This morning I visited the Eremo delle Carceri hermitage on Mt Subiaso, four kilometres above Assisi. It has been built up over the centuries, but the earliest primitive monastery is easily discerned, not to mention the caves which initially attracted St Francis.
I started walking before daybreak. It took much less than the hour predicted, but the road is so steep it felt like two hours!
Just as I approached the gates, I was overtaken by a dozen or more taxis, from which a large and loud tour group emerged. I resented their chatter and their cigarette smoke, and most of all the ease of their arrival. How lazy, I thought. How soft. So I was not just resentful; I also felt superior.
It was a momentary lapse. Some of them were elderly, and one of them was in a wheelchair! Besides which, I freely chose to walk, though I was also free to come by taxi, like them. So where was this resentment coming from? Pride — that scourge of the human condition.
As I walked past the gate and away from the noise and smoke, I pondered pride’s various forms. It afflicts the poor as well as the rich. Francis’ “Lady Poverty” is no guarantee of sanctity. I think it’s not so much radical poverty which defined Francis, as his remarkable humility.
What else did he find here in his cave which prepared him for the life to come, as Our Lord’s forty days in the desert prepared him, and Paul’s retreat prepared him?
The friars ask pilgrims to not take photographs, so most of the following are care of Google, not me:
Most of the tourist guides describe a profound, even tangible, peace suffusing the Eremo delle Carceri. I didn’t get that. Maybe it was the cheesy Italian hymns piping through the original hermitage (monastic chant would be more appropriate; silence even better), but maybe too it relates to the spiritual history of the place.
Francis came here for respite, certainly, and it’s reasonable to imagine he sometimes received spiritual consolation here. But I bet he encountered desolation here too. Not to mention spiritual combat.
I learned yesterday that St Clare counselled Francis against abandoning his active ministry and withdrawing from the world. (That’s a common tactic of the enemy, it seems. The Curé of Ars was sometimes completely overwhelmed by a similar desire.) Francis must have really battled against that during some of his times at Mt Subiaso. And that’s just one battle front.
I think another reason Mt Subiaso is not as compelling as I expected is that the majesty and grandeur of Australian native forests compares to the greatest cathedrals; Subiaso’s alpine forest in contrast is like a modest basilica. Beautiful, but not overwhelming.
Still, it was a fruitful morning. Some resolutions came to mind, on how to live out the Marian year Bishop Echavarría has asked his sons and daughters to observe. That was unprompted.
And I saw first hand just how unforgiving was the poverty St Francis embraced. Wow. Just wow.