Post-classical history



As a Benedictine at Faifula Peter had discovered the writings of Peter Damian (ca. 1007–72), a spiritual ascetic and theologian who would influence Peter’s thought in a variety of ways for the rest of his life.

Born to a poor family in Ravenna, Damian exhibited an exceptional intelligence from an early age. So much so that his older brother, a local priest, removed the young orphan from his life of poverty and had him educated in theology and canon law. Damian made such remarkable progress that by the time he was twenty-five years old he was already a renowned professor in Parma. But soon this intelligent man felt called by God to leave behind the life of an academic and to turn his focus to the inner life. He departed for the Marches, where he joined an eremitic monastery famed for its austerities.

There Damian became a profound teacher and writer on the spiritual life. His writings inspired ascetics in middle to late medieval times. He became a theologian, a poet, and an expert biblical exegete; some referred to him, even in his own lifetime, as a new Jerome, and he was regarded popularly as a saint even before his death in the Italian province where he was born.

Depending on your perspective, Peter Damian’s writings reveal either a tremendous pessimism or a radical honesty about the state of the Catholic Church in his time. He was a zealot for reform, urging greater seriousness of purpose and penitence, calling for a revival of solitude and poverty as supreme virtues in the spiritual lives of both lay and ordained people. He believed that monasteries could lead the way for the entire Church, and he was harshest in his criticism of monks themselves. To his mind, it was clear that when monks and lay ascetics reformed their ways and became more serious of purpose, and made public expressions of piety, more and more people would feel called to take up the mantle of a religious.

Damian was a firm believer that every monk must practice contemplation, and he had a great influence on the development of eremitic communities throughout Western Europe. He practiced severe forms of asceticism, including self-flagellation (which he called “apostolic scourging” in his letters) as well as long fasts. This kind of activity was uncommon among most clergy, who more often preferred subtler means of getting close to God such as study, quiet retreat, liturgy, and worship. Damian became notorious for challenging the authority of the clergy, particularly wayward bishops and priests, who were all too common. He was even known to curse at them. The practice of the “saintly curse”—using words like magic to pronounce divine judgment upon someone—is part of the color of medieval religious life.1 In Ireland there was an old Druidic practice called “cursing from a height,” in which one would go to an outcrop of land or an overlooking tower and shout maledictions down upon someone passing by, allowing the words to fall with great weight upon the intended recipient. As Christianity took hold and the pagan customs morphed into Christian spiritual practices, we see Irish religious, including Saint Ruadán, founder of a monastery at Tipperary, in occasional cursing contests with Druid priests. Similar traditions existed in medieval Italy, and Peter Damian would have appreciated this, for like the Old Testament prophets he had plenty to say about those whom he viewed as God’s enemies in his own place and time.

In one of his letters, without explicitly calling down a curse, Damian addresses the monks of the famous monastery of Monte Cassino, eighty miles south of Rome, telling them that a certain cardinal who forbade the practice of flagellation in public had died suddenly precisely because of his ignorance. Damian advocated “apostolic scourging” every Friday as a way of participating in and commemorating the passion of Christ, who was flogged at the command of Pilate on the first Good Friday. Damian wrote in that letter to the Monte Cassino monks: “I shall make bold to say, my dear brothers, that anyone who is ashamed to remove his clothes that he might suffer with Christ, has undoubtedly listened to the word of the serpent.”2

Toward the end of his life Damian wrote a passionate letter to the abbot of a Benedictine monastery. Damian had been accused of violating the Rule of Saint Benedict by accepting monks who had left another Benedictine community. In responding to the charge, Damian argues that the Rule and Benedictine life are more generally for novices, while a serious life of contemplation, even if outside one’s home monastery, is what Benedict intended for the more mature monk. He writes:

Venerable abbot,

[Y]ou are angry with me, and complain that I am accepting your monks into the hermitage contrary to the precepts of our holy father, St. Benedict.… In fact, [Benedict] even sanctions a brother after long probation in a monastery, to learn how to fight in a hermitage.… There he was a raw recruit, but here he is a knight.… There he was a man coming from the world, like one entering the small town of Zoar after leaving Sodom; but when he passed over to the hermitage, with Lot he now went up into the hill country. 3

In this letter, which would have been known to many abbots and monks in Italy by the time Peter Angelerio was at Faifula, Damian says: “Therefore, for one wishing to reach the heights of perfection, the monastery must be transitional, and not a place to stay; not a home, but a hostel; not the destination we intend to reach, but a quiet stop along the way.”4 According to Damian, there was a greater religious ideal beyond that of a monk living in a community.

