(This is the final Part of a two-part series on Peter of Morrone.)
Peter of Morrone (1209-1296) was a hermit from central Italy, whose holy and solitary lifestyle attracted crowds of devotees. He is also the founder of the Celestine Order, an offshoot of Benedictine monasticism, and briefly reigned as Christendom’s pope, under the name Celestine V. He was officially canonized in 1313.
Alone again, the fledgling hermit, Peter, set off into the wilderness. He came across a hidden place on another unnamed mountain, which he then chose as his new home. Here, he would live in solitude and asceticism for three years, before once again, for unclear reasons, picking up and leaving.
This time, he travelled further north and west, eventually reaching the area of Sulmona, deep within Italy’s Apennine mountain range.
The city of Sulmona was, in the 13th century, a considerable cultural and population centre. Indeed, it boasted both a school of canon law and a judicial office. It was also home to a sizeable middle class; carpenters, doctors and notaries are all attested to in the historical record. This was a community, presumably, of some level of literacy and wealth.
The mountain overlooking the city was (and still is) called Morrone. It was here that Peter settled down in a newly-constructed hermitage—one that can still be visited today.
It is said that upon his entrance to the cave that would later become his home, a large serpent immediately slithered out from it. This is a common hagiographical trope with a clear message: God was present in Peter, whose mere presence was enough to send the devil packing.
By this time, Morrone had begun to amass a certain level of popular devotion. He was starting to draw crowds. Largely, these were ordinary people for whom Peter’s holy and solitary lifestyle translated into supernatural power. Thus, he was approached by those with diverse illnesses, all of whom hoped to receive from him a miraculous cure. Soon, he was well-known locally as a trusted healer.
We can’t say for certain what really happened. All that is certain is that scores (I have identified at least 144 Petrine miracles in the historical record) of people claimed to have had their pathologies miraculously reversed at his hands.
The cures involved, variously, Peter giving the sick the sign of the cross, and the use of holy objects or food, as well as changes of ‘heart’—a newfound or renewed commitment to spirituality on behalf of the client. The indiscriminate mixing together of both physical and spiritual illnesses, as well as cures, is a reminder of the intimate link between mind and body.
“And who is worthy?”
Apparently, as Peter’s popularity grew, so did the pressure to adopt the responsibilities of the mass by becoming a priest. Indeed, “all (of his devotees) urged him to take up the Sacerdotal Order.” Assuming this is true, it seems that medieval Italians sought to take advantage of the hermit in their midst, by obtaining for themselves a priest whose specially-charged, saintly touch might secure for their community the bounties and protection of God.
It was decided; Peter was to be ordained. It turns out that Morrone’s experience in the priesthood furnished two curious episodes, both of which the hagiographer uses to make an interesting theological point.
It turns out that the responsibility of ritual could be quite burdensome. The hagiographic text, known as the Autobiography, relates: “And since (Peter) longed always for poverty and solitude, so did he sometimes think about giving up the duties of the Mass, and this with the advice of the Pope.” It was, however, the middle of winter, and the plethora of snow forbade him from leaving his mountain home. Nonetheless, Peter received a vision at nighttime that would answer his question.
In it, he saw a certain abbot—one that he had known well in life, and whom, at the time of the vision, was dead. Here, in the world of apparition, he appeared standing before an altar, dressed in white garments. The abbot spoke, “Son, pray for me, and may you be with God!” before turning to leave.
Peter grabbed him firmly by the hood; “Let go, son, let go, son! I swear to you through the living God, the holy Trinity and the other Saints, that you may tell me what I must do regarding (the priesthood)?”
The abbot provided his counsel: “May you say Mass, son, say it.”
Peter was doubtful; “John the Baptist and Blessed Benedict and many other saints did not wish to touch so great a ministry. How can I, who am such a great sinner, I who am not worthy to carry out such a task?”
“Oh son! Worthy? And who is worthy? Say Mass, O son, say it with fear and trembling.” Then, he was gone.
Accordingly, Peter persisted in his liturgical duties. There soon arose, however, another conundrum to deal with. What was to happen when he experienced nocturnal emissions? Could he still, despite this ‘defilement,’ say mass the next day?
Likewise, he found the answer through a vision. This time, he saw himself climbing up the steps toward a castle, at a very high altitude. Approaching the gate, he saw a great monastery, and in the middle, an expansive palace; many eremitic cells lined the complex, within which were monks dressed in white vestments. It looked so beautiful. Peter immediately felt compelled to enter.
Suddenly, the donkey that he had with him began to defecate on the steps. Peter was crushed; he was now defiled, and therefore unworthy to enter that place of such ethereal brilliance. He sat down on the steps, defeated.
“Why do you not climb?” He looked up and saw that a man was speaking to him from the top of the steps. This was no ordinary man, though, for he was flanked by two others, both of whom resembled himself identically. Indeed, “it was as if (Peter) saw only one”—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The one that seemed to be Christ spoke: “Climb! Climb! Why do you not climb? For that which the donkey does out of habit? What is it to you? Climb! Climb!” Peter immediately awoke from sleep, experiencing much joy and happiness with the answer he had received.
These two visions, while different, point to a shared vision. In the first case, we have a stark dismissal of the spiritual hierarchy. Peter, who thought himself unworthy to carry out Christianity’s central sacrifice, by comparing himself to who was then considered an accomplished ascetic (John the Baptist), learns to eschew altogether the notion of ‘worthiness.’ Indeed, everyone is able to manifest the divine, through the liturgy of the mass—all—no matter how sinful.
