I came down to earth with a bump in more ways than one yesterday. As the wheels of the aircraft hit the tarmac, I had gone from picking pink figs for breakfast in the Umbrian sunshine to landing at Stansted in the pouring rain, with the prospect of lugging my suitcase home on the train. And yet, having flown nervously out to Perugia airport, knowing not a soul around me, I was flying back a week later with three new friends on board, and had not long said farewell to others who were continuing their travels in Italy.

I had been a guest of Florence and Clive Morton who run Umbrian Retreats (umbrianretreats.co.uk). Having come to look for a property in the area some 14 years ago, in need of a place of peace and retreat themselves, they found a villa in a little hamlet (or ‘borgo’) near Montecastelli in North Umbria and have since bought two small apartments in the same location and completely rebuilt a ruined farmhouse - Casa Roberto. Wanting to share the beauty and the joy of the place with others, they began hosting a variety of events.  The one I have just enjoyed came under the heading of ‘holiday retreat.’

enjoying the retreat

The title of this particular retreat was: ‘Clare of Assisi – restrictions, rootedness, spaciousness’. We were 8 altogether, including our hosts and our leader, and we gathered for morning and evening prayer each day in the small chapel, with an opportunity to reflect on and share our experiences together before our evening meal. Our talks were given by Canon Valerie Rampton, an Anglican Deaconess and Priest of 35 years  experience. Val is also a spiritual director, and her hand-outs  gave guidance for further exploration and contemplation in our own time.  There were quiet places to be found around the borgo, including a small labyrinth, and a table near the fig trees and vines. My apartment had a small balcony from which, being a natural early riser, I could also watch the sun rise in the quiet of the early morning: a good time and place for personal prayer and reading. (Once I have had further time for consolidation, I hope to write a bit more deeply and reflectively about this retreat experience.)

St. Clare was a contemporary of St. Francis, and I arrived not knowing a great deal about either. Clare was a noblewoman by birth, and as such the social superior of Francis, who came from the merchant class. He had renounced all claim on his wealthy background and dedicated his life to his Lady Poverty and a life of itinerant preaching. Clare found herself drawn to his teaching, and eventually escaped her family’s designs of an arranged marriage to become the first member of the Second Order of Francis, becoming known first as the ‘Poor Ladies’ and later as the ‘Poor Clares’. By contrast with Francis and his brothers, who travelled widely, Clare and her sisters remained enclosed at the monastery of San Damiano until her death over 40 years later. Being within easy reach (less than an hour’s drive in the minibus) of Assisi and other related sites, we were able to make several trips to places associated with both saints.

  • Cathedral of San Rufino: Clare’s home still stands attached to the cathedral. It was here on Palm Sunday that she felt her vocation confirmed and made her decision to escape, leaving by the back door (the ‘door of the dead’) and making her way to the tiny country church used by Francis and his followers
  • That same tiny church – the Portiuncula - still stands, looking for all the world like a doll’s house, within the Basilica di Santa Maria deli Angeli which has been built up around it over the centuries. The place where Francis died is also marked here. The façade and the central nave collapsed in the earthquake of 1832, and it was feared that the dome would collapse, destroying the Portiuncula, but miraculously it didn’t. It was in the Portiuncula that Francis received Clare and she was ‘tonsured’: there are various images to be seen of Francis cutting of the hair of St. Clare. She tried to settle in two convents, but found them too worldly, eventually finding refuge in the church of San Damiano, where she remained for the rest of her life.
  • San Damiano is a wonderful, peaceful and atmospheric place to visit. The original church was the first to be rebuilt by Francis after he heard the voice of Christ telling him “Francis, rebuild my Church, which you see is in ruins.” Only later did he understand this as a much wider vocation. Francis heard this voice whilst contemplating the famous San Damiano Cross, a replica of which hangs in the chapel, but the original of which is to be found in the Basilica di Santa Chiara (St. Clare).
  • This is a glorious building in stone of pink and cream, looking absolutely gorgeous in the Assisi sunshine.  Comparatively plain inside, you find here a quiet chapel where you can gaze at the original San Damiano Cross and visit the tomb of St Clare. There is also a reliquary case containing the unexpectedly blonde hair of the saint!
  • You could not go to Assisi without visiting the exquisite Basilica di San Francesco, where Francis is entombed. The upper basilica has famous frescoes by Giotto showing episodes from his life. As at all of these holy sites, silence is strongly encouraged, but not always observed. Every now and again, a recorded voice booms: “Shhhhhhh. Silenzio!”
  • Our final visit was to the Sanctuary of La Verna, high on a mountain across the border in Tuscany. This was a place of solitude and retreat for Francis, and the place where he received the Stigmata (the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side). The chapels and basilica there contain terracottas by member of the della Robbia family, including Andrea della Robbia’s ‘Annunciation’, which is beautiful and moving beyond description. We were able to join in a service led by the Franciscan friars in the basilica and process with them, as they chanted, to the Chapel of the Stigmata.
  • One thing to note – not once at all of these wonderful places were we charged one cent of admission, nor did we even have signs with a ‘suggested donation.’

If all this sounds rather solemn, rest assured there was a great deal of laughter and fellowship – and an equal amount of eating and drinking as we enjoyed Florence and Clive’s warm hospitality and also explored local restaurants, where our hosts were greeted with delight as regulars! We joined the Anglican congregation of St. Leonard’s in Assisi for a Eucharist service, together with some travellers doing the Camino and a party of Third Order (lay) Franciscans. Wine, not coffee, was offered after the service, and the Churchwarden had the duty of counting how many planned to join their weekly lunch at the restaurant across the road – about 34! We had the chance to shop at the local market in nearby Umbertide, and came back bearing gifts. Back at Casa Roberto, mention must finally be made of the wonderful ‘pool of much shrieking’: a very good-sized swimming pool, requiring a deep breath, a leap of faith and hot sunshine on the back – but, oh so glorious once you were in.

So if you are tempted by the idea, do have a look on the website. And if you do go, pack your Bible, your swimsuit, your address book for the friends you will undoubtedly make - and plenty of elasticated waists…

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