On the feast of St James – the patron of the greatest walking pilgrimage in the world, the Camino di Santiago – I set off on the newly minted Camino di San Benedetto, 200 miles on foot through the heartland of Italy. It begins in Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict, and ends in the place where he died (and is buried) 1,500 years ago, a mountain-top spiritual fortress, the abbey of Monte Cassino.
From the first day to the last, every minute was filled with prayer, history and beauty, whether natural or artistic. My rosary never left my hand. I had a heavy pack, slept in the woods and had bad shoes – and hence, of necessity, walked with a penitential spirit.
Leaving the medieval walls of Norcia, I ducked into the woods in the mountains, with its oak forests, wild boar and hay fields. The first lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy echoed in my ears: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura (“When half way through the journey of our life I found that I was in a gloomy wood”). Like Dante’s, this was a spiritual journey.
On the other side of the mountain, after sleeping out with shooting stars streaking through the night sky above me, as I came down a pass, the hill town of Cascia, with its churches and stone houses, popped up into view.
Every day was filled with prayer, mountain beauty and ancient hill towns, with intense and often profound conversations with the people I met on the way. When trekking long distances, the mind is not inclined to chit-chat.
After the long walk through the mountains and forests between towns, I would find a Mass in the nearest church, drop down in a pew, exhausted, and pray my heart out.
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