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Woods and towns

· Going back to the roots of a vocation that flourished again after the Second Vatican Council ·

At Villa Fabri a real Thebaid (Egyptian desert) is portrayed. The aristocratic dwelling in Trevi stands on a slope commanding a view of the Spoleto valley and was richly frescoed at the beginning of the 17th century. In the so-called “sala degli Eremiti” [Hall of the Hermits], as well as male hermits there are also four female hermits in glory: Mary Magdalene, the penitent Mary of Egypt, Sophronia of Taranto and Dymphna. Their stories and the praise of their virtues in good classical Latin are displayed in frames below.

“Magdalene, sister of St Marta, / shunned ostentation, pleasures and licentious behaviour. / In lonely places, accompanied by angels, / she listened wrapt to their superhuman singing. // Sophronia carved her name and the date of her birth on a tree trunk, / worn out, she died in a desolate spot. / The birds, with tender care, heaped / leaves and grasses on her lifeless body. // Dymphna refused her father’s incestuous advances; / together with Gerbernus she sought shelter in impenetrable places. / To Gerbernus the servant brought death, / while the father cut off the virgin’s head. / Mary of Egypt, scorched by the sun and hideous, / was found by Zozimus in a hidden place. / After she had received Christ’s Body, her soul departed; / the lion’s den was her resting place and tomb”.

As are the hermits, allegorical figures representing poverty, chastity and obedience are depicted in the sections of the vault. They sum up the virtues heroically exercised by the four women saints. Sophronia of Taranto, venerated as an anchorite and martyr, is the only Italian. She lived in Puglia [Apulia] in the fourth century. Having reached the age of majority she decided to run away from home and to follow the example of St Pelagia, in other words to live as an anchorite and penitent. She therefore sailed to the islands known today as the Cheradi, then called the Isole Pelagie since a church in honour of St Pelagia had been erected there. [On the larger island] Sophronia built herself a hut of tree trunks and branches. She would spend the day meditating on divine things, conversing with angels, fasting and carving her memoirs on the trunks of trees. She is portrayed in the act of doing this at Trevi and at San Pietro Mandurino in Manduria. It is said that when she died the birds piled flowers and leaves on her body. Some fishermen, having disembarked on the island, were attracted by the fragrance of the flowers that covered her and found Sophronia’s dead body. They took it to Taranto where they gave her a dignified burial. Her feast day is celebrated on 10 May.

Sophronia was not the only one: the existence of women hermits is testified from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Hermits first appeared in the third century in the Thebaid Desert, having spread in Palestine and hence throughout the East. In fact from the fifth century they were also active in the West, where, however, the “desert” of our ascetics were forests, woods or natural caves. In Italy the women’s monastic movement began to spread from the sixth century, although with exceptions. It gave life to ascetic groups, as Gregory the Great mentioned, precisely in Spoleto where Gregoria received the monastic habit from Isaac the Syrian, a famous monk and hermit from the East recorded as living on Monteluco. Until the late Middle Ages, however, there were very few reliable testimonies of hermits who lived in forests or caves; nor should it be forgotten that in order to lead such a life, at the height of the Middle Ages several women were obliged to dress as men. In the hagiography of the desert, from the mid-fifth century to the beginning of the sixth, at least six “transvestite” virgins lived in the environs of Alexandria, Egypt. They were, Anastasia, Apollonia, Anastasia, Euphrosyne, Ilaria and Theodora. Later Matruna, Eugenia, Pelagia and Marina lived in the same conditions. Indeed we know they formed a great wave that swept on to the 13th century since the Martyrologium Franciscanum mentions four or five women who lived as friars, hidden among friars.

