My dear friends, it’s been a long hiatus since my last posting, for some good reasons but on the whole none all that valid. Lately though with the horrific events in Paris, in particular and elsewhere too, sadly too numerous to list, it has spurred within a remembrance of an oasis where some years ago I found joy and peace of mind. Historic Assisi, set in the heart of Italy’s splendid Umbria region, had a profound effect on my then somewhat perturbed state of mind. Hovering in the air was an aura of peace and love, an almost palpable sense of the man who exulted in his passion for all manifested forms of life and who provided a living example for a gentle, more generous way to live with each other. Perhaps, I was emotionally ready then to drink deeply of this soul-healing tonic and now in view of all that is happening I thirst again. In the distance is the town and the valley bellow. The birthplace of St. Francis, founder of the homonymous Religious Order of the Franciscans, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000.
In view of the mayhem we witness on a daily basis even if happening far from our doorstep, and the unconscionable, hell-bent depredation of our planet, our only home at least for the time being (hopefully another awaits in God’s realm) there is much to be fearful about, yet I remind myself there are also wonderful human beings amongst us, then and now, as well as refuge from the chaotic events battering our senses on a daily basis. To that purpose I share photos of the felicitous few days spent in spectacular and panoramic Assisi, long ago.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
Francis of Assisi died at the age of 44, on the 3rd of October 1226, a long time ago but to this day his legacy retains a lasting resonance with millions of dedicated followers across the globe. He was canonized a saint just two years after his death, on July 16, 1228. Today, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint for ecologists – an apt and deserved title honouring his boundless love for animals, nature and his fellow human beings. May his spirit provide spiritual guidance to the world’s leaders who will be attempting to somehow wrestle ‘global warming’ under control at a crucial conference in Paris. I believe the present Pope in Rome very much aware of what is ailing our world purposely chose to be called Francis I. Unfailingly, in his world travels his speeches and sermons underscore his concerns and dedication to urge world leaders, corporate CEOs, all of us, to find the moral fibre required to bringing order to the ecological chaos of the present.
I can find not better way to make the case than to use the Pontiff’s very own words on a pastoral visit to Assisi a little over three years ago. “Francis was a man of harmony and peace,” the Pope said. “From this city of peace, I repeat with all the strength and the meekness of love: Let us respect creation, let us not be instruments of destruction! Let us respect each human being. May there be an end to armed conflicts which cover the earth with blood; may the clash of arms be silenced; and everywhere may hatred yield to love, injury to pardon, and discord to unity.” His Holiness words were poignantly true then and more so today, “Let us listen to the cry of all those who are weeping, who are suffering and who are dying because of violence, terrorism or war, in the Holy Land, so dear to Saint Francis, in Syria, throughout the Middle East and everywhere in the world.”
Amen to that and lest anyone thinks I’m being a tad too spiritual, let me reassure you I’m not much of a paragon of virtue, my friends near and far would rightly deride such a preposterous notion. However, when I do recognize those who are so much better morally I can at least offer heartfelt appreciation, it’s the least I can do.
I have travelled on several occasions to Italy and found much to admire and to lavishly praise upon The people are kind and effervescent although at times irascible in behaviour too, especially on the road. Pisa, Florence, Sienna, Perugia, Rome and Venice each a jewel in their own unique way, but my heart belongs to Assisi. Below the main building and Basilica of St. Francis dominating from all angles for miles around. It is a massive, 2-level church, consecrated in 1253. Its 13th-century frescoes portraying the life of St. Francis have been attributed to Giotto and Cimabue, among others. The crypt houses the saint’s stone sarcophagus.
I will share with you why I fell in love with this blessed town and although once again I must apologize for the mediocre quality of the photos (taken from slides) I hope the story that goes along will make up for it in pleasurable reading. (And of course you can easily add to your own visual pleasure by researching Assisi images on other websites.) My first glance at the hilltop town similar to many in this most scenic of Italy’s countryside yet immediately special to my eyes. Other than being the city of Saints Francis, Clare and Agnes as well as the symbol of their messages of peace, the town folk were invariably welcoming genuinely expressing the best of the hospitable Italian spirit.
