2016-11-18
Sitting on a small stone step atop a 2,000 foot sheer cliff face watching a magnificent sunset over the Casentino Valley in Tuscany, it's easy to see what attracted St. Francis of Assisi to this place nearly 800 years ago. The combination of silence, seclusion and a spectator's view over all God's creation puts you in touch with the divine, as life's trivialities begin to tumble like rubble.

According to popular belief, the precipice at Sanctuario della Verna is where St. Francis was tempted by the devil, clinging to the sides of the rock face as Lucifer tried to cast him down to his death. St. Francis had gone there many times seeking a place of solitude and meditation. On what would be his final visit, after having abandoned the guidance of his order and embarking on a personal journey of intimacy with God, Francis spent many days 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 his prayers were heard. Christ appeared to St. Francis, bestowing the wounds of the crucifixion to his body, the first recorded case of stigmata.

A small chapel stands on the spot, a place of pilgrimage for believers from the world over. The chapel is part of a larger complex that includes a hermitage, a friary, a basilica, a large guest house, and numerous small prayer chapels, many containing relics of St. Francis. Surrounded by an immense forest with a series of natural caves covered in green moss, many of which are open for prayer, Sanctuary of La Verna is the Yellowstone National Park of Catholicism. The awesome beauty of nature offered up as proof of the greatness of God, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

It is only one of hundreds of convents, monasteries and other places of pilgrimage throughout Italy continuing the Christian tradition of offering shelter to all those who seek it. Whether your motivations are spiritual or practical, the doors of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy are generally open wide to guests. Many, dating back several centuries and occupying prime real estate in cities like Rome, Florence and Venice have been updated for the Jubilee Year. They are also very practical: the price of staying in a monastery compared to hotels in comparable locations will make you a believer: waterfront Venice for $32 a night; breath-taking countryside convents for $7 a night; ancient churches carved into mountainsides, $25 per person, including sumptuous meals prepared with fresh ingredients from organic gardens.

At times, though not always, you may be sacrificing certain amenities (no mini-bar, no spacious double bed or bell hop). You may even have to part with your mate at night. But the rewards for doing so usually prove to be more than adequate compensation.

To be honest, I was unprepared for how religious Italy still is. "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 and college student who had left his faith behind, I felt uneasy returning to this environment. But, sitting alone 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 in the air 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 over ten years.

Secular Tourism

Sanctuary of La Verna was my last stop on a two week tour of Italy. The week before, I had been in Venice with my Jewish girlfriend, staying at Domus Cavanis, a guest house operated by the Padri Cavanis order. Except for the large crucifix in one hallway, there's little to tell visitors that Domus Cavanis is a monastery, and it's typical. Most convents and monasteries in major Italian cities keep religion in the background, if it's visible at all. My girlfriend and I were allowed to share a room (no questions asked) with a double bed and cable television. There were no curfews, though many monasteries and convents do require you to return about midnight, and often require separation of sexes unless you're married. Conveniently located just around the corner from the Peggy Guggenheim museum, our Domus room was simple, yet comfortable, and at $85 for adouble room, less than half the price of the 3-star hotel across the street, which had no vacancy.

Next we moved to Instituto Artigianelli, a gorgeous monastery built by the Priests of Charity in 1726, on the banks of the TK!! canal. We were given a large room that serves as a dormitory during the school year, with several single beds entirely to ourselves, for about $65 a night. What we saved on accommodation, 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 religious guest houses, including one as sacred as Sanctuary of La Verna, are stocked with full bars and even sell cigarettes.

One often overlooked aspect of Venice is that its importance not just for Catholics, but for Jews. In fact, the word 'ghetto' is an Italian word, meaning 'foundry.' This stems from the fact that in the 15th century, Venetian Jews were forced to live on a small island that was once a rock quarry, and were permitted to walk in the city only by day, visibly marked as Jews. Though the ghetto flourished, very few of its inhabitants survived the Holocaust. Today, the ghetto's cramped building are still intact and a few Jewish families are still there, as well as a Lubovitch outreach center and a museum that offers tours of the two synagogues.

Zen Catholicism

By far the most fascinating monastery visit was foretold in the description of the Comunita Vangelo e Zen. Situated in the village of Lodi, about 50 kilometers outside Milan, it is run jointly by a Roman 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 all my life, but upon graduating from university, chose Hinduism as my religion, traveling to India, studying yoga, Sanskrit and the Vedas. I told him how it had actually allowed me for the first time in my life to appreciate the Bible and the teachings of Christ. He listened and nodded, not speaking much English, actually, but said that he had been a missionary in Japan for 20 years, and understood my feelings.

In the morning, a bell rang at 6am. I followed the priest to a meditation room, where three of us sat facing the wall in zazen meditation for one hour. Another bell rang, and we all stood facing one another, as the priest began reading from the Gospels. It might sound schizophrenic, but the words actually resonate with power in this environment. The rest of the morning was consumed with chores, then breakfast, sitting outdoor under a canopy of vines, from which you can reach up and take delicious grapes. In the afternoon, I studied Zen philosophy. Then at night, there is more Zen meditation, followed by taking of the Eucharist.

"We don't expect it will ever be very popular in Italy," a Zen resident told me frankly. "This is the land of La Dolce Vita," he said with a smile. He is, by the way, the same man who pinched his hand and told me that Catholicism is "in our blood."

Important Notes: most monasteries and convents only accept cash payments, and require reservations, which can be very tricky to book by phone since most clergy do not speak English. It is best to fax your lodging requests well in advance, in English. And if a monastery is in a rural area, it is highly advised that you arrive early in the day, as busses and trains often stop running at night or on Sundays. Also, some monasteries are only open to clergy or religious youth groups. Some also only accept men or women. It is best to check first in one of the following recommended books: The Guide to Lodging in Italy's Monasteries, by Eileen Barich. (Anacapa Press $22.95) Bed and Blessings Italy, a Guide to Convents and Monasteries Available for Overnight Lodging, by June Walsh and Anne Walsh. (Paulist Press, $16.95) A Pilgrim's Guide to Rome: For the Millennial Jubilee Year 2000, by Barrett McGurn (Viking Press, $19.95)

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