Pubdate: Sat, 02 Jan 1999
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd


Nestled in Italy's Tuscan hills is a monastery turned hotel where the
rich rub shoulders with reforming junkies - and pay for the privilege.
Alan Franks retreats himself

Considering that I was the only guest, there seemed to be an awful lot
of covert activity at the Convento di St Francesco. There were people
vanishing like shadows across the cloistered courtyards, and raised
voices behind the closed doors of the refectory. One explanation was
that the legendary Padre Eligio was here. Present or not, the mere
size of this man's reputation is enough to make anyone look lively.

I went to my room. There is a lot of going to one's room involved in a
stay at St Francesco, but in view of the rooms this is no hardship.
Mine looked out beneath its medieval timbers across the winter hills
of Tuscany. Below, in the wooded grounds that drape this fantastic
summit, something was stirring. I knew that people came here for
contemplative purposes, as they had for centuries. And I knew that the
distractions were cut down by a complete absence of TV, radio, room
kettles, sauna and other dispensable essentials of hotel life. What I
had not expected was that the outward silence and apparent stillness
would so  sharpen the senses as to pick up the fall of a latch at 50
metres, or the quiver of a leaf on the far side of the helicopter pad.

In my case the Trappist tendency, never very pronounced, got a shot in
the arm from the language problem. Even if I had wanted to go round
the entire place trying to strike up conversations, I would not have
had the words. I did have a dictionary - a huge, hardbound Cassell
which had pushed my rucksack over the eight-kilo ceiling for hand
luggage and dented my image of frugal pedestrian. One of the first
words I looked up was "timballo", as it made an appearance on the
spoken menu of La Frateria di Padre Eligio, the monastery's famed
restaurant: timballo di cavolo cappuccio con olio extra vergine
d'oliva. The waiter announces it, and each of the other six courses,
like high-born visitors (it translates as timbale).

Other people do come into the restaurant, but they leave me alone. It
is as if I am either very important or very contagious. A couple
settle at the next table, which is several yards away. They look
effortlessly rich and only have eyes for each other - and the wine
list. Then the long table fills up and later in the evening a big,
bearded man with good English asks me if I know of the amazing life
and work of Padre Eligio. I offer half a nod, but an answer is not
really required of me.

I am, whether I like it or not, on retreat. I cannot tell you how much
I hate that phrase since the affluent laity of the Nineties have got
their hands on it and used it to spice plain leisure with spiritual
correctness. So I prefer to take a heretical view of my few days here
and regard them as a restful time in a beautiful old monastery.

But this description falls short as well. True, the building is an
astoundingly well-restored fastness with a nucleus that dates from
1212. Just 20 years ago a layer of caustic lime, applied to the church
walls when it was in use as a 16th-century plague ward, was found to
conceal a fresco of St Francis and his two companions, Berto Guido and
San Leonardo. True, the route to dinner takes you by the grizzled
remnants of a stairway where penitents of the order were chained and
scourged, so the past does not so much sit patiently among the
precincts as barge its way into the present reckoning.

Yet for all this, it is circumstance rather than history which holds
apart the parallel worlds of the Convento di St Francesco. On the one
hand, the half-dozen hotel rooms (Pounds 150 a night), the sunken

bath, the hefty art books, the boundless grounds, the breakfast
terrace and the five-star restaurant. On the other, the bunk cabins
that squat deep in the foliage, the unexpected buildings in the woods
with grinding sounds and flying sparks, and above all that refectory
where the loud babble is coming from.

When the doors are opened and I go in, the noise stops abruptly and
completely. Again, it could be importance and it could be contagion. I
am surrounded on three sides by young men and women, all of whom have
risen to their feet. I can feel my hand bashfully trying to motion
them down again, but I am as impotent as minor royalty. While I shall
be here for three or four days, these people will be here for as many

One of them has already clocked up seven years and is charged with the
task of periodically telling the rest what is going on in the world
beyond. Another of them, no longer in a dinner jacket, is the waiter
who last night was serving me with such rigorous courtesy. So the
worlds are not parallel at all, but interlocked. By being here as a
paying guest I am keeping them as much as they are keeping me by
sustaining the hotel. They grow the food, do the cooking, make the
plates and the furniture, and I handle the eating.

