It is difficult to describe the extreme joy I felt upon entering the environs of the city. Everywhere were reminders of the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon, and I began to sing with an upwelling the songs that I have memorized from that movie in my youth. Here, only 800 years ago, lived a man it is said who came closer to living Christ's life than any man since the Last Adam.
I'm typing this in my last few hours in Assisi. God was good, and provided a French woman getting her doctorate in religious studies in Italy who spoke English, by the name of Agnes, whom I met up with just outside the train station. She was on her way to the youth hostel, so I was able to join her, and ask if they had rooms. No rooms Thursday night, but one Friday night. So I got Friday night, left my stuff there, and went out, waiting to see. I came back, and the kind people at the Hostel of Peace had been able to get me a bed for that very night- a hard thing to do during Easter week when so many pilgrims have come to this town.
Some things are surprising, some things confirmed. Evidently there is a temple to Minerva in the middle of the town square (now a church). And a building that looks like the one that Francis threw the clothes out of in the movie. But unfortunately much that was here was destroyed in an earthquake only 10 years ago. However, Assisi has been preserved as an ancient town, with few modern buildings (although of course a McDonald's is present).
The baptismal font Francesco and Claire were baptised in still remains in the Cathedral of St. Rufino. In front of the church is the square where Francis was filmed disrobing in Brother Sun Sister Moon.
Off in a corner of the town is the square where Francesco actually disrobed in front of the bishop, at the Basilica of St. Maria Maggiore. And inside is an incredibly intricate creche of about 3 meters square, all in miniature. All that area of blue in the back is actually intricate figurines, over the course of four minutes going from night to day. I wish I had enough film to have captured it on video.
There in the Basilica of St. Claire (or St. Chiara), is the cross originally at the church of San Damiano, the first church Francis rebuilt. He heard Christ speak from the crucifix to "Rebuild my church, which, as you can see, is in ruins." So he set about rebuilding three churches, until he realized that Jesus had actually meant the true Church of the people, not the buildings. Then he set about evangelizing the people.
I've been reflecting on this here. How Christ calls us to something, and we can get it wrong. Even Francis got it wrong at first. But He continues with us, to bring us on the right path. And in the meantime, Francis is working with his hands, establishing his band of followers, devoted to hard work and poverty. He had the opportunity to learn and experience Holy Sister Poverty as he cared for the places of meeting. Was it truly the wrong path? It's hard to answer metaphysically. But it was not a wasted path. Sometimes, I can feel like the path I'm on now is not the right one, that I got it wrong. That what I've been doing was wrong, and a waste. Francis reminds me that, even if the wrong path, even if I got it wrong, it was not a waste. God was still working in that, to prepare me for something greater in the future.
Francis is now buried in a very large crypt, in a very fancy cathedral, on which is built a 2nd very fancy cathedral. I visited his grave and, just for a second, saw him rolling over in it. So I'm more interested in the places truly representative of his vows of poverty, and where he spent the time before his legacy got interrupted. I went up to the hermitage, where his cave was where he prayed, a 4.5 km walk up the mountain. Nice to see, but a lot of people there for Pascha (Easter) weekend.
So I climbed down the mountain to reach San Damiano, where the crucifix that spoke to Francis was originally. They have there a replica of the cross, and a very old-fashioned church, something of which is what Francis rebuilt. Outside is where he came up with his Canticle, Brother Sun Sister Moon (although originally the music wasn't by Donavan), commemorated by the statue in the midst of the flowers. And a wonderful statue of him, pictured below, most fully expressing the spirit of the saint of any statue I saw there in Assisi- to many it looks completely like a real person. There I met a Franciscan monk who had a wonderfully pure and kind heart. (He is pictured in front of the church below.)
I spent the day walking between these locations, praying, and eating. I am so glad I brought my lactase pills with me! It would seem that all good food in Italy has some layer of milk in it. I loved Assisi too because it seemed everyone there was desirous of coming closer to God, and paying homage to the saint.
That night I was honored to witness something spectacular, the March of the Crucified Christ. It progressed from the Cathedral of St. Rufino to the Basilica of St. Francis and back again. (As one can gather, there are many churches in and around Assisi.) As the light began to fail in front of the Temple of Minerva, we waited in an increasingly restless crowd. And then- Bang. Bang, bang. A great drum sounded with three beats, one, and then two in quick succession. The crowd quieted slightly, but then nothing, for a minute.
