January 6, 2005 – The Feast of The Epiphany – The wind had blown around our barn for two or three hours before dawn. But as the sun appeared above the mountains to the east the winds stopped and wood smoke settled into the valley. Occasionally, the crack of a shotgun from bird hunters would echo through the hills. Soon, even the hunters and their dogs would be still.
It is the morning of the Feast of The Epiphany. Quiet prevails.
We are driving to Mount La Verna to celebrate Mass. It is not much more than eight or nine miles from our door to the road leading to the sanctuary – if we could drive in a straight line. But there are no straight roads in these hills so that eight or nine mile drive will take us 45 minutes. The residents of Caprese Michelangelo, Lama, Fragaiolo, Monte Foresto, and Assunzione, some no more than four or five dwellings and a small church, are still watching their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews opening gifts, for Epiphany is the day for gift-giving in this part of Italy.
We climb out of the valley, switchback after switchback. Halfway to La Verna and we are on the spine of a ridge and can look down into the valleys on either side of the road. We are now above the clouds, mist, and wood smoke that we had occasionally driven through. Back towards San Giustino, Citta’ di Castello, Perugia, and Assisi the mist and smoke is streaming through the valley like a great river. It tumbles into deeper valleys in vast cascades.
I stop the car. We need to take this in – this blessing – this grace-filled landscape we move through.
The parking lot at The Sanctuary of La Verna is nearly full when we arrive. Children with their parents and grandparents, all in their best holiday clothes, walk through the groves of beech trees to the cluster of old buildings that make up the Sanctuary. The January sun stays low on the horizon. The shadows from the tree branches are sharp and focused. The air is cold and pure.
In the Basilica for Mass, we are all cold but happy to huddle shoulder to shoulder. I think I can see my breath as I whisper my responses in english. There are joyful faces, joyful beings gathered in line to receive the Eucharist. I eat the bread and drink the wine and my body is filled with the familiar, indescribable warmth.
When Mass has ended, we all go into the paizzalle. People are laughing. A boy is playing guitar. People gather around the great cross that seems to be rooted in the very heart of the world, singing and chattering like a flock of birds.