Eremo delle Carceri. These were the paths and woods where Saint Francis of Assisi once lived and mediated. The naturalist in me was piqued by the deep spirituality of the forest; it was as if I was one of the Saint's followers, and I could easily see myself as one who would retreat to this Hermitage to abide and pray. I paused and sat, humbled, on an outcropping, careful to remain safely back from the steep embankment in front of me. In pure and simple awe, I took in the wonder around me, bathed in transcendent peace.
This forest, four kilometers outside of the Italian hill-town of Assisi, has remained unchanged for centuries. The "Emero," or Hermitage of Saint Francis, is a small retreat deep in a gorge of Monte Subasio in Umbria. It was in the 13th century when Francis of Assisi, like other monks before and after him, came here to grow in Spirit. The cave where he slept is near where I sat, now protected from zealous visitors by an iron barrier.
Chattering birds carried on, singing and flying about their business as if the small cadres of humans hiking the forest trails did not exist, perhaps accustomed to the many pilgrims who came to walk in the footsteps of that renowned Pilgrim before them. Trees, whose species were unknown to me but which looked remarkably like those in the hill-towns of Southern Missouri, stretched toward the sky, oddly creating a sense that the Earth and the Trees and the Sky were one. Signs posted here and there reminded visitors that this is a place of prayer and silence; it must be the nature of those who would come here to willingly comply; my reverie remained undisturbed.
What is it about the natural world that draws me to it? Perhaps, like Francis, I find God's Creation a source of renewal and strength. When I can open my eyes and behold nothing but the work of the One who makes all things new, my Spirit fills up and I am consumed by a change in me. I am at peace. I am kinder. I am happy. And it strikes me that, sadly, I don't feel peaceful, kind, or happy much of the rest of the time.
In American society, we have created the motif of the Annual Vacation. This trip to Italy was a variety of that: the Once in a Lifetime Vacation. What I learned at the Eremo, however, in studying the life and hermitage of Saint Francis, was that we all need to retreat at times - and not just once a year. We all need renewal. We all need to draw strength from our Creator. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to nature. It is there that I find the wellspring of those resources that, in my work as a wife, mother, and teacher, I strive to give into the lives of others I work with.
Sitting on the stone outcropping, taking in the Umbrian forest around me, the part of me that felt desperate to stay at the Eremo forever was soothed by the clear similarities between the Italian mountain forest and those woods I have in my home state, both at nearby Watkin's Mill, a national park, and even greater in similarity, the Ozark Mountains, just a few hours' drive away. Even my own back yard is growing with trees and gardens I have planted as I have worked to connect with the peace I find in nature. The transcendental spirit that spoke to my heart and mind as I sat in Saint Francis's woods encouraged me to take greater and more frequent advantage of those hermitages I have so close to home; even though I was separated by oceans and centuries from the life of that man of God known for his serenity and oneness with nature, the characteristics of his legacy I so admire and long for, those of peace, tranquility, and connection with my God, are quite literally right in my own back yard.