Joseph Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict XV) wrote that 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 abroad. One of the most noted foreign Augustinians to live there was William Flete, an Austin Friar (i.e., an Augustinian of England).
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 the English town called 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 of 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 29 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.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: Church tower at Lecceto. Picture 2: A nun explains a fresco at Lecceto. Picture 3: A cloister corridor at Lecceto.
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.
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 false Augustinian myth falsely that Augustine had in person visited hermitages in Tuscany. As he reflected on this, Flete could not help contrasting it with what he saw around him. Something of a traffic jam had been building up. Places at the university were strictly limited, and, as might be expected, students from other provinces, mostly Italian, were being ousted from their rightful place in the queue. Resentment naturally built up. It was an unfortunate and wholly undesirable situation, but in the circumstances almost inevitable, since learning and academic success were so highly valued in the Order ever since the time when Giles of Rome O.S.A. (Egidio da Roma) was Prior General.
William Flete had become thoroughly disenchanted with the scrambling for places and with the worship paid to intellectualism. Many years later he was to write back to England from Lecceto and say: "This great learning is the ruin of the Church of God and of all religious orders". He was not alone in thinking as he did. Two other Austin Friars, John Doddington and William Pigot, took the same road. All three left England on 17th July 1359, bound for Lecceto. Flete had resigned his chair at Cambridge University some twelve months earlier; by that time he was a very mature man and an authority on the spiritual life. He was already the author of an excellent study of the problem of temptation with special reference to faith. Flete's approach is very interesting. It is personal, philosophical, psychological, theological and exceedingly balanced.
What is worth emphasising here is that Flete was obviously a master of the spiritual life, or at least one of the most difficult departments of it, before he left for Italy. It is essential to bear this in mind when assessing his role in the theologico-spiritual formation of St Catherine of Siena. (For Augnet’s pages about Flete’s association with St Catherine of Siena, see below.) On 3rd September 1359 the Prior General, Matteo d'Ascoli O.S.A., assigned Flete as a conventual to Lecceto and his two friends to neighbouring Augustinian hermitages, S. Leonardo al Lago and S. Lucia di Rosia. Pigot pulled out in less than a year and Doddington probably did the same. Their failure to persevere in such unfamiliar surroundings on top of language difficulties and different temperaments is perfectly understandable and is certainly no reflection on themselves. For Flete there was no going back, though he had to face the same difficulties as his two friends.
Writing home twenty years later, he gave more than a hint of what seems to have been a continuing struggle not to give up. God, as he saw it, had called him, as he had called Abraham, to leave his father's house, country and friends, and go into a distant country, there to spend the rest of his days. He had come to Lecceto in search of the authentic Augustinian way of life, the life of a hermit within a community setting. The physical setting was ideal. The precincts of the monastery were virtually isolated from the outside world by the dense wood which surrounded it. The horarium (daily timetable) of the community allowed ample time for anyone who wanted to live a quasi-solitary life. Flete's favourite haunt was a cave or grotto, of which there are still examples, hidden in the woods. The praise lavished on Flete by contemporaries, the tributes to his great learning, his deep spirituality, his wisdom as a counsellor and a man of penance is not shared by any other of the followers of St Catherine of Siena.
Photos (at left): Picture 1: Famous square tower at Lecceto. Picture 2: An ancient fresco at Lecceto. Picture 3: A nun guides a visitor at Lecceto.
There is indeed good reason for thinking that he was the formative influence on the development of her theological thought. But that is a subject that lies well beyond our present compass. Here we have to note how contemporaries singled out for mention his quasi-solitary mode of life at Lecceto. Evidently Flete practised, as far as community life allowed, the vocation of a hermit. There were bound to be problems vis-a-vis the community, and the Lecceto Prior’s patience, tact and understanding must have been put to the test by Flete's singular way of life. But was it so very singular after all? Apparently Flete carved out his own grotto in the woods. Yet can it be assumed that he was a lone pioneer in this respect? Indeed, other caves or grottoes have been found not only at Lecceto but also in other Augustinian foundations, for instance at Fano near the Adriatic. In other words, Flete was not an innovator but rather a traditionalist in his following a quasi-solitary mode of life at Lecceto.
He was primarily a contemplative, yet also gained a reputation for possessing great learning. He was referred to as il baccelliere ("the bachelor") because of his bachelor's degree in theology from Cambridge. Even St Catherine of Siena called him thus. From sworn statements made in 1411 during the canonisation process of Catherine of Siena, it is known that William and Catherine first met at Lecceto as early as 1368, when the crucial period of Catherine's spiritual development occurred in 1367-1374. Nobody in Siena was at all as qualified as William to understand and guide her spiritual development at that time, during which her spiritual self-confidence blossomed and she began her life's work of devoting all her energy to the reform of the Church.
