Giovanni Maria de Agostini intuited from a fairly young age that he was called to a rather eccentric, unique lifestyle: a traveling hermit. I cannot fathom a better oxymoron than a traveling hermit; in one sense, Agostini felt called to an eremitic way – a pensive, contemplative vocation – and yet he simultaneously believed God was asking him to wander various, undeveloped terrains – mainly in North and South America. The wandering hermit did not take specific vows to a particular order, though he followed St. Anthony the Abbot’s rule without the commitment.
In the book, Giovanni Maria de Agostini, Wonder of the Century: The World Traveler Who Was a Hermit by David G. Thomas, I found Agostini to be one of the most unconventional – and yet fascinating – Catholic figures about whom I have read. Thomas’ book is formatted as an historical biography, which is not one of my main go-to reads, but despite the weaving of facts and figures into the over-arching tale, the crux of Agostini’s life remained intact and clearly understood.
Agostini was born in Italy, and much of his life was shrouded in mystery. Throughout the book, Thomas explores the various mistakes in record keeping and tracking of dates and times during Agostini’s life; even the end of his life mystified many. Because Agostini lived a truly ascetic lifestyle and did not own many possessions other than his clothing, some religious artifacts and several volumes of books, his record keeping and note taking was scattered and roughly written. Part of this was also due to the fact that Agostini established a personal hermitage in a cave – often with spring water nearby – only long enough to eventually move on; this was usually after a period of befriending the locals, who would treat Agostini’s dwelling as a place of pilgrimage and retreat.
Notably, Agostini often attracted unnecessary conflict wherever he traversed; the author subtly suggests this was due to his holiness and interior life. It seemed Agostini’s life followed a very rhythmic pattern in which he discovered a suitable cave in which to dwell, surrounded by crystal clear spring water. The spring water was then believed by Agostini and locals alike to have healing properties. At times hundreds of pilgrims would travel in very harsh conditions in order to drink of the water or be submerged in it and, along with certain devotions, many were healed. Naturally, the Catholic Church responded with skepticism and initiated an investigation of these healing springs. An objective, non-religious individual may very well conclude that, while some people experienced healing (perhaps due to the placebo effect), others did not. And the ratio of those healed to those who remained stricken with various diseases was not impressive.
However, a person of faith may admire Agostini, however unconventional he was. He chose to remain detached from any particular monastic rule, and though he wore a monk’s habit for a time, he eventually shed it after being entangled in controversy of his beliefs. Agostini was, at one point, asked to become a priest (and priests were in great demand in the 1860s, as they are today), and this was confirmed time and time again by several Catholic clergy members. Agostini’s reply was not obedience, however. Instead, though he did wrestle with proper discernment, he chose against the priesthood, claiming he was too unworthy of such a noble calling. While this may have been true, one who practices the rule of religious life – however non-dogmatically – must be open to the possibility that what he believes about himself may, in fact, not be accurate in God’s eyes.
Irrespective of what one’s personal opinion of Agostini may be, one thing is certain: he somehow accomplished the universal call of humanity to “live in the world but not of it.” After his unfortunate and unresolved murder, devotees and investigators discovered that Agostini was wearing a spiked belt and hair shirt for self-flagellation. He also deliberately put prickly pear cactus on top of his bedding for another form of penance. None of these were known to anyone during his lifetime, which is truly remarkable and indicative of one who valued the gift of penitential suffering and offering up acts of self-denial or physical pain to God in humble silence. (His meals were almost exclusively corn meal and water.)
A man of meager means, a man of simplicity, of humility, one whose life seemed more fitting for the early, desert fathers than in late nineteenth century North and South America, Agostini has touched many people’s lives for countless generations. Even today there are pathways and markers to indicate his cave dwellings in New Mexico.
Thomas’s book is rich with an unfathomable degree of research and intriguing historical documents, about which he analyzes and occasionally offers his own opinion. For anyone who enjoys intellectually stimulating literature, history, or biographies, this is a valuable addition to his or her library.
Copyright 2014 Jeannie Ewing