Friday, August 31, 2007

Montecasale; Ah, Contemplazione!

Peace and Good!
I was sitting on the top of the mountain above the friary at Montecasale, admiring the beautiful view and the Creator of it all. I had been pretty much alone the entire afternoon, but as I sat on a log I saw a man approaching, with a hiking staff. With my little Italian and his little English, our conversation was short. We admired the view and the beauty, but when he saw I was a friar he said to me, respectfully, “Ah, contemplazione!” and smiling turned to leave me to my prayers.
What a great gift, to have someone understand the need for quiet prayer on the mountaintop, and to respect it. Sometimes it seems that what people want to do in this world is save themselves and others from silence. There are times when we can and should use our voices in the great gift of communication God has given us. At times a kind word or interested conversation is a gift to another. But, there are also times when we need to encourage one another in entering into the silence. The Church has always stressed that even in its communal prayer periods of silence are not only recommended, but a necessary part of the rhythm of prayer.
I think that is why Francis sought out such places and encouraged his friars to spend time in hermitages. To learn the gift of silence, and, as importantly, to share the gift of silence among themselves and with others. It isn’t easy to be quiet, to learn to listen to God, to open one’s life to contemplation. It isn’t easy, but it is worth it.
Ah, contemplazione!

God bless you all.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Montecasale: Up (and Down) the Mountain

Peace and Good!
St. Francis learned to climb! I don’t know if he ever loved climbing, but he certainly didn’t shy away from it. Of course, part of that came from his own youth, growing up in Assisi, a city clinging to the mountainside. You can hardly go anywhere in town without either walking up or down a street, usually a steep one. Still, to reach some of the hermitages he frequented, like Montecasale, required the legs of an athlete and the agility of a mountain goat! St. Bonaventure said of him:
“It was a custom of the angelic man Francis never to rest from the good, rather, like the heavenly spirits on Jacob’s ladder, he either ascended into God or descended to his neighbor…he spent some of his time working for his neighbor’s benefit and dedicated the rest to the tranquil excesses of contemplation.” (Legenda Maior XIII.1)
As I climbed the mountain above the friary, I realized that it is good for us to not only ‘ascend’ to God with our minds, but to feel such an ascent in our bodies too. Climbing up the mountain was hard work, but worth it when the climb ends at the top, where there is beauty and tranquility. However, though I was tempted, like Peter, to pitch a tent up there, I couldn’t stay up on that mountain; I had to go back to be with the friars, to pray and eat and wash the dishes with them. Coming down the mountain physically was also an important experience, and a hint at what it meant when “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” We say that Jesus came down from heaven, for our sake. Francis experienced that in his soul and his body, and I think it helped teach him compassion and patience.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Montecasale: A Living Place of Prayer

Peace and Good! One of the blessings of making a retreat at Montecasale was being a part of the community of friars who live there. This place was kept as a Franciscan hermitage for many years after the death of Francis, then was left behind by the friars until the Capuchins came back in the 1500s. It is now a house of the Tuscan Province. There are four friars stationed there. The guardian, Fra Pio, has been there many years. While I was on retreat there, a friar from Nigeria, Fra Clemente, was helping for the summer.
It was a joy to rise each day and go to the small choir to pray the Divine Office with the friars, then to celebrate the Eucharist with them and the people who would come. The chapel is not very large, but is quite old and lovely. Keeping in the Franciscan tradition of simplicity, it is most wood and stone. There is an ancient statue of the Blessed Virgin and Child, reportedly brought to the friary by St. Francis himself.
What was wonderful was to live in such a place and know that it is still serving the same purpose it did in 1212, when Francis came there. It is still a place of quiet prayer and contemplation, and also of welcome. Pilgrims who come are invited to spend time in prayer in the chapel, in the woods, or sitting out on the terrace enjoying the spectacular view of the valley below. The spirit of prayer is still alive in the world, and the need for it is still calling people.
Montecasale reminds me that we have to look at our past not as in a museum, but as a living part of who we are. Also, that those who have gone before us have shared with us wisdom from God about the meaning of human life and activity.
God bless!

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Retreat at Montecasale

Peace and Good!

It was a great blessing to be able to make a retreat at the hermitage of Montecasale before the recent pilgrimage.

This is a place of prayer cared for by the Capuchin Franciscan friars since the 16th century. It was one of Saint Francis’s favorite places to stay and spend time in prayer. Like most of the places he chose for this, it is high up on a mountainside, outside the ancient town of (Borgo) Sansepolcro. Also like most of the places we associate with him, this was a place of prayer before Francis of Assisi ever arrived. It had served as a hermitage and hospice and was given by the Camaldolese monks to Francis and his followers as early as 1212 or 1213. It is associated with several stories about St. Francis, including his conversion of the three thieves and the incident of planting cabbages upside down. I will reflect on these later.
Montecasale is a relatively small hermitage. Unlike some of the other places where Francis stayed, such as the La Verna or Le Celle, a large complex never grew up here. The friary is bigger than it was when he was here, but it is still small and simple. While it is visited by pilgrims, it is less crowded usually than La Verna or such sacred spots. This makes it still a wonderful place to make a retreat. It is set up on a mountainside, amid a lovely forest. It is said that not only St. Francis, but also St. Anthony and St. Bonaventure spent time here in prayer and reflection. It was an honor and blessing to be able to do the same.

I hope to reflect on Montecasale and Francis for the next few entries, then move on to other sites from the pilgrimage.

God bless and keep you!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Few More Photos

Pace e Bene!

The basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome, and the town of Bagnoregio, where St. Bonaventure was born.
God bless you!

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Clay God Uses: St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Peace and Good!
While on pilgrimage in Italy, I reflected on how at times Francis felt a longing to stay up in the mountains as a contemplative, and how hard it was for him to guide his order as it grew so quickly. Yet, he couldn't escape the fact that God called him to interact with others, to use his amazing talents for good. The same thing was true of St. Bernard. He complains at times about how all he wants to be is a simple monk, and yet how often he ends up caught up in the needs of the Church of his day. He and Francis both had to differentiate between what they wanted and what was the true desire of their heart. That true desire is what God planted in them and called them to.
And that is what we all have to seek: to live our true heart's desire. We have to remember, too, that following it will not always be easy or even, ironically, feel 'desirable.' The rich young man in the gospel felt a great desire, but when Jesus told him how he could pursue it, he went away sad.
May God give us courage not to go away sad, but to follow in the footprints of Jesus, with the help of Mary, Francis, and Bernard.

(Here are a few photos from Assisi)


Saturday, August 18, 2007


Pace e Bene! Still adjusting to the change of time, and still amazed at the blessings of the pilgrimage. Today three brothers will be making their solemn vows as Capuchin Franciscans. Each one is a great gift from God. God bless and keep you all!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Back from Italy

Peace and Good! We've returned from the pilgrimage. It was a most amazing and blessed time. I hope to begin reflections in a few days. Meanwhile, here's a photo of Assisi I took on this trip. God bless!