A Spiritual Oasis for San Francesco: Celle di Cortona

July 16, 2014 / Places
Cortona, Tuscany

Tucked into a narrow gorge just north of the Etruscan walls of Cortona, Tuscany, is one of my favorite spiritual destinations, Celle di Cortona. San Francesco himself founded this hermitage beside a cascading waterfall in 1211.

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Carefully preserved, the small chapel where his fellow Friars Minor slept on the floor evokes the Franciscan spiritual tradition of simplicity and poverty.

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Peek around the small altar into the Cella di S. Francesco, a tiny chamber, and try to imagine resting for months on a narrow wooden bench built into the wall, about 5 feet long and a foot wide with a block of wood for a pillow. Francis would take hermitage here for days of ecstatic meditation with only a loaf of bread, listening to his beloved waterfall beneath a small window.

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Francis returned for three months on his way from Siena where his friars had sought medical help for him when he was mortally ill. It was here that he wrote his last testament exhorting his fellow Friars Minor to obey God and to live a life of poverty and manual labor.

Restored extensively in 1969, this convent of cells and chapels spills on both sides of the gorge with walking paths and gardens tended by the monks who live and work here.

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Wandering the paths beside the cascading water, one can understand why Francis needed to return to this spiritual oasis before he made his last journey home to Assisi. Today, it is a modern day oasis for visitors and sometimes the sounds of music echo within the gorge when concerts or weddings are booked.

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Colleen Simpson

by Colleen Simpson

Colleen followed a long-held dream and made a home in Piegaro, which is a pristine medieval glass-making village south of Lago Trasimeno in Umbria. She is the innkeeper at www.anticavetreria.net.

26 Responses to “A Spiritual Oasis for San Francesco: Celle di Cortona”

  1. mary jane

    Another saint, St. Paul of the Cross, lived in a very similar cell when he built the Passionist monastery/convent on Monte Fogliano here in Vetralla, in the mid 1700s. These saints certainly led difficult lives! but Always in beautiful places.

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  2. Linda Boccia

    Those who espouse a life of poverty as a noble cause have never truly experienced it. It is neither noble nor uplifting! I supported two children on limited means when even with a Masters Degree and a good work history there were few jobs available a number of years ago. What I did notice was that when I finally found work that paid more than a pittance I was intensely GRATEFUL. A life of simplicity meaning touching the earth and it’s inhabitants gently and with compassion is quite a different thing from a life saddled with poverty in being unable to provide. Most ascetics eventually leave a life of complete poverty for a life filled with being of service and offering compassion. Mother Theresa lived a simple life, but she did not live on bread and water nor did she ponder waterfalls. She went amongest the despised and critically ill to administer to them.

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  3. Beautiful, simply beautiful. Your expository of this bastille of peace and harmony is remarkable. Everything, word and image captured the heart and soul of San Francesco perfectly. My compliments to you…

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  4. Linda Boccia

    Even the Buddha, Siddhartha Gauthma, left his cave as he realized that he could in no way help people by cloistering himself away from society.

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  5. Connie

    That was a beautiful, inspiring post! I would love to see it in person one day!

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  6. Marina Andriola

    Beautiful place to hide out! I get what commentator Linda is saying. When reading this, I couldn’t help but think that hiding away does nothing for the society you were born into. Even though he slept on a plank, his choices struck me as more self-indulgent and anti-social than gracious or holy. To take up exclusive residence alone in a place that could serve as sanctuary for many is what wealthy people do. But then, religions have always protected their madmen.

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  7. Marina Andriola

    No offense to Colleen or to the Franciscan order which I should perhaps study more before I spout off. Wish I could visit my Tuscan birthplace, but I too have taken an oath of poverty. Someday! Until then, I do enjoy following these stories and photos! Mille grazi!

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  8. Colleen Simpson

    Francesco alternated his hermitage sessions with long periods of activism. He embraced lepers and people who were cast out of society, a revolutionary in his time. Read a little of his life and you might understand how he helped people. This was just a very small part of his life, he was a mystic who embraced poverty and simplicity instead of the wealth he was born into. He was compassionate, he befriended the poor, the lonely and tried to reform the Church. Sorry that my tale of the beauty of this spiritual place would evoke debate.

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    • Yes, a few sour comments from bitter persons – not enjoyable to read. I think these people could learn a bit more about St. Francis in the context of his own time and why he was so revolutionary. Thank you for your post. A few months ago I visited La Verna in the same part of Tuscany, also a very special spiritual place that you might like to visit (if you haven’t done so already).

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      • Colleen Simpson

        Lynne, Yes I have visited La Verna and found it to be a place of beauty in nature and still very evocative of all things great and beautiful in creation.

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  9. Marina Andriola

    Thank you, Colleen! No apology needed. Forgive my knee jerk skepticism. What can I say? My mother’s side is Sicilian! ;~)
    We have a tradition of being wary, even of saints. Thanks to your story, I’m intrigued to learn more!

