Thursday, October 4, 2012

My Journey to Assisi

Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco

Today, October 4, is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1983 I was able to tour through Europe with a backpack and a Eurail pass. I was single, on my way home after living abroad in Hong Kong for two years, and travelling light. I was able to spend four weeks riding the rails seeing the sights of Europe.  I loved touring London, walking the streets of Paris and seeing the magnificent art and sculpture of Florence (and the beautiful river that flowed through the town). Venice, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam were equally amazing, but the place I was most eager to see was Assisi, having been fascinated by the life of St. Francis and inspired by his example.

In my travel journal that I kept at the time, I remarked about seeing the cathedrals (Westminster Cathedral in London, the Notre Dame and Sacre Cour in Paris, the Sistine Chapel in Rome) and seeing the hectic tourists, the gawking at the architecture, the peddlers spreading their wares along the sidewalks. I commented that “I couldn’t help noticing the incongruence between what these churches had once represented and what is now taking place at those sites.” Even though I expected much the same in Assisi, I was determined that my visit there would be a personal pilgrimage. What I found in Assisi was something altogether different.

Here is what I wrote in my journal in 1983:

What I found in Assisi was not at all what I had expected, I was overwhelmed by the impact that St. Francis life still has upon the town. I found there a living community of faith such as I had rarely seen before. Yes, there were many tourist shops lining the streets, but there was something beyond the tourism.
My experience began as I arrived in town about noonday and found lodging in the Monastero Santa Colette . I immediately felt a oneness of spirit with the gracious nuns who lived there and who served as hostesses for travelers. That afternoon, I walked about the town, perhaps the most aesthetically beautiful towns I have ever seen. Every building is made out of the same type of pinkish, whitish stone, every street is cobblestone, and the village is set upon a mountainside overlooking the magnificent Umbrian Valley with all its farms and trees.
I had decided I would not go to see St. Francis’ Basilica on that first day, though. It was too important a visit to rush in to.  After dinner as night was falling, I did go to the foot of the hill where the Basilica is. I sat until darkness set in, looking at the lighted church, contemplating the visit I would make the next day.  The following morning after breakfast, I set off for the Basilica.
There is a Lower Basilica and Upper Basilica painted with marvelous frescoes of the life of Christ and the life of St. Francis (the scenes from the life of Christ are in the Upper Church and those from the life of St. Francis are in the Lower). There is also the tomb of St. Francis at the bottom of the Basilica where Mass is observed daily. I mainly wanted to go to the building to worship and to think about St. Francis’ example and how it should affect my own life.
I was hoping it would be a spiritual experience, and it was – far greater than I had imagined. First of all, it was a powerful experience to worship on that place. Second, I was struck by two things: 1) Of all the people coming into the Basilica, it seemed that everyone was coming to worship. There was a profound sense of reverence and nothing of the tourist atmosphere. 2) There were a surprising number of young people.
The fact that everyone entered the building with reverence made it so much easier to maintain a spirit of worship. When I went up to the Upper Church, I happened upon an American friar who was showing an English-speaking group around.  I joined in with the group. That friar was such a down-to-earth fellow, and at the same time he was sharing his own real faith. He was not speaking to us of what was, but of what is. After he was through showing us around he said, “Whenever I talk to young folks like yourselves, I sense that they feel an uneasiness about their future and about their children’s future, so let’s pause and have a period of silent prayer for peace in our world.” Afterwards he spoke to us St. Francis’ favorite blessing:
                        The Lord bless you, and keep you;
                        The Lord make His face shine on you,
                        And be gracious to you;
                        The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
                        And give you peace.

Then he said, “If you want to go by the gift shop you can find it later – I don’t take people to shops, folks” (a man after my own heart!).

As I walked out of the Upper Basilica near the front there was restoration work being done on some of the frescoes. There was scaffolding of four or five tiers lined with college-age kids and young adults working with palates, working on the frescoes. I was moved to tears just by the sight of it and all that it represented – that the younger generation is taking care to see that this place is kept new, and its memories kept fresh.

Detail from Giotto’s painting, “ St Francis Preaching to Birds”


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