Joseph Ratzinger ( a.k.a. Pope Benedict XV) in his Introduction to Christianity draws attention to the fact, and I quote, "that the religious experience of the human race has continually been kindled at 'holy' places, where for some reason or other... the divine becomes particularly palpable to man".
This is certainly true of Lecceto, the holiest and most famous of Augustinian houses from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries.
The call of Lecceto as a place of holiness was heard not only by Augustinians drawn there from many parts of Italy but also from France and from further abroard. One of the most noted foreign Augustinians to live there was William Flete, an Austin Friar (i.e., an Augustinian of England) of very great significance.
He was a product not only of the English Augustinian Province in the era of the Black Death (1348), but of those that gave rise to the famous school of English mystics - people like Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton and the author of the masterpiece, the Cloud of Unknowing. Much of the significance of Flete lies in the fact that he was the only direct link, between the English and the Italian schools of spirituality in the fourteenth century.
William Flete was born about 1320 in the village of Fleet in southeast Lincolnshire, England. The chronology of his early life is quite uncertain. One presumes that, as per the Augustinian regulations of that time, he joined the Austin Friary of the Province of England nearest to his home, namely Boston, which was founded in 1317. Most probably he did all his studies at Lincoln before being promoted to live and study at the Austin Friary at Cambridge University, with a view to obtaining the coveted magisterium, the degree of doctor of theology.
William never used the surname "Flete" in any of his extant writings. In an original letter that has survived, he signed himself as frater guielmus de Anglia ("Brother William of England.") The earliest mention nof the surname "Flete" occurs in the Registers of the Prior General, Matteo d'Ascoli on 8th September 1359.
It is known that Flete had been ordained a priest some time before 29th February 1352, and graduated as bachelor of theology in 1355. Having cleared this hurdle, he would have proceeded as a matter of course without difficulty to the magisterium. He was ready to begin the final exercises leading to the degree in 1358.
With the early Augustinian Order's emphasis on learning, this prospect was a glittering one. Academic life had an appeal all its own, masters of theology were a privileged class in the Order of St Augustine (or in any religious order, for that matter). To renounce one's opportunity of graduating as a master was probably unheard of.
To prefer instead to leave one’s homeland, family and friends and bury oneself in a secluded Italian hermitage was even more unusual, but then Flete was a most unusual friar. He certainly possessed some of the qualities attributed to an eccentric English academic.
Sometime before 1358 he had begun to question the direction of his life as an Augustinian. There were Italian students at Cambridge and there can be little or no doubt that it was from some of them that he first heard of Lecceto and its history both ancient and contemporary. (For Augnet’s pages on the history of the eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto, click here.)
At Lecceto the original eremitical (“hermit”) spirit of the Order was preserved. If one was to live out literally one's calling as a hermit of St Augustine, then Lecceto was the most suitable place to do it. Of all the original hermitages in the Augustinian tradition, it alone survived and carried on the tradition inherited from Augustine himself during the first bloom of his conversion, when Augustinian myth falsely held that he had in person visited hermitages in Tuscany.
(Continued on the next page.)
Photos (at right):
Picture 1: Church tower at Lecceto.
Picture 2: A Sister explains a fresco at Lecceto.
Picture 3: A cloister corridor at Lecceto.