The tops of the Maiella mountains are remote and uninviting. En route to the highest peaks at 9,000 feet, wild boar feed on pungent herbs. A few dozen Marsican brown bear still roam freely, and one sees the occasional peregrine falcon. Some of the Maiella’s caves are half a mile long, all underground. Peter explored many of them. “The Lord showed me a large cave that pleased me very much,” he writes in his Autobiography. “Only one of my monks wanted to join me at first, but eventually more came,” he says.
His early followers complained about the height, the distance, and the arduousness of life on Maiella. “We are exhausted and can hardly even make it up here,” they told him. One night in the high heat of June, when the top of the mountain hadn’t seen rain for weeks, all of the brother monks were gathered around Peter’s cave, listening to him preach when suddenly they witnessed a fire break out and spread rapidly to a pile of dry branches. Monks had been using branches to create their own makeshift huts near Peter’s cave until more suitable dwellings could be arranged. The branches had dried as effectively as if they were intended for kindling, and they lit up like candles in the early evening hour. Peter’s entire cell appeared to be aflame.
“Get up … Now!” Peter yelled to them. “Throw every branch out of here!”
With quick hands, the monks picked up the burning faggots and tossed them away from the greenery, in the direction of the rocks. They separated what was smoldering from what was as yet untouched by the heat and flames. And within a few minutes the threat had abated. Moments later, raising his hands to heaven, Peter began to thank God for his goodness and protection. But some of the brothers were slow to follow.
“Why did you ever come to this place?” one muttered, kicking at some of the remaining glowing embers. His comment was echoed by one brother after another. Peter looked at them all and said, “My whole body could burn, and yet I wouldn’t leave this place.”
There has always been a connection in the mystical and ascetical strands of Christianity between mountains and contemplation. As one leaves the world behind, literally ascending higher and higher in elevation away from city and civilization, one also climbs a metaphorical mountain of contemplation. Self-imposed exile offered the religious man an opportunity to cast a critical eye on civilization below. To be in the mountains was to have moved beyond the desert. These two climatic metaphors engrossed a hermit’s imagination. The desert was the place for purgation: repentance, cleansing, attempting to remove the stain of earthly life and its carnal hold on the human soul. The mountain was beyond this. It was quite literally an ascent, a place for holiness. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” the psalmist writes (Ps. 24:3). Peter Maiella (aka Morrone) joined the august tradition of those, like Moses, who met the Lord face-to-face on Mount Sinai. Such a life wasn’t for everyone.
The life of a hermit was only for the hearty and healthy. Like a worthy competitor, Saint Romuald was praised by Peter Damian for the extreme severity of his penances. Norbert of Xanten, a contemporary of Romuald’s and a cofounder of the eleventh-century eremitic renaissance, also became a saint by demonstrating the power of his mind to discipline his body. One thing Norbert did to prove the point was to walk everywhere barefoot and wearing only animal skins.
Some of the great athletes of their day, hermits had to be able to endure excruciating silence, food that didn’t nourish or satisfy, an almost complete lack of physical contact with others, arduous work, uncomfortable sleeping conditions, a general lack of sleep, and extremes of cold and heat. These were the natural conditions they faced before they imposed any hardships on themselves.
For Peter and his brothers, in order to be worthwhile the spiritual life had to be difficult. Having a relationship with God was expected to be tough, and it could only begin when one had completely surrendered one’s life to divine pursuits. The hard existence of the hermit had one other benefit as well. It offered a way of sanctifying what might have otherwise been a miserable existence. A hermit, like anyone with a very close relationship with God, takes his suffering into his own hands, turning to holy purposes the difficulties of everyday life.
The hermits would encourage one another by reading from Palladius of Galatia’s accounts of the lives of the Desert Fathers. His classic Lausiac History was “like a wonderbook, to show what these spiritual athletes could take upon themselves for the love of Christ. In the presence of the assembled community the stories of these mortified lives were read aloud. Inevitably, for souls so avid for perfection, they became so many incitements to heroism.”1 Peter knew well the life of one of these, an ascetic named Saint Simeon Stylites (ca. 390–459), whose feast was celebrated each year on January 5. This Syrian shepherd became a monk as a teenager and quickly desired to become a spiritual standout, finding unusual ways to demonstrate his prowess. He would remain standing for days at a time and abstain from food for even longer periods. People followed him and then imitated him. They became almost like the bodybuilders of the 1970s, exhibiting themselves in front of large crowds at public beaches in California or Florida. In similar ways, people came to witness the wondrous ways that Simeon challenged his body. Simeon was so determined to stand apart from the other ascetics of the desert that he ascended a pillar and remained there for more than three decades. His first pillar was about twelve feet tall, and by the end of his life he stood upon one that was forty-five feet high. Before long, there were several men living atop pillars near Simeon. They took a name for themselves—stylites—which comes from the Greek, meaning “pillar saints.” The famous agnostic/cynic Edward Gibbon had a rare admiration for this bizarre religious man. He wrote in History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meager skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account.
But there is a note of sorrow in many of the stories of great ascetics from the past. Simeon seems to have felt that he could escape the world vertically—that perhaps if he went high enough, if he denied himself enough, God would take him to heaven, like Elijah on a chariot. Simeon died all alone up on his perch.
