2016-11-18
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Legend has it that some 800 years ago, on a narrow stone step overlooking a 2,000-foot precipice in the Tuscany region of Italy, Lucifer paid an unwelcome visit to St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, who had come to pray and meditate. Francis' faith was put to the test as he clung to the rock face while Satan threatened to cast him down to his death. The saint prevailed, forever marking the spot as a monument to spiritual strength--one that is visited by believers to this day.

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.

They are also quite practical: waterfront Venice for $32 a night; breathtaking countryside convents for $7 a night; ancient churches carved into mountainsides for $25 per person, including sumptuous meals made straight from organic gardens.

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.

Next, we moved to Instituto Artigianelli, built by the Priests of Charity in 1726, on the banks of a canal. Our large room, with our pick of several single beds--it's a dormitory during the school year--went for about $65 a night.

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.

That night, I slept in a small, simple, yet comfortable single room. At six the next morning, a bell woke me. I followed the priest to a meditation room, where three of us sat facing the wall in zazen meditation for an hour. Another bell rang, and we all stood facing one another, as the priest opened the Bible and read from the Gospels. Schizophrenic as it sounds, the words resonated with power.

Before a breakfast under a canopy of grapevines, we worked on the grounds of the beautiful 16th-century farmhouse. In the afternoon, I studied Zen philosophy. At night, there was more 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."

After three days, the priest drove me back to the train station, asking nothing more than a small donation to cover basic expenses and for my e-mail address so we could stay in touch. Eccentric as it was, I didn't doubt St. Francis would've felt right at home at Comunita Vangelo e Zen.

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 buses and trains often stop running at night or on Sundays. Some are open only to clergy or religious youth groups, or accept only men or only women. Check with one of the following recommended books: "The Guide to Lodging in Italy's Monasteries," by Eileen Barich (Anacapa Press), and "Bed and Blessings Italy: A Guide to Convents and Monasteries Available for Overnight Lodging," by June Walsh and Anne Walsh (Paulist Press).

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