Tuesday, February 23, 2010

La Verna with Leo

Leo has taken me to La Verna two times. It's a Franciscan Hermitage, located at the top of Mount Penna, an isolated peak 1,283 meters high, in the Apennines (Appennini) Mountain range, where it passes through Umbria. (http://www.santuariolaverna.org/)

On our first trip there, my Italian was just at beginner's level and Leo’s English was equally spotty. Fortunately, Leo and I have never found language to be a barrier for exchanging ideas.

While we drove through the Tuscan countryside, Leo told me the history of La Verna. It was once the home of Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francesco). On May 8, 1213, this mountaintop was given to him by Count Orlando of Chiusi. The Count knew San Francesco craved a quiet location where he could meditate.

As we approached, I gazed up at a lodge like structure which seemed to hang right out over the edge of the craggy mountain. On the second trip, wispy tendrils of fog swirled around the monastery. This is not a place you will find tourist buses, as in Assisi. This is a sanctuary for Pilgrims and others seeking a place of peace and solitude.

We parked outside the iron gates on a November morning and walked past a statue of San Francesco, then onto the grounds. Leo warned me that we needed to talk quietly or be silent inside the building we were approaching.

Leo opened the thick wooden doors and led me down a long narrow corridor which was glassed on the precipice on my left and on the right, I observed frescoes depicting the life of San Francesco. As I looked back over my shoulder, I saw a colorful ceramic by Andrea della Robbia, hanging over the entry doorway. (http://www.ilbelcasentino.it/terracotterobbiane.html).

We peeked in, but bypassed entering the main church, Chiesa Maggiore. (Construction on this was started in 1348 and completed in 1459.)  I saw a large della Robbia (Assumption of the Virgin) hanging behind the altar. I so wanted to go in, but Leo was insistent that we continue on.

Several friars, dressed in the traditional Franciscan brown robes with knotted white rope belts and sandals, quietly walked past us. I tried hard not to stare. I wanted to take pictures of everything, but of course I did not.

At the far end of the corridor, we entered into a tiny chapel, containing only enough room for a handful of people. Sparse pews, which lined both walls, were actually not full pews, but sitting space for only one or two people.

At the time, I did not understand the purpose for visiting this simple small chapel. This is the older Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was built 1218 for St. Francis by Count Orlando.

Leo motioned that there was to be no talking here. We sat down next to each other, shoulders touching.

I experienced a feeling of total peace. It had come to me almost immediately upon entering. I was filled with a strong presence of goodness, hope, peacefulness and trust. I took Leo's hand as I felt overcome by emotion. My tears began to fall silently. Leo was not alarmed. He had been trying to prepare me for this. He felt the same powerful force.

After 10 minutes, we returned to the main corridor and I asked Leo to explain what had happened to me. He told me this had been San Francesco’s own private chapel and his presence is felt by all who enter. Even now, I remember with goose bumps those precious minutes.

“In August, 1224, Francis withdrew to La Verna to keep a forty days fast in preparation for Michaelmas and while praying on the mountain-side he received (on or about 14 September) the stigmata. Thus La Verna came to be seen as sacred ground. Pope Alexander IV took it under his protection. In 1260 a church was consecrated there in presence of St. Bonaventure and several bishops. A few years later the Chapel of the Stigmata was erected, paid for by Count Simone of Battifole, near the spot where the miracle took place. The Chiesa Maggiore was begun in 1348, although not finished until 1459.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Verna)

Just a few feet away from the chapel, we stepped outside into a minuscule area where it is possible to observe San Francesco's sleeping stone, partially surrounded by a small cave made up of blocks of fallen stone.

After re-entering the main corridor, Leo led me outside and along the outside ridge of the precipice, which contained an iron safely rail, thank goodness. In single file, we approached the spot where it is believed that San Francesco met the devil one night. In the stone, there seems to be an imprint of a man. According to legend, it was here that San Francesco received the stigmata on September 14, 1224.

We followed a steep path down to a fern filled grotto. The earth appeared to have been split open and turned, as if a mighty battle of metaphysical forces had taken place. Leaning against the stone were perhaps a dozen crosses of various sizes, which the faithful had been made from twigs or sticks. As we walked to the back of the grotto, Leo pointed up to indicate we were just below San Francesco's sleeping stone.

During our second visit, I was fortunate to see the friars make their 2 pm procession from the Chiesa Maggiore down to the Chapel of the Stigmata, which sits just above the fern grotto. They make this trip daily at 2 in the afternoon and again at midnight.

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there's doubt, faith ;
where there is despair hope
where there is darkness light
where there is sadness joy

O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


Preghiere del Poverello di Assisi

Signore, fammi strumento di tua pace.
Dove c'è odio fa che io porti l'amor,
Dov'è offesa, perdono,
Dov'è dubbio, fede,
Dov'è disperazione, speranza,
Dov'è buio, luce,
Dov'è tristezza, gioia.

O Maestro Divino concedimi che io non cerchi
tanto di essere consolato quanto consolare,
non tanto di essere compreso, ma di comprendere,
non tanto di essere amato, quanto d'amare;
perchè è nel dare che riceviamo
è nel perdonare che siamo perdonati,
è nel morire che ci svegliamo a vita eterna


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