For these, and other, sacred events in Francis' life, La Verna has been a place of pilgrimage for eight centuries. Right before his death and as he left La Verna for the last time, he assigned to the brothers the duty to hold La Verna in perpetuity as a sacred place in memory of the blessings received there.
We pilgrims have been progressing deeper and deeper into our souls on this trip: first the fun and inspiration and amazement of Rome and Florence. Then to Assisi, to Ananda, and to the shrines there. And now, in our final days on this trip, we had two nights on these sacred grounds. The two nights allowed us to dedicate an entire day in silence, unscheduled, that we might individually go deep in prayer, meditation and contemplation. It is here that the metal of our journey's intention would be burnished in the flame of devotion and inner communion. It was to be here that the stigmata of our spiritual efforts would be imprinted upon our hearts, tested in the crucible of inner silence.
I cannot, of course, speak for other individuals in this but for those who saw the opportunity for what it was -- the apex or focal point of concentration for the intentions of our pilgrimage -- it was a golden, if intense, time. Perhaps some did not find it necessary, but surely some felt hovering over them the reflection of St. Francis' life in the mirror of our own. His complete, indeed radical, commitment to God cannot help but expose our own to inner review.
Another challenge hovers, too: must we, also, carry such a cross of self-abnegation to achieve Self-realization? Does the spiritual path truly call us, require from us, exact from us such human deprivation as we see in the lives of St. Francis, St. Clare and many others? In such a place where God met man, where the "Word was made flesh, where heaven came to earth, the question begs an answer and anything less is evasion. The gauntlet of our life's purpose was thrown, as it were, in our face, on this mountain of spiritual aspiration.
Amusingly, however, visitors are conveniently offered a shield from this inner questioning by the disingenuous fact of large quantities of excellent food served daily -- as if Francis had complained of his treatment there (while fasting) and the monks felt they needed to make amends to all future generations. A bar, too, graces the dining room where not just coffee but alcoholic drinks can be ordered, along with a pleasing selection of candies, chocolates and goodies lest one's retreat be too great a cross to bear! Amazing, eh? "Reality runs up your spine," to quote Elton John! (The Franciscans evidently outsourced the operations to a commercial establishment.) At times, the din in the halls and dining room rivaled the Colosseum! Strange, eh? I even saw an upstairs room marked "TV Room." In another room was a vending machine for coffee and espresso.
But we pilgrims didn't come all this way to duck and run. We were not inclined to evade the shadow of the cross. Our strength, however, lie in the "joy of seeking Him," the joy of meditation. We had already been meditating frequently and deeply together and individually throughout the trip, at Ananda and in Assisi. Our joy level was both our shield from self-delusion and our sword of inner awareness.
What means the Christian (over) emphasis upon suffering, crucifixion, and pain? Is suffering the hallmark of the Christian life? Hmmmm: Is not to live, to suffer? Did not the Buddha discover that life for all beings was marked by disease, old age and death? Can anyone escape this three-fold suffering? No! But suffering is not the exclusive mark of a Christian: millions suffer and not because they are truthseekers! [I won't deny the teaching, however, that one who, to the degree of his earnestness, seeks freedom in God, will, by choice and by the necessity to overcome past, bad karma and pay for the "pearl of great price," attract tests necessary for purification.]
In former times and according to a view of history which Paramhansa Yogananda taught (having received it from his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar), the time of Jesus Christ and the centuries which we call medieval times represented a low point in a long and recurring cycle (some 24,000 years) of consciousness on this planet. This relatively dark cycle (or "yuga") is called (in India), the "Kali Yuga." In this cycle, the general run of humanity cannot perceive subtleties beyond physical appearances. Buildings are large and made of rock, built with human hands, by slaves. Social mobility is non-existent. Authority is absolute. Humans identify themselves only with their physical bodies and thus imagine that if there's a heaven they will go there in their current physical bodies, forever an ego and separate from God, strumming harps and praising Him for an eternity!
God responds to human needs according to the capacity of our "eyes to see and our ears hear." Thus, in an age of such relative dark consciousness, Jesus' body had to be resurrected as a sort "ultimate" proof of his divinity; the penultimate mark of sanctity became the incorruptibility of the saints' bodies; physical suffering came to characterize the spiritual life. To be spiritual required rejecting family life in favor of a monastery; it required celibacy and living in poverty under strict obedience. One would practice all manner of physical and mental austerities such as self-flagellation and self-abasement to suppress sense temptations and root out any ego-active tendencies.
