Monday, June 7, 2010

Week 26: Assisi

This photo shows the Hermitage Delle Carceri, where St. Francis of Assisi would go in the forests of Mt. Sabasio for silence and prayer – one wonderful place among many described in our experiences of this week.

Walking the narrow stone-paved lanes of Assisi really is like stepping into the medieval past. To all outward appearances, little has changed since the time of Francis. Of course many churches have been built since he died in 1226, but most of these also are at least 500 years old. Through various periods of papal rule, neglect, and civil strife the city (known here as a comune) has grown only slightly in population to 26,000 (only 6,000 of whom live within the crumbling walls of the old city). Strict building codes now preserve the ambiance and most roads (really pathways) are quite steep and winding (a challenge even for foot travel) and are so narrow as to allow only one-way traffic which, even then, would be hazardous to attempt in most automobiles.

Our home-base was La Rocca Hotel, an old monastery renovated inside to have all one could want (including internet access) in its small rooms. Located high up the hillside the city is built upon, on the southeast corner, the sun rises over vast rolling hills of forest interspersed with agricultural lands. Church bells welcome us in the early morning and pilgrims mixed with tourists are abundant on most streets thereafter. Each day seems to begin with clear blue skies, followed by periods of billowy white clouds and brilliant sunlight. Watching the city at sunrise from the nearby citadel of Rocca Maggiore, the panoramic view is breathtaking.

One can see the central square of Assisi (the Piazza Del Comune, dating from the 1st century BC), where Francis disrobed in full view of all and walked naked out of the city to begin the rebuilding of San Damiano Church which would be maintained by Clare, an early follower of Francis. There also are the forests whose caves provided Francis a location for silent meditation on austere fasting. As one`s eyes swing north, one can spot the Church of St. Clare which houses the famous San Damiano Cross, clothing worn by Francis, Clare and other Franciscans, as well as the body of Clare. In the distance is the Cathedral of St. Maria Degli Angeli, a massive structure constructed to encompass a small church built by Francis and the site (then in the woods) where he exhaled his last breath. To the north side of Assisi is the Basilica of St. Francis where his earthly remains are housed in a simple shrine on the lower level, with the massive upper level displaying amazing artwork commissioned by later Popes in honor of this most popular saint in the history of the Catholic Church.

Throughout Assisi, as one might imagine, there are gift shops and restaurants aplenty, all eager to make profit off the fame of Francis and his followers who cared nothing for wealth. The irony achieves deeper levels if one seeks out a public market where fresh produce might allow one to make meals without reliance upon overpriced alternatives. Only a few small grocery stores can be found (known primarily to the local residents)! Simple living in Assisi, in other words, is not very simple! During our 6 days/5 nights here, Kris and I developed a pattern of eating a carbohydrate-heavy breakfast (included in our hotel package), enjoying a simple (but overpriced) late lunch, and then having a picnic in either in our room or outside (if sunshine was warm enough) – using grocery store fare. On one evening I purchased the only head of lettuce available in the small store for use in a salad for which Kris creatively made a salad dressing from mustard and apricot preserves (saved by us from breakfast).

Easily our most enjoyable day in Assisi was made possible with help from a Whitman College classmate of mine, Alvaro Tachinni. He had been my host when last I visited this area in 1972 (shortly after our graduation in 1971). Later he came to Bloomington, Illinois in 1981, where I had been teaching at Illinois Wesleyan University. 29 years later, he now drove the 45 minutes from his home in Citta` Di Costillo to show us sites important to Franciscans located beyond the reach of city buses. As we began to catch up on the years of silence between us, Alvaro was joined by his son David (a nurse, now at age 29 in seminary to become a priest). Together they provided a tour far better than any paid guide might have.

Three sites on the Alvaro tour were most memorable. In the dense woods of Mt. Subasio we walked to the Hermitage Delle Carceri – an austere structure built upon a favorite place Francis would come to for silence and prayer. In a tiny room there is preserved much of the small cave where Francis would sleep on the stone floor. With the natural beauty of steep hillsides unable to be farmed, the sounds of birds and sight of tall holm-oak trees today is much as it was 800 years ago. It becomes easy to understand the love of Francis for forest creatures. How could one not love this place? My spirit laughed at the sight of a more modern sculpture of bronze, portraying Francis (a very short man) laying on his back looking up through trees into the sky. Had it not been an embarrassment for my wife and friends, I would have loved to lay next to the prone figure for a rest in the afternoon shade.

Alvaro next took us to San Damiano, where Jesus on the cross is said to have first spoken to Francis the words ``Rebuild my Church``. Because the building was in ruins, Francis followed the message literally – and reconstructed the building with his own hands. Here his first followers joined him in the task, here Clare sung in the small choir room (where original wooden stalls and lecterns remain) and served as administrator for 42 years until her death in 1253. In a corner of a large dormitory room upstairs which she shared with other women, Clare embraced death only after the granting of her last wish: a papal establishment of her Order of the Poor Clares. The humility of Clare and Francis could not have foreseen the impact of their lives over the centuries, inspiring many to commit themselves to lives of poverty, renouncing all violence towards either nature or its creatures, while always seeking to reduce the pain of those greatest in need. Even as Alvaro`s son once rejected the Church, he has returned to it because of the example of Francis – whose spirit continue to ``Rebuild my Church``.

As Alvaro transported us to the basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli, Kristine reminded me that our town of Pala (like Assisi, about 26,000 in population) was home to Alphonsa (the first Indian to ever be named a saint) – who was also a Franciscan! Perhaps she may have once traveled to this basilica, the center of the Franciscan Order worldwide. The massive structure left me saddened at its lack of simplicity until I entered and saw a most strange sight: the Porziuncola (a tiny chapel built by Francis in what was then a forest) is the centerpiece of the basilica – literally a church within the Church! The beauty of its simplicity dwarfs the larger structure around it. Off to the side about 20 feet is the location of where Francis laid down to die on what was then bare ground. His final wish was to have his body taken to a hill where those too poor to pay for a funeral could find repose (a place also where executions took place at the time). When his wish was carried out, that place ceased to be called Hell Hill and became known as Paradise Hill (and it was there that the Basilica of St. Francis was constructed…

Our time in Assisi is now at an end. Alvaro`s final gift to us was a long car drive up to the top of Mt. Subasio where Assisi could be seen in the distance. Winding our way down from 3,000 feet, through several small towns and back to Assisi we could see people hand gliding in the blue sky. It is as if, whether we consider ourselves to be religious or not, the human spirit still seeks the divine. That is the appeal of Francis: a simple man who sought the divine in a way which still inspires people around the world to do the same. Gandhi would call it self-realization. I have no doubt that Gandhi and Francis were able to see the same truth: we all are interrelated as one human family in one interdependent world. That truth, itself, inspires us to better love one another and all of life….

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