Later in life, Francis returned to what is now Santuario della Verna, spending days deep in prayer. He asked that he might experience a moment of the love and pain that Jesus felt at his crucifixion. On the 14th of September, 1224, Christ appeared to Francis, bestowing the wounds of the crucifixion to Francis' body--the first recorded case of stigmata. A small chapel, built in 1263, stands on the spot, a place of pilgrimage where the awesome beauty of nature is offered as proof of the greatness of God.
Santuario della Verna, it so happens, is also a great place to stay. The large guest house, an updated version of the 17th-century guest house used as a monastery today, welcomes spiritual seekers and tourists alike. Surrounded by an immense forest and a series of moss-covered caves that are open for prayer, the area is what one might call the Yellowstone National Park of Roman Catholicism. The chapel, which attracts thousands of believers every year, is part of a larger complex that includes a hermitage, a friary, a basilica, and numerous prayer chapels, many containing relics of St. Francis.
La Verna is only one of hundreds of convents, monasteries, and other Roman Catholic centers throughout Italy that offer shelter to all who seek it. Many date back several centuries, occupying prime real estate in Rome, Florence, and Venice, and many of them were updated for the Jubilee Year.
At times, you'll have to forego certain amenities, like a mini-bar, a spacious double bed, or bellhops. You may even have to part with your mate at night. But the rewards more than compensate.
Seeing Italy from inside its monasteries is in some ways indispensable in getting to know the country. "Catholicism," one man told me, pinching the skin on his hand, "is part of the fabric of who we are. It is in our blood. You cannot separate the two."
A Catholic schoolboy who has left his faith behind, I felt a bit uneasy returning to this environment. But sitting quietly in a chapel at Sanctuary of La Verna, I felt an overpowering sense of nostalgia. The smell of candles, the incense, the stone and stillness are, as the man said, part of the fabric of who I am. No sooner did I realize that than I found myself at Mass, receiving Communion for the first time in more than 10 years.
The week before, I stayed in Venice with my Jewish girlfriend at Domus Cavanis, a guest house operated by the Padri Cavanis order. Except for a large crucifix in one hallway, there's little sign that Domus Cavanis is a monastery. The religion houses in the big cities tend to keep religion in the background, if visible at all. Less typically, the Domus allowed us to share a room no questions asked, with a double bed and cable television, and without a curfew. Many monasteries and convents lock up at midnight and separate unmarried couples. Conveniently located just around the corner from the Peggy Guggenheim museum, our Domus room was simple but comfortable. At $85 for a double room, it was less than half the price of the full-up 3-star hotel across the street.
What we saved on accommodations, we splurged on dinners, shopping, and wine. The church's position on alcohol seems to be quite liberal in Italy, as many cloisters are famous for their wine, grappa, and liqueurs. Most guest houses, including one as sacred as Sanctuary of La Verna, stock full bars and even sell cigarettes.
By far, the most fascinating monastery stay was to the Comunita Vangelo e Zen. Located in the village of Lodi, the monastery is run jointly by a Catholic priest and a Zen Buddhist monk. After an hour's train ride out of Milan, I was met by a priest on the train platform.
Driving to the village, I explained to the padre that I had been raised Catholic but chose Hinduism as my religion. Studying yoga, Sanskrit, and the Vedas, I told him, actually allowed me to appreciate the Bible and the teachings of Christ for the first time. He listened and nodded but said he had been a missionary in Japan for 20 years and understood my feelings.