William was the only really competent theologian, and a master of the spiritual life as well, with whom Catherine had regular dialogue during those fateful growth years of her spiritual life. He willingly recognised her as one whose spirituality exceeded his own. There is a reputable historical source that attributes Flete's exclaiming, "The Holy Spirit is truly in her." Proof of Flete's influence on Catherine exists in the twenty-one extant letters of spiritual instruction (and she may have written more letters of this nature) that she dictated between 1367 and 1374. These letters are filled with pure Augustinianism, of which he must have been the source. (Another 382 of her letters are still extant.) Flete himself was the recipient of at least six letters from Catherine, addressing them to reverendissimo ("the most reverend"), a title she used for only one other person - Pope Gregory XI.
Catherine fell out with William when he resisted her insistence that he join some other hermits and herself in Rome for a meeting with Pope Urban VI on 16th January 1379 regarding an attempt to avoid a return to existence of the Avignon Papacy. Pope Urban reinforced Catherine’s invitation by sending these holy men a papal bull, although probably without any particular special or personal interest in any given hermit’s attendance. William’s stance was that his vocation was to Lecceto and to his hermitage, for which he felt directly responsible to God. Catherine was enormously disappointed with Flete’s decision. When subsequently Catherine’s mission to Rome on that occasion failed, she sent a letter to Flete and unconditionally asked his forgiveness for the pressure she had placed upon him, and begged pardon for any scandal and trouble she may have caused him. She had been blinded from the virtue of discretion by an impetuosity. After their reconciliation, both Catherine and William no doubt were then happy to overlook this matter.
But William's influence was not confined solely to the devout. He won over hardened sinners, desperadoes like Nanni di ser Vanni, the terror of Siena in 1374; Catherine had failed to convert him. Nanni then surrendered to the authorities, receuived only two years' imprisonment, and gave one of his castles at Belarco to Catherine of Siena for use as a religious foundation.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: The outer cloister at Lecceto. Picture 2: A visiting Italian Augustinian friar at Lecceto. Picture 3: A cloister corridor at Lecceto.
It seems amazing that, on the only occasion Flete in all of his thirty years or so at Selva di Lago he ventured outside the place, it was to celebrate at Catherine's behest the Mass of Dedication in the Belcaro Castle. Perhaps - most surprising of all - Flete actively intervened for charitable and spiritual causes with successive governments of Siena and evidently had friends in the council chamber. For example, three of Catherine's brothers, Benincasa, Bartolomeo and Stefano, after the overthrow of their party's government, the Dodici, in 1368, were marked men. They probably owed their lives to Flete's intervention with the leaders of the new government for an amnesty for them. They were allowed to be exiled from Siena, and on 14th October 1370 applied for citizenship of Florence.
St Catherine of Siena had a high opinion of William Flete as a person of outstanding spirituality. It is proof of her confidence in him as a spiritual director that she entrusted solely to his care in 1375 the formation of a young Sienese, Matteo Forestani, whom she asked to be received as a postulant at Lecceto. But the most telling evidence of all is the fact that Catherine commissioned Flete to direct her group of disciples, the famiglia ("the family"), after her death. When Flete died at Lecceto c. 1390, his name was not even entered in the necrology of the monastery. Others with far less claim to fame were buried either in the church or the cloister, not in the communal cemetery. Not so Flete. Even though during his lifetime he lived virtually a separate life, in the sense that a cave not a cell within the enclosure was his favourite abode, in death he shared the lot of the ordinary friar. One possible theory for the omission of reference to William Flete in the Lecceto community necrology and for a very ordinary burial has been proposed by scholars of Augustinian spirituality and history, including Fr Aubrey Gwynn S.J. over seventy years ago.
Was there some tension between those at Lecceto who lived away from the community in caves and hermitages and those who resided within the confines of the monastery? There does seem to have been some tension when, for example, the eremites apparently were reluctant to assist the community routine by being bound to the clock and to a timetable for celebrating scheduled Masses in the chapel of the Lecceto monastery. The charism of Augustinian community life included service to the Augustinian community, and those who were not eremitically inclined could have regarded an eremite’s inadequate desire or reluctance to be involved in community tasks as a spiritual imperfection.
