(Part 1 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.
The story of Peter of Morrone (Pope Celestine V) is both impressive and tragic. On one hand, it is a tale of worldly and spiritual triumph. Born a humble peasant, Peter went on to achieve widespread esteem for his ascetic excellence, a fact that propelled him toward Christendom’s highest office—the papacy.
Yet, it was this very success that led to his eventual downfall, as his distaste for the demands of secular administration led to a hasty resignation, ultimately ending with his arrest, incarceration and death.
Within this broad outline lies a series of events, to which I now turn. For, to study the life of Peter is to immerse oneself in the perplexing world of medieval eremitism—a lifestyle of strict spiritual discipline and (often colourful) encounters with the divine. It is hoped that readers will come to appreciate the life and teachings of a man whose legacy has unjustly been defined by a single moment in time, towards the end of his life.
As will be seen, there is much more to Peter of Morrone than simply he “who, due to cowardice, made the great refusal”—a line from Dante’s Inferno, often believed to refer to Morrone and his papal abdication.
Birth and childhood
Most of our information about Peter’s birth and childhood come from a source known as the Autobiography. This is a short, sometimes bizarre text, that survives accompanied by his main vita.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to prove the extent to which Peter’s “autobiography” is actually authentic. In fact, there is reason to believe that it isn’t, at least not entirely, as early in the narrative, the writer switches to using the third-person perspective.
It is more likely, therefore, that Peter himself was responsible only for the first part of the work. The rest was probably finished by one or more of his disciples, who completed the narrative to the best of their ability.
According to the text, Peter was born the eleventh of twelve sons, to the peasant farmers Angelo and Maria Angelerio. The child was apparently pre-destined to a life of holiness, as he allegedly exited his mother’s womb fully clothed as a monk.
This shouldn’t be taken literally. Rather, a metaphorical interpretation seems appropriate; baby Peter was born ‘en caul,’ or still covered in his amniotic sac. This is a very rare (1 in 80,000 babies are born like this) yet harmless situation, about which many cultures have developed myths—commonly, that such births predict some form of greatness.
In the case of Angelo and Maria, the uniqueness of their son’s birth signalled just that. It was only in hindsight, after a life of religious devotion, that the myth developed as it did.
Peter’s early years were spent on his family’s farm, located in a rural area of central Italy now known as Molise. This shaped his experience in a variety of ways. For one thing, there were many hardships associated with agricultural living in the pre-modern era. Thus, starvation was a constant threat. Indeed, the text relates how, at one point, the family had run out of bread due to a famine. This led to such desperation, on behalf of Maria, that she turned to God one night and begged him for aid.
The next morning, she instructed one of her sons to take his scythe and go into the fields, but was met with initial resistance: “Why should I? The crop is not ready to be harvested, it will be of no use!” He eventually agreed. Sure enough, upon inspection, the field was found to be full of wheat, ready well before its time, to be picked and ground into flour. The family was saved.
Serious illness or injury was also a problem. Once, when Peter was three years old, he damaged his right eye on a sharp piece of wood, which caused him partial blindness. He was taken to various physicians for help, but all concluded that the eye had been lost. Trusting in the Virgin Mary, Maria brought Peter to a church, where she remained with him for the duration of the night. In the morning, the eye was found to be healed and without a single blemish.
A similar incident occurred with one of Peter’s older brothers. One day, while harvesting in the fields, a piece of grain got irretrievably lodged in his eye. He suffered excruciating pain, and would scream from day to night in agony. Once again, Maria turned to the Virgin, pleading for her help. The next day, the grain was found miraculously protruding from the eye, and it was easily plucked out.
These were some of the earthly realities that were a part of Peter, the future saint’s, childhood. Indeed, despite his special status, Peter could not escape the fact that he was, above all, still an ‘average’ peasant boy. Thus, he exhibited typical childhood behaviours, such as relying on his mother for emotional support, playing with friends and sometimes even getting into trouble; the author remarks how the devil often made him curse—clearly an expedient way of downplaying the boy’s imperfections.
“He will be a guard of good souls”
After the death of her second-born, whose life had been given up to the study of letters, Maria (now also a widow) chose Peter to follow in his brother’s footsteps and receive an education to become a clergyman. It was decided that the family’s resources would be pooled together to help pay for a teacher.
The decision was met with hostility, both supernatural and familial. Thus, the devil tried to persuade the young Peter away from a life of religion, by tempting him with the promise of great wealth. Likewise, Peter’s brothers got involved, protesting that the family simply could not afford another son given up to a life of study, rather than manual labour. Even Maria herself had doubts, as a demon had falsely warned her that it was no use giving her son an education; he would soon die.
Of course, these did not sway the boy’s ambitions, and he quickly began to excel in his studies, a fact seemingly confirmed by a supernatural encounter.
One day, while reading in church, Peter looked up and saw the depictions of Mary and John on the cross come to life and begin to descend. The figures allegedly picked up his book and began singing sweetly.
The family received further divine confirmation in the form of two visions. One was reported by a godmother, who claimed that one night, while sleeping, Maria’s late husband appeared to her, saying: “My wife has chosen our son Peter to be educated. O, how good it is to me, to her, and many others.”
