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The Story of La Verna
La Verna is a mountain in Italy that was given to Francis by Count Orlando in 1213. It is a gift that has borne fruit for generations. Francis visited it often. It was there, during a retreat in the summer of 1224, that Francis received the stigmata, marks of the crucified Christ, which along with his miracles and good works, secured his canonization.
The story of La Verna begins with a chance meeting between Francis and Count Orlando of Chiusi della Verna. It seems that Francis and another friar, Brother Leo, were on their way to Morocco, when an illness in Spain required that they return to Italy. On their way home, they stopped at the Castle of San Leo in Romagna where a feast was going on to celebrate a new knight.
At some point during the evening, Francis addressed those in attendance. Something he said, or perhaps the way he said it, attracted the Count’s attention. Count Orlando was so impressed with what he heard that he said, “Brother Francis, I have a mountain in Tuscany which is very solitary and wild and perfectly suited for someone who wants to do penance in a remote place or who seeks to live a solitary life. It is called Mount La Verna. If that mountain should please you and your companions, I would gladly give it to you for the salvation of my soul.”
La Verna is located in the Tuscan Apennines of Central Italy. At the time it was, as the Count said, such a wild and wooly place, that the friars sent to inspect the property were accompanied by 50 of the Count’s armed soldiers to protect them from wild beasts and robbers. Even so, for Francis, La Verna was perfect. He had long desired a place where he and his followers could retreat in solitary contemplation, a place where they might build a few cells, and maybe a church, to renew their relationship with God and his son.
Francis and his companions came to the mountain for solitude, constructing small cells to protect them from the elements. Eventually, the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels) was constructed in 1218 by Francis and the brothers, financed in large part by Count Orlando. The chapel was eventually consecrated in 1260, after Francis’ death, and was the first of several major projects to be built on the mountain.
In the August of 1224, two years before his death, Francis returned to La Verna for a 40-day fast in preparation for the feast of St. Michael. During a period of ardent prayer on the mountain, a vision appeared to him in the form of a six-winged figure, a seraph, descending as if from heaven. Two of the wings extended above his head, two extended as if for flight and two were wrapped around his body.
Francis was delighted by the vision of the crucified Christ appearing to him so intimately. And yet, it aroused conflicting emotions: wonder and great happiness, sorrow and compassion, joy and fear. Francis was aglow with seraphic love and the desire to understand the meaning of the gift he’d been given. As he sat with his uncertainty, marks began to appear on his hands, his feet and his right side looked as if a lance had pierced it. It bled.
While the soul of Francis was afire with love, he made every effort to hide his wounds during his lifetime. Only Brothers Elias and Rufino knew of them. Other followers became aware only at the time of his death. That’s when the marks were seen and touched by the brothers. The truth of the wounds was manifest by the many miracles that occurred in his name thereafter.
After his death and for the next several hundred years, church building continued on La Verna, much of it financed by the Count and other nobles drawn to the Franciscans. In addition to the Chapel of Maria degli Angeli mentioned earlier, the Chapel of the Stigmata, the Basilica and Chiesina were completed. Chiesina is one of the most important monasteries in Italy, a place where friars still solemnly process twice daily to the Chapel of the Stigmata.
The buildings of La Verna are the generous fruit of many gifts from Count Simone of Battifole, Count Tariato Peitramala, the Wool Guild of Florence, Andrea della Robbia and his son Luke Bartholomew II, Prince Piero Ginori Conti, Count Checco Montedoglio among many others. They are still standing today, some 800 years later, thanks to anonymous others who patched and restored, cleaned and renovated these precious structures.
The story of La Verna has meaning for us today as we find ourselves church building again, with many of the old materials. We embellish the structure with sculpture and glass to lift our hearts, to help us live in the light of Christ. There are many hands building this church. Not all of us will be remembered 800 years from now. However, we shall be known by the fruit of our good works. This is the legacy we are passing on to our children and grandchildren, and generations to come. The same legacy we enjoy left by those who came before us.