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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

A Visit to Santa Lucia, a Hermitage in the Tuscan Woods

Secluded by a dense wood of ilex, oak, and beech trees, high on a ridge just a few miles southwest of Rosia stand the crumbling ruins of the hermitage of Santa Lucia. To visit this place, you leave your car along the road near a medieval bridge, the Ponte della Pia, that arches gracefully across the torrent of Rosia and takes you straight into the thick woods. The winding trail up to the hermitage is well-marked by red arrows painted on the barks of trees.
I pay my visit to the hermitage this cold winter morning dedicated to St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, whose saint’s day, December 13th, was traditionally considered the shortest day of the year, after which the light returned. In most homes tonight, candles will be lit before her icon, showing a young woman bearing a plate on which two eyes rest, symbolizing the miraculous restoring of her eyesight.
Icicles drip from the bridge and glisten along the frozen stream. Heading into the woods, beneath the soft layers of leaves baked in frost underfoot, I glimpse the paving stones of the road which once brought pilgrims to this place. Like the nearby abbey of Torri, the hermitage of Santa Lucia was located along the detour that sidetracked away from the pilgrims’ road, the Via Francigena. Across the centuries, this spot served as a rest stop along the way to Rome. ,
It is a twenty minute walk up through the thick of the forest. The trail is lined with wild asparagus and butcher’s broom, a showy scrubby evergreen shrub with bright red berries. When I reach the top of the hill, I come out into a sunny clearing you would never expect to find in such dense woods. Before me rise the moldering gray ruins of Santa Lucia, like a decayed jewel box, or a half-eaten, petrified wedding cake.
The Hermitage of Santa Lucia is believed to have begun as a community of hermits living in caves in these woods centuries ago, dedicating themselves to prayer, contemplation and the practice of austerities. Eremitism, the vocation of religious hermits, was a religious movement which began in Egypt in the third century, then spread from the East throughout the Christian world. By the end of the third century, Italy was full of such people dwelling in the most spectacular surroundings, deep in the woods, in caves above waterfalls, high on the cliffs of far flung islands, wherever the Spirit was to be found in the contemplation of rock, forest, or water. Far from the turmoil and luxury of Rome, far from the control of ecclesiastical authorities, hermits flourished, doing it their own way. Though one thinks of hermits as shying away from other human beings, the isolation of these men and women was not total, for they frequently met together to share meals or to worship, forming a very loosely banded community. What distinguished these groups was the lack of any regimentation and hierarchy. There was no religious superior or leader supervising the inner or outer lives of the community.
The original community of hermits here in Santa Lucia is said to have been founded by Augustinian anchorites who came from Africa in the fourth century and followed the rule of Saint Augustine, practicing charity, poverty, detachment from the world, silence, fasting, and abstinence. When they reached Tuscany, the group split into five small groups and each went off in a different direction to found a new community of hermits in the forest, and one group came to what is now Santa Lucia.
This community of hermits managed to exist for over five hundred years, living in caves and later in shelters made of leaves and branches. In the mid tenth century, when hermits throughout Christendom were being pressured by the Church to organize into monasteries, the first permanent structures were built in these woods and the hermits submitted to monastic rule. Up until that time, their communities were self-regulating according to each individual’s conscience. All this ended when they became monks.
Five hundred years is a long time for a community of hermits to exist in the woods before building a permanent structure and becoming monks. It was obviously a way of life one could take a liking to, although it was a hard life, and many died young, like San Galgano. Today, there are still a few hermits in isolated spots in the Apennines who follow the austere teachings of Saint Augustine and the blessed simplicity of Saint Francis. This I discovered while on a bus, eavesdropping on two older women who were traveling to their jobs as cleaners in the city, and were chatting about a hermit of their acquaintance named Padre Rubino.
From their conversation, I learned that Padre Rubino lives in an unspecified spot in nearby Umbria. Well into his nineties, he spends his days in a hut high up in the mountains, fetches his water from an icy stream, and leaves his seclusion only once a year, when he comes down to say mass in a tiny mountain chapel that should have been declared unsafe decades ago. And indeed, it may have tumbled in the last earthquake. Many elderly people from the surrounding area visit him for advice at that time, undertaking a rugged climb up a steep, stony trail all the way to the chapel. They revere the old hermit as a saint, as a relic of their ancestral past. Padre Rubino inhabits the inaccessible, timeless realm of their imagination, linking them to memories of their childhood, of stories perhaps they heard at the fireside of saints and pious monks.
Like a figure in an icon, Padre Rubino does not change, except perhaps that he does become gaunter and frailer, his beard longer and whiter , with age. He does not go in for check ups or wear a hearing aid. He dispenses with taxes, doctors, and retirement funds. He lives without television, telephone, internet, news, heating, or running water, and somehow gets his living tilling a small square of stony mountain soil, warming himself in the winter with brushwood. His way of life, like that of Saint Francis, of an old Zen monk, or of a Tibetan recluse, is a purely spiritual exercise. It was men like him who first flocked to these woods over a thousand years ago in search of some direct contact with what they defined as spirit, a calling still heeded by some.
-- From an upcoming memoir, A Tuscan Interior
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