The Hermitage

by Alessandro Castelnuovo

A traveler to Lake Maggiore crosses the water and discovers the simple lives of Benedictine monks and the subtle beauty of their monastery.

Many centuries ago, a violent storm and the troubled waters of a lake risked wrecking a merchant who dared to go from one bank to another to recover a cash loan. At the worst moment of his experience, when he understood that he would never reach the shore, he looked up to the sky and asked for the protection of his personal saint: Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

It was that gesture that saved his life, or perhaps the saint so invoked. Between flashes of lightning, his eyes met a cave, where he managed to shelter himself from the storm. Realizing he was safe, he made a vow to the saint to withdraw from his merchant and usurer life to live in prayer and solitude, dedicating a chapel to the savior where he could thank her every day for saving him. That man was Alberto Besozzi, and that chapel, many centuries later, became a monastery nestled among the rocks of Lake Maggiore called the hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso.

This is the story of a man who pushed himself to be a better person, but now, nine centuries later, I have only one reason that pushes me to visit him. Lover of the intrinsic beauty of the human soul, I want to understand what was the real spark that gave birth to the much vaunted beauty of this place.

Through a stone staircase crossing a hill, I already have a wide panoramic view of what surrounds the monastery, the liquid streaks of an idyllic indigo that blend between the lake and the deep blue sky. The atmosphere seems so ethereal that one can hardly recognize where the sky ends and the lake begins. Only the mountains, gilded by a bright white sun, manage to delimit the beauty here.

I’m starting to think that the hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is something more than just a place of prayer.

It doesn’t take long to reach my destination, and the construction is truly spartan. I enter through a stone arch painted in white, and in every corner of this little area I can see the activities of the Benedictine monks, their lives lived on simple things, the cultivation of grapes and medicinal herbs, prayer, and the creation of small handicrafts.

I see two of them passing, dressed all in blue. They walk slowly, and I dare not disturb their meditation. We meet again under the arches of the portico, which leads to the small rock and concrete church, and it is only then that I try to greet them. They give me a welcome smile and steer me toward a little table to taste one of their products. I am curious to taste the wine they produce and look for it among the banquet of objects for sale in front of the entrance of the church. However, it is not the harvest season; I am in the right place but at the wrong time, and I can’t find a single bottle of precious nectar. There are only a few necklaces, rosaries, religious books, and jars of herbs and honey.

But the hermitage is not just a meeting place with the monks; there is an artistic vein here overlooking the lake, a bell tower built about three centuries after the arrival of the founder of this isolated place. The pure white of its facade stands out remarkably against the colors of the landscape. It seems to be there to give rise to any reaction in the observer. Mine is of tenuous but impressive charm. I can no longer resist entering the small church.

Inside, I am surrounded by various frescoes of religious episodes and the relics of that merchant from which everything originated. As another monk pauses to answer my questions, I listen to the story of five huge boulders that fell on the church but were entangled in the vault of the chapel without causing serious damage, remaining suspended for almost two centuries on the roof, almost as if the monastery wanted to protect the monks who lived inside. Flaky and unstable though they were, they never naturally moved from their position and had to be definitively removed in 1910. 

I come out of the church when the sun begins its descent into the sky. Time has passed quickly without notice. I didn’t think a small hermitage could kidnap me for so long. There is a pier for boats, but the passage is closed because, at the moment, no boat is headed here, so I decide to visit the garden, the only area not yet explored.

Lake Maggiore, the site of a Benedictine Monastery called the Hermitage
The sunset over Lake Maggiore.

I go back to the dormitories and meet a female monk. I ask her how long she has lived in this monastery. She seems to have been there forever, she replies. Her former life seemed insignificant to her. Prayer, activities to help others, self-sufficiency, and a lot of space to deal with internal sensations have offered her a better way to use her time as a human being. It is an explanation that makes me think on how life is too precious to be wasted.

I resume my journey towards the garden. Vines without leaves cover the entrance to a small place of meditation overlooking the crystal clear waters of this other-worldly lake. Lake Maggiore is a place with a lot of people along its shores, working busy days and living in simple luxury, and this seems to immerse the visitor in another time. It seems to me a different planet, one of small humanity that is satisfied with small things.

But it is when the sunset spreads its pink colors on this quiet corner of limbo that I understand the serenity that this place is able to give to those who dare linger on. The sunset glows, painting the most colorful picture an artist could imagine.

This is the last gift that Santa Caterina del Sasso shows to a modest visitor like me. In the self-sufficiency of the production of small things to feed themselves and in the contemplating silence of the atmosphere, I feel that the current inhabitants of this hermitage have been able to finish the work of Alberto Besozzi, completing his ancient attempt to create a place of infinite beauty and inner peace.

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