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The Meeting Ground of Two Saints

[image ALT: A small irregularly shaped room carved out of rock. A sign over a tiny door reads 'Grotta di S. Francesco'. It is St. Francis's cave at the Eremo delle Carceri on Mt. Subasio above Assisi.]

The accretions of centuries of devotion at the Eremo delle Carceri have made St. Francis's hermitage a beautiful and settled place. Yet, opaque as it is, the photo above can help you crystallize it a bit better. You are looking at the original cave where St. Francis retreated from time to time; it measures maybe 3 meters on a side, if that. He slept in a niche in the bare rock, just barely visible to the right of the wooden rail: I did my best, but the close confines make it virtually impossible to photograph. The mortification involved can also be apprehended just from the name of this lost little place: Carceri means "cells". . .

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The main building complex is centered on a hermitage already in existence well before Francis was born: contrary to what one sometimes reads, he did not just pitch a tent out in the woods somewhere, but availed himself of the great rock of Benedictine hospitality, then already six hundred years old.

The Eremo is a warren of very small rooms, some partly carved out of the mountain itself, often windowless, many serving as chapels. The one you see here, the first to receive the visitor upon entering, is in fact a full-fledged church built by the great Franciscan preacher St. Bernardino di Siena, as was most of the hermitage as we see it today. Over the altar, a 15c painting of St. Francis at the foot of the Crucifix.

The small wall closet to the right is not a tabernacle. It is where St. Francis's pillow is kept: a piece of wood.

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Above: two views of the oldest pre-Franciscan chapel, the Cappellina di S. Maria. Along with hospitality, Marian devotion has always been a particular trait of the order founded by St. Benedict: and just as Christianity at the hands of the Desert Fathers led to the modern notion of personhood, the Benedictine awareness of Mary led to the social integration of Woman and eventually to her ongoing liberation.

The third Benedictine contribution is an outstanding one in the history of Europe and indeed of Western civilization.

Not only did the Rule of Benedict encourage the copying of the corpus of ancient literature, our intellectual heritage; but the remote foundations of the order, abbeys or hermitages like this one, were the single most important factor in developing the landscape of Europe: the monks drained swamps, cleared land and put it into cultivation, and ultimately created centers of population.

By Francis's time most of this work was done, and the focus needed to shift to maintenance: it is significant that Francis's first serious commitment to the religious life was the single-handed restoration of several small churches in the area.

The Eremo delle Carceri, a profoundly civilized and now easily accessible outpost of humanity on a hill that had once been a wilderness, may thus be considered the visible embodiment, captured in miniature at the time of transition from the high Middle Ages to our modern world, of one of the deep currents of Western history.

St. Francis and his spiritual sister St. Clare were born in Assisi near the foot of this same hill; he is now the patron saint of Italy.

St. Benedict and his birth sister St. Scholastica were born in Norcia, only 50 km away: he is now the patron saint of Europe.

[image ALT: The façade of a large grey stone church, with a sward of lawn leading to it and a vast panorama of plain behind and below it. It is the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.]
Piazza Superiore S. Francesco

[image ALT: The façades of 2 medieval buildings on a piazza in a small town. The one on the right is the church of San Benedetto (St. Benedict) in Norcia.]
Piazza S. Benedetto

All were natives of Umbria. Their influence ranges deep and wide, and remains today, even on the very landscape. To those who know Umbria well, it is a land of saints.

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Site updated: 12 Jul 23