Seeking God in Solitude

Peter Damian’s militant ideas on what constituted a valuable spiritual life influenced many would-be monks and hermits to follow him. For two centuries some of the most dynamic Benedictine monks in Western Europe lived for long periods of time as hermits, or left their monastic houses in order to found new orders. Among them were Abbot Robert of Molesme (ca. 1028–1111), who left the cloister more than once to live as a hermit and to lead groups of hermits before founding the famous abbey of Citeaux, south of Dijon, in 1098; Saint Stephen of Muret (1045–1124), who founded the abbey and order of Grandmont in his native France, after returning from Calabria, Italy, impressed with the vigor of the hermits there (Stephen produced no rule for the men of his order, calling true eremites apostles of Christ without need for anything but the Gospels);5 Robert of Arbrissel (ca. 1060–1115), who led a group of hermits until his group, too, joined up with the Cistercians; and the Cistercian Norbert of Xanten (ca. 1080–1134), who became a hermit before he found the site where Saint Ursula’s relics were hidden, and then founded the Premonstratensian order.

Under such influences, at twenty years of age Brother Peter felt drawn away from the monastery at Faifula, having grown dissatisfied with community life. This change may have been occasioned by the death of his mother, for it was sometime soon after his mother’s death that Peter left the monastery. But more than that, the twenty-year-old Peter left seeking his own future as a solitary. From the Autobiography one gets the feeling that he is seeking to discover a bit of the world, because he wouldn’t have seen much of anything up until that point. We see him wandering the mountains of the rugged Abruzzi in search of a place to stake his claim.

By about 1231, when he was twenty-one, Peter had taken up residence on the southernmost peak of the Maiella range, Mount Porrara.6 He seems to have remained there for two years. Then eventually he made his way to Rome, in 1233 or 1234, where he was ordained a priest. It was during his year in Rome that Peter came to see the arrogance and misplaced ambitions of some of the clergy, their churches, and even the papacy, confirming in him the stringent ideals that he’d begun to practice since discovering the writings of Peter Damian and leaving the monastery.

But corruption can be found in all places, and along his journeys Peter met at least one disreputable solitary. Not all monks were holy men, Peter would find out. According to the story in the Autobiography, when Peter was leaving Rome to return to the mountains of Abruzzo he stopped to see a solitary, but God revealed to Peter “the man’s dishonest life”—in order, it says, to keep Peter “from telling his secrets” to him. We do not learn the solitary’s name or the nature of his sins; we know only that Peter had a God-given gift of discerning what was suspect. This man was not to be trusted.7

Our would-be hermit moved on. As he went in search of a new and more permanent residence in Abruzzo, the descriptions in his Autobiography are similar to the chronicles one might read of a long-distance hiker taking to the woods each morning with a pack on his back. On one occasion, Peter carries two loaves and some fish with him for the day (the symbolism is surely deliberate), and as he approaches the spot that he would later make his home, two beautiful women appear. Strange women is a familiar motif in the hagiographical lives of medieval saints. As in the much earlier Life of Saint Anthony of Egypt, in Peter’s story women are despised as little more than temptresses, constantly snuggling up to him, naked, while he sleeps, and beckoning him to come in to be with them when he would rather be praying. In those days, religious men most often had one of two reactions to women: fear or resentment. Women were feared because of their differences, sometimes in ways that even seem comical. Even their handiwork became a subject of fear, as in this observation from a penitential text from about the year 1010:

Have you been present when women have practiced their woolen work, in their webs, when they begin their webs hoping to be able to bring them about with incantations and when the threads of the warp and the woof become so mingled together that unless they supplement them with other incantations of the devil, the whole thing will collapse? If you have been present or consented to this, you shall do penance for thirty days on bread and water.