Could this reluctance have been the case with William Flete? This certainly appears so in a letter from St Catherine of Siena (known as her Letter 77) to William. At the end of the letter, as was customary for Catherine, some words of practical advice were added to the mystical instructions. She previously had written a very practical admonition to Flete and his fellow hermits on the need of obedience to their religious superior in all community duties. Her letter stated, “I say to you in the name of Christ crucified that whenever in the week the [Augustinian] Prior may wish you to say Mass in the convent, and as often as you see that it is his will, I wish all of you to say it. If you lose your consolations, you will not lose the state of grace; rather will you acquire grace, since you lose your own will."
Catherine also wrote, “I wish that you show yourselves as eaters of the food of souls and tasters of our neighbours' good (mangiatori dell' anime e gustatori de' prossimi). Let us not pay heed to our own consolations, but rather to the woes of our neighbours, hearing them and having compassion on them—more especially of those who are united to us in one and the same charity. If you fail in this, it will be a very great defect. ..Thus shall you keep true charity in your midst; and if you fail to do so, you will make room for the devil to sow discord. I say no more, save that I pray and implore you to be united and transformed in this Tree of Christ crucified.” These are wise words, but they plainly suggest that the prior had some grounds for complaint as to Flete's eccentric way of life. In that by its Constitutions the nature of the life of the Order of St Augustine was communitarian rather than eremitical, it can be appreciated that so resolute a determination by William Flete to live as much as possible as a hermit apart from the rest of the community must have led to friction and misunderstanding.
To counterbalance this possibility somewhat, however, there is at least one factor: if William Flete showed himself too unwilling to leave his hermitage for the good of souls, it is well to remember that he had struggled for long years against foul temptations, and had at last found peace among the solitude of the ilex-trees in the Lecceto woods. Hence it is against this somewhat conflicting and perplexing background that we can best appreciate Flete's teaching on Augustinian life. His reflections are contained in three remarkable – indeed, unique - letters which he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so he says, to the brethren in England in 1380. The first is addressed to all the fathers and brothers of the Augustinian Province in England; the second to the masters of theology; the third to the Augustinian Provincial, Henry Teesdale O.S.A.
Like his treatise on the remedies against temptations, these letters show that Flete shared with the leaders of the English school of mystics the qualities noted by Felix Vernet: "love of tradition, clear-sighted precision, common sense, strongly individual personality". There is also something in Flete's three letters which is worth noting, if only for the light it throws on the man's character and what it cost him to leave England and to persevere at Lecceto. One can see that he loved his family, friends and country so deeply that even to think about them was almost enough to make him give up his self-imposed exile at Lecceto. Flete points out that Augustinians would stand or fall by their observance or otherwise of the Rule of Augustine. The Rule is a mirror and Augustine will hold it up to us when we come to be judged. And so at the very outset of his first letter he quotes the famous opening words of the Rule of Augustine, the rule of charity. But in doing so he quotes a classic phrase from Gregory the Great: "Note the words, and grasp their significance". Those words of the Rule mean that there should be no discord in the province or in a convent or, among the brethren themselves. "Let there be the one spirit, the one soul in God".
The harmony existing among the brethren should be of the highest kind and impervious to assaults. This oneness is expressed at the deepest level at and by the community celebration of the liturgy of the hours, the divine office. All the community should participate, in so far as this is possible, and with the greatest possible effort recite the office clearly, slowly and devoutly. In stressing the importance of our saying the office with dignity and reverence, Flete is simply echoing directives of two earlier Priors General, William of Cremona O.S.A. (Guglielmo da Cremona) and Gregory of Rimini O.S.A. (Gregorio da Rimini). It is from these two generals that Flete takes his cue when referring to yet another pillar of community life, namely, the practice of religious poverty - often a much-debated issue for the Augustinians and the other mendicant orders.. He lays very great emphasis on the importance of the common life. Quoting the, Rule of Augustine which says "do not call anything your own", he adds: "the servant of God ought not regard anything as his own ... his sole delight should be in Christ crucified". The friars must rise above earthly things and fix their minds on heaven, for "our heart is restless, Lord, until it rests in you".
The masters of the Augustinian Province must give the lead here. More than all the others, they must give an example of perfect life. They are the pillars of reform both in the Augustinian Order and in the Church generally. Religious poverty for them has a wider application than such things as material comforts. Their chief witness to poverty will be poverty of spirit. That is, they must not glory in academic degrees or in positions of authority and respect. In keeping with the example of Augustine of Hippo, they most of all must abhor worldliness and observe poverty in common and live the common life with the brethren. Worldliness is the ruin of the Order. The antidote is the practice of fraternal charity and fidelity to the common life in all its aspects, spiritual, intellectual and material. These observations must have sounded like counsels of perfection to the masters.