And then again. Bang. Bang, bang. And slowly to our right some monks in full medieval attire, with brown robes and rope belts, began to walk down the long alley between the crowd. And a crowd of thousands became suddenly silent, as we watched the commemoration of the walk of our Lord towards his resting place. Every minute, again, three beats. And the first hooded man showed up, carrying a cross, wearing a white jallaba with a white hood, with only holes for the eyes. He was followed by more monks, and then another hooded man with a cross. About 5 white hooded men with crosses passed by, and more monks, before the grey hooded cross-bearers arrived. Then more monks, and black-hooded bearers. And then the nuns in the back can be heard, distantly, singing quietly. As they approached we heard the priest in the back directing the singing in the loudspeaker, but very quietly, respectfully. And the singing stops as they passed us, and begins again after a long wait. And finally, the statue of the Mother of God carried by 8 monks, with seven swords through her. (Which I learned from Agnes afterward was to represent the wounds she experienced emotionally at the death of her son.)
I watched all this, and then circled up through the top of the city on the hill, speed walking to the other side of the town. (And I'm proud to report no one passed me on the way, though many others had this same plan.) I arrived at the tail end of the route, to watch the procession again- this time with only torches to light their way in the failing evening light. I followed the crowd into the basilica, where we heard a sermon (in Italian), and then they left to repeat the procession back to the Cathedral. Throughout it was a time of contemplation, of quiet mourning, of great weight.
It may seem that I love Assisi, but have been downplaying the official sites. That's true. Because I find much more spiritual sustenance in the non-official locations. Simply the environs of Assisi, where Francis lived and walked and had his being. That is what he loved. To get out in nature, to enjoy Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Air. By taking paths less traveled, one after another, I discovered a secret path running between San Damiano and the hostel I was staying, taking about 20 minutes to traverse. Along the path I found myself in a field, looking nothing so much as the spot from the movie where Claire tells Francis that others think him mad, but she thinks he is more sane than anyone else.
I wanted to hear God in Assisi, and listen to Him. And He came powerfully. I have been hearing, in the far back of my mind, of late, the call to give up what we have. And to seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. I have been hearing Him speak on the nature of confidence, and my need to have confidence in Him. I want more than anything to get married. But the places where I might be seem to be the wrong places for that dream to come true. As I sat down to pray under the tree, I was reminded again of this, and that God would provide for me. That God wanted me to pursue my heart, regardless of what has happened in the past. And I opened up my Bible, and there in front of me, was Paul telling the Jews in Rome that he came to Rome through very unusual circumstances. He dreamt of going to Rome, but he ended up going in a way that was not at all how he had originally planned. I opened up the Bible to the section that I had put a Francis bookmark in for a friend. There was a note about how all nations were present at Pentacost, including the Arabs. I went to where I had a cobra skin, a boa skin, and a rattle skin from the Reptairium secreted in my Bible for safety. There was a passage that spoke of not worrying. For who among you can add one cubit to his lifespan? And behold, there was the exact passage I had been receiving earlier that day in my mind, of all these things being added unto us! That if I would pursue what I was called to, God would add the other things. And then I looked through a final bookmark in the Bible, the palm leaf cross with the image of the Pope in it, that I'm holding up in the picture of me standing between the Vatican and Rome. There I saw Paul saying that the only way to achieve real gain and surety is by giving everything up. Truly we serve a great God, who delights to give good gifts, who answers his children! For he has forcefully answered me.
I celebrated today by going to my first confession. I went to the Basilica of St. Francis, and asked for an English-speaking priest. After a moment a Franciscan priest came up to hear my confession. I shared with him that I had sdkjs cksnfrei xjxion scixk skjnenioxl ksne and had trouble lnkxsli llskf nskldjlsikx kdntnk siicjl, and this probably stems from wenxion sn liown lxkni lkenixol wlo. But then found out that he couldn't give absolution as I wasn't Catholic and therefore didn't fully appreciate the sacrament, although he did pray for me, and we said the Lord's prayer, and he spent time listening to me, and blessed me. Which was a very pleasant end to a grand pilgrimage.