The rain is over, but the sky is still obscured every now and then by little light misty clouds. We are on our way from Poggiodomo to Roccaporena, when suddenly we see an unforgettable scene: the gloomy rock of St. Rita shining like a golden nugget set with jewels in the brilliant and fitful sunshine. A rainbow crowns the summit, while far below the river dashes along in its rocky bed. Even the village seems to laugh in the clear atmosphere! There in that little hamlet, amongst those frowning rocks, many centuries ago, a little peasant baby was born and christened Margherita, known in the district as Rita; she had an unhappy marriage and towards the end of her life house entered the Augustinian Convent of Cascia; in 1628 she was beatified, and in 1900 was canonized.
The brilliance of the day seems to compare with the glory of the Saint! An old peasant takes us into the village church, which was formerly the house of Rita; taken for sacred use two years after her beatification, it now contains as relics the white goatskin which she used to wear, and a picture after the style of Luca Giordano in which sixteenth-century pomp strives for mastery with the humility of St. Rita.
The devotion of Roccaporena for the Saint is great. We are shown the cave where she passed long hours in meditation attracted by a religious life; we hear of her early life.
Roccaporena. The building on the left, with the belfry, is the house of Rita, now a church
p84 A touching story is that her father and mother, Antonio and Amata, took the baby one day with them, and while they worked in the fields, they left her under some shady trees in her basket cradle. A wonderful day — the peasants singing, the birds twittering, while the silver willows rustled by the River Corno, and the baby opened her blue eyes to the sky above and clapped her little hands with delight when a swarm of bees came all around her; some entered her mouth, and without stinging, gently put the honey between her lips. No cry from the child disturbed her parents, but just then a reaper close by cut his hand with the sickle. He was hastening towards the village to find some one to bind up his wound, when passing by the cradle, he saw the swarm of bees around the baby's head. He stopped and waved his arms to drive them away, when suddenly his hand ceased bleeding, and the cut was healed!
At his cry of astonishment Antonio and Amata ran up, and the bees flew away!
Later on, when Rita had entered the Convent, bees came there too, and took possession of the walls, and are there to this day. Urban VIII, the Pope of the heraldic Bees, ordered some to be brought to him in Rome — he looked at them with interest, marked one with a strand of silk, and let it go: — it was seen again in Cascia!
. . . . . . . . . .
The maiden, dedicating herself to prayer and a solitary life, used often to go to the caves and the rocks, always against the wish of her parents, who to keep her at home p85 at last prepared a little room for her where she could be quite alone, giving herself to severe penance: she longed to be a nun, but much as her parents loved her, they would not consent. How could they indeed? They had no son, they were old, they must have help for their work in the fields; no, Rita must marry and have children. Her confessor counselled her to obey; so at eighteen years of age, she married a certain Paolo Ferdinando. It was a sad choice. The simple peasants were deceived by appearances, and the bridegroom was soon found to be a cruel man of bad temper, and many vices. Rita tolerated everything with docility, sure that God had set her apart for mortification; and at last her submission and sweet temper seemed to soften her husband's violence, and after the birth of two children, he really began to love and respect his wife; so much so that when he felt these violent rages coming upon him, he left the house until he was once more master of himself. But these attacks were not condoned by others as Rita had done. He had many enemies and one night he was attacked in a path near the river, and murdered.
Rita was heartbroken; notwithstanding his cruelty she loved the man, believing that eventually she would win him to God, and sad indeed that his soul had fled without the comfort of religion. She ran to the body and sank on the ground, weeping and praying. After the burial she vowed to God that she would sacrifice herself in every way if she might, in so doing, expiate the sins of her husband p86 and save him from eternal death. Then she rose as though inspired, found her children and clasped them to her breast, and gave her full forgiveness to the assassins. Thus, and only thus, did she hope that God would pardon her husband.
But while in this way her soul became more at peace, another sorrow was coming upon her. Her sons, learning of the tragedy through village gossip, began to talk of revenge. They tried to keep their ideas from their mother, but she learnt much from their grim looks and turbulent ways. She besought them to pardon the murderers as she had done, for the love of God — but without success, and every day one could see that they had inherited the violence of the father more than the gentleness of the mother.
Rita tried to soften the brutal natures in vain. Then she turned to the Crucifix, and prayed 'O Jesus, soften the hearts of my sons, or else take them to Thyself while they are still innocent'. And Jesus took them. And the brave mother wept, but thanked God with understanding.
And now that she is indeed alone, she leads a still more strenuous life of penance and hardship, scourging herself, and fasting continually. She still has the desire to enter a convent — and tries again and again, but the Nunnery at Cascia is for Virgins and she has had a husband and children!
