Each hermit believed he was solus cum solo, or alone with the alone. The only relationship that truly mattered was that between a hermit and his God. Everything else was expendable in a life designed to expend.
Before Peter Morrone became pope, he lived as a contemplative, engaging in the most passionate life available to a man: a solitary life in the mountains. From Plato to Plotinus to Jerome to Peter Damian to Thomas Aquinas to Dante, nearly every significant spiritual and philosophical thinker of the Christian era had written or preached the value of the contemplative life over the active life.
Then (as now) it seemed to be universally agreed that the more a man was able to live every moment of earthly existence as a gift from the Creator, the higher spiritual state he would achieve. Fishermen may make good disciples, but they don’t make good contemplatives. The active life gets in the way. Just as one can’t truly appreciate the paintings of a museum by sprinting through its corridors, one cannot know God and truth in wage earning and domestic business. That’s why Christ asked his fishermen apostles to leave their nets and follow him. He wanted a higher life for them. Despite the fact that it was a fisherman, Saint Peter, who was given the keys to the kingdom by Christ, the values of stillness, silence, and contemplation took hold of the Christian imagination during the Middle Ages. As one of the most popular poets of the late Middle Ages would summarize it, “Every anchorite or hermit, monk or friar, if he follows the way of perfection is on a level with the twelve apostles.”1
Many great thinkers have written that the heart seeks after that which it loves, and the most proper love of all is love of God, but the heart needs time, space, and quiet in order to nurture such love. Since the true purpose of life is to prepare for life after death, serious Christians saw the earthly trappings—domestic duties, family, houses, wage earning—as obstacles, whereas the monastic life, and especially the eremitic life, was the school of heaven. “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” the psalmist sang in Psalm 34:8. A man needs time in order to love God properly and fully. For the one who is able to devote time to contemplation, the reward is great. He can be truly happy, for contemplation “is more enjoyable than any other human pleasure. Spiritual enjoyment surpasses bodily enjoyment, … and the love with which we love God in charity surpasses every love,” said Thomas Aquinas.2 “In addition, how many greater gifts will come to you in the truly blessed life that lies before us, is, I must admit, beyond my capacity to discuss.… Therefore, hide this treasure, namely Christ … in the receptacle of your heart. With it in your possession cast away all concern for anything else in this world,” wrote Peter Damian.3 Contemplation is the best of all ways of living.
The contemplative life also opens a person up to seeing God in ways that are usually hidden from others. The contemplative’s experience of God is direct and it’s as if he’s already living in heaven.
Peter Morrone was “betrothed” to God, and it was his aim to spend every waking hour of every day in the presence of Christ; he spoke with him, and often heard Christ’s voice in response.
He lived during the Ptolemaic era when the earth was believed to be at the center of the universe, with the moon, sun, stars, and other planets revolving around it. Hell was located in the deepest recesses of the earth, and heaven, high above our heads beyond the sky. That is why mountains were so important—divine proximity was taken very seriously.
In the fifth century, Saint Ambrose of Milan claimed that Jesus Christ was crucified on the same hill where the first man, Adam, had long ago been buried. Throughout the Middle Ages Christians sought out places made sacred by association. The height of Peter’s mountains was not accidental. He sought the highest mountaintop he could climb because he desired to be near his Creator. He wanted his prayers to be spoken and whispered closely into the ear of God.
People in the thirteenth century had no understanding whatsoever of the composition of the atmosphere. It wasn’t until the early sixteenth century that Leonardo da Vinci began to experiment with how air is consumed during combustion, and not until the late eighteenth century that oxygen was identified. In Peter’s time, the atmosphere of earth was a place for winds and spirits, not a layer of gases retained by the planet’s gravity.
Hearing voices in the wind and woods was a common experience among Christian mystics according to medieval chronicles and tales. We read of ordinary men and women having divine experiences causing them to fall upon the ground, become frozen in fear; sometimes they meet inexplicable strangers in lonely places or feel ravished in ecstasy. As his Autobiography makes clear again and again, Peter experienced these things. God surely speaks to all men and women, but to some, divine stimuli are more readily received.