This contrasted directly with contemporary notions of clerical purity; namely, that the validity of a mass depended on the priest’s moral and spiritual state. Beginning in the eleventh century, this idea manifested itself most famously in the papal campaign against clerical marriage, as sexual intercourse was deemed antithetical to proper ritual.
In the hagiography of Peter of Morrone, we get a glimpse of an alternate, more accepting view, whereby sin does not impede one’s ability to rub shoulders with the divine. This is expressed most clearly in the second vision, which posits our ability to “enter the heavenly kingdom,” despite the crude realities of the body.
The effect is to downplay, to some extent, the rigors of asceticism. This relates to the original spirit of the practice, which was not essentially body-shaming, but merely a means of transcending our unhealthy, corporeal attachments.
There is wisdom here for our own lives. The phrase, “And who is worthy?” in one fell swoop, democratizes access to the divine. It isn’t just a select, spiritual elite who can experience, and indeed act out, that which is most noble. This is open to all people—good news for the majority of us, whom as laypeople, live daily ‘in the world’ as members of our respective societies.
Put simply, it isn’t necessary (or, arguably, possible) to be ‘pure,’ by any means. Rather, we can strive for, and perhaps even achieve, greatness, despite our shortcomings, failures and the basic dukkha of life. A ‘middle way’ is truly the best route.
“Be still, and know that I am God”
If, on the one hand, Peter’s followers tempered their notion of asceticism, then they were also sure to emphasize something else: the importance of silence.
The themes of retreat, solitude and quiet are recurring throughout the Petrine hagiographical corpus. They are both central to and pivotal for Peter’s story. Their importance is underscored by the author’s association of silence with miracle, and by extension, spiritual greatness.
One of the key indicators of silence seems to have been the ringing of miraculous or ‘invisible’ bells. These allegedly were heard, periodically, from the beginning of Peter’s eremitic life; when he was living near Castel di Sangro, “each night at the same time he would hear the sound of a great bell.”
After some time at Sulmona, Peter moved once again, this time seeking even greater solitude on the heights of the massive and snowy Maiella mountain. This third, new abode was the most remote and difficult to access of them all.
Yet it was here, miles from civilization, in the midst of the wilderness, that Peter and his followers received their most vivid divine encounters. Indeed, one time, when the monks were singing the Office, “they began to hear the sound of many great bells.” This was a cause to wonder, as “the place … was so remote from the habitations of man, that never was it possible to hear bells.”
Accordingly, the brothers were “stunned with amazement.” They quickly turned their eyes to heaven and began to cry out: “where is the place at which they are being rung?” Peter, hearing their words, knew where the sound was coming from: “It is not far away from here.”
After this initial group, more people began to hear the bells at that place. Then they became audible elsewhere, too. In fact, “(people) would hear (them) anywhere, except for within the city or town,” and “from one place there were 20 who heard that sound, and from other places many men, all of whom were lay and secular, and none of them were a Cleric or Monk, which is most remarkable.”
In other words, these were rural bells, only to be heard within the quiet of the forests and countryside. Further, the treat of their sweet sound was available to all who wanted it—one merely had to immerse oneself in the tranquility of nature.
Indeed, mental stillness seems to have been the deciding factor. As the hagiographer contends, “the more one paid attention to the bells, the less one heard them.” Additionally, “(Peter) often heard, while saying the Office, other sweet voices alongside those of the monks, so that while the voices of the Brothers came to a halt, the voices of them were heard better.”
At Castel di Sangro, the sound of a bell was heard each night—at least, until Peter decided to purchase a singing rooster, after which both the bell and the rooster decided to keep silent.
The moral of the story is clear: the quieter we are, the more we hear. This is an important takeaway from the life of Peter of Morrone.
There is great benefit in taking a step back from our busy lives to appreciate the calmness and mental clarity of silent retreat.
By engaging in mindfulness meditation, we train ourselves to observe and listen non-judgmentally. It’s only when the mind has relaxed—when the water has lost its ridges and the reflection becomes clear—that we are able to perceive that which is. This is not some fantastical, out-of-reach goal. Rather, it can be achieved in the here and now, by all, from the most experienced meditator to the true beginner.
In a time of heightened partisanship, partly exacerbated by social media, the importance of mental clarity cannot be overstated. Just think what would happen if we started listening to each other thoughtfully, rather than simply rushing to make our point.
It isn’t difficult to imagine. We would begin again to have meaningful dialogue—an absolute necessity if we are to navigate the complexities of today’s most pressing issues.
At the age of 85, after a long life of asceticism and solitude, the poor hermit Peter of Morrone was selected, by unanimous assent, to be Christendom’s next pope. His papal coronation was to take place at L’Aquila, a city some 35 miles (56 kilometres) to the northwest, on 29 August 1294.
Peter left his mountain retreat on the back of a donkey, accompanied by the King of Naples and a royal procession. Together, they travelled through the dense Apennines, before arriving at L’Aquila, where they were welcomed by crowds of adoring devotees.
At a time of hyper-partisanship, much like our own, medieval Christians placed their hope in Rome’s new pontiff—the poor, quiet hermit from central Italy, whose calm resolve must have seemed saving.
Read the first part of this series about Peter of Morrone»
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