It is a night of May, 1416. Roccaporena is sleeping — only the rivers seem alive! Rita is watching and praying, when she hears a violent knocking at the door. She goes p87 to the window and looks ought out — there is no one — still only the rivers are awake! She turns again to prayer. Once more the knocking shakes the door. Gathering up her courage, she descends and finds three austere figures, before whom she instinctively falls on her knees. They are the three special saints of her veneration — the Baptist, Augustine, and Nicholas; they sign to her to go with them.
Rita follows them by an unaccustomed way over rocks and ditches, hardly noticing the rough and uneven ground, but soon she finds a delicious fragrance in the air; she hears the birds singing, while the stars still shine upon the dark ridges of the mountains! The Saints lead her to Cascia, while it is still night; they take her mysteriously into the Convent, and vanish!
. . . . . . . . . .
We are going to Cascia. The sky is practically cloudless, and we start on the tiring path rising from the creek of the Corno to the plain of Ocosce; across this we reach Cascia in another hour and a half.
The beautiful little town, with the mountain background yet touching the river where several streams meet, is bathed in sunshine. There are small houses, dignified palaces, several churches, an abrupt rocky fortress, and as usual in an Umbrian town, a dark and imposing monastery. Assuredly in Cascia the largest buildings are the monastery of Sant' Agostino (now an hospital), that of Santa Rita and the suppressed one of Sant' Antonio. And what riches of art p88 are found in the small town containing but 1,000 inhabitants! We however, after seeing the fourteenth-century façade of San Francesco with the ogival portal and the rose-window above it, wend our way to Santa Rita. We enter. The church, perfumed with flowers, is dark — perhaps appears darker than it really is, for our eyes are filled with sunshine. It seems to us to be encumbered with too many altars and things of little value, if we except a panel picture called the 'Madonna delle Libere' (from a church of that name), the work of P. P. Agabiti of Sassoferrato. Between the Virgin and other saints we see Rita with a wound in her temple.
We go up to the grating behind the High Altar to see the body of the saint. The nuns, aware of our presence, though invisible to us, have gone from an inside choir to illuminate the niche containing the rich crystal urn with the clothed mummy. They draw the curtain that we may observe the coffin. The prayer of the nuns reaches us like the whispering of leaves. Then one speaks: speaks with a tender voice, as though tired, drawing out the words slowly exaggerating the accent of the country. However, as she proceeds, that dirge-like slowness ends by producing a sense of devout placidity suitable to the place.
'The body of our saint' she says 'remained uncorrupt for about three centuries in its dark blue gown of rough serge, but the necessity that arose of handling it when a fire took place and we had to move it in haste, reduced it to the state that you see. Fortunately fifty years previously p89 it had been taken from the early wooden chest (which thus escaped harm and which you may see if you will, in the convent) and placed in a coffin presented by Charles II of Spain. Again in the seventeenth century this was burnt, and gave way to the present one. In these coffins the holy body has sometimes moved and even raised itself to the cover. Naturally this had occurred only for great events — either grave or joyful! Once, for instance, during a tumult which arose in church, so that the wonder terrified the combatants; and even more visibly on January 14, 1703, a few seconds before a frightful earthquake destroyed nearly all Cascia. Other times it has moved in sign of exultation or of reverence, when some high prelate has come to venerate the saint.'
The funeral chest of St. Rita,
I broke the silence which followed by asking if the tradition of Rita still survived in the convent.
'As if the saint had died but yesterday! The nuns that lived with her and saw her die transmitted the account of her life, of her virtues, of her miracles to the younger sisters, and these growing old to others, and so on, by degrees till to‑day. And thus it will be for ever.'
'Is it true' I asked 'that she entered the convent in a mysterious way after having been refused several times?'
'Certainly; she could not be received because she had had a husband and children, but her patron saints brought her in. And when the nuns, at the sound of the bell for Matins, descended into the choir, they found her absorbed in prayer. The impossibility of entering into the convent p90 by human means, locked as it was with many keys deposited in the cell of the Mother Superior, revealed the fact that she owed her ingress to heavenly means. Therefore she was accepted as a novice. She then wished to relieve her companions of all the hardest and most humiliating work, and tortured herself with sackcloth and flails and with fasting. Her body was tired, her face emaciated, yet she was always ready for every labour.'
'But, Mother, was it necessary that St. Rita should mortify herself in this manner? Can one not do good without self-flagellation?'
