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Saint John Gualberto was the son of a rich feudal family from Chianti. Legend has it that his religious conversion took place on Holy Friday in 1028 while standing in front of the his brother's assassin inside the church of San Minato in Florence. At the very moment that he was about to kill the man, he saw a light that blinded him, and he embraced his enemy, whose image recalled the Crucifix at the moment of the Passion of Christ.
This episode pushed him to become a Benedictine monk in that very church, San Miniato. However, he soon came into conflict with the Abbot and accused the Bishop of Florence of corruption. Forced to leave Florence, he settled in the forest of Vallombrosa, where another well-known miracle took place. On one cold winter night, a leafless beech tree grew leaves to protect him from the cold. The Saint constructed a small village made of huts for other monks. Not much later, the Vallombrosa Abbey was founded on the sight. He became the spiritual leader of the Vallumbrosan order and chose a life of sobriety in contrast with the Church of the times in which simony, that is to say wealth, as well as the selling of pardons and religious posts and relics, was common practice.

 

The reformative years

Saint John Gualberto had the Moscheta  Abbey and the San Paolo in Razzuolo Abbey built on lands that had been donated to him by cardinal Octavius, and San Salvi built in Florence, while the existing monasteries of Saint Reparata in Marradi, and the Passignano Abbey simply became part of the order.
The Saint's fight against the diffusion of simony in the church continued without pause; for example, in 1058, finding himself in Moscheta, he refused to meet Pope Stephen IX who stopped there on his way from Bologna to Florence. His conflict with the simonist bishop of Florence, which led to the San Salvi massacre of 1066, in which many monks were killed by the followers of the bishop,  is a well known fact. The church prior, Peter, in the Passignano Abbey, later passed the trial by ordeal of fire in front of two thousand people in Piana di San Salvatore a Settimo, and Pope Alexander II, was forced to remove the bishop from office.


The success of the Vallumbrosan order grew and grew and its principles spread to numerous other monasteries.
On July 12, 1073, after making Rodolfo Galigai head of the order, Saint John Gualberto, remembered as one of the greatest reformists of the church, died in Passignano, where he had been living in retreat for some time.
In 1951, Saint John Gualberto was proclaimed patron of the the Italian forests, given his devotion to the woods and nature.

 

The miracles of Saint John Gualberto

Some tales talk of the existence of a bear that used to slaughter numerous farm animals in the area of the Moscheta Abbey, and was tamed by the prayers of Saint John Gualberto before being killed by a monk. Other miracles and legends are also attributed to the saint; among these, we find that of the sack of wheat that remains full for days and days, notwithstanding the numerous poor and homeless it feeds. Another legend talks about how, on seeing numerous poor wanderers arrive at the abbey, the Saint retreated in prayer, and about how a herd of cattle on a nearby hill rolled down the slope to their deaths to feed the masses. The Saint was also known to stop storms that were about to destroy the harvest.

 

The monks and the forest

The forests have always been considered, by monks everywhere, the ideal place to retreat and live an ascetic lifestyle.  The tradition was started by Syrian monks who settled in the forest in Monteluco, near Spoleto. In Medieval Christianity, the spiritualism of the desert, typical of oriental doctrine, becomes that of the forest. The Hebrew-Oriental tradition of the desert as a place where temptation and spiritual ordeals abound, converges with the Celtic-Germanic tradition of the forest as a place that lies on the confines, between earth and the heavens, a place that is favourable to experiences and contact with the divine.
In the middle ages monks shared the forest with the mountain folk, laboratores, struggling for it against warriors, bellatores. Coexistence was not, however, simple because, often, on the land that had been donated to the abbeys there existed  habits and customs that allowed the mountain folk to survive, and which they recovered any time the order underwent a period of hardship. The land chosen by the monks still holds a singular beauty, is rich in waters, and has what is known today as biodiversity.

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