Did our hermit wish for something similar?
As a physical specimen, Peter would have been well built, with solid legs, knees hardened from decades of kneeling, and feet so calloused that he could step on a bumblebee without being disturbed by its sting. The face of Peter-cum-Celestine V as it appears atop his tomb in L’Aquila still today is a lean, gaunt visage with high cheekbones, deeply set eyes, and a soft chin. There is a determination about his pursed lips that cannot be accidental. Another image of Peter, drawn three centuries later, shows that same face with a beard, a head that is mostly bald but flowing with hair on both sides. This drawing, too, is from an anonymous hand, and is titled simply Fr. Petrus Confessor.2
For several months a year, the nights and early mornings were raw and frigid and unforgiving on mounts Morrone and Maiella. Peter loved these small hardships. He and many of his brother hermits reveled in the type of inconveniences and difficulties that the wealthier in Rome, Paris, and Naples sought to avoid. At times in the Autobiography, we see Peter reminding the others of their commitment to these hardships as an expression of true love for God. A Hermit of Saint Damian was just the sort who might get a pebble caught in his sandal first thing in the morning, and then leave it lodged there for the rest of the day believing that the pain might teach him something profound about carrying the cross of Christ.
The difficulties of the natural environment were not enough for these men. They believed that obeying Christ meant suffering as he had. They took seriously Christ’s words to his disciples: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Lk. 9:24). For them the promise of salvation and eternal life in heaven—a promise made to those who suffered on earth—took precedence over considerations of comfort in this life. And so, being human, these hermits competed with one another. And having left the world behind, there wasn’t much to compete about except spiritual matters.
Often the spiritual became physical. One man would pray alone in his cell from the time of morning prayer until evening, and would do so while standing. Another man would hear of this and then commit to stand in prayer all through the night until daybreak. And so on.
Peter took to wearing a hair shirt like John the Baptist and Francis of Assisi. Hair shirts were made of the roughest animal hair, usually goat hair, roughened with knots to ensure that the person wearing it would be in constant discomfort. The practice goes back to the Hebrew Bible’s reference to putting on sackcloth and ashes in prayer and supplication to God. “Sackcloth” was probably the equivalent of an early hair shirt (Dn. 9:3. See also Ps. 35:13).
Peter also fasted regularly, including the sort of fasting that was once popular with living saints: observing multiple “Lents” throughout the year. The discipline of the Great Lent (as it is called in the East), the forty weekdays leading up to Easter, was practiced at other times of the year. Special fasts would be kept, together with rigorous devotion to prayer and perhaps penitential physical labor. A famous example of a mystical experience that followed upon such a period of Lenten observances is part of the legend of Francis of Assisi. It was September 1224, and Francis had come to Mount Alverno in the Apennines with a few of his closest companions intending to pray for forty days, until the Feast of Saint Michael. During that time Francis encountered Christ in the form of a six-winged angel, and then he received the stigmata. That first recorded instance of the stigmata provided inspiration that mystics needed to fast.
Some hermits would go further in their own, personal practice. Fasting for weeks on end became common. Some bragged about taking the Host as their only sustenance. Just as the ancient Greek athletes would astonish crowds with their feats of endurance and strength, Christian ascetics such as Peter Maiella were the true athletes of the later Middle Ages.
We know from the Autobiography that while Peter and his brother hermits occupied themselves, as any good religious would, in the daily practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, Peter struggled with snow, dreams, and demons atop Mount Maiella. The group built an oratory, which is not a full parish church but a place for more simple prayer and celebrating the Mass—where they would gather to sing the office. The building was situated only ten paces from Peter’s cave. They would often pray at the same time but separately, in their own cells and caves, and occasionally they would come together in the oratory. It became a place of great mystery. It has been recorded that unknown voices were heard singing the late-night prayers in the oratory, and when a brother went in to look, there was no one there.
They also had to contend with evil spirits. At one point Peter tells of “some of the brothers”—it sounds like he’s speaking of himself—“spying throngs of demons in the forest.”
“They were bleating like sheep, wanting to get into the oratory,” Peter says. It is easy to imagine the fear that might grip the heart of a sensitive man, attuned to divine messages, on top of a mountain in the middle of the night.
Among the signs and wonders Peter recorded is a story of a dove alighting time and again in the midst of the hermits, refusing to leave this special place of prayer. It was soon decided that this was a sign that the Holy Spirit had claimed the spot. This is the legend of how the hermit settled upon the name Santo Spirito, or “Holy Spirit,” for the monastery near Sulmona that would become his order’s motherhouse. It was also a name fitting Peter’s belief that he was living in the third and final epoch of the history of the world, one guided and governed by the third member of the Trinity.3
Above all, Peter relished the remoteness of this place. One scholar calls him a “relatively mute, miracle-bearing, eremitic, mountain saint.”4 Maybe that was so. In the way that saints are made in Catholic tradition and legend, it was this geographical feature—Peter’s difficult mountains—that made the man. He was not only formed by his place, but the narrative of his life and faith, as it was told and retold in the centuries after he lived, makes sense only when we see it set in this craggy geography. While he sat with the doves on his massif, challenging his body to suffer for his God, he began to desire to grow the movement that he had started.