'No, sir. When human beings on the one hand abandon themselves for their own pleasure to every kind of vice, and on the other to every sort of wrongdoing to their neighbours, words alone are not enough to persuade the vicious and violent. It is necessary to show that faith verily brings forth virtue, and this latter, sacrifice; if indeed one can call sacrifice to suffer for the love of God. To the vicious one can only teach abstinence by showing that it is better to suffer oneself than to make others do so. Our Lord and St. Francis of Assisi were the great masters of Rita.
The nun was silent, deeply moved, then she continued:
'God, in the meantime, comforted her with mysterious signs and with visions. One night she saw a luminous ladder going up to heaven; such a celestial stairway had already been seen by Jacob, St. Benedict, and St. Romualdo. p91 At the top stood Jesus, waiting for her, calling her. Sometimes when present at Mass, she became pale and wept, as though she was bodily present at Calvary. To try her patience and her tolerance her companions used to give her stupid tasks like the following: to water a dry piece of wood thrown away in the corner of the orchard. The wood first showed signs of moisture and then became a thriving vine which climbed up the wall, throwing out branches and tendrils and finally producing grapes! The vine is still miraculously alive and towards November it bears golden grapes. We gather some bunches and send them to our Superior, to church dignitaries, and above all to the Holy Father. The grapes are golden as the hair of Rita, and sweet and soothing as was her spirit.'
The voice of the nun had become more living, as though exulting in what she said.
'Her novitiate was therefore a triumph, so much so that she could with ease, both of heart and mind, put her hand on the Augustinian Rule and promise and swear the full observance of all that it ordained. And she was definitely admitted into the Convent, sister, not "conversa" but "corista", and that "pro forma", because, sir, that holy woman could not read, and for that reason, she was dispensed from reciting the office in the Choir.
'When she had attained her desire of being Sister, she increased rather than lessened her religious practices. Her cell was a small room, bare and rough, where she had a mat on the floor which served as a bed; she had gathered p92 a heap of stones and on them had placed a large crucifix, the object of her particular devotion. And when sometimes she went out of the convent —'
'What! Was she allowed to go out?'
'Yes, sir. The law of seclusion was not then so rigorous as it became later, after the Council of Trent. She therefore used to nurse the sick, or go into any house where there was trouble or dissension. The gentleness of her presence and her voice, the resignation of her gestures, was sufficient to calm the angry — she had well learnt a lesson in soothing the wild temper of her husband. There was no wound on leper, or such-like, too horrible for her to tend with loving-kindness. Thus the fame of her goodness, of her holiness spread far beyond Cascia and Roccaporena!
'She entered the Cloister with the idea of disappearing from the world: and human sorrow brought her forth to comfort!
'True, God used her in this manner. At that time a certain Franciscan, Fra Giacomo della Marca, came to preach. He fought against the many heresies that were being spread, either in bad faith or in error, by false teachers, and especially in Umbria they tried to disseminate these errors, as here Faith was strongest. Rita used to go and listen to him out of doors, for the churches would not hold the concourse of the people. Fra Giacomo was a moving preacher — he told the story of the Passion of Christ with such burning words that the listeners wept and sobbed. Jesus had suffered for all, but only he who felt His torments p93 could be acceptable to God. One day Fra Giacomo, after his preaching, raised his eyes to heaven and chanted: "Fac me plagis vulnerari, fac me inebriare et cruore Filii." ("Let me be wounded with the wounds, let me be inebriated with the cross and the blood of the Son.") Rita went back to her convent, overwhelmed with anguish, and shutting herself in her cell, she embraced the Crucifix, and with bitter tears, prayed that she might participate in the torment: that she might suffer as He had suffered. A thorn then fell from the crown of the Crucifix and pierced her brow with such violence that it penetrated to the bone, giving her so much pain that she fainted. And the wound spread and became cancerous and so putrescent as to emit an unbearable smell. Rita was aware that the other nuns suffered when she was near, and she wished to relieve them of this annoyance; she therefore lived alone in her cell, without bitterness, because she saw in this new martyrdom of the spirit and body one more argument for the Love of Jesus, with Whom she was now in constant and solitary communion.'
'And did she not recover?'
'Listen! Nicholas V proclaimed 1450 a year of jubilee, and it was announced in Cascia, from the altar of the collegiate church. Now Rita, knowing that some nuns of her convent would go to Rome, asked permission of the Abbess to accompany them, — but the Abbess would not consent, and tried to dissuade her, giving as a reason the state of her open wound. But the real reason was that p94 the odour from it would have rendered the journey intolerable. Rita understood and had recourse to Jesus, praying earnestly, that without taking the atrocious pain (for she wished to suffer), He would remove the smell that troubled her companions. And our Saviour answered her prayer; so when nearly seventy years of age, she journeyed with the nuns from Cascia to Rome, with bare feet crossing rough mountains and deep valleys, through torrents and dense woods, til they reached Rieti; then descended through the Sabine Hills to the via Cassia. By the way she increased her fatigue by begging for them all, for like our Seraphicº Father of Assisi they had gone without provisions. In Rome she again saw Fra Giacomo, and met Caterina Vigri of Bologna, Diego of Cadiz, Giovanni da Capistrano; she saw the Pope, she saw all those blessed churches and blessed altars. . . .'