These attitudes and practices no longer inspire sincere seekers of truth, devotees of God, and servants of humanity. Fact is, and using, as we must, St. Francis as an example, he was a saint of great joy, as, indeed, are all true saints, east and west. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was (and is) loved by all because he loved all as children of God. Even Jesus Christ, so often depicted as a "man of sorrows," could not have attracted a large following with a sour and somber attitude. "A sad saint is a sorry saint, indeed" said Francis de Sales (a Christian saint). Or, as Teresa of Avila put it, "A sad nun is a bad nun!"
"What comes of its own, let it come" Paramhansa Yogananda counseled. In this new age, called the second age, Dwapara Yuga, an age of high energy, intelligence, and expanding consciousness, it is happiness (joy) that we seek. We see our potential; we have faith in ourselves, and in the future (because we are in now an ascending cycle of consciousness where things can only get "better," or so we are wont to affirm). It is joy that inspires us. And yet, when pain, disappointment, failure, suffering, or death touch us, as they must at some point, our joy, if it is true and of the Self, will allow us to remain "standing amidst the crash of breaking worlds."
The test of the crucifixion, of human suffering in general, is whether it crushes us, or whether we can transcend that temptation by remaining even-minded, cheerful and calmly holding on to our faith in the goodness (God-ness) that lies at the heart of all creation, and of all circumstances. Easier said than done, I grant you, but this is not only a test of spiritual path but it is the only way to live and remain sane!
The ability of the human spirit to contend with and transcend suffering, defeat and challenges of all kinds is the greatest witness to our own, innate divinity. THIS is what the saints (and others) can model for us. During Kali Yuga the spiritual aspirant was tested "by the cross." But for us now, "the payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy." (Quoting the Festival of Light ceremony used at Ananda temples and centers at Sunday Services.)
We can, therefore, honor and celebrate the victory of Jesus' resurrection (the power of love) over hatred (crucifixion & death), the victory of martyrdom (a test of faith and courage) over persecution (misunderstanding), and the attainment of perfect joy in the midst of troubles because we know that "joy is the fruit of love for God." We may, now in Dwapara Yuga, be motivated not by the courage and strength to endure difficulties in the imitation of Christ, but for the bliss and joy inherent in God and in the superconscious state of our soul. For this we undertake the discipline of meditation, the willingness to serve high ideals selflessly, the commitment of living simply and with self-control, and a life of prayer and devotion. But for all of that, so, too, will come tests and trials. In pleasure or in pain, we remain: even-minded and cheerful!
Oh, gee, did I mention La Verna, yet? I'll plop some pictures into this soon, but let me return to earth with some descriptions. La Verna is somewhere between Assisi and Florence in the Tuscan Apennines, at about 4,000 feet altitude on the flanks of Mt. Penna. It's not difficult to get to but you're talking winding country roads, beautiful countryside, and not too far from a nearby autostrada. I doubt there's public transportation to it, but we had our rented vans, so I don't really know.
The complex of buildings and facilities, though somewhat hidden in the lovely forest, is surprisingly large. I was told of another complete complex of buildings with lodgings apart from ours. But ours is at the center of the important chapels and shrines. These buildings are of stone and are of a monastic origin and design. Labyrinthine hallways, with arched ceilings in the gothic style, weave to and fro, with staircases going up and down and all around; courtyards appear from nowhere, whether inside the four walls or outside. There is a maze of rambling and mysterious rooms, many with locked, heavy wooden doors, closed to our natural curiosity but open to our fertile imaginations. Nuns and monks can be envisioned darting furtively in and out of secret rooms, setting, as it were, the stage for a classic Agatha Christie novel! One is prepared to hear voices from locations untraceable. Add a heavy dose of fog and, all in all, it's quite a place!!!!!
There's a patio, plaza or piazza outside the mini-Basilica that overlooks the Cosentino Valley, which at our visit, was beginning to unveil the lovely colors of Fall. Overlooking that valley, as if to remind, chastise, or inspire the villagers below, stands a very tall, but stark, wooden cross. The basilica has a number of lovely art pieces by Andrea della Robbia. Adjacent to it is a small chapel (St. Mary of the Angels) which, in a vision, St. Francis was told by the Blessed Mother to build. He was given its dimensions which were exactly the same as that of the tiny chapel of the Porziuncula near Assisi. Its walls contain the choir seats for monks and nuns: there are no pews. I meditated there, and we as a group, several times. It is very still and deeply precious.
