As much as so many of the churches in Italy may be beautiful and filled with the most wonderful artworks there is no religious place I love more than those lonely hermitages built in inaccessible places and the steepest mountains sides. In our part of the world there are several hermitages, all sharing one common feature: a significant part of their construction is actually contained within a cave.
What is it about a cave that induces mysterious, transcendent feelings? Is it its the all-enveloping womb-like nature? Is it the subconscious link to the home of our prehistoric forbearers decorated with those incredible wall-paintings? Certainly, the use of caves as spiritual places of mystic significance is not exclusive to Catholicism, or even Christianity. They seem to transcend all local religions and extend into such sublime masterpieces as the Ajanta and Elephanta caves of India, the aboriginal Baiame caves of NSW Australia or the Canyon de Chelley Navajo cave in New Mexico USA..
The Eremo di Calomini is a gorgeous example of a place of seclusion and meditation half-built into a cave. It’s on the road from Gallicano to Fornovolasco and can be seen on the right as it holds tight onto the precipitous mountainside, just like a petrified rock climber.
About the eremo’s origin: tradition tells of a little girl who, wandering about on the mountain, found a statue of the Virgin Mary in a cave. She took it back to her parish but, unexplainably, the statue returned, twice-over, to the same cave where it was found. The villagers then decided to leave the Virgin Mary in the sacred cave which was converted into the evocative chapel of the Eremo.
The hermitage of Calomini dates back to the twelfth century, when hermits came here to seek solitude favourable to meditation and a life of prayer. They lived in cells which they dug into the rock face.
Later, lay oblates came to stay there. What’s a lay oblate? He or she is a Christian, lay or cleric, living in their usual family and social environment, but recognizing the gift of God and his call to serve, according to the precepts of baptism and inspiring their journey of faith in the highest values of monastic and spiritual tradition. Very much the same spirit and merger of religious aims with a secular life was instituted by Saint Francis when he founded his third order in 1201.
The present church was built in the seventeenth century.
Eventually there were no more hermits left. (Where did they go? Are many religious hermits left in Western Europe?) So the local diocese took care of the sanctuary and entrusted it to diocesan priests.
The Capuchin Friars came in 1914, staying there for 98 years. When I first visited the hermitage there was just one capuchin left. (NB if you wonder why a cappuccino is called a “cappuccino” it’s because it is named after the colour of the capuchin friar’s dark brown habit. So a typical Italian habit takes on the colour of another habit…).
In 2012 the beautiful hermitage became tenantless but the religious brotherhood of the ‘ disciples of the Annunciation stepped in and rescued it from neglect. (Their web site is at http://www.discepoliannunciazione.com/)
Nearby is the Fonte Benedetta (“blessed spring”) where pilgrims come to drink and touch themselves with the flowing mountain water, which has, apparently, some miraculous properties:
Near it is a plaque inscribed with those lovely words from St Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun”, the first poem ever to be written in Italian (1224).
which translated reads:
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
– something we especially need to remember in our shortage-threatened planet.
For me the whole place is miraculous – a marvellous testimony to an age of faith and a metaphor of how our lives should be simplified and made more in keeping with our natural surroundings and embracing them in the same way as the little gem of the hermitage of Calomini embraces the inhospitable crags that surround it into a true marriage of mankind and nature and, ultimately, of man and God.
PS If you are feeling peckish there is a nice place to eat nearby described in Debra Kolkka’s post at http://vergemoli.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/lunch-at-eremo-di-calomini/
Originally the restaurant was part of the actual hermitage itself but has since moved to the location described by the post.