'Mother, have you ever been in Rome?'
'I entered this convent as a schoolgirl when I was seven years old and have remained here ever since, as Novice and Sister. I have been here nearly fifty years by the mercy of Our Lord and St. Rita.'
'Then, Mother, St. Rita returned. . . .'
'Yes, she returned to Cascia without any other wish than to pray and to suffer. She would have liked to nurse the sick, and pacify the violent, but no sooner did she re-enter her cell, than her wound became sore, and festered again. Four years before her death, her body consumed with fasting, with pain and with mortification, p95 lost its power and she could no longer rise from her couch. But she never complained or uttered a word but of thanks to God for her suffering, and of gratitude to the Sisters, who bore with her tenderly and brought her food. Notwithstanding her repugnant state, the faith in her holiness was so great that sometimes women of the neighbourhood came to her for counsel and spiritual help. One day, in winter, a relation from her own village visited her. . . . In saying farewell, Rita begged her to bring a rose from her cottage garden. The peasant, thinking of the winter season, considered this an idle dream, still she would not oppose the wish of suffering woman. On returning to her village, great was her surprise to see a white rose, like snow, on the bush; she plucked it and carried it to Rita, who, smiling, then asked her to return once more to her garden and pick her some figs. This time the peasant hesitated no longer, and the figs were there!'
Miracles of faith, rather! One day, Rita announced her own death as soon approaching, and indeed it took place three days later: that is May 21, 1457. When she closed her eyes for ever, the church bells gave the sad tidings to the neighbourhood, but they were rung by no mortal hand! All the country-side came to her funeral, and every one wished to touch the holy body. Then slowly her fame spread through the whole Catholic world, from Italy to Spain, from Latin America to the Philippine Islands. Everywhere are churches dedicated to St. Rita!'
p96 'Another miracle!'
'Yes, true, another miracle, as indeed was her fame itself. She had no advantages, she did not belong to an illustrious family, but rather to a very humble one; she lived not in a great and populous city, but amongst the desert rocks of the Apennines, she had no culture, no power. Instead she felt a tenderness for the sufferings of others, great as her own mountains; a sense of sacrifice inexhaustible as the source of her own river, and a wonderful heroism to bear her own sufferings: always strong, sir, where the spirit of others was frail and vacillating.'
The nun was silent for a moment, then continued: 'If you wish to see her cell and her coffin, please go to the entrance of the convent.'
We take our way to the whitewashed cell, which has nothing recalling its rough and primitive humility. We see a small altar, a modern painting showing the saints who brought Rita to the nunnery, and under the table there is the ancient wooden chest where her body was first deposited, and where it lay for nearly three hundred years. Another nun, old and small, spoke to us there: 'When Rita was dead, and the atrocious spasm of her wound had ceased, her face became calm and composed. The scar grew smaller and closed and there remained but a red sign like a ruby; the offensive smell ceased, transformed into a indistinct perfume like that of a thousand flowers, which lasted always and even spread through the convent and the neighbouring streets. Now look at the sarcophagus, p97 it is poplar wood lined with walnut, made by a local carpenter, Cecco Barbari, who was devoted to the saint, having been healed, by her intercession, from a severe illness. The paintings are attributed to Antonio of Norcia.'
We turn to look: in perspective are half-figures of the Magdalen, of the dead Christ and of Rita in the robe of an Augustinian nun, with the wound in her forehead and the thorn held in her right hand. On the cover there is again her figure, but full length, as in many marble sculptures of the time. Her head is on a cushion covered with damask, such as might be used at a funeral; and near it is a long metrical inscription, describing her life, her wound, her death. The hands are joined together in front, the feet are bare, and on her brow shines the wound like an embedded gem.
Behind the chest is a naked figure expressing, according to old iconography, the soul of Rita carried to Heaven on a fair cloth, by two angels.
We left the convent as the sun was setting, and went to see other churches, and the frescoes of Nicola of Siena in Sant' Antonio. But, ah me! the tardy simplicity of the work did not prevent an unknown Latin poet from placing his name beside that of Polignoto.
But nothing touched our heart after our visit to the convent and the body of Santa Rita. And we took our way to Norcia, the home of another great Umbrian saint.a
Church of San Benedetto at Norcia
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