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Five Favorite Hideaways of St. Anthony
Photo story by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
A lifelong admirer of St. Anthony believes that the hidden treasure, which this saint sought above all else, is God.
Q U I C K S C A N

Today, pilgrims still visit this grotto or cave near Montepaolo. It recalls the grotto where Anthony used to pray before it was destroyed by floods and later rebuilt on higher ground.
PHOTO BY JACK WINTZ, O.F.M.

IT IS CLEAR TO ME that St. Anthony, deep down, had a profound need to be a contemplative—a person seeking intimate union with God. In October of 2006, while spending several weeks traveling between Assisi and Padua, I had an opportunity to visit five of St. Anthony’s favorite hideaways, that is, five of his favorite places for contemplative prayer.

Anthony’s career as a brilliant preacher, you may recall, was launched during an ordination ceremony in the Italian town of Forlì about 40 miles southeast of Bologna. A good number of Franciscans and Dominicans were at the ceremony. The local superior invited several Dominicans to preach. When they begged off, the superior turned to Anthony and insisted that he share with the invited guests whatever the Holy Spirit might prompt him to say. Anthony rose to the occasion and preached so inspiringly that he was soon in demand as a popular preacher throughout northern Italy and southern France.

Before long, Anthony came to realize that, if he wanted to win human hearts—and hold them—as an inspiring preacher, he had to set time aside and nurture his own inner life and relationship with God.

In this article, I will introduce you to five places—hidden caves and hermitages—in central and northern Italy where Anthony temporarily lived as a hermit and sought, before all else, a contemplative union with God.

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1: The Hermitage of Montepaolo

Two Franciscan friars from Bologna kindly accompanied me by car in October 2006 to this hermitage, which sits about 10 miles from the Italian town of Forlì mentioned above. This was an important starting point for Anthony.

Montepaolo was Anthony’s first real Franciscan residence in Italy. The Portuguese-born Anthony attended the Franciscan chapter near Assisi in 1221. Because Anthony had not received an assignment at the chapter, the Franciscan provincial of Romagna invited Anthony to travel back with him to northern Italy and to celebrate Mass for four brothers living in the remote friary or hermitage of Montepaolo.

This was the perfect hideaway or hermitage for Anthony after a failed missionary trip to Morocco and after ending up in Italy—thanks to his being blown badly off course in a storm during his intended return trip to Portugal.

When the two friars from Bologna and I arrived at Montepaolo, an elderly friar named Ludovico Bartolucci welcomed us and gave us a short history of the place. The rather large hermitage, known as Montepaolo today, is not the same building where St. Anthony celebrated Mass for the four brothers. Back then, the hermitage of Montepaolo was much simpler, according to Father Ludovico.

When Anthony first lived at the original hermitage at Montepaolo, he discovered that one of the friars had built a cell in a cave nearby. And with this friar’s approval, Anthony went out from the hermitage almost every day to pray in the cave and nurture his union with God. The little cave or grotto in the woods that Anthony used was later destroyed by landslides and floods, but in recent years it has been rebuilt on higher ground. Some of the stones of the original cave were used to rebuild the grotto, which many pilgrims visit today.

Father Ludovico said that Anthony lived at Montepaolo for some 10 months until the ordination at Forlì. These 10 months became one of the most formative experiences of Anthony’s life. Soon after his fellow Franciscans discovered how great a preacher and theologian Anthony was, they stationed the saint at a friary in the prominent university town of Bologna. There Anthony taught theology to friars studying for the priesthood and had a convenient base for his evangelizing journeys.

Before we move on to this grotto, which we know was a favorite hideaway of St. Anthony, let me explain something by way of background. Once St. Anthony’s preaching ministry took off in earnest, he saw all the more clearly that he needed to go away for periods of time, to pray in remote and solitary places to nurture his union with God. And this became even truer, no doubt, when he was serving his brothers as provincial minister of Romagna between 1227 and 1230.

We don’t know the exact dates when he visited the grotto at Monteluco, or Le Celle di Cortona or the cave at Mount La Verna. We simply know from historical evidence that he visited these places.

 

The grotto high above Spoleto is certainly an interesting case in point. Spoleto is a town about 25 miles south of Assisi. To reach this cave-like grotto in October of 2006, a friend and I had to take a half-hour taxi ride up a winding road that ascends the steep mountainside above Spoleto. The grotto is hidden away in what is still called the “Sacred Woods” (Bosco Sacro).

Even after we found this dark, awe-inspiring and mystical woodland, it took us another half hour of searching before we found a little cave clearly marked as the grotto used by St. Anthony in the 13th century.