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  10. grace purpura

    Grazie, de parte de Grazia! I am Marina’s Sicilian mother, and though I was born in Brooklyn, NY, my first language was Siciliano. I learned English and Italian later in school and lived in Tuscany for a year where Marina was born – – -to an Italo-American father stationed there with the U S Army. I am proud Marina takes interest in her world and is open to compassion, self correction and learning more of her heritage. She is more Italian than she knows – – – resourceful, resilient, intelligent and creative.
    Thank you, Colleen! Debate is good! Opens up the doors to discussion.
    Fracesco could have lived a comfortale life — his father was a rich silk merchant, I believe, who wanted his son to carry on the family business, but Francesco renounced this life and choose the life of poverty and service to others including the animals, all creatures of God. He was a peacemaker. Heads of state including the mille east, go to Assisi to pray for peace.

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  11. edward bertozzi

    I visited the Celle several years ago. I was struck by how tiny, cold and uncomfortable St. Francis’ cell and sleeping ledge (no bed; instead a tiny, humid, cold rock ledge) were. The info at the cell said that St. Francis went there when he was sick or troubled, in order to meditate and pray. My impression was that he was not relaxing or vacationing, and that his mindset is not one that we can easily understand today. A wonderful, non-hagiographic biography of him is “Francis of Assisi” by Arnaldo Fortini, translated into English by Helen Moak (The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York 1981).
    Thank you, Coleen, for bringing this very important and instructive place to our attention.

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  12. GARRETT

    I’m so sorry folks, especially the believers. I mean it. I do NOT intend to offend. But there is another interpretation. And yes, it is a “sour” one. Yet it is valid to consider. “Try to imagine resting for months on a narrow wooden bench built into the wall about 5 feet long and a foot wide with a block of wood for a pillow. Francis would take hermitage here for days of ecstatic meditation with only a loaf of bread, listening to his beloved waterfall….” Why oh why is that something to admire??? I believe in the power of reason over all other powers of discernment. Is this not an example of a man that has gone insane? Please, please don’t chastise me for “missing” the message. Use critical analysis to examine what’s really going on. Francis was a wonderful, peaceful, charitable man, no doubt. A great many insane people are. Indeed, most are. But for me he was detached from reality and that is the definition of insanity. Someone has to say the king has no clothes and I have said it. So don’t let this episode (or any other) slip by without giving it serious analysis.

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    • grace purpura

      Ha ha ha! from the sacred to the profane. Bravo for your courage to speak.

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    • Colleen Simpson

      I wrote this piece as a simple statement of fact of what Francis did at Celle: that he found it to be his own personal spiritual oasis and about the beauty of the place. Anyone can choose to “admire” or judge him, but I did neither. If you reread my piece and not the comments, I think you did miss my essential message: Celle di Cortona was a beautiful place in nature for Francis and some may still find it to be a beautiful place to visit ; it is not an “episode”. So sorry that my story about a beautiful place was so offensive to you. I am removing myself from this discussion now as I do not have any axe to grind and did not wish to offend nor provoke a debate about spiritual issues that are entirely personally held beliefs.

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  13. Marina Andriola

    With beauty comes ugliness, with tears comes laughter, with insanity comes brilliance. Such complicated lessons are there for those who love history and chose to delve beyond the approved tourist brochure. After all, this is the Italian Notebook, not a Carnival Cruise ad! Intelligent people will always want to know more, the backstory, of why notable people made the choices that they made, choices that often changed the world. Was he mad? A genius? Both? Neither? Many historical figures (as Garrett thoughtfully pointed out) are complicated! My mother Grace is a notable scholar and artist. She’s been studying Italian history for nearly all of her 85 years, and knows she still has new lessons to learn. Her impressions are born of study and a life well lived and I was delighted to see her join this discussion! If we chose to view history through ros√© colored glasses (even if the glass was blown in Piegaro), we miss the nuances and detail that make a story even more amazing! Colleen your story started a very interesting conversation. It’s a compliment to the writer when that happens.

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  14. Marina Andriola

    Unfortunately for the Saint, Leonardo daVinci’s rollaway bed arrived 350 years too late. ;~)

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  15. Myrna de Leon

    My husband was in the travel business (retired now), promoting various lovely destinations in several countries for 35 years (retired now); he later regretted his role and saw tourism as a scourge that never contributed to the quality of any place and just ran them down while making money off of them. It’s now probably a moot point who St. Francis was (that will probably be lost in the mists of time). But to consider that those who live in the here & now, confronting the reality of everyday life in this world know it’s not all a bed of roses, as it sounds like St. Francis discovered. If someone wants to make money off of that, it makes a mockery of any good that St. Francis actually did for the poor! It’s a perversity on many levels.

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  16. Marianna Raccuglia

    Discussion is always a good thing. If St. Francis found comfort and solace in this place, who are we to find fault? Thank you, I enjoyed reading this article

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