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Reaching for the divine on the pilgrim trail of St Michael: my visit to the Santuario Grotta di San Michele

St Michael

Stumbling onto this site while circling Lake Varano in the Gargano region of Puglia, I did not expect too much. Parking in the almost empty but sizeable carpark, we admired the relatively new tiered seating in a modern amphitheatre. Obviously, something important must happen here.

Entering between an ancient set of gates, the well-kept path led us towards a rocky outcrop. Overshadowing the tidy grounds was both the rocky outcrop and an imposing curved arch topped with a cross emerging from a nearby rock. The cave, or more atmospherically in Italian, the grotta, welcomed us with its whitewashed façade. The grotta’s guardian hovered at the entrance, anxious to leave for his lunch break. Nonetheless, he welcomed us in and gestured not to hurry. People travel a long distance to visit this pilgrimage site and he doesn’t want us to miss out.

Entering the cave of the Grotta

Passing inside the dimly lit interior, it takes time for our eyes to adjust. I make out a typical rough paved floor of uneven cobblestones. A shrine appears on my right. Later I learn that Saint Raphael is the object of adoration in this small modest shrine. Moving cautiously further into the darkness, past trestles full of votive candles, I approach the main altar.

Encircled by the grotta’s walls and ceiling, a rocky interior of limestone karst filled with moisture, moss, slowly growing stalactites and stalagmites cuddles the shrine nested within. A white barrier prevents one from getting too close as if proximity to the image of the saint might be too powerful to bear. A small selection of floral offerings adorns the podium, but it is the statue of St Michael himself that attracts the eye.

St Michael the Archangel

Belying his reputation, St Michael’s portrayal is beatific, and I suppose, justly saintly. The only signage in English posted outside the shrine, tells me it is a serene expression.
St Michael holds a fearsome sword poised ready to strike from over his right shoulder. The iconography represented here tells of St Michael’s defeat of the devil who is shown chained to his left foot.

Revisiting the story of St Michael

I’m taking a quick aside here to revisit the story of St Michael. Michael was one of the four archangels along with Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel and in fact, the boss of them all. He was the head of God’s armies so is mostly shown in military dress.

Michael defeated the devil during the war of angels. Much later, following the successful battle that supposedly ended at Mont Saint-Michel, a place of devotion was constructed there. While this is probably the best-known location for veneration of St Michael, there are in fact, many others.

A line, Saint Michael’s line said to be a ley line and also known as “The Apollo Line”, connects many of those places dedicated to the Archangel Michael in Europe and the Middle East. These places include Mont Saint Michel and the Sanctuary of Saint Michael in nearby Mont Sant’Angelo, Italy. The Sacred Line perfectly aligns with sunset on the day of the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice. This line is said to represent the blow with which St. Michael sent the devil to hell. Others say it is a reminder that the faithful should be righteous and walk a straight path.

The unknown grotta

The statue of Saint Michael found in this grotta, is a replica of that found in the nearby Mont Sant’Angelo church. Information on this much better-known site, is easily found and fables about its origin abound.

Not so this simple grotta on the edge of Lake Varano. The interpretation board tells me that it has been a site of worship since early Christian times. It was probably converted to venerate Saint Michael around the 5th Century when the cult of Michael worship spread through this part of Italy. Recently uncovered evidence suggests paleolithic usage, followed by the pagans, probably until the Christians came on the scene.

A grotta for contemplation

Today the grotta is a quiet place perfect for spiritual contemplation. Behind the altar to Saint Michael, a persistent drip from the grotta’s ceiling collects in a special urn placed beneath. Thought to have miraculous properties, this water is especially healing for those with sight problems.

A large cavern to the left of the main shrine, although empty of physical items, contains a presence. You can enter here by squeezing past the tables of candles and ducking underneath the unforgiving rocky lintel. Immediately there is quiet, and peace invades your soul. The water drips as it has for centuries. The air swirls slowly and despite the weight of the rock pressing in from all sides, I feel lighter.

I’m drawn back into reality by the need for the grotta’s guardian to close for lunch. We’ve already delayed him. As we begin to leave the grotta, I pass a final shrine. This one is a simple dedication to the Madonna but with just as many lit candles as Saint Michael’s shrine. Now that my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I see strange markings on the floor. These I believe, represent engravings made by early pilgrims. Most likely they are ancient graffiti saying I was here! I wonder if Saint Francis of Assisi who supposedly passed through this grotta, left his mark. He certainly left his reputation. This grotta is esteemed, not only because of Saint Michael, but also because of the visit of this saintly man.

We all worship in our own way

Emerging into the sunlight, I notice preparations for an influx of new pilgrims. A new kiosk sits ready to be used. Flowers and plants in boxes await distribution to form a display suitable for saintly worship. Later I learn that in May a ceremony or service is held here that many travel to.

Outside the gates, I climb to the top of the amphitheatre stairs. Finding a path leading up the hill, I climb on.  Having just paid my respects to Saint Michael, what am I now seeking by striding upwards to an unknown destination? I guess it is in our nature to seek. To strive for enlightenment or maybe just a view out over the nearby mountains.

Reaching the top, I find a small building, a shelter of some sort. Today it is sheltering three young men who have made their pilgrimage by car. On this Sunday, they are worshipping at the altar of youth and consumption. They admire each other’s vehicles while drinking beer as young men all over seem inclined to do. After an exchange of polite greetings, I return to my means of conveyance on my own pilgrimage.

Walking the straight line

I give my thanks to Saint Michael for beating back evil. Meanwhile the orange poppies bob in the sunshine beside my path. How fortuitous to find this special grotta where the forces of mystery can be engaged with. My back is warmed from the sun as I walk the straight line of righteousness in my quest for knowledge. This world will never be wholly revealed but I have learned one more story and visited one more place of power. Breathing deeply, I try to retain the energy and the feeling of this place before re-engaging in a very different world.

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