The most sacred spot is the Chapel of the Stigmata. It encloses the rock on which Francis received the stigmata. The rock has been covered by glass to prevent pilgrims from chiseling pieces off of it! A slightly hidden room off to the side contains within it a jutting segment of the actual rock. If you are bold, you unhook the rope and try the latch to see if it's unlocked, going inside to meditate and pray. The Stigmata Chapel also has the wooden choir seats along the sides. This is where you want to meditate, for sure! I, and others, found, that despite there being plenty of visitors and retreatants on the grounds at large, one could meditate there all by oneself for, say, an hour or more with no one else there! I cannot begin to describe that experience but I prayed for the strength to remain unceasingly in self-offering to God's presence and will in my life; and, to go ever deeper towards God's love and joy that I might share with others as I have received.
On the outer perimeter of the Stigmata Chapel are tiny cells (now tiny chapels) where various saintly monks had once lived. One door leads out along a rock ledge perched high up on the edge of the rock on which the building sits. It winds around the outside wall giving spectacular views before returning inside through an almost secret chapel. Fortunately, there is a hand rail but it's a straight drop down to the forest below! It is positively and stunningly breathtaking.
A long covered hallway protects pilgrims walking from the basilica to the stigmata chapel. It has murals depicting important events from Francis' life. Along the wide passageway there is a tiny doorway that opens into an inner courtyard of giant rock formations. The path leads a few yards down under some of these huge boulders to a spot where Francis was known to sleep. A grate has protectively been placed upon the spot: again, to protect it from relic hounds. But, wow, the energy there is enormous and the silence is as thick as the rocks themselves.
Across from the basilica doors and down some slippery stone steps one finds another, somewhat primitive domed chapel -- the Chapel of Mary Magdalene -- maybe twenty feet in diameter; a few crude wooden chairs have been placed in there. The stone altar contains, under glass, the stone where Jesus sat, in the flesh, talking with Francis! Like: wow! We had two group meditations there and I meditated there on my own as well. It's almost, well, spooky, especially late at night when the wind is howling!
If you follow the steps past the path to this chapel you go down amidst another group of gigantic rocks called the Sasso Spico: the Projecting Rock. Here is a place where Francis prayed and meditated. One time, while meditating on the passion of Christ, it was revealed to Francis that the dramatic rock formations and chasms of La Verna were created at the time of Jesus' crucifixion as indicated in the New Testament: "the rocks split" (Matt: 27:14). Who knows, but as many believe that there are on the earth "power spots," it is not so difficult to imagine that La Verne was destined to attract and hold the sacred vibrations of St. Francis' spiritual glory. A simple wooden cross marks the spot, under the overhang of an enormous rock, where Francis would pray.
When I was there, I saw no one. With the wetness of fog and drizzle dripping off the rocks and ferns, I settled in for a very deep meditation where no footsteps or outer sounds dare intrude!
I did find some free time to hike up Mt. Penna through the forest. This is more primitive, though friars did meditate and live up along parts of this, too. It is a solitary walk, very peaceful and entrancing in its colors of green, brown, yellow and red; its carpet of leaves, its ancient, gnarly roots, intertwining the path like some aged and great snake.
On our second night, after dinner (when we broke our silence to share a little bit), a storm descended upon us with blowing, cold fog and rain. Fog hugged the outdoor lights and the feeling of antiquity and mystery came upon the place like a kind of "Twilight Zone," a kind of alternate universe without tick, tock or clock. I attempted to brave the elements and find thrill in the the storm by going out after dinner for a walk but with the wind and rain, blowing sideways, I could barely stand and my thin Fall apparel seemed to melt into my skin. I meditated briefly at a tiny chapel lit only with candlelight but as I had heard stories of being locked out of the facility and having to stay outside overnight, my "second thoughts" returned me to my room. The whole place was "dead" silent. All had returned to their rooms after dinner.
Early the next morning we were supposed to meditate in the simple stone chapel of Mary Magdalene with the rock where Jesus appeared but the storm was so intense, the fog so thick, that we decided to move the morning meditation to the chapel St. Mary of the Angels. After breakfast and after checking out, we were going to allow ourselves more time to be there but the weather was so inclement that we packed up the vans and headed south to Rome.
By late afternoon we were at the seacoast of Ostia (near Rome and the airport), relaxing in the warm, humid Mediterranean air, watching a glorious sunset, before having dinner outside at the waterfront under the stars: pizza, salad, pasta and laughter born of open hearts. All in all, we were refreshed in body, mind and soul! It was difficult to contrast the morning wind and fog with the afternoon beach weather and view.
Thank you for hanging in there with these articles. Stay tuned for future pilgrimages! Here, then are some pictures!
May the stigmata of your victories over delusion be your badge of soul-honor!