The following was written by Canon Susan Skillen about her annual guided retreat in Orvieto, Italy. This yearly pilgrimage explores the lives and spirituality of Saint Benedict and Saint Francis of Assisi, among others. Saint Benedict is considered the founder of Western monasticism, and Saint Francis, six hundred years later, brought reforming zeal to a corrupt and struggling Church through his passion for living and preaching Christ’s gospel as he traveled from town to town. Pilgrims stayed at the comfortable and newly renovated Monastery of the Servite Friars in the cliff top town of Orvieto, which rests on a plateau of volcanic rock, surrounded by pastoral landscape of fields and vineyards.
As the plane landed in Rome, my husband John and I prepared to begin using our Italian once again. After a year of prayer and preparation, I was going to be leading my thirteenth Italian pilgrimage retreat. After a quick cappuccino at the airport coffee bar, we met our friend who drove us two hours north to Orvieto.
Two days later, on June 15 my co-leader and author Adele Calhoun, and fifteen other participants, arrived in Orvieto to begin a twelve-day, ADNE sponsored journey together. Our focus was the lives and spirituality of Umbrian Saints: Benedict and his sister Scholastica, and Francis and Clare of Assisi. Participants came from around the country: California, Illinois, Wisconsin and Massachusetts; they were there to walk in the footsteps of these four saints.
The ancient yet thriving town of Orvieto was our home base, where our days entered the rhythm of the Daily Office: Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. We entered the flow of prayer around the world as millions of Christians, Anglicans and others, prayed the hours in the Benedictine tradition.
In addition to praying together, we experienced teaching presentations, guided reflections, and small group discussions, learning about Benedict’s monastic communities, which created oases of stable communities for spiritual formation during the chaos of the 6th century barbarian invasions. After learning about Benedict’s “Rule,” we developed individual rules of life, spiritual habits to help us draw closer to God in our lives. We also learned how Francis and Clare brought tremendous renewal to a corrupt and war-torn medieval church and society, and how they taught and lived the practices of simplicity, contemplative prayer, and contemplative seeing, the discipline by which Christians seek to see the world through God’s loving eyes.
On travel days we visited where these saints had lived. At Sacro Speco, we saw Benedict’s “holy cave,” where he established his first communities. In Assisi we visited Francis’ hermitage, Clare’s convent, and the basilicas built in their honor. At Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey we saw thirty-six 16th century frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict. On our final day we visited the little town of Civita di Bagnoregio, where the great 13th century Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure was born, then followed an ancient pilgrimage route to the town of Bolsena to see the catacombs of Santa Cristina. The day ended with a delicious lunch at a lakeside restaurant.
We were sorry to say good-bye to some new friends as well as some old ones, but we felt extremely blessed by the depth of our experiences together in Italy, our times of prayer, the encounters with the saints, the beautiful days, wonderful food, and the powerful sense of God’s loving presence among us all.