I was hiking up the mountain to one of St. Romuald’s last cells, at the Holy Hermitage of Camaldoli in Tuscany. I wanted to see it for myself because I knew it would teach me something I couldn’t read about.
At thirty-five hundred feet, past the three wooden crosses that used to bar the way, the hermitage came into view: a wooden gate, a small square, a church, and a wrought-iron fence behind which twenty stone huts nestled in a walled green bowl. Romuald’s cell was not behind the iron fence, but stood open to a rose garden and darting swallows.
I went inside. There was a vestibule, large enough for walking when the weather was too severe to go out, that led into three small rooms, all smelling of dark and ancient wood. There was a platform bed, covered with a straw mat; a hatch that opened to the outside so that daily bread and vegetables could be put through; a few shelves; and a tiny chapel with candles, flowers, an altar. I stood there breathing in the must of ages, trying to get a feel for what it must have been like—the very simplest of simple lives.