La Verna

Excerpt from Giovanni and the Camino of St. Francis by James Twyman

Towering birch, fir, maple, and ash trees hung over the ancient monastery, looking like long, boney fingers reaching toward the woman as she slowly climbed the steps leading to the sanctuary entrance. La Verna, the Franciscan friary in the Tuscan Apennines mountains of central Italy, sat above her like a fortress set atop a hill.

Anna Petterino stopped to take a final draw from her cigarette before snuffing it out with her left foot. “That’s the last one,” she said in a low voice only the trees could hear. “At least for a while.”

How many times had she tried to quit smoking in the last four decades? A dozen, or more? At fifty-six, trying seemed pointless, but something told her this time might be different. She had the suspicion everything was about to change.

One final glance at the forest and she was walking again, stepping up to the ancient wooden door that looked older than the United States—her adopted country, the one that had welcomed her young, seventeen-yearold self when she was forced to leave Italy. She hadn’t seen the land of her birth since that day.

Anna was already sorry she had come.

“There’s still time to turn around and leave,” she thought. “Maybe take a train to Rome and spend a week pretending to be a regular tourist before flying home. No one would know the difference. I could use an American accent and adopt an air of pretentiousness, maybe even befriend a group of women from Tulsa or Atlanta and convince them it’s my first visit to the Eternal City. We could laugh and flirt with the beautiful young Italian men, then promise to stay in touch after we return to our predictable suburban lives.”

Of course they never would, just as Anna knew she wouldn’t leave before the deed was done. She had to see this through.

La Verna was more than a typical friary, even by Italian standards. Eight hundred years earlier it had been the personal retreat of Italy’s most famous saint: Francis of Assisi. It was here, in 1224, that Francis received the stigmata—the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet, and side—during a long and arduous period of meditation and prayer.

None of that mattered to Anna. She had abandoned spiritual fantasies as a teenager. The idea of spending a night in a Catholic sanctuary was distasteful, to say the least. If there had been a hotel she would have certainly taken a room but the trail began here, so here she must stay.

But only for one night.

Anna reached out and turned the handle, opened the door, and stepped in.

“Buona giornata, benvenuta,” the old nun said as Anna walked up to the desk.

“Hello, and thank you,” Anna said, not wanting the nun to know she spoke Italian.

“Ah, English . . . welcome to La Verna. You have a reservation for the guest house?”

“Yes, for one night.” Anna reached into her coat and produced her passport.

“The Camino?” the nun asked as she opened a thick book, full of handwritten names of guests. “You are here to walk the Camino of St. Francis?”

Anna’s backpack was hoisted over her left shoulder. A dead giveaway. “Yes, I am,” she said, not wanting to encourage the conversation.

“It is such a good thing you are doing,” the nun said, setting her pen down. “Pilgrims come here nearly every day to begin the walk to Assisi. You are very brave.”

“Why am I brave?” Anna asked, not wanting to sound insulted.

“Well, most pilgrims are young, and you are . . . I’m so sorry, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“I’m old. You can go ahead and say it, Sister.”

“Don’t even think that,” the nun answered quickly. “People walk in their sixties and even seventies. They come from all over the world to walk in the footprints of the Poverello.”

“Who’s the Poverello?” Anna asked, beginning to lose patience.

“St. Francis, of course. He was the poorest man in the world but also the richest, because of his love.”

The nun glowed with devotion as she said these words, as if speaking about a lover. But it did little to distract Anna from her foul mood. “You chose the right profession, Sister. . . .”

“I’m Sister Celeste.”

“Well, Sister Celeste, Thank you for welcoming me but I’m very tired. I would love to get to my room and rest before dinner.”

“Of course. In one hour you’ll hear a bell. Just follow the others,” she said pointing toward the door. “You’ll meet your fellow pilgrims then.”

Anna didn’t respond. She had no intention of meeting pilgrims bent on imitating a saint who threw himself into thorn bushes whenever he became sexually aroused. That was one of the stories her mother had told her as a child, as if it were something to be proud of. If these people were crazy enough to follow an example like that, Anna didn’t want to know them.

“One more thing,” the nun said, “Do you have your pilgrim credentials?”

“I’m sorry . . . I’m not sure what that is.”

Sister Celeste reached under the desk and produced a folded piece of paper.

“Here it is, dear,” she said. “The credentials are a religious travel document. Each pilgrim carries it through the whole Camino. When you stay in a hotel or convent or monastery, ask them to stamp the inside, like this. . . .” She took out an ink pad and stamped the paper.

“There you go,” she said, handing the credential to Anna. “This is the La Verna stamp. Every place you stay will have their own. By the time you reach Assisi, your credential will be filled.” The nun held out a heavy metal key embossed with the number seven. “Up the stairs and around the corner. That’s where you’ll find your room for the night. May God bless you and buon cammino.”

