Miracles abound in the early hagiographical texts about Peter. There are inexplicable healings, a malevolent devil, protective angels and saints, enlightening visions, and solutions to problems that defy rational explanations. For example, there is a story in which Peter’s mother sends him to find grain in the fields even though it is well after harvest time. The boy protests, but something moves him and he does what his mother says. Then, as divine providence would have it, the boy, like the Hebrew Joseph before him, finds grain abundant enough to feed his starving family. Another story tells of when Peter, in need of religious instruction, receives help directly from the Blessed Mother and Saint John the Beloved, both of whom pick up a copy of the Psalter and sing David’s songs sweetly to him. It is a most blessed and intimate kind of instruction, almost like mother’s milk.
There are other wonders that Peter experienced in early childhood, which also set the young boy apart, like Moses in the basket or young Samuel in the Temple. For example, Peter shows a devotion to Mother Church as a boy. He experiences dreams and undergoes temptations in the form of visions. He is tormented by demons and battles with the devil almost constantly. He experiences frequent nightmares. Before he becomes a teenager, a vision tells him of his future, and everyone around him acknowledges that he will grow up to be a religious man. All of the miraculous happenings described are sure signs of God’s favor, and that makes sense because hagiographical literature shows the patterns of how an ordinary man is transformed into a saint.
All the while, it is clear that Peter lacks the family heritage, connections, and influence that previous popes of his time enjoyed. In thirteenth-century Italy, to be born poor was to remain poor. There was no public schooling, so a boy from Peter’s background would usually remain illiterate throughout life. In contrast, consider one of the popes who lived in the century before him: Lotario dei Conti of Segni, who became Pope Innocent III (b. 1160). Like many young men from wealthy and influential families, Lotario was sent to Paris to study. Given the freedom to learn in a leisurely fashion, he became an intellectual. For close to a decade Lotario studied logic, classical literature, rhetoric, law, and theology. From young adulthood on, he could quote effortlessly from Ovid and Horace as easily as from Aristotle and Saint Jerome, and this wide learning was evident in his eloquent homilies, messages, and voluminous correspondence.
Or consider Peter in contrast to another pontiff who preceded him: Nicholas III, who ruled from 1277 to 1280. Nicholas is most remembered for his nepotism. He was an Orsini; his election was the work of political maneuvering, and his pontificate, likewise. Because of his connections Nicholas had ample opportunity to grant favors to famous friends and to make friends famous. His father was a personal friend of Francis of Assisi, and Nicholas later wrote in a papal bull about his personal knowledge of the Rule of Saint Francis and his familiarity with the intentions of its famous author (using the royal “We” that was until very recently characteristic of how popes referred to themselves): “We, who from tender years have aroused our affections for the Order itself, by growing up during those years with some of the companions of the same Confessor, to whom his life and comportment were known, have discussed in frequent conversation the very rule and holy intention of blessed Francis himself.”1 This is another way of saying: My dad introduced me to the source of it all.
Peter had no such experience. Peter’s family struggled to make ends meet. His parents were not wealthy and they weren’t intellectuals or favorites in the royal court. His father undoubtedly worked very hard and long all of his days, until he died, long before Peter reached adolescence. After a father died it was common for the mother to enter a convent, sending the children off to monasteries or to live with relatives. Another renowned religious figure, Guibert of Nogent (ca. 1055–1124), lived that kind of life. Born in northern France, Guibert was thrust into the monastery at the tender age of twelve, following the death of his father, several years of private tutoring, and his mother’s departure to a convent. Peter was not separated from his mother; she stayed put, presumably aided by surrounding family, and Peter lived out his youthful days among family until he was permitted to pursue his monastic vocation.
Popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, even priests, were, then as now, men of a close fraternity. Just as the teenagers who attend Eton and Harrow are the ones most naturally destined to become the leaders in the Church of England and members of Parliament, so the young men who studied in Paris during Peter’s day were the ones most geared to take on leadership and influence in Church and State. Relationships kindled in those formative days were the girders that built their future power.
The products of these schools formed an international society, men who literally spoke the same language (Latin), knew the same literature, valued the same intellectual skills. Having spent five to ten years together in the same schools, following the same curriculum, absorbing the same ideas, they knew one another well. A bishop in Scotland might feel closer to a bishop in Sicily or Germany, men he had spent his adolescence and youth with in school, than to the local clergy and laity, who had never been far from home.”2
Economically, intellectually, and religiously, Peter was an outsider. He had no patron, no famous relatives, no dowry. He owned no land in a time when landownership was a prerequisite for every sort of power.
