Most of the world knows the public profile of St. Anthony.
He was a great preacher with a profound knowledge of Scripture. He was also an outstanding
teacher of theology and was named Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII in 1946. He enjoys
worldwide renown as a great wonder-worker and finder of lost objects.
But what many overlook is Anthony’s profound interior desire to
be a contemplative, a person always on the search for intimate union with God. Anthony
had a deep need to set time aside for solitary prayer in hidden caves and hermitages. Last
fall (2006), while spending several weeks traveling between Assisi and Padua, I had an
opportunity to seek out some of Anthony’s favorite places of contemplative prayer.
Anthony’s career as a brilliant preacher was launched when a religious
superior insisted that he preach to the invited guests at an ordination ceremony in the
Italian town of Forli, not far from Bologna. Anthony rose to the occasion and preached
so inspiringly that he was soon in demand as a popular preacher throughout northern Italy
and in southern France.
Anthony realized that in order to retain his spiritual equilibrium he
had to find time to nurture his inner life by praying in remote places where he could dedicate
his heart to God alone. Although I could point out as many as six or seven places where
Anthony was known to assume the hidden life of a hermit, I have only enough space here
briefly to point out three of Anthonys favorite hideaways.
|(Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
To reach this cave-like grotto hidden away in what is still called the “Sacred
Woods” high above Spoleto, I had to take a half-hour drive up a winding road that
climbs the steep mountainside. (Spoleto is a town about 25 miles south of Assisi.) Even
after finding this awe-inspiring and mystical woodland, it took me another half-hour of
searching before I found a little cave clearly marked as the grotto Anthony used in the
13th century. Only a few steps away from this grotto was a rocky ledge that overlooks the
spectacular Spoleto Valley. The early Franciscan hermits who prayed on this and other mountains
had a wonderful way of combining places of solitary prayer with panoramas of such incredible
beauty that they lifted the human heart to songs of thanksgiving and praise!
|(Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
Anthony had an even greater affection for Mount La Verna as a place for
withdrawing to satisfy his contemplative yearnings. La Verna sits about 90 miles north
of Assisi. St. Anthony certainly shared St. Francis’ need for contemplative prayer
as well as his love for the hidden caves of this mountaintop retreat in northern Italy.
Anthony loved praying in a little cave on Mount La Verna, not far from the rocky precipice
where Francis was embraced by the fiery love of God and where he received the stigmata,
the five wounds of Christ. In more recent times, Anthony’s cave has been transformed
into the Oratory of St. Anthony. Each week, hundreds of La Verna pilgrims stop and pray
at Anthony’s oratory, located on top of the same rugged precipice as the Stigmata
Chapel, where Francis met God amidst fiery Seraph wings.
|(Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
About 30 miles north of Padua is the town of Camposampiero. This is the
town to which St. Anthony moved when he realized that his life was coming to an end after
spending two or three very active years as a preacher in his beloved Padua. He sensed that
he needed to take a break from his labors and to dedicate more time to God alone. In Camposampiero,
the nobleman Count Tiso had earlier built a hermitage for friars seeking more time for
contemplative prayer. Anthony asked Tiso to build for him a solitary hutsomething
like a small tree houseinto the branches of a large walnut tree in a thick forest,
not far from the Franciscan hermitage where Anthony slept at night. Anthony spent a good
part of the last weeks and months of his life praying in that small tree house.
We can imagine that Anthony had a great fondness for this, his last hermitage
experience. He no doubt knew thatin leaving the earth behind and climbing into to
his tree huthe was preparing for his next life where he would be forever united with
God in glory.
In trying to answer this question, I think of a passage from one of Anthony’s
sermons that has become one of my favorite quotes from St. Anthony. It also tells me of
the rich love relationship he experienced with God in contemplative settings such as we
have described above. This is the sermon passage I have in mind:
“The humanity of Christ is like the grape because it was crushed
in the winepress of the cross so that his blood flowed over the whole earth...for the
forgiveness of sins. How great is the charity of the Beloved. How great is the love the
Bridegroom for his spouse, the Church.”
This sermon passage helps me to savor what I believe was the nature of
the love relationship between St. Anthony and Christ. It is like a burning love relationship
between two married partners deeply in love. Anthony knew that this kind of love relationship
needs to be nurtured at frequent intervals. And that is why Anthony needed to get away
from the distractions or ordinary life and to devote more energy to periods of contemplative
prayer. That is why he had to get away to his grotto near Spoleto, his cave near La Verna
or his contemplative hideaway in a tree, namely, to stir up the flames of love, as St.
Francis had to do in his own case. And that is why you and I have to set time aside do
To find out more about St. Anthony’s life and timesand
about “St. Anthony, the Contemplative”check out our special offer to
purchase an autographed copy of Friar Jack’s little book, Anthony
of Padua: Saint of the People. (See ad above on right.)
respond to Friar Jims Catechism
Quiz: How Is the Bible God’s Inspired Word?
Dear Friar Jim: I am currently working in a Catholics Returning
Home program at my parish. Last night the subject of the Bible as taught in Catholic schools
and catechism classes in pre-Vatican II times came up. One member of our group understood
that the Old Testament was never taught, while another remembered that her 84 year-old
grandfather had told her that he studied the Bible all the time. Was the Old Testament
taught to students in pre-Vatican II times?
Dear Rob: Yes, it was taught prior to Vatican II but not nearly
so much as now. It was taught in the form of Bible stories and you can still find those
books in Catholic bookstores as ways of teaching the Old Testament to children. Friar
Dear Friar Jim: Thank you for an enlightening article on the Bible.
If I am planning to purchase a new Bible, in your opinion, what considerations should I
make? I would like background information, if you will, or footnotes which may help me
understand more fully that which I am reading. Brenda
Dear Brenda: I would suggest the New American Bible (Catholic
ed.) with the Revised New Testament. It is the one we use for all our Mass readings. Make
sure it has footnotes, etc. St. Joseph is a nice version of the New American Bible. Also,
while youre at it, go to a Catholic bookstore and ask the clerk to show you some
solid Catholic Bible commentaries. Some come in booklet forms and are for laity as well
as religious. Some are very scholarly and really not necessary. God bless you on your biblical
journey. Friar Jim
Send your feedback to email@example.com.