There were not a lot of tourists around when they started to build Assisi in the 11th Century. This old town in the middle of Italy was home to some very famous people, and a refuge for pilgrims and tourists for over a thousand years. Perhaps no residents of Assisi are more famous than St. Francis and St. Clare (San Francesco and Santa Chiara as they are know in their native tongue).
Born only a few years at the end of the 12th Century, they grew up in Assisi and the surrounding countryside in a time when the Catholic Church was growing in power and wealth as a result of the Crusades and a monopoly of ritual and spirituality in Western Europe. Francis and Clare were baptized in this very font in the cathedral, surrounded by images of the four gospels.
These gospels were used by the Church to justify the Crusades and the conquest of the Holy Lands in Jerusalem, but Francis and Clare read them quite differently. They saw in the gospel a call to embrace the poor and the gifts of the earth; not to seek conquest, wealth, fame and forced conversion. The Cathedral, dedicated to San Rufino, is full of statues of the prophets of the Old Testament including Amos, whose short book calls the powers of his day to bring justice for the poor and the outcast. (He is a personal favorite because he was a fruit and olive grower before becoming a prophet and always makes me think of my in-laws).
And Hosea, whose book calls for an unfaithful Israel to return to God (much as Francis would call a wandering Church to do the same).
They are two obscure prophets perhaps, but I thought it telling that they appear here in statue to remind those making the pilgrimage to the home of Francis and Clare, that the pilgrims must work to bring about justice for the poor and the marginal, and return the Church to fidelity with its God rather than the romance of power and hypocrisy it often drifts into. This Cathedral was the first of many sacred sites we visited in our pilgrimage to Assisi, the culmination of a life long dream of mine to walk among the hills that inspired Francis and Clare so many years ago to live simply, speak truth to power, love all they encountered, and inspire so many to peace and care for all creation. They have been two of my greatest heroes in life, and I, like so many before me in the last 800 years, walked the streets that they walked and the fields that they sowed to find some inspiration. We were not disappointed.
In order to better understand the context, my dear reader, allow me to begin by reflecting briefly on pilgrimage and tourism (I will be writing an essay on this theme at greater length to appear later in the “Thoughts and Reflections” section of this blog). Francis and Clare were canonized (made saints) remarkably quickly after their deaths in the early part of the 13th Century and the pope immediately called for the creation of a Basilica to be built in honor of Francis at the edge of Assisi.
later another Basilica would be built in honor of St. Clare at the other end of town.
Almost immediately, Assisi became an important pilgrimage site for the Christian world. By the late Middle Ages it was the fourth most frequently visited site for pilgrims from all over the Christian west (the other three being Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compestela). We will be visiting all but Jerusalem on this sabbatical sojourn. People did not travel much for leisure at that time, but a thriving business developed in each of these sites to accommodate the thousands of tourists/pilgrims to arrive every year. These businesses have continued, as have the tourists, for over 800 years. The difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation/holiday tourist visit might be difficult to determine from the outside, for it is mostly about an interior disposition. An orientation to be open to transformation as a result of the pilgrimage. A willingness to be guided by something more than a travel itinerary and a bucket list. More on this later in the essay to follow, for now, we joined the stream of pilgrims and tourists who arrive at the train station in Assisi ready to encounter this destination that has seen so many footsteps and dreams over the centuries.
We wander through the narrow streets of this ancient town that seems to always be a hill up or a hill down.
Indeed, Assisi itself sits on a hilltop surrounded by the central Italian countryside which seems to have many small villages and few flat spots.
The landscape is stunning, and it is easy to see how Francis could be so inspired to a reverence for nature from this place.
Assisi is still located in an agricultural region, as it was in time of Francis and Clare. One can imagine long walks to listen to the birds and the quiet among the olive groves that still surround the town. Indeed, I came to this place, as much to see the landscape that inspired Francis and Clare to become the patron saints of ecology, as I did to see the churches built to memorialize them.
Everywhere the fields laid plowed and ready to receive the rain and the seed that promises new life. I was reminded as I walked in the countryside of one of my favorite stories of St. Francis. It is reported that he was once asked while tilling a field for a garden what he would do if he knew he would only have one day more to live. He responded without hesitation, “I imagine, I would continue to till this field.”
We chose to stay out of town in the countryside so we could experience the natural environment as well as the built environment of Assisi at the top of the hill. Both, I think are integral to the landscape and to the vision of Francis and Clare, you simply couldn’t understand this place or the people it produced without reflecting on both. So I spent many hours sitting in front of our room reflecting on the combination by day, and by night, as the moon rose over Assisi.
We arrived too late the first evening to get into the Basilica of St. Francis having started on the other side of town with the Cathedral de San Rufino and a mass at the Basilica of St. Clare. Even at night, there is a sense of peace about this place as it is bathed in moonlight and the prayers of countless pilgrims that have come before us.
The Basilica de San Francesco is actually two basilicas built on top of each other. People are not allowed to take any photographs of the inside because it is seen as such a sacred place, but the memory of these two places will never leave my mind. These are the doors that lead to the lower church where we celebrated mass the next day.
The detail and natural wood of the carvings on the door mark the space as hallowed regardless of one’s understanding or religious persuasion. They tell the story of a commitment to the poor through the natural medium of wood, even as they are surrounded by ornate pillars.
The next day, pilgrims and priests, nuns and monks, faithful from all over the world gather with us to enter through these doors and celebrate mass over the tomb of St Francis.
I have yet to find the words to express my experience, (and I am not known for coming up short in the area of words), but suffice as to say, it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life (and I have had many of them). The place, the song, the faith of the people around me was overwhelming. Enough said for now, I am not sure a blog is a good place to say more anyway on this matter.
We were here at the beginning of October just two days before the feast of St. Francis on October 4th (Clare’s feast is the same as Paula’s birthday which is another reason she is one of my favorite saints), and Pope Francis was coming to town the next day to have “pizza in the plaza” before he celebrated mass on the feast of the saint he named his papacy after. The preparations for pilgrims and tourists alike was well underway as we emerged from the church.
We walked up to Assisi along a route traveled by pilgrims for centuries. It is called, fittingly enough, “the pilgrim’s way.” It is lined with bricks holding the names of past pilgrims who have come here, like we have, in hopes of peace and healing for our world.
The names are mostly unknown to me, but I look down from time to time to reflect on all those who have walked this way before me. Suddenly I am struck by the names at my feet. They are some of my heroes of modern time, people who in their own right have worked passionately for peace in our time.
Note the Dali Lama, Elie Wiesel, Lech Walesa, Wangari Maathai, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (on the same brick), John Hume and David Trimble (after they signed the Good Friday Peace accord in Northern Ireland), and so many others. I was standing on the shoulders of great humans who give me hope in the dark times we find ourselves. Hope that we are capable of peace, and love, and dignity for all others. Many of these people, like Francis and Clare faced dark times and rather than curse the darkness, they lit a candle for the rest of us. As the profoundness of my company of famous fellow pilgrims threatened to knock me off my feet, I looked up to see that I was traveling with great hope for humanity indeed. My fellow traveler, reminded me with her simple presence and her smile, that there is still hope for humanity; and peace and love all around us. In fact, it is often right in front of us, if we only open our eyes to the people in our own lives that love us.
So I might not have “earned” my brick yet on the pilgrim’s path, but this pilgrimage is a success for the insights I have gained along the way….