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For two weeks at the end of May six students and I walked the path of St. Francis from Assisi to Rome. Our guide, Alessandro, was honest: “We don’t know exactly which route Francis took, so in the spirit of St. Francis, we’re going to take the more beautiful route. And that’s exactly what we did. Up over Mt. Subasio, through valleys filled with olive trees, through little villages where we stopped to buy sandwiches and gelato—always more gelato—until we walked in the square at St. Peter’s basilica.

During one walk through the woods we came to a stone wall with a large gate. There was a rope outside the gate that went 50 yards underground to a modest building. Alex, as we called our guide, pulled the rope. A few minutes later, a small Italian woman in her fifties came out and greeted us, inviting us in. Unknowingly, we had stumbled upon an old Franciscan hermitage built over a cave where Francis spent time praying and meditating. The cave has been used for over 1500 years by Christian hermits, Francis included. She gave us a flashlight and invited us to go down to the cave. I say “go down” because through a door there was a passage about 30 feet long, down into the dark quiet. With a flashlight, we made our way down until we came to an opening. There was a small room with bench like seats carved into the stone, with a tiny altar with a cross, and nothing else. We sat quietly, taking in the stone walls that witnessed a millennia of people seeking God’s presence, waiting to hear God’s word. With the flashlight shut off we experienced black silence, unable to see our hand in front of our face. After a few minutes, a light shown down from the top of the stairs and Italian rang through the entrance. “She’s wondering if we’re ok,” Alex told us.

Once out of the cave, we snapped some pictures with our host, who generously gave us some elderberry juice to drink. She walked us to the gate and wished us a blessed camino. Later that night we talked about the cave and the hermitage. There are four women who live there, all living the life of St. Francis. They are not nuns, they haven’t taken official vows, they’ve simply chosen to live like Francis. They have no electricity, no internet, not even running water. Pilgrims are allowed to stay there, but many struggle with the darkness and with the silence.

I can hear the protestant critique—What good are they living up in the woods? We talk a big game about prayer and worship, but more times than not we put our trust in our worldly industriousness, our work ethic, our productivity. Yet, I can’t help but think these four women are in touch with their humanity and spirituality in ways contemporary Christian life has forgotten. They’re not governed by secular time, they remain deeply connected with the creation, and they are not ruled by the distractions of modern life.

It does my soul good to know there are four women in the mountains of central Italy praying for me and my students.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

One Comment

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks, Jason. Long ago during the darkest days of the anti-apartheid struggle I heard Desmond Tutu respond to the question how he could remain hopeful. “Because seven nuns have promised me that they will rise everyday before sunrise to pray for an end to apartheid.”

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