One of the most common diagnoses of that era (continuing up until the nineteenth century) was “brain fever,” a pseudo-medical explanation for a rise in body temperature brought on, it was believed, by an overexcitement of the senses. This was a kind of ailment that assailed a sensitive soul who took in more than he could handle. Since ancient Mesopotamian times, human beings have acknowledged fevers, occasions when the body’s internal temperature rises beyond what is normal, but it wasn’t until very recently that we knew why body temperature rises and that this process is actually good for us. Medieval people feared the fever, and the remedy for “brain fever” was to cut back on stimuli.
There is a type of overstimulation that can occur in men and women like Peter who spend long periods of time alone with God. Figures dance and voices speak to a live imagination in quiet places. He also practiced extreme fasting and other ascetic behaviors, which brought on mystical experiences.
From his grotto, Peter Morrone prayed the Psalms with punctual regularity, structuring his day with set times of prayer as he moved through the Psalter, genuflecting as well, at least five hundred times a day to his God.4 He prayed the liturgical hours of Compline, Vigils, Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers. He would have known the entire Psalter from memory, and the words of the Psalms would have sprung to his mind and his lips with ease, and whether he was experiencing moments of pain or joy, boredom or dread, he would be able to express his feelings with a psalmist’s intensity.
When he was composing his letter to Cardinal Latino Malabranca in June 1294 he could have easily heard these words from Psalm 12 in his ears: “Help, Lord; for there is no longer any one who is godly; for the faithful have vanished from among the sons of men. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.” As he stood on the mountain mourning the sorry state of his blessed Holy and Catholic Church he might have prayed: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; lighten my eyes, lest I will sleep the sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3). And he might have remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah to whom he had been compared: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).
Along Came the World to Peter’s Doorstep
Peter did not exactly live alone. He was not entirely solitary or reclusive. He had retreated to his remote location but there were other men nearby, all living as hermits. Mostly they spent their days alone, eating, praying, working, or sleeping, but they would still see one another from time to time and gather as a community to pray at least once each day. They formed a loosely organized cluster of individual hermitages on the eastern edge of Mount Morrone, along the Sulmona basin.
The community was accustomed to pilgrims visiting their holy mountains. It was nearly a daily occurrence for Peter and his brothers to see strangers on the hillsides, seeking out the huts and caves where hermits made their rough homes among the trees. For the medieval man and woman, a walking pilgrimage was like a dream holiday vacation is to us. People undertook them as a form of therapy, or to escape their debts and debtors, or to enjoy life by getting away from domestic responsibilities, and occasionally even for spiritual reasons. One pilgrimage to Compostela or Jerusalem, or receiving a face-to-face blessing from a holy hermit, could save a person several years in purgatory. But Peter never could have imagined encountering the visitors that hiked up the mountain to see him in the summer of 1294.
Artists have given us an idea, however. A sixteenth-century fresco depicting the scene hangs on the walls of the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican (on the vault corresponding to the frescoed map of Abruzzo). It is entitled The Hermit St. Peter of Morrone Receiving the News of His Election to the Papacy. Noblemen are shown atop noble steeds, led by native guides on foot, pointing the way around turns and through underbrush, steeply climbing up the mountain, ascending the psalmist’s hill of the Lord to find the holy one. And there kneels Peter on the ledge beyond their immediate vision, pleading with God, oblivious to their coming.
Meanwhile, the king of Naples was on his way to Mount Morrone as well. We don’t know from whom he received the news about the new pope at the palace at Melfi, and so rapidly, but together with his son, Charles Martel of Anjou, Charles II quickly traveled to Sulmona. There, to the foot of Mount Morrone, was as far as Charles II would go. His lameness made mountain climbing an impossibility; but he sent his royal son up the peak to try to reach the hermit before the ecclesiastical entourage could arrive.