I do not have time to ask each of them in turn what they think of
Padre Eligio, but I am willing to bet the consensus is that they owe
him their lives. Almost to a man and woman these people are ex-drug
addicts, and their open-ended times at San Francesco are the
demanding alternatives to an even harder fate. Up at 6.30am for
prayers, work till lunch then through to 6pm, then study, dinner,
prayers. No smoking or drinking. No talking in a private huddle at
meals, but all conversations to be open and accessible. No love
affairs. Family contact once every five months. No leaving without
democratic approval. No drug substitutes - eg, no methadone for
retired heroin users.

To put the juxtaposition at its starkest, a sleek American
industrialist and his wife will be capping their gastronomic bliss
with parfait oli noci in salsa  barbagiaola a stone's throw from where
a wasted junkie is being helped through  his cold turkey by a
confrere. There are apparently huge sums of money on offer  from the
Italian government to help fund this programme, but Padre Eligio turns
them all down for fear that acceptance would bring conditions with

Once you glimpse the size of the gulf between him and the government,
his refusal of help is only a case of consistency. For his belief is
that drug addicts are people marked out by God as visionaries; they
have broken their ties with family, institutions, love, money, human
relations and so face the mysteries of the world naked and without
baggage. Because they are trading in turmoil rather than in the
distracting pursuit of material ease, they are the only ones in a
condition to bear significant messages to humanity.

There is much more where this came from. Padre Eligio is indeed here,
and I am lucky enough to catch him before he goes off to his next
monastery. Like the eponymous Francis from nearby Assisi, Eligio is a
radical itinerant from a good  family. And just as Francis founded his
colony of outcasts on Mount Subasio, so  Eligio started a nationwide
community known as Mondo X - the letter signifying  the unknown
potential of his latter-day lepers.

In his own way he is as much at war with the world as a practising
addict, although palpably at peace with himself. As we sit to talk
beside the vast, open fire in an otherwise dark room, he kicks off
with a swipe at Signor Agnelli, the motor tycoon with a great house
(or retreat) on a neighbouring hill. I now feel my identity starting
to split: I may be a patron of his project through the hotel bill, but
I'm also a nuncio from the fat and filthy press.

America is next up for a kicking: the "tragic revolution" of drug
addiction  was imported to the West by GIs returning from southeast
Asia. Just as they  tainted the innocence of sex in that quarter of

the world, so they set in train  an epidemic of self-destruction back
home. The fire snaps and flings out  glowing wood. It lands on our
jerseys and there is a smell of burning hair. The  tongues of flame
light the face of God's Hotelier, and on he goes. Cardinal  Hume sings
Arthur Scargill.

There are any number of establishments where the boss exercises a sort
of conversational droit de seigneur, entitling himself to go hectoring
around the tables on a free-range basis. This is the strangest
variation imaginable, with the big difference that Eligio has so
plainly put his money where these 30 mouths are. In fact, there are
several hundred mouths, for Mondo X, started in the Sixties from a
telephone helpline, now runs 30 communities throughout Italy. When the
time for leaving arrives, almost all the residents have acquired
marketable skills.

I wonder if Eligio is amused by the world he has created, and by its
little paradigm of social justice - the fat cats feeding the penniless
seers without knowing it. But by this time he has left for Como and
the terminal Aids community there, and it is too late to ask him.
However, there is a painting on the wall, a magnificent work by the
school of Caravaggio, which helps. It shows  the figure of Gabriel,
bounded to his right by a sheep and to his left by the  Nativity.
Perhaps Eligio is performing a similar act of conduction between his 
two worlds, leading the one to the other as effectively as Gabriel is
linking  the Old Testament to the New.

What I do know is that after just a couple of days here the time
becomes a different shape, and the subtle dependence on unfolding
stories of censure and extradition recedes. Cetona, a modest town down
the hairpin road, takes on the size of a metropolis. A trip there will
be a big thing. I can quite understand the solidarity of a community
which shuts its face to the damaging world and sees true importance
not in the impeachment of a president but in the crisis of a member.

Having said all that, I can also see how far I remain from such a
place in having come superficially so close. The habituations came
back, all the stronger for having been suspended. I forgot how much I
enjoyed, or perhaps just needed, the clutter of my day, the disorder
of my journey, an unexpected phone call, the ragged excess of things
still to be done. I had also got completely out of kilter with the
night instalments of the Ashes. I should have stayed away for years.

Convento di St Francesco, 53040 Cetona (SI)Italia (0039 0578 238261)

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