“The journey is essential to the dream.” St. Francis of Assisi
There are many special places here that offer peace and serenity, but few can compare to La Verna. I’ve visited it many times, but recently we got to see a side of it that we’ve never experienced before. La Verna was a special retreat for St. Francis and he spent a couple of years there before his death.
St. Francis, Nature Boy
One of the principles that St. Francis held near and dear was that all of creation – rocks, trees, animals, wind, sun – was just as important as humans. He saw everything as equal and respected the soil as much as he did a person. Why was anything God created less than anything else? A lot of us respect the environment and love to be in nature, but this notion that everything is equal is a hard one to grasp. Humans are skilled at making themselves the center of the universe – St. Francis saw himself no more important than a wolf, or a tree, or a bird. Makes me wonder what he would think of me squashing mosquitoes or pulling weeds out of the roses.
At La Verna, there is a Franciscan monastery on the very spot where he and his followers were in 1224. It’s hard to believe that people have used this place as a spiritual sanctuary for almost 800 years. But then again, once I spent some time wandering through the forest, sitting on the moss covered rocks, seeing the determination of the sun finding its way to the forest floor, I can completely understand it. It’s a magical place.
Rossano and POSAR
Our friend Rossano leads walking tours all around here and is a great guide, explaining plants and historical facts along the way. He speaks less English than I do Italian (which is very little), so we have a hard time getting everything he says. But we always have a great time exploring areas that I’m certain we would never find on our own. On this walk through the forest around La Verna, Rossano teamed up with a group called POSAR. POSAR stands for Piccolo Osservatario Artistico and I’m not entirely sure what they do, but they are the cutest group of little hippies I’ve ever seen. They merge art, dance, movement, and nature to inspire creativity and to better understand the world around us – I think.
Before we started the walk, we gathered at a parking lot to carpool up to La Verna. While we were waiting on everyone to arrive, we were chatting with some of the POSAR members. Many of them live in Upacchi. Upacchi is a community near Anghiari, high up in the mountains, that was started after WWII by a group of Germans wanting a new beginning. They occupied an abandoned hamlet and adopted a way of life much like communes that we know from the 1960s in the US. Over time, it disintegrated. In 1990, it was revived as an eco-village, which is very similar to a commune with the focus on the environment.
The average age of this group was about 30 and they all looked very fit and outdoorsy. That’s when I started getting a little worried that our 62 and 71 year-old bodies could keep up with them. We were by far the oldest members of the group. As we waited, I noticed that most of them smoked (very un-eco-like) so at least I had that on them. What I lacked in muscle tone I made up for in clean lungs.
The Forest of La Verna
The Sanctuario of La Verna sits atop Mt. Penna – a granite precipice that drops straight down into a forest on the side of the mountain. From a distance, it looks like someone took a bite out of the mountain. Legend has it that a wealthy count was so enamored with St. Francis’ message that he gave him the mountain as a place for spiritual retreat. I’m not sure how that fit into St. Francis’ vow of poverty and not owning anything, but maybe if it was a gift for the greater good then it was OK.
As we walked deeper into the forest, we entered a world of cool, green beauty. Populated mainly with fir and beech trees, just enough sunlight peeks through to cast a greenish, yellowish, dappled light that creates a camouflage effect. The path through the forest is thickly carpeted with brown fir needles so that our footfalls made only the slightest whisper. In the forest it is quiet. Only the occasional bird tweeting. It’s like being in church – you feel you have to whisper to preserve the tranquility.
This forest is populated with large rocks, many of them jutting out in a way that makes a small cave or shelter. This is where St. Francis and his followers would come to pray and meditate. Sheltered from the elements, they would stay for days in these caves. Along our hike through the forest, we paused at a spot with several rock outcroppings and each of us found a spot to sit, stand, or lie and contemplate our surroundings. This was the POSAR part of the program. I found a moss covered rock on a slope that had a smaller rock just down from it providing the perfect footstool. The moss on the rock I sat on was so thick and dense that I sunk down into it like a down pillow. It was quite comfy and I could imagine St. Francis sitting on a similar rock – or maybe this same one.
We passed by one huge rock with an opening big enough for a person to fit through. When you walked up to it, cold air blasted out. I’m not sure what the source was – maybe an underground spring – and I’m certain that Rossano told us (in Italian), but I didn’t get it. This was where they would store their food, and I imagine, come to cool off on hot summer days. I doubt those coarse, brown robes were the most breathable wardrobe choice.
My day walking the paths of St. Francis left me contemplating spirituality and what it means to each of us. For St. Francis, it meant trying to get closer to God by understanding the physical suffering of Christ. It meant seeing everything in the world as equal players in this thing we call life. It meant forgoing all worldly possessions and pleasures and devoting yourself to God.
For me it means many different things. But on that day, in that place, I felt the vastness of the universe but also felt my place in it. Sitting on that moss covered rock looking all around at what was created not by man but by something much greater, much more powerful, and much more wise, made me humble and grateful for the opportunity to be part of this incredible world. While Francis prayed for a way to feel Jesus’ suffering, I gave thanks for the beauty around me. St. Francis received the stigmata, I was filled with peace and gratitude for the life I had been given.
And that’s the thing about spirituality – there’s no right or wrong. It’s what speaks to your soul – it’s a spirit that touches your spirit.
“The world is a great stage on which God displays his many wonders.” St. Francis of Assisi