In such cases the fear went to even greater, more unreasonable, extremes, as in this passage from the same penitential text:

Have you believed that there is any woman who can do what some have affirmed they do at the devil’s command; that is, with a throng of demons transformed into the likenesses of women, ride on beasts on special nights and are numbered with their company? If you have participated in this infidelity, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.8

Believing in these mythical powers of women to seduce was, in itself, a grave sin. In Peter’s experience, two women are said to have “grappled with him, grabbing him with their hands.” Later in a cave on another mountain he encounters other women in his dreams—demons in the form of women, the text says—and they tempt him, including “forcibly” trying to remove his tunic. It’s impossible to read such accounts in the twenty-first century without seeing a subtext of wish fulfillment in addition to fear. Some might observe that these hagiographical stories demonstrate a male struggle with the shadowy feminine side of the subconscious. These internal conflicts are much less about sex and more about doubt. Such trials were said to have occurred before Peter ever made his permanent home on a holy mountain.

As was mentioned at the outset, it remains unclear how far Peter’s Autobiography ought to be trusted as history. It isn’t the purpose of this book to demonstrate the factuality of that text. But if we compare Peter’s Autobiography to the hagiographical texts, it would appear that the latter are based on Peter’s written experience, whether his Autobiography or other pieces of writing. How could it be otherwise, given that what is recorded next is a nocturnal emission: Peter admits to having had one. The story is told in the third person, which is understandable. And Peter worries over whether or not to celebrate Holy Communion the next morning, given that he had been sullied during the night. Surely no one but Peter could have had access to such information, and why would he reveal something of this sort unless he had pious reasons for wanting to share his own experiences?

Peter Sits Down to Fame

The Autobiography culminates when its subject is only thirty years old. After his return from Rome, and his wanderings back into the Abruzzi in search of a mountain retreat, Peter ultimately finds his way to the peak where he would make the hermitage that would make his name: Mount Morrone (6,700 feet), high in the Apennines. This is the place that would forever be marked by his presence, becoming his gate to heaven. It was sometime around 1235 when the anonymous monk made his rough and solitary home on a cliff. He who began adulthood as one of many in a cowl has become a hermit, abandoning world and monastery in order to seek his salvation. The text includes this fascinating, almost haiku-like, two-sentence description of what happened upon his first finding the cave upon Mount Morrone:

After entering, he sat down.

A great snake appeared

and then left.

Peter would remain in his hermitage for ten years.

Others Follow

What happened next must have been surprising even—or especially—to Peter. Throughout the centuries, the spiritually enigmatic have easily gained followers. From the Buddha to John the Baptist to Saint Anthony of Egypt, lone, vigorous, earnest spiritual practitioners have drawn disciples from the cities and countryside, people seeking to deepen their spiritual experiences and radicalize their commitments to the ideals of their religious tradition. Within a short period of time, Peter was sought after as a spiritual director and a wise man, like the Desert Fathers (the models of the wise hermit that predated Peter by nearly a thousand years).

The rule of life that Peter followed when he organized a community of brother hermits was derived mostly from Saint Benedict, combined with tenets based on Peter’s enthusiasm for Damian’s reforming tendencies as well as Peter’s own experiences of ascetic discipline and penitential practices. Peter was increasingly uninterested in the more cultivated ways of the large monastic orders, their easier ways of living. So he instituted such severities as saying the first office of Matins at 2 A.M., observing multiple “Lents” each year, and fasting on far more days than is required by the traditional Benedictine Rule. Such practices only served to gain him more followers.

“Word of mouth” truly meant something in those days, before the existence of social media and at about the time that mail was first being delivered. One person at a time would descend Mount Morrone having found something intangible that he’d been searching for, and upon returning to his place and ways of living would tell others about what he had experienced. People began flocking to find Peter, to ask for answers to questions about how they should live their lives, and about how things should be in the Church and the world. His teachings were memorable, his insight, penetrating. He seems to have known a man’s sins before he even confessed them. Peter’s commitment to the eremitic life had an authenticity that wasn’t common among other hermits (for there were plenty in the mountains all over Europe) at that time. A Victorian-era commentator put it this way: “Others joined him. One by one they came to build their poor cells near him, their elder brother in spirit, their shining example in the contempt for earthly prizes.”9 Some of these men then stayed, and a new eremitical brotherhood was formed in the Benedictine spirit.

Peter would cite 1244 as the year when his order was founded, taking its inspiration from the life and writings of Peter Damian (who had been called a saint in Italy since his death in 1072). The members of Peter’s community took to calling themselves the Hermits of Saint Damian, but also, unceremoniously, they were sometimes simply known as Morronites, after the mountain where they lived. They wouldn’t have a Rule for another ten years, so 1254 is also given as the year of their founding. They received papal confirmation, from Urban IV, on June 1, 1263. Finally, precisely half a century after the first men gathered around Peter on the mountain, their name would change in honor of their founder’s change of status. They would become known as the Celestines.