 

After offering brief prayers in the grotto, we took a few steps on a path that led out to a rocky ledge, overlooking the spectacular Spoleto Valley. Certainly, the early Franciscan hermits—St. Anthony and St. Francis included— who prayed on this and other mountains had a wonderful way of combining solitary prayer with awesome vistas that lift the human heart to songs of thanksgiving and praise!

 

Just outside Cortona, an Italian city about 50 miles northwest of Assisi, sits another hermitage popular with the early Franciscan friars. According to Pilgrim’s Companion to Franciscan Places (Editrice Minerva, Assisi), St. Francis arrived here in 1211 “seeking a place of solitude.” This book also mentions that Brother Elias, who worked on the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, likewise spent time here. It further notes that St. Anthony of Padua and St. Lawrence of Brindisi also came to Le Celle—both with a “strong propensity...to seek a more intense union with God.”

Today, Le Celle di Cortona is basically a large hermitage and retreat center run by the Capuchin friars. I visited here (earlier in 2006) with a group making a Franciscan Pilgrimage Program in Assisi. We celebrated Mass in the main chapel of the retreat center. A statue of St. Anthony stands in a prominent niche of the chapel. And behind the altar hangs a large painting containing images of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Lawrence of Brindisi (a Capuchin saint who died in 1619).

The Capuchin friar (who stands at the lectern in photo to the right) affirmed his personal belief in the tradition that St. Anthony had come here to seek God in contemplation.

We know that St. Anthony had a very special affection for Mount La Verna as a place for withdrawing to satisfy his contemplative yearnings. La Verna sits about 90 miles north of Assisi. St. Anthony certainly shared St. Francis’ need for contemplative prayer, as well as his love for the hidden caves of this special mountaintop retreat in northern Italy. Anthony loved praying in a little cave on Mount La Verna, not far from the rocky precipice where Francis was embraced by the fiery love of God when he received the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ.

In more recent times, Anthony’s cave (left) has been transformed into the Oratory of St. Anthony. Each week, hundreds of La Verna pilgrims stop and pray at Anthony’s oratory, located atop the same rugged precipice as the Stigmata Chapel.

Near the end of St. Anthony’s life, he came to what was, no doubt, his favorite hideaway of all, namely, the little tree house built into the branches of a tree in the town of Camposampiero, about 30 miles north of Padua. This is the town to which St. Anthony moved when he realized that his life was coming to an end after spending two very active years as a preacher in his beloved Padua.

Anthony sensed that he needed to take a break from his labors and to dedicate more time to God alone. In Camposampiero, a nobleman, Count Tiso, had earlier built a hermitage for friars seeking more time for contemplative prayer. Now, Anthony asked Tiso to construct a solitary hut in the branches of a large walnut tree in a forest, not far from the Franciscan hermitage where Anthony slept at night. Anthony spent a good part of the last weeks and months of his life praying in that small tree house.

It was my good fortune near the end of my 2006 trip from Assisi to Padua to spend my last four days (October 13 to 16) with the Conventual Franciscan friars in their large friary attached to the magnificent Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. One morning, a friar who lived there offered to drive me to Camposampiero so I could see the place where the walnut tree once stood.

Today, a quaint chapel stands over the place where St. Anthony’s tree house was located. In this chapel, known as the Shrine of the Walnut Tree, there is a beautiful painting by Bonafacio de Pitata (at left). It depicts Anthony preaching from the tree’s branches to the faithful gathered below. Visitors approach this chapel by driving or walking down a lovely lane lined on each side by a long row of walnut trees.

Because of his great knowledge of Scripture, Anthony would have surely been aware of the symbolism of his spending his last months in a hut or cell built into the branches of a giant tree. And this symbolism was not lost on the artist who painted the picture of Anthony in the tree. The saint is shown in the tree halfway between heaven and earth. He has left his earthly concerns below in order to seek the face of God in holy contemplation and to share with the people his yearning to be with God in glory soon.

Anthony did not have to wait long to see the face of God. One day when Anthony came down from the tree to join the other friars for lunch, he began to feel deathly ill. He asked to be taken back to Padua in an oxcart. When they got to Arcella (just outside Padua), they saw that Anthony’s condition was worsening. As his final moments drew near, Anthony received the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing and sang a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

Then the dying friar raised his eyes toward heaven and with a stunned look, stared in front of himself for a long time. When the friar who was holding him asked what he saw, Anthony replied, “I see my Lord.”

It was June 13, 1231. The saint’s journey had finally and gloriously ended in a contemplative embrace that would last forever.


Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this magazine. His book Anthony of Padua: Saint of the People (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005) is now in its second printing. He is also author of an Internet column, Friar Jack’s E-spirations, which can be accessed at www.friarjack.org.


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