La Verna: St. Francis’ Hilltop Home-Away-From-Home

View from the valley of La Verna, atop a steep cliff

St. Francis, after whom our new pope is named, is most often associated with the Italian village  of Assisi.  And fair enough:  Assisi was home base for Francis and the other monks of the Order of Friars Minor.

Sometimes, though, he just needed to get away.  That’s what happened when, in August 1224, Francis withdrew to La Verna, about a day’s walk away, for an extended 40-day period of prayer and fasting.

Pope Francis has invited the monks of La Verna to attend his inaugural Mass tomorrow morning.  I thought, then, I’d tell the story of this beautiful monastery in the hills.

*     *     *     *

The Count of Chiusi, Count Orlando, had given Francis and his monks the monastery of La Verna, a beautiful retreat center atop a mountain, as a gift in 1213.  A few years later, in 1218, Count Orlando built him the Santa Maria degli Angeli Chapel.  There, Francis retreated for prayer and contemplation, and it is there—at La Verna—that Francis received the stigmata.

It was also there, on or about September 17, that Francis had a vision of an angel, a seraphim.  After that vision, Francis developed the stigmata, wounds like those of Christ, in his hands, feet and side.

*     *     *     *     *

The monastery at La Verna operates still today.  The Franciscan monks still gather for prayer six times each day (even during the night hours).

Guests are welcome at La Verna—and the cost, compared to a standard European hotel, is very small.  Our family stayed there on our road trip during the Jubilee Year, in October 2000; and I think the cost, for our simple room, an ample breakfast, lunch, and an evening feast complete with wine (and the opportunity to set your alarm and pray with the monks at 2:00 a.m.) was about $34/night.

I’ve been thinking about that trip today, anticipating St. Francis’ feastday; and I thought I’d share some of our family photos with you.

All the bells summon the monks to prayer.

 

The courtyard and walkways lead to comfortable rooms in the monastery.

La Verna is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Della Robbias–glazed pottery created by Italian artist Luca Della Robbia.

The Nativity, by Della Robbia

 

 

 

Our private dining room, where we enjoyed an ample breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner was a beef stew slow-roasted in the fireplace, fresh bread, and regional wine.

 

My husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, explores the courtyard

 

Here is the cleft in the rock, where Francis slept and where the raven woke him for prayer. It’s also the spot where he was visited by an angel, and where he received the stigmata.

 

 

 

Linda and Dennis, our companions, leaving the rocky ledge where, it’s reported, Nazi youth were frightened by an earthquake and ran away– without destroying the monastery, as they had planned.

 

 

 

 

 

Altar of St. Francis. Small chapels and prayer rooms throughout La Verna remind us of the centrality of prayer in the monks’ lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We wait (and wait, and wait…) while Jerry telephones hotels in Rome, our next destination.
(Can you believe that we were in Europe and did not have reservations for that night?! We did, though, find rooms at the Michelangelo, a lovely hotel just a brief walk from St. Peter’s Basilica—so the drama ended well.)

Sister Jacinta, our guide and travel angel, is from India–but she generously led us on a guided tour of the monastery and grounds. Here, she returns to the chapel for the noon prayer.