Caves were a popular choice for many saints for both practical and spiritual reasons.
Some of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church fled the comforts of the world and sought refuge in a cave. The list of saints is a long one and includes St. Benedict, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom and even St. Francis of Assisi for certain periods in his life.
Why did these saints choose caves? Couldn’t they have lived in a monastery or a small house attached to a church?
For many saints caves were initially a practical choice. Throughout Europe, the Holy Land and Northern Africa, caves are a naturally occurring feature of the landscape. It doesn’t take long for someone to travel outside of a city and find a cave embedded in a nearby mountain. Furthermore, most caves require absolutely zero building materials. A monk or nun could sell everything they had, wander into the mountains, and find a cave with no tools or money.
Caves also provide sufficient protection, both from natural elements and any criminals. Most caves maintain a constant temperature throughout the year, keeping heat in the winter and remaining cool in the summer. Storms also have a minimized effect on caves, allowing an individual to keep safe no matter the weather.
A well placed cave can also be “invisible” to the eye and a passerby may never notice it, protecting the person from criminals or enemy soldiers passing through.
Additionally, caves were a spiritual choice as well, recalling the most famous “hermit” in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah. It was while dwelling in a cave that Elijah encounters the presence of God.
And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him. (1 Kings 19:9)
Caves provided a perfect spiritual sanctuary that was entirely secluded from the rest of the world. Caves are most often found in areas that are difficult to reach and not on any main road. If you want to be alone, caves are where you want to be!
The caves also reminded the saint of Jesus’ death and burial, representing the “death” to their old selves that they sought in order to experience a newness in their spiritual lives.
In many cases caves were not the permanent home of a saint, but served as a place of retreat. For example, St. Francis of Assisi and his religious brothers would find spiritual refuge in the caves of Monte Subasio. It was an isolated place where they could contemplate God in silence and allow his presence to fill their soul before going back into the world.
Caves have a rich history in Christianity and many continue to be used throughout the world by individuals and groups who feel called by God to encounter his presence in a place away from the distractions of the modern world.