On paper, Peter may not have looked impressive, but it has been borne out throughout history that the outsider living free of the norm can develop a strength that people “on the inside track” have difficulty matching.
From his earliest days as an adult (when one feels things most acutely) Peter probably experienced his lack of opportunities, and no doubt he realized that those who enjoyed the privileges of wealth and education were more likely to fall into leadership positions within the Church. He must have seen the need to make his own way, and because he followed his own path, he grew into someone who felt most comfortable existing on the outside looking in.
Peter entered the Benedictine order when he was seventeen, and within the span of just a few years he seems to have been transformed from a boy devoted to his mother to a fiercely independent young man. Independence agreed with him, and his natural intellect began to blossom. As the second youngest in his family, he had the opportunity to follow a religious vocation because he had older brothers who remained at home to see that his mother was taken care of. He was committed to the monastery according to the rules laid out in chapter fifty-nine of the Benedictine Rule: Parents promise a boy to a monastery while “the child is still of tender age,” and they agree “under oath” never to give the boy any of their property, so that he will rely solely on the graces of the place to which he is bound.
Peter’s monastery, Santa Maria, was located in Faifula, a short southeasterly journey from San Angelo Limosano, and just to the north of the ancient city of Benevento. With a Roman theater built by the emperor Hadrian and a single barrel-vaulted white marble arch built by Trajan, Benevento and the surrounding area are full of reminders of the Roman past. The powerful Christian structures and symbols were usually built alongside, or literally on top of, what had been Roman or pagan sites—as in the case of the Convent of Sant’Agostino, underneath which was recently discovered the remnants of a first-century temple to Isis.3 Faifula lay in the picturesque countryside of Montagano along the road to Rome. This land of farms and pinewoods was owned by successive feudal lords, some of whom sent a portion of their yield each year to the monastery as tithe and support. In exchange, daily Masses were said by the monks for their patrons.
We don’t know much about Peter’s time in Faifula, but it seems apparent from his Autobiography that the young man was almost immediately drawn to a love of solitude. Most monks were not; they enjoyed community life and the security of the cloister. For Peter, a yearning for greater solitude was combined with a desire for monastic reform. By Peter’s day, many monasteries had lost their spiritual luster. Many religious communities throughout the Western Church had degenerated from centers of civilization, sacrifice, hospitality, and redemption into the largest landholders and power brokers in their region. Many men (and later women) who joined communities for purely unselfish reasons, as a way of embracing life, began to despair when they saw that the life they were being asked to live was not what they thought it should be. Monasteries had become places that a true Christian heart despised. That is why so many spiritual movements were popping up in the days of Peter’s spiritual formation. That is why so many young men like Peter didn’t stay within the cloister for long. A different sort of life called him.
He shows his predilection in the pages of the Autobiography when he reflects, “As a child I desired more and more for God, and more and more to find a place of hermitage.” One imagines that those mysterious places in the mountains drew the imagination of Peter as they have sparked the minds of many of every age. He knew that a hermit had far greater autonomy than did a monk living in a monastery. There was more time to pray and less need for the human conversation and negotiation that are part of living closely in community with other men.
The allure of religious life was strong, not only for spiritual reasons, and the monastery was seen as a place of security, but also as a place of refuge. A twelfth-century monk once wrote: “This whole world is a place of exile; and so long as we live in this life we are pilgrims to the Lord; therefore we need spiritual stables and inns, and such resting-places as monasteries afford to us. Moreover, the end of all things is at hand, and the whole world is seated in wickedness; therefore it is good to multiply monasteries for the sake of all who would flee from the world in order to save their souls.”4 For men like Peter, the hermitage became the best chance of surviving the pilgrimage.
At the age of twenty, probably in the year 1230, Peter left his monastery at Faifula and took to the life of a solitary. The Autobiography states that he did this on his own initiative, without sanction from any abbot or bishop, and there is no reason to doubt on that point. As Peter tells it, “There was no servant of God in my region with whom to consult.” So he took his religious life into his hands, just as earlier prophetic figures had done. In this we see the early signs of his later personality. He was a man who could be determined and aloof at the same time. After three years of living as Brother Peter Angelerio, Benedictine community monk, Peter went on to become a hermit of the nearby mountains, a man in search of salvation and anxious to bring God’s kingdom into a fractured world.