Each year, as the feast of St. Anthony (June 13) draws near, my memories go back to Padua where I spent several days in 2014. I had the opportunity to stay for a few days in the large friary of the Conventual Franciscan Friars. The friary stands right next to the magnificent Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua. I was able to visit Anthony’s tomb every day, and it was a great experience.
People were constantly filing past the back of his tomb and placing their hands against it as they paused to whisper their petitions to Anthony, whose remains rested behind the dark marble panel of the tomb.
During the last year or two of his life, Anthony had worn himself out, preaching to large crowds in and around Padua. The crowds were immense—sometimes as many as 30,000 would be listening to him.
A Visit to Camposampiero
One morning, while I was still staying at the Basilica, a friar who lived there offered to drive me to the small town of Camposampiero, 30 miles north of Padua. As Anthony became more and more exhausted from preaching and hearing confessions in the Padua area, his health began to fail. He requested permission to go to Camposampiero to take a break from his tiring schedule and spend some time in solitary prayer. He asked a benefactor of the friars to build him a little hut—something like a small tree house—in the branches of a large walnut tree.
At night Anthony would sleep with a small community of friars in a Franciscan hermitage nearby, but during the day he would go to the tree house to spend quiet time in prayer. One day, however, when he came down from the tree to have lunch with the friars, he became deathly ill. He asked the friars to take him back to Padua in an oxcart.
When the group arrived at the outskirts of Padua near a Franciscan friary, they saw that Anthony’s condition was growing worse, so they decided to stop. It was here that the saint would take his last breath. As he was about to die, Anthony leaned forward and began staring in front of himself for a long time. The friar who was supporting him asked Anthony, “What do you see?” Anthony answered: “I see my Lord!” And thus St. Anthony’s journey came to a glorious end. It was June 13, 1231.
Why a Walnut Tree?
Because of Anthony’s great knowledge of Scripture, he would have no doubt seen a special symbolism in spending his last days in a large walnut tree. While sitting in the tree, Anthony would have recognized that he was halfway between heaven and earth. The saint had left behind his earthly concerns to seek the face of God in holy contemplation.
Anthony’s first biographer wrote, in 1232 (within a year of his death): “By climbing into [the tree] Anthony showed that he was drawing near to heaven.”
May St. Anthony help us on the way to the same destination!