The spirituality of Peter’s community soon became more Camaldolese than Benedictine—focusing more on solitary study and prayer than on praying and working in a community—during these early eremitic days. Peter was inspired by the ideals of the earlier Italian hermit Saint Romuald (ca. 950–1025), the founder of the Camaldolese order; the first biography of Romuald was written by Peter’s hero, Peter Damian. Romuald was a strict reformer of monasteries and monasticism, so strict, in fact, that his monks rebelled against his methods, hurrying Romuald toward the hermit life. He went on to become a leader of the “Renaissance of eremitical asceticism” that had occurred two centuries before Peter Morrone came on the scene.10

When Damian praised Romuald, it was often for his ability to put the fear of God into the hearts of secular rulers. Damian wrote:

When Rainerius had become lord of the region [the Margrave of Tuscany], he used to say that, “Not the Emperor, not any other man, is able to strike great fear into me in the way that the appearance of Romuald terrifies me—before his face I do not know what to say, nor can I find any excuses by which I could defend myself.” In truth, the holy man possessed by divine gift the grace that whatever sinners, especially powerful men of the world, would come into his presence would soon be struck with internal trembling as if they were in the presence of the majesty of God.11

Such accounts served as inspiration to any man who was attracted to the power that comes with religious authority. At times, Romuald’s sayings (made popular in a brief Rule that he is alleged to have written), sound Zen-like in their simplicity. Among them are the following:

    Sit in your cell as if you are in paradise.

    Leave the entire world behind you. Forget it.

    Empty yourself completely and wait patiently, content with God.

    Be like the chick who eats nothing but what his mother brings to him.

These things Peter did gladly.

By 1244 or 1245, when he was thirty-four or thirty-five, Peter needed to escape those who were coming to seek his advice and counsel, so he fled to the heights of the limestone peak of Mount Maiella (9,100 feet), a place that would become renowned because he lived there. Maiella is the tallest mountain in the area, tucked away on the less accessible northern end of the range. There Peter established a more remote hermitage, near today’s town of Roccamorice in the province of Pescara. In leaving for Maiella, Peter seems to have been motivated by the need for what we today sometimes call “visual privacy,” a need to be shielded from the eyes of one’s neighbors; the Autobiography refers to the deforestation of Mount Morrone as a motivating factor of his decision to move.

Although a new order of hermits would soon begin, Peter’s companions didn’t exactly accompany him to the new heights immediately. The Autobiography says that he went alone at first, which may indicate Peter’s propensity for independent, even stubborn, decision making. He didn’t consult with his brothers before going. Eventually (the hagiography says, within “a few days”), they were convinced to join him, seeing that he wouldn’t change his mind.

A generation later, Petrarch would refer to Maiella as Domus Christi, or the “House of Christ,” because of the number of hermitages and monasteries, caves and rock churches, there.12 His residence on this higher and more difficult mountain became for Peter a symbol of his increasing desire to leave the world completely behind. Maiella has always been known as a difficult place to visit, and an even more challenging place to leave. To this day, the word Maiella is shorthand in the Abruzzi for an omen or a curse. An Italian writer and political revolutionary of the last century describes it as follows: “Here, where countless hermits once lived, in more recent times hundreds of outlaws have hidden, or escaped prisoners of war, or partisans, many of them helped by the local people.”13

Mountains are holy in nearly every place and faith. In Italy (as in Ireland, Greece, India, Japan) they have always been pilgrimage destinations. In the late Middle Ages there were European legends of a “paradise of delights” in the Far East—somewhere near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—a place where contemplatives might live a life more like that of the angels. Peter dreamed of such a place. But there is also a word of Latin derivation, ultramontane, which means “those who live beyond the mountains,” and this gets at what Peter desired, as well. The word was usually applied to non-Italian popes who were quite literally from lands beyond the Alps. But there is a deeper meaning, too. A man who is ultramontane is an outsider, and this was a position that Peter settled into comfortably. He would occasionally travel to Rome, or elsewhere in Molise and Abruzzo, establishing new associations of monks and hermits, but for decades his greatest wish was to be the one who stands on the outside looking in.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!