered his vocation. “For eleven years I was a banker, but I felt that was not the life for me. I was sad and unhappy. Then, I gave myself some time and during a retreat in Le Celle I decided it was time to take my leave of absence from work. I remember my mother asking me: ‘Are you sure you want to leave that place so safe?’ After 8 years of study I took my vows”.
Finding oneself and one’s own path, relying also on prayer, is what many pilgrims seek. “In Le Celle we give lodging to scouts and ecclesiastical groups, sometimes even to families, but always in a path of faith”, explains Father Luigi, the guardian of the hermitage in which today “five priests and some guests from seven different nationalities including Nigeria, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia are located”.
A challenging part of the project “San Lorenzo da Brindisi” allows “Capuchins in the world to live on the site of Cortona for a whole year for an experience of prayer, silence, work and sharing”. The hermitage as we see it today is the result of enlargements which occurred over the centuries, the structure has been abandoned several times and then recovered. Le Celle is the place for a spiritual break to recharge, an experience that can also accommodate lay people housed in special “houses for the short term”. “They must manage themselves and they share prayer with us”. And what about the occasional pilgrims? “They can come and let us be their guide. However, it is good to be informed in advance of their arrival”.
Only the Sanctuary of La Verna is equipped for faithful and tourists; it has a special guest house with 60 rooms with bathrooms (it can accommodate up to 100 people) where you can spend even more days (the guesthouse is already active for summer 2021).
Magical places in the woods
The three Franciscan structures have much in common. They are surrounded by forests and springs of water and they are located on a high ground to enjoy the magnificent landscapes of creation. The imprint of Saint Francis is still evident today: places far from society to dedicate themselves to a simple life. Nature, rustling, silence and meditation. Both in La Verna and in Montecasale there is a prominent stone where the saint prayed.
The one of Montecasale (much less famous than the other) can be reached through a steep path and from its top there is a waterfall with a 70-meter dip towards the valley. “Not many people come down here,” says Father Antonio. However, travelers have the chance to visit the cellettes where two illustrious pilgrims slept: Saint Bonaventura da Bagnoregio (he was elected general of the Order in 1257) and Saint Antonio da Padova. The latter came from La Verna and stopped first in the hermitage of Cerbaiolo (near the Passo di Viamaggio) and then in Montecasale. These last two destinations are seven hours apart and the track is of medium difficulty. “The stretch from Cerbaiolo to La Verna is much more challenging for the continuous up and down at high altitude “.
The Sanctuary of La Verna is located at 1128 meters above sea level and it is protected by Monte Penna (1283 meters above sea level). Winter is harsh with abundant snowfall (as this year), but on clear days you can see the Apuan Alps, San Marino, the Adriatic Sea, the Alpe della Luna, the Sasso di Simone and even Assisi.
In short, we are in a special crossroads between Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Marche. Today thirty-three friars live there and the religious life crosses with the cultural one. The Sanctuary is home to the world’s largest terracotta cycle by Della Robbia, a reason for visiting it by art historians and critics. In the public rooms, there are conferences and seminars and thanks to the internet the rich library is available to scholars.
“It took years to publish our heritage of manuscripts and ancient printed books online,” says guardian father Francis. The library, which as in the movie “The Name of the Rose” taken from the novel by Umberto Eco, is located on the top floor “to defend over five thousand books from their two worst enemies: mice and humidity” faces the cloister designed by Vasari. Originally, it seems that it was the apartment used by “Cosimo I and his wife Eleonora da Toledo when they arrived at La Verna to ask for the grace of a son who would be born the following year and out of gratitude was named Francesco”. It guards many important books, including the complete work of naturalist Ulysses Aldrovandi and a 1500 Bible published in Holland with parallel texts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Aramaic.
The Sanctuary also houses an archive with a diplomatic section, “170 parchments dated from 1200 to 1700 and it also presents many papal bulls”.
As in the time of St Francis, travelling on foot to the hermitage is still possible today for an experience to be preserved.