Toward the top of these mountains, the quiet of beech trees and mountain pine recedes as you climb beyond 3,000 feet, where the dwarf junipers and wildflowers grow. At 5,000 feet, just under the clouds, songbirds become fewer and ravens and hawks more common, their calls starting to sound plaintively human as they move in their slow, winding circles. It was under such a canopy that delegates of the Sacred College made their way upward to inform Peter of what the cardinals had done.
A group of men—priests, soldiers, and their attendants—had assembled in Perugia on July 11 to make the trip to carry the news. The troop was led by the French archbishop of Lyon, Bérard of Got (brother of Raymond of Got, who later became Pope Clement V), wearing the full regalia of his priestly office, and neither the archbishop nor those who accompanied him were accustomed to mountain climbing, especially in the heat of a July afternoon. The journey took them at least ten days.
When they reached the top of the mountain, they found a simple hermitage with two small chambers. A small opening served as a window. One of the most important witnesses to these events, James Stefaneschi (ca. 1270–1343), who was the son of a Roman senator, and who would later become a cardinal, peered inside Peter’s hermitage and saw an “unkempt, blear-eyed recluse, peering in bewilderment at such unwonted company on his little plateau.”5
According to legend, a friend and fellow friar by the name of Roberto had hurried ahead of the entourage, to tell Peter who was coming to fetch him. As a result, Peter was prepared to turn the party of visitors away before they ever arrived at the top. Surely they must be joking, he thought. Peter wasn’t very trusting by nature, and when the group of clergy reassured him it was no joke he did the one thing any normal, solitary hermit would have done. He refused the job.
As one scholar has put it, “To characterize the choice [of Peter as pope] as eccentric is probably an understatement.”6 Peter wasn’t the first man to want to avoid the chair of St. Peter, to realize immediately that what it demanded was not for him. He also wouldn’t be the first pope to pine for the life he had left behind, to spend his time wallowing in self-pity over what he was missing. But he was the first to attempt to run from the honor. He resisted the call of the cardinals at first. Resisted may even be too simple a word. Peter seems to have actually hid himself from his approaching visitors. The Roman poet Petrarch says that Peter tried taking to his heels. The old Catholic Encyclopedia talks about how “Pietro heard of his elevation with tears”—but even this traditionalist source didn’t mean tears of joy. They continue, “but, after a brief prayer, obeyed what seemed the clear voice of God”!
The entourage would have dragged Peter to Rome and strapped the crozier into his right hand if necessary. But Peter happened to be residing within the territory of the House of Anjou, ruled by Charles II. Kings traveled well, and the two Charleses made better time than the archbishop and the others. Before Peter could refuse the will of the election, Charles Martel was the one who brought the hermit assurances from his father that his monks, his hermitage, and the future of his order would be safe.
Finally, Peter told those gathered, “I accept.”
The distinguished retinue began to chant, “Viva il papa!” “Long live the pope!” For those votaries, nobles, and churchmen who had made the journey, there was enthusiasm for the future. The official decision of the Sacred College was read aloud to Peter and all of his brothers who gathered around. Petrarch later tells us: “The ragged, haggard, trembling hermit, fleeing in terror from the proffered honor, then bowing to what he held to be a celestial command, then descended from Mount Morrone.”
All the while, thousands of people had gathered around the bottom of Mount Morrone. Many had watched the finely clothed churchmen awkwardly making their way through the oaks and maples, so they were surprised to see the twenty-two-year-old Charles Martel, a young layman, descending at the hermit’s side. Others were there as well. It has been suggested that Giovanni Pipino, a resident of nearby Barletta, was present. He would later become famous for building the great church of San Pietro of Maiella in Naples.7 Once the entourage arrived in Sulmona, Charles Martel and Charles II arranged to have Peter consecrated within their realm.
All that Peter had done to deserve this honor was to write to the cardinal-electors, offering them an apocalyptic vision of what God might allow to happen if they didn’t elect a holy pontiff, and soon. He was never expecting that he would be asked to do what he was now charged with doing. This is not to say that he wasn’t a man of ambition. The early chroniclers might have us believe that Peter was guileless and simple, but the events of a life spanning more than eight decades tell a different story.