La Verna Sanctuary, there is not a more holy mountain

The Sanctuary of La Verna is not only a physical place, it is the witness of something that dwells in the soul, of a mystery that no man could explain. In its intimate silences, verdant woods, among rocks of mystical essence, St. Francis received the stigmata on September 14, 1224, as historiography attests [1].

On the rude rock ‘twixt Tiber and the Arno

From Christ did he receive the final seal,

Which during two whole years his members bore

Dante, Paradiso, Chapter 11, vv. 106-108

A ray of sunshine is enough to sweep away many shadows

The saint from Assisi had received this place as a gift in 1213, located on a side of Mount Penna in Casentino, by the Count Orlando Catani of Chiusi. The nobleman was so fascinated by Francis’ preaching – “When I think of the happiness that is in store for me, every sorrow, every pain becomes dear to me” – that he had unexpectedly encountered during a celebration at the Castle of San Leo in Montefeltro. He therefore thought that a place of hermitage might be useful to the saint and gave him the rocky woods of La Verna [2].

“I have in Tuscany a diverse little mountain, which is called the mountain of La Verna, which is the very lonely and savage act and it’s good for those who want to do penance in a place removed from the people, or those who want to lonely life. If you like, I will gladly give it to you and your comrades for my soul“.

From the Little Flowers of St. Francis
Verna’s monumental forests, mainly composed of fir and beech.

Francis loved the rugged Mount Penna; here he built a small hermitage where he used to spend moments of contemplation. The Sanctuary of La Verna is a spiritual refuge far from the confusion of the world: here everything enters a new dimension and the heart can turn to God with purity.

A ray of sunshine is enough to sweep away many shadows

St. Francis of Assisi

The existential significance of La Verna Sanctuary, a place of encounter with God

La Verna was initially a hermitage, made only of rock and faith; a privileged place of encounter with God. The etymology of the term, ἔρημος (éremos), desert, reveals its evocative power. Desert is not to be understood as a physical place, but in a spiritual sense: it is the state of mind in which everything fails and only God remains. Those who seek God in the marketplace, which means the world and all its distractions, will not find him because it is difficult to recognize his voice in that noise. Instead, God is in the silence of the desert, where there is no other call but the Absolute.

Staircase to the sasso spicco, where Francis used to gather in prayer

The periods spent at La Verna were a time of spiritual election for Francis. The saint went to pray among the rocks of the mountain – the complex of buildings of the modern sanctuary had not yet been built – to receive. Man is like a vessel: before pouring the drink, it must be filled. So Francis felt the need to fill his being with the Holy Spirit, and no longer with the sins that had marked his youth, so that he could give himself. Not surprisingly, at La Verna Francis received the stigmata to witness to God’s love. Listening to spread his Word: he alternated periods of hermitage with perilous and strenuous journeys of evangelization. His fervor even led him to the Sultan of Egypt al-Malik al-Kāmil, to whom he proclaimed the Gospel in 1219, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade.

The sasso spicco at La Verna Sanctuary

Not in all the world is there a more holy mountain

The wilderness of the place was life-threatening, but it is in the precariousness, in turning away from the false securities of the world, that man sees the transcendent. Francis experienced at La Verna a total abandonment to God’s will, trusting firmly in his providence. Not even the idea of death tormented him, sister death, as he said again around 1224, when he composed the Canticle of the Creatures:

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,

from whom no one living can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.

Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,

for the second death shall do them no harm.

Canticle of the Creatures [3]

Very soon Francis wanted a small church to celebrate Mass together with his friars. Thus it was that the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels (1216-1218) was built at La Verna, to the construction of which Count Orlando contributed. The building, similar in size to the Portiuncula in Assisi, was not enlarged until long after Francis’ death, beginning in 1250. In 1260 the new building was already consecrated before the Order’s Minister General, St. Bonaventure.

Non est in toto sanctior orbe mons

Not in all the world is there a more holy mountain

Greeting for pilgrims at the entrance to the Sanctuary, Gate of the Birds

La Verna Sanctuary

In 1348 the construction of the Basilica Maggiore was finally begun, thanks to the contribution of the Count Tarlato of Pietramala, in order to accommodate the many pilgrims who came to the hermitage.

La Verna Sanctuary
Basilica Maggiore della Verna has a Latin cross plan with a single nave and cross vaults.

The building was built next to St. Mary of the Angels and, overlooking the Quadrant Square, was consecrated in 1568.

La Verna Sanctuary
The Quadrant, named for the sundial placed on the bell tower of the Basilica Maggiore

A wide portico surrounding the Basilica and the Corridor of the Stigmata date from the Renaissance period. In 1578-1582 the ambulatory, with a wooden roof, was built. It connected the monastery to an older Chapel of the Stigmata, erected by the Counts Guidi of Poppi in 1260. A solemn procession procession marches down the aisle, contemplating the mystery of Christ’s Passion every day at Nones since 1431.

The Corridor of the Stigmata with paintings by Emanuele da Como (1670-1671), depicting episodes from the life of St. Francis.

Undressing the clothes of daily life

Like Francis, contemporary man feels the need to cast off his inner shadows: the vain occupations, confusion and infodemics. La Verna is a refuge of humanity, like an éremos opposed to the prevailing chaos, its sanctuary offers shelter to the mind and heart.

La Verna Sanctuary

In the forests of this sacred mountain there is still a deep silence that allows an encounter with the Absolute. Silence is leaving space for the divine, it is the experience of a barely perceived presence that manifests itself far beyond reason. The Sanctuary of La Verna invites us to undress the clothes of daily life and, like Francis, to receive in fullness the gift of life.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] Bonaventura da Bagnoregio, Leggenda maggiore, XIII 3,2

[2] Fioretti di san Francesco

[3] G.Contini, Poeti del Duecento, Ricciardi, Milano-Napoli 1960.

[4] Giacomo da Vitry, Lettera del 1220 sulla presa di Damiata; Cronaca di Ernoul.

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