In dark dungeons God’s grace moves powerfully

Today, 10 Mar 2012, is the memorial of Blessed John of Vallombrosa, also known as John of the Cells and John of the Holy Trinity, an Italian monk – and later hermit – of the Vallombrosan branch of the Benedictine Order. He began his adult life under God’s grace, but gradually sank into major sin, and was granted the grace of true penitence. From him we learn how vast God’s mercy really is.

Blessed John of Vallombrosa was born in Florence, Italy, around the turn of the 14th century, into a noble family and entered religious life at a young age. Greatly gifted in many ways, and in particular with intellectual gifts, he rose to become the superior of the convent of the Holy Trinity. With his love of study, and access to many books, little by little he sought out occult knowledge and increasingly dabbled in it. From love of good he had moved to love of evil. Thankfully he was caught out in his sin. He was removed from office and in punishment was imprisoned for a year in a dark dungeon.

This punishment proved to be the seed of his salvation. During those dark and lonely days God’s grace of repentance found him and he responded wholeheartedly to it. When the year was up John’s health was shot to pieces but his soul was glowing with vitality. Welcomed back by his fellow monks, he refused to return to his former duties saying, ‘I have learned in this dark and long imprisonment that there is nothing better, nothing more holy, than solitude: in solitude I intend to go on learning Divine things and to try to rise higher.’ To become a hermit was all he now desired, and did so within the Order’s property.

Most of what we know about John comes from the records of the life of St Catherine of Siena. She regularly visited Vallombrosa and Passignano and at some point these two Saints met. John deeply impressed with St Catherine, viewed her as his spiritual mother from then on. Volume II of ‘The history of St Catherine of Siena and her companions’ translated by Augusta Theodora Drane is viewable at When you find it online, I suggest you then use Edit and Find on this Page with a search of ‘John’, as it will take you the quickest to the most relevant entries. Chapter 6 is particularly relevant. We are told that twice God used St Catherine to heal John, perhaps the first time was in person but the second time John sent two of his disciples to visit her and when she learned of his distress God granted her the power to heal him at a distance.

At the hermitage each monk had his own cell and his own little garden to care for. Young men came to join John in this holy lifestyle. Many of them had been converted when John opposed the Fratcelli with courage, and when he spoke out against the sin of simony – a dangerous thing to do in those times. Each disciple that came to him he placed under the spirtual motherhood of St Catherine. Prayer, silence, penance and study became the essence of John’s life. Although he referred to himself as ‘Don John the Sinner’ in his letters, others considered him a second Socrates because of his wisdom, learning and holiness.

Letter writing was something that monks and hermits did a lot of in the 14th century. Several of John’s letters have been preserved. Some of them are written defences of St Catherine’s holiness. When a young woman called Domitilla asked advice about whether to go to the crusades, John concerned for her spiritual welfare advised her to stay home and to seek God in prayer and silence, offering up as an example the fruitfulness of St Catherine’s years of prayer and silence. Although his message was received, others misinterpreted parts of it and he had to write more letters explaining his position.

St Catherine valued his holiness in return. In late 1379 she advised Pope Urban to surround himself with men of great holiness, and John’s was one of the names on that list of recommendations.

One day while St Catherine was visiting and in ecstasy a rather bold person decided to cut off a lock of her hair. This lock of hair came into John’s possession and he greatly treasured it as a precious relic. When news of St Catherine’s death reached him, John was disconsolate at being bereft of such a spiritual mother. With love he offered up 30 Masses for her soul. At least once after her death St Catherine appeared to him and gave him the spiritual advice he needed.

When at last John reached extreme old age and the time came for him to enter into the longed for joys of eternity, his last agony came at the abbey of Passignano. This ‘beautiful soul’ made so by God’s graces of prayer and penance arrived Home around the year 1380.

We can, and should, turn to Blessed John of Vallambrosa for help when we need the grace of true repentance – when someone we care for is held in the clutches of the occult – and when we the news comes to us sometimes that men consecrated to God are not living a life worthy of their vocation. With his prayers precious graces of conversion will be obtained.

Blessed John of Vallambrosa, pray for us.