In Tuscany, an Ascension of the Heart

Ascension Sunday is devoted to Our Lord's Ascension into heaven, no doubt about that. But on that day, May 20, many Catholics also honor a woman whose sainthood marked an astonishing ascent all its own.

I knew nothing about St. Margaret of Cortona when I arrived in Cortona, Italy, one spring morning. Walking through the quiet, winding streets lined by sand-colored houses with their red-tiled roofs, I admired the Tuscan hills beyond. The trees were just absorbing the pastel hues of spring. How easy it would be, I thought, to drop the world's cares here and open my heart and mind to God's all-consuming love.

I was staying at a peaceful convent in a lower level of the city; I suppose this pre-excursion experience encouraged the mystical feeling. There I had picked up some brochures about the local saint. How fortunate was this St. Margaret of Cortona, I thought, living where the stuff of sainthood seemed to permeate the air.

While on the next morning's walk, I noticed a sign for the Santuario. I instinctively followed it, traipsing up a long, winding, wooded hill. Along the way, the Stations of the Cross led me with prayerful pauses to the top. Then I came at last to the church, whose official name is the Basilica Shrine of St. Margaret of Cortona. (There was a parking lot, so not everyone makes the trip on foot, but commuters miss the stations.)

I soon learned that such was Margaret's reputation even while she was living that a church was begun in her honor in 1297 — the very year she died. Her body was transferred there in 1330. The original site was expanded but finally torn down to make way for this current, large sanctuary. Her incorrupt body lies at the altar in Franciscan robes.

Above the altar is a crucifix she spoke with in her solitude. Also of note in this pilgrimage church is her tomb monument in the Gothic style of the period (1360). Another artistic highlight is the rose window by the celebrated sculptor Giovanni Pisano (1250-1314).

Wayward Youth

Margaret's youth, I learned on that trip, was no more idyllic than that of countless alienated teens you can see scuffing through America today, multiple tattoos and piercings on display. As one biographer put it: “Margaret's surroundings were such as to force to the surface the weaknesses of her character.” In other words, she went looking for love in all the wrong places. And that's an understatement.

Margaret was born not yesterday, however, but around 1247 in a town near Cortona, Italy. Her parents were poor farmers; her mother died when she was young. An unloving stepmother made the loss harder to bear.

During her teen-age years, she fell in with a nobleman named Arsenio from neighboring Montepulciano. He had been looking for a servant and he persuaded Margaret to move into his home and his life. He seduced the unhappy girl (she was still young) and she lived with him for about nine years. He had promised to marry her, but not even the birth of a son motivated him to do so. As his mistress, Margaret had no social position. Arsenio often traveled, leaving her lonely and abandoned.

At some point Arsenio was murdered while hunting; why is not clear. It's said that his dog came to Margaret and, pulling on her dress, took her to where the body lay. The terrified Margaret saw the death as a foreshad-owing of her own fate if she did not change her sinning ways. She returned to her father's home and began to exhibit public penance, wearing a painful rope around her waist.

The problem now was that her past was behind her, but she was wracked with regret. She began to take out her emotional turmoil on her son, whom she reviled as a child of sin. No doubt disturbed by her volatility, her father threw her out of the house.

But Margaret truly had begun to turn her life around. With the help of some Franciscans, she devoted her life to works of charity. Imitating St. Francis himself, she fasted frequently and took to wearing sackcloth.

After three years of strict penitence, she became a Third Order Franciscan. As her devotion to the poor grew, so did her love for Christ. She acquired a following of admirers and helpers. A wealthy woman donated her house and other land to develop a hospital; this became the nucleus of the still-existing Hospital of St. Mary of Mercy.

Thirteenth-century Tuscany was a constant battlefield among local warring factions, yet Margaret was able, with her confessor, to help negotiate peace among the cities. This entailed some prodding of the resistant local bishop. But the fortress, walls and gates of the town — still very much in place today — hint at the troubles expected.

Margaret eventually felt the need to retreat from the town. She moved up the hill to live in a solitary cell, perhaps continuing her penitence. A small church dedicated to St. Basil already existed nearby, just beneath the fortress of the Medici family.

When she died there in 1297 she was already considered a saint in Cortona — despite the skepticism of neighbors who never let her live down her early life and continually questioned the sincerity of her piety. At her death, a mysterious sweet odor emanated from her cell. She soon became patroness of repentant sinners, but her canonization would not be until 1728.

Rewards Aloft

One of the rewards of climbing to the sanctuary today is the spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside from on high. For those on pilgrimage, many other resonant places of Catholic devotion can be found not far off. A small, unusual church with an elegant portico is dedicated to St. Christopher; one to St. Nicholas, with some fine paintings inside, is nearby as well. (You might need to flag down a sacristan to unlock the doors for you at one or both of these.)

At the far side of town, a diocesan museum contains some of the greatest art of the early Renaissance. Fra Angelico's “Annunciation,” for example, is here. It's considered one of the finest representations of this transcendental moment ever created.

On a lower level from the church, near the convent where I stayed, stands the church of San Domenico (1400s) next to the one-time convent where Fra Angelico died. (He's buried in Rome.) Nearby is a public park, again with lovely views.

For all else it offers, though, Cortona is nowhere more magnificent that at the amazing 13th-century Basilica Shrine of St. Margaret of Cortona. It's a very old sanctuary that speaks volumes to contemporary souls about God's sweet mercy on the penitent sinner.

Whether or not you have a troubled teen to pray for, an ascent up the hill to see St. Margaret will help you lift up your heart to our redeeming Lord.

Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.