It is not therefore by chance that women hermits should have been remembered and depicted in this place. The Trevi area had been involved in the female hermit movement since late antiquity. This is testified by an epigraph that came to light in Matigge di Trevi and actually recalls the chaste “puella”, Cassia Lucia (d. 337). The smiling little town, perched on a spur of the Apennines that extends into Umbria and the Marches, is located almost at the centre of the Spoleto Valley. This is one of the many places of the spirit where the phenomenon of male and female eremitism began to develop in late antiquity, especially because of the fascination of Monteluco, the mountain that towers over the town. The hermits on this mountain who for centuries had borne witness to a form of life that saw the Eastern formation of hermits lived on a par with Western coenobitism based on the ora et labora, had joined in the Cluny reform around the year 1000. So it was that at the beginning of the 13th century women who had adhered to the penitential movement which had rippled through Europe took over many of their abandoned hermitages. In Spoleto – a crossroads of religious experiences – this movement was particularly lively and gave rise to a series of communities of bizzoche, [consecrated lay women or beguines] who at the outset dwelt on the slopes of Monteluco. By the end of the 13th century their numbers had increased so that there were about 15 female hermitages on Monteluco and on the fringes of the city, and the majority had retained their own eremitical character. Moreover these places of prayer, all of which were located within a radius of half a mile from the town, had ended up, by a strange coincidence, occupying almost all the hills which, for the people of Spoleto, constitute the view of the four cardinal points: thus a protective spiritual belt had been created, designed to ward off evil influences, the equivalent of the mediaeval ramparts that were being built to surround the town in those very years.

At the same time the women’s penitential movement was also thriving in the neighbouring towns: at Montefalco there were five foundations of “consecrated lay women”; there were two in Bevagna, two at Spello, and one at Trevi. Their lifestyle was impressive even though – to stay in Central Italy – there were no female figures as outstanding as Franca (a hermit in the Marches in the 11th century), Chelidonia (a hermit in the Valley of the Upper Aniene), or Sperandia (a penitent, ascetic and pilgrim venerated in Cingoli). The means of their sanctification, common in the various communities of these consecrated lay women, were: meditation on Christ’s passion, penance, the discipline and, for their daily bread, an almost exclusive reliance on the alms that several religious would collect in person, going from door to door. Even when certain communities dependent on the bishop were subject to a rule, whether Augustinian or Benedictine, this was a mere provision for the sake of uniformity and did not involve subordination to any equivalent male order.

After a brief period of stagnation, towards the end of the 13th century the female penitential movement regained its dynamism. Then it is impossible to overlook the fact that in the refuges of these female hermits in the town, as in the hermitages recovered after a period of abandon, mendicants sought the roots of the “observances”– especially the Franciscan ones – that had been introduced between the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

The civil authorities also focused their attention on the phenomenon of urban hermitages, as may be evinced from the municipal legislation which organized obligatory alms-giving for the movement of these recluses on the part of both the municipality and of will-makers. This form of religious life was accordingly protected for many years because of its recognized social and apotropaic functions.

Later, however, the presence of women in this area, which had already been curtailed by the ecclesiastical authorities, was kept under control by the civil authorities. As a result women hermits, both those who lived in the town and those who lived on the mountain, came to be enclosed in convents. The hermitages of Monteluco had barely been abandoned when solitaries of a new kind returned to populate the mountain: they were intellectuals, converging from every part of Europe. Nor was there any lack of visitors anxious to revive their spirit, such as Michelangelo Buonarroti who wrote to Vasari on 18 September 1556: “I have recently enjoyed a great pleasure… among the mountains of Spoleto, on a visit to those hermits. Consequently, I have come back less than half myself to Rome; for in truth there is no peace to be found except among the woods”.

The congregation of Monteluco was suppressed in 1795 and was never reopened. Yet, far from running out of steam the eremitical movement was once again talked about after the Council, even to the point that it became a topic treated at the Ninth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Consecrated Life (1994). The right of hermits to have their own specific place in the Church was recognized, with the explanation that the vocation of anchorites or hermits of the East is different from the vocation followed in the West: “In the Eastern Churches the eremitical vocation is lived within monasteries and regulated by special norms and by dependence on a superior or on the bishop if the hermit lives outside the monastery”, although certain exceptions are permitted. In the Latin Church, instead, “the hermit is recognized as being dedicated to God in the consecrated life if by vow or other sacred bond he publicly professes the three evangelical counsels in the presence of the diocesan bishop and observes his own norm of life under the bishop's guidance”,

Moreover we learn from the relativeInstrumentum laboris that following the Second Vatican Council this vocation blossomed anew, given “the existence of many hermits – both clerics and laymen, both women and men – who live in solitude, in monasteries, in hermitages or even in the midst of people”. These are, precisely, the modern forms of eremitical life which are practised more or less everywhere.

Mario Sensi




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 27, 2020