Wednesday, May 13, 2009


The hermitage of Sant’Urbano is in a grove of Quercus ilex — holm oaks — on the south side of a mountain. Roberto Venanzoni has pointed out that many of the places where Saint Francis sought solitude were in ilex groves like this. We’d thought Francis chose these groves because the great oaks are so moody and majestic, but Roberto’s view is that Francis located his hermitages among the ilex because they grow in the warmest places on the mountainsides.

 Quercus ilex is an evergreen oak that keeps its stiff, dark green leaves all year. It is an indicator species for the Mediterranean plant community, the way that saguaro cactus indicate the Sonoran desert. At this latitude and elevation, ilex grows only in patches on warm and sunny, south facing slopes. It occupies an ecological niche that is warmer than elsewhere on these mountains — or even in the plains below, where cold air pools in winter.

 But Francis was certainly never one to be concerned about staying warm or being comfortable. He was quite the opposite, sleeping on a bed of stone, eating next to nothing, and giving away his clothes to anyone who could use them. We see the cave where he stayed here at Sant’Urbano. “Warm and comfortable” are the last words we’d use to describe it, but the loveliness of this spot does ease the spirit.

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