Anna smiled and took the key, not wanting to be rude despite the sister’s religious reference and her own bad mood. As she walked toward the staircase she took a final look back and saw Sister Celeste, still smiling at her.

Her room was tiny, much smaller than she expected. She laid her backpack on the single bed and began moving the contents to the drawer: three shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, four sets of underwear, and a bra, unpacking more out of habit then necessity for a one-night stay. Toiletries were kept to a minimum, and her only shoes were the ones on her feet, well-worn from weeks of hiking. She took out the guidebook—her lifeline in the forest that would lead her from place to place like a good shepherd.

As she returned the book to her pack, she noticed a crucifix hanging above the bed. Ann reached over, took it off the wall and put it in the second drawer. “The last thing I need is you watching me.”

The sound of laughter caught her attention, and she looked out the window to the courtyard below. A small group of pilgrims were waiting for the dinner bell. Most were young, but Anna noticed at least two were older than she. That made her feel better. She wouldn’t be the only grandmother walking the trail to Assisi. Immediately, her thoughts were drawn back to her daughter Kay and granddaughter Penny in Portland, who were surely worried about her.

Anna looked at her watch. Kay was probably getting Penny ready for daycare. “I’ll call from the trail in the morning,” she thought. By then she would be out on the path and the months of preparation would finally be over.

Months of preparation, all because a book fell off a shelf and hit her square on the head. Anna had heard stories like that before, usually from New Age fanatics convinced almost anything was a sign from God. But when it happened to her, while browsing the shelves of Powell’s Books, she had to admit it had left an impression—and not just on her skull. Anna had picked the book off the floor so she could put it back, but when she glanced at the cover the title gave her pause: “ On the Road with St. Francis.” She opened it and her eyes fell on the words “We are pilgrims, our life is a long walk or journey from earth to Heaven.” The quote was attributed to Vincent Van Gogh.

She thumbed through the pages. It was a guidebook for people— pilgrims, as the book referred to them—walking the Camino of St. Francis, which apparently meant the trails and small roads St. Francis of Assisi walked eight hundred years ago on his way to Assisi and beyond. Less popular than El Camino, as the pilgrims call the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Camino of St. Francis still drew hundreds of pilgrims each year from around the world, all carrying everything they need on their backs through the mountains and valleys of Tuscany and Umbria.

“Assisi?” Anna said beneath her breath. She tried to force the village where she’d lived as a child from her mind, but the mark it had left was indelible. Anna looked up, wondering why the book had fallen. Maybe someone on the other side of the shelf had pushed another book forward, dislodging this one. She noticed a man walking away from the area, thinking “That’s the most logical explanation.” But the possibility, or impossibility, that it happened of its own accord had taken root in her mind and she couldn’t shake the thought.

Anna reached to put the book back but then stopped. Part of her wanted to run out of the store and never come back, but another part felt there was a mystery to unravel. Why had a book about Assisi and St. Francis fallen off the book shelf, possibly unaided? She needed to know.

She took the book to an empty chair along the wall and sat down. Forty minutes later she looked up and knew, for reasons she could not explain, she had to buy it.

Back at home, she examined the book more closely, still confused by the strange spell it seemed to have cast over her. She learned an Italian woman named Angela Maria Seracchioli had mapped out the camino trail in 2004, including many of the medieval towns St. Francis would have passed through on his travels through Italy, such as Sansepolcro, Città di Castello, and Gubbio. Most pilgrims began the journey at La Verna, then walked the one hundred and ten miles to Assisi where they prayed before the saint’s tomb in the Basilica di San Francesco. Angela’s camino guidebook had been originally published in Italian, then German, and finally in English. Since the Italian camino was less traveled than the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, it was much easier for inexperienced pilgrims to get lost. The guidebook was essential for the latest trail updates and inside information on hostels and hotels that welcomed pilgrims.

“What are you doing?” Anna asked herself out loud as she closed the book and went into the kitchen. She didn’t recognize herself. Why was she so fascinated by people walking up and down hills for days on end because they thought it brought them closer to God? She was allergic to anything that sounded remotely religious or spiritual, the result of her Italian roots and the misery it had caused her.

Like most Italians, Anna had been raised a devoted Catholic and living in Assisi amplified the obsession. As a child she had wanted to be a nun and live in a cloistered convent near her home. But everything had changed when she became a teenager. Like most girls at that age she liked boys and they liked her, and when that threatened to tarnish her family’s reputation, they had shipped her off to America to live with a distant aunt. Not long after she arrived, she married a nice Italian-American man and spent the next forty years pushing religion as far away as possible.

But the idea of walking to Assisi had completely captured her attention. Memories of her former town, built on the side of Mount Subasio, had faded over the years, but she still felt its influence and gravitational pull. She had firmly replaced the family she’d left behind long ago, with a beautiful daughter and granddaughter who more than filled the spaces they had left. When the man she had married and spent her life with died, Anna felt herself moving slowly toward a similar finale. Now, a decade later, the book felt like a reminder, even an opportunity. But of what, she couldn’t decide. All she knew was that it wouldn’t let her rest.