The eremitical (“hermit”) aspect of Augustinian life looms large in Flete's three letters. This is only to be expected. Apart altogether from his own rather peculiar mode of life at Lecceto, for him as indeed for others, including men who held the highest position in the Order, the Augustinian roots are eremitical. The Order would not be true to itself if the friars were to disown or feel embarrassed about its ancestry. However, Flete did accept that the life of the Augustinian Order was concentrated almost wholly in areas of population, right in the middle of the market square as well as in university centres. None the less, the friars should conduct themselves as if they were living in the desert. The title of Order of the Hermits of St Augustine, far from being a source of embarrassment for the friars, ought to be their greatest boast. Not all his contemporaries by any means would have agreed with him; but friars of distinction like Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. fully agreed with him in seeking to uphold the traditions of the early fathers of the Order.
Flete was not asking that all or for that matter anyone else should do as he did, i.e., bury themselves in the woods. In appealing to the title of the Order, he was protesting out of a sense of duty to the Order against a practice that had crept in and which was bad: friars wandering about for no good purpose on the slightest pretext, unable to stay in their cells, more at home in the houses of seculars than in their own communities, swarming all over the place. He deemed this to be so unfair to the laity, ant to be a scandal into the bargain. Flete was not exaggerating. More than one Prior General had sternly warned against this gadding about. In England the author of the celebrated allegorical poem, Piers Plowman, compared the friars to fiddlers going up and down the street and knocking at one door after another. What is the result of all this, asks Flete. Community life suffers and inevitably the obligatio chori (the “obligations of Choir”, i.e., presence in the chapel) becomes a dead letter.
He wrote: "As a rule the brethren go off for the whole day without any good reason. They are oftener outside than inside the convent. Sometimes there are more of them in the market-place than at home, fewer still in choir (“plures in foro, pauci in choro”).” The very same criticism, only with much more damaging overtones, was directed against the friars at Canterbury in 1527, where twelve years later St John Stone O.S.A. was martyred for defying the strong will of King Henry VIII. What Flete had to say to the Augustinian directors of students leads on directly to the question of formation. Novices and students were the hope of the Order and therefore they must be properly instructed and formed. Otherwise it is better not to receive them at all. Novices should be well treated and cared for but not shown undue favour, since they do not yet possess self-knowledge. Likewise, they should not be allowed to mix with the professed or put to study during this spiritually formative year. No matter how old they may be, they should be kept under firm discipline and not allowed out of the monastery unless it is absolutely necessary.
On balance, Flete upheld the primacy of the eremitical or contemplative nature of the Order as against the active or friar aspect, not because this was the common teaching of the theological schools as represented, for example, by St Thomas Aquinas, but precisely because in point of time the Augustinians were hermits before they became friars. Flete fully recognised the importance and necessity of the active apostolate, yet he also recognised the need for control and balance. He believed personally that the best contribution that he could make to the salvation of souls was the indoor apostolate, that is, the life of prayer and penance, spiritual direction and counselling. Such is Flete's summing up of the religious life. For him the essential aspect was charity, social charity. This must first of all be demonstrated in relations between the secular clergy and the religious orders, and between the orders themselves. In highlighting hospitality as a crucial, indeed, the crucial proof of charity, Flete no doubt had in mind his own experience on the road to Italy twenty years earlier.
His views are also in line with a decree of the Augustinian General Chapter of 1287, which was later embodied in the Augustinian Constitutions of 1290; but he goes well beyond the dry, precise form of the legislator. He said that Augustinians should delight in showing hospitality and in welcoming visitors as if Christ himself were that guest. It is thought that William Flete died at his beloved Lecceto in about the year 1390, a decade after the death of Catherine of Siena on 29th April 1380. After an unconscionable delay, she was canonised a saint on 29th June 1461, and in 1970 Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church. As to William Flete's canonisation, apparently nothing was done about it at Lecceto, where even his grave was never marked. (As mentioned above, both these matters could possibly have been a consequence of tension at Lecceto between the regularly resident community members and those community members who lived much of the time afield in isolated hermitages.) Indeed, William Flete was probably the last person who would want to have been canonised a saint.
The people in Siena callwed him a saint, and his fellow friars in England honoured him by describing his as "Saint William" until the time of the dissolution of the English Augustinian Province by King Henry VIII. He helped St Catherine of Siena, and his writings provided solace and strength to St Thomas More before the latter was executed in July 1535.
The above material is drawn from the writings of the late Rev. Dr Michael Benedict Hackett O.S.A.. After an illustrious academic career in ecclesiastical history, he died in England in March 2005.
Photo GalleryThe images on this page show the Augustinian Monastery at Lecceto. For the Augnet photo gallery on Lecceto, click here.