Another took the form of a dream, which Maria herself experienced. In it, she saw her son Peter, tending to a flock of sheep as “white as snow.” The idea was initially quite troubling, as it suggested that her eleventh-born was destined to become a shepherd.
In fact, it turned out that Maria was mistaken in her literal interpretation of the premonition. The next day, she told Peter (who was 12 years old at the time) about the dream, to which he responded only: “He will be a guard of good souls.” She rejoiced. The sheep represented the faithful, whom Peter would lead in a spiritual capacity.
To strip the soul bare
Eventually, Peter reached the point at which he was ready to take up life as a monk, in a nearby monastery. At the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria di Faifoli, he demonstrated an aptitude for asceticism.
The definition of ‘asceticism’ (according to britannica.com) is: “the practice of the denial of physical or psychological desires in order to attain a spiritual ideal or goal.” Christian asceticism, in particular, has its roots in the second and third centuries, with the theologians Clement and Origen of Alexandria.
The term itself is derived from the Greek noun askesis, meaning ‘exercise’ or ‘training,’ which (from the fifth century B.C.E. onwards) referred to bodily self-control, as well as an exercise in moral restraint, on behalf of philosophers.
After the establishment of Christianity, it came to entail a very specific mode of living, one that took as its example the life of Christ. Prayer, retreat to the desert, fasting, celibacy and the renunciation of family and wealth all became essential components of a life of Christian asceticism. This is the vision that eventually became institutionalized in the practice of monasticism.
One thing, however, is important to remember: Contrary to popular belief, the goal of Christian asceticism was not to reject the body as such. At first glance, it may certainly seem this way, as the word ‘monk’ invariably brings to mind images of an essentially body-shaming and repressive spiritual regime.
This was not the case, though. Although monastics engaged in a variety of practices that were clearly aimed at disciplining the body, it was not because of any particularly negative view of the flesh. Rather, asceticism was primarily a necessary means to an end. Indeed, it served to release the soul from an unhealthy attachment to the body, so as to make it empty, devoid of anything of the world, including learning.
The purified soul was then open to the imprinting of divine doctrines, while a clear mind could ascend to the thought of God.
Flight to the ‘desert’
In order to achieve such purity of soul, isolation and silence were paramount. This explains the phenomenon of medieval eremitism, or hermit-living. In an attempt at worldly retreat, men and women sometimes retired to remote or inaccessible places, to live in solitude. Here, they would spend their days praying, fasting and undergoing other voluntary hardships.
Beginning in the 11th century, western Europe (especially Italy) witnessed a veritable hermit revival. For these, the relevant model was often St. Antony of Egypt (251-356 A.D.), who famously retired as a hermit to the Egyptian desert. Here in the West, where the climate was much less severe, devoted Christians found their own ‘desert’ in the region’s uncultivated wilderness (often in forests or mountain caves).
Before long, there were a number of new hermits living ascetically in the European backcountry, many of whom acquired a local reputation for holiness. This is the context that Peter of Morrone was born into, one that certainly inspired him to devote his own life to solitude-based contemplation.
Indeed, after some time at his local monastery, we are told that Peter “sought increasingly to serve God, and chiefly in the wilderness.” At first, however, he was quite wary, as the thought of sleeping alone in such isolation frightened him—there were ghosts (phantasias) at night, and he would have no one to protect him. Eventually, this fear was overcome, and in his twenties, Peter set out for the chaotic world of the ‘desert.’
The future saint travelled on foot. He headed northwest, out of modern-day Molise, and into the current region of Abruzzo. Within a day, he arrived in the vicinity of Castel di Sangro, where the weather was decidedly pleasant. Not for long! Immediately, the wind started to pick up, and a severe rainstorm began pelting down over the area. Peter kept moving.
When he reached the bridge over the river outside the town, he was struck by a fierce gust of wind that caused him “great fear”. The storm was getting too bad; he needed to take shelter. Thankfully, there was a church dedicated to St. Nicholas, located at the end of the bridge, in which Peter was able to take refuge. He spent several days there.
Later, after learning from some locals that there was a hermit living in the mountains nearby, Peter decided to resume travelling—this time with the intent of meeting a mentor. He ascended the slopes. Sure enough, there was a man there, living in total simplicity and solitude. The two formed a relationship.
One snowy January day, Peter was on his way up to bring his friend some bread and fish to eat. On the way, he was apprehended by two beautiful women: “Don’t go! For that hermit is not there! Come with us (instead)!” He only barely escaped their grip.
This was the first of countless demonic attacks that would oppress Peter throughout his eremitic life. Nonetheless, it appeared that the women were right. Upon entering the cell, he found no one.
At that point, something changed in Peter. As he stood there, freezing cold and exhausted, abandoned by his only friend, one gets the sense that he thought about quitting. The farm that he grew up on, as well as the people whom he loved, were all miles away. Maybe it was a mistake to leave them.
Right away, we are told, the Spirit of God was with him. He fell to the ground and drifted off to sleep. A crowd of angels and saints filled the room around him. In their mouths were red roses, “(with which) they blossomed most delightfully.”
For the continuation of the story, see next month’s article.
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