“Mom, are you here?”

Anna was so engrossed she hadn’t heard Kay come in. She turned to greet her daughter, taking off her reading glasses and hiding the book under a magazine. “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t hear you. Is everything okay?”

“I just dropped Penny at day care. How are you?” Anna looked up at Kay’s brown eyes and strong Italian features, working as she always did to not notice how much Kay resembled the family and others she remembered from Assisi. Kay would be around the age her own mother had been when Anna had been forced to immigrate to the US. Just a week earlier they had celebrated Kay’s thirty-ninth birthday. Despite the challenges of a messy divorce and single motherhood, she was still so vibrant. “Was Mother like that?” she wondered to herself. “She would have been close to Kay’s age now the last time I saw her.” To Kay, she said only, “Thank you, sweetheart,” and kissed her daughter’s cheek. “I’m fine. Just been reading a bit. I was over at Powell’s earlier and . . . well, it doesn’t matter. Never mind.”

“You went to Powell’s without me?” Kay teased her. “Did you find something good?”

“Nothing, really. Just a book about Italy. It brought back memories.”

Naturally, Kay knew Anna’s memories of Italy usually caused her pain. “You haven’t talked about Italy in years,” Kay said, her face full of compassion. “What’s the book?”

“Some guidebook about Assisi. That’s where I lived, you know.”

“Of course I know. What kind of guidebook?”

“Apparently people go on these long treks through the countryside like St. Francis. Can you imagine walking all that way just to get to Assisi? Pretty crazy.”

“You’ve been walking away from Assisi your whole life.”

The words cut like a knife across a scar that had never fully healed.

“What do you mean by that?” Anna asked, shocked.

“I’m sorry,” Kay said. “But you never went back. From age seventeen until now, you’ve never gone back to see your family or where you were raised. And you’ve never taken us there. Haven’t you ever wanted to introduce us to our family? Or just see how things have changed and what our family is doing?”

Anna stood up. “You don’t know anything about it, so leave it alone,” she said as she walked into the kitchen.

“I only know what you tell me, Mom. And I want to hear more.”

“What makes you think I want your help?” Anna snapped. “I’m perfectly happy with you and Penny and the life I’ve created here.”

Kay spotted the book peeking out from under the magazine and picked it up. “Then why did you buy a book about St. Francis? You’re not religious. Something’s happening, Mom.”

Anna walked over and took the book from her hand. “You don’t know as much as you think you do. Now stop bothering me about this.”

“Here’s something I do know,” Kay said, “Your maiden name was Bernardone, right? Wasn’t that his last name?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“You know very well who I’m talking about. I remember you telling me that you had the same last name as St. Francis and that you were from the same town. Did you ever consider that he might be a distant relative?”

“My father used to say that we were relatives, yes,” Anna said, “but there’s no way to know for sure. Anyway, what difference does it make?”

“You’re the one that bought a book about him, Mom. There’s obviously something attracting you.”

“Have you ever known me to talk about God or religion? No. When I came here I left all that behind. Lucky for you I met your father and that was the end of it.”

“Mom,” Kay said seriously, “I love you and Penny loves you. But it makes me sad that I don’t know anything about your life in Italy. I wish you felt you could tell me more about our roots. I would love it, and so would your granddaughter.”

Anna walked over the garbage can and dropped the book inside. “One day Penny will be old enough to ask questions on her own, and when she does she’ll find out like you did that it’s not something I talk about.”

That was where the conversation had ended. And it would have stayed the end if Anna hadn’t picked the book out of the garbage later that day. “Kay is right about one thing,” she thought, wiping it off with some paper towel. “This damn book is stirring something in me and I can’t let it go.”

The next day she bought a pair of hiking shoes and began breaking them in. At first she’d only walked a mile or two a day, but before long the distance had grown to as many as ten. And as her miles increased her desire to smoke decreased, though she still was not able to completely kick the habit. Now she was high in the mountains of Tuscany where she would begin the long hike to Assisi the next morning. It didn’t make any sense, but she felt compelled nonetheless.

The sound of the dinner bell brought her back to her room at the Sanctuary. Anna looked around and sighed. She had come this far and may as well see it through to the end, whatever that meant.

Giovanni and the Camino of St. Francis

Paperback | Page Count: 146 | ISBN: 978-1-58270-687-0

Anna vowed she would never return to Italy and the family who cast her away, but she reluctantly answers the call to walk in the steps of the humble Saint Francis in an attempt to reconcile the wounds of her past.

It is then that she meets a young stranger named Giovanni, who seems to show up during her moments of greatest need. As the two begin walking the camino together, Anna finds her heart softening as she listens to his parables—and begins to observe the miracles that surround them wherever they go.

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