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
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.
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
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
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
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.