As I was driving in closer via a serpentine roadway to Assisi (how I got there I don’t know) an isolated stone chapel several hundred metres away drew me to it. I love old stone buildings and wanted a closer look; this was up in the barren hills looming above the town.
Looking around I thought it abandoned when a muffled noise from inside told me otherwise. I called out and soon a Franciscan monk appeared at the door, shielding his eyes from the sun. After a slight pause he invited me in, but only as far as the entrance hall where there were a couple of chairs and a small table with a few religious pamphlets stacked in a neat pile. As it turned out he spoke a reasonable French and with a tad of English augmented by my humble knowledge of Italian I got his story. Indeed he lived there, alone as a bona fide hermit, having had permission from his order’s abbott and the local bishop to spend all of his time rebuilding the chapel he’d discovered in total disrepair. The roof had caved in and not a single window pane left unbroken. Even the bell from the small belfry was missing but he found it, by the grace of God as he sincerely related while crossing himself, in a pile of debris not far from the chapel. He believed someone had taken it down and hidden it for reasons he could only guess at. From dawn to sunset he toiled and after three years of daily labour he was close to having the significant honour of soon receiving the bishop himself come to rededicate the sacred site. After twenty minutes or so of pleasant conversation I sensed it was time for me to go; I went to the car and returned with a gift of cheese and a bottle of wine. I never travel without an array of preservable food (prosciutto and cheese are best) and wine while in Europe as I will often come across a particularly pleasant site where to picnic. I was pleased to see he too was genuinely pleased.
As I went to the door smiling and saying goodbye it occurred to me to take his photo as a keepsake. After all he did look the part of a working monk in his paint-stained dungarees, an interesting, intense face, slightly bearded and wearing steel-framed glasses. I took out my camera but, I don’t mean he was aggressive towards me but he reacted immediately, shielding his face behind one hand and with his other hand waving and loudly urging me, “Via, via! Go away!” It was unsettling and I quickly put the camera away. There was nothing for me to do but to back out while still wishing him a friendly goodbye. I sat in the car for a while getting my heartbeat to slow down; finally, I chanced to go down again and gingerly opening the door I left a money gift in an envelop I fortunately had with me in the as yet dry holy water fount. It was for the chapel I had noted and apologized for any misunderstanding. I never fathomed what the melodrama was all about but now you know why there’s no photo of the good monk to share with you.
However, not surprising in this area, monks like this Franciscan, were often seen on the roads, begging for a bit of food, perhaps a small corner in a barn to sleep in and offering prayers in return. I wonder if there are any left in this age of virulent anti-religion? I spotted the very same monk several days later, probably a couple of hundred kilometres down the road on my way to Rome.
Everywhere poppies in the fields – a rare sighting in North America where farmers consider them a weed to be eradicated with chemicals. In France I recall asking a French farmer who happened to survey his flowering field why he allowed for the poppies to thrive, he responded, “I love them, they are so beautiful and as long as I’m here they’ll be allowed to prosper. When my son takes over …” He shrugged expressively but I knew he meant that would be the last of the poppies.
As almost always I don’t book in advance often relying on going straight to the old town centre where most good value hotels are found or sitting at the counter in a local restaurant and ask the staff for suggestions; once again I was fortunate to find perfect lodgings – in a convent, no kidding! The order of Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement, in Assisi called the American Sisters (since they hail from America), are one of the Franciscan congregations of nuns who have a convent in town and for a modest sum will rent a small but comfortable room, almost a cell, within the nunnery itself. The location was central and the view from my window, especially at night, breathtaking. Below my window, nuns doing the laundry, and oh yes, my bed sheets were sparkling white and oh so cool and crispy to the touch.
Mother Superior was kind enough to allow a quick photo but I totally blew it in my haste and didn’t compensate for the sunny backdrop – oh well, but I share it anyway as she was the epitome of grace and kindness. When I reluctantly left early in the morning she was waiting at the door, blessed me and handed over a lunch bag I had not expected or paid for. I remember it well, a copious prosciutto sandwich, a piece of hard cheese and a big apple! God bless them all!
The Basilica of Saint Clare (Basilica di Santa Chiara in Italian) is dedicated to and contains the remains of Saint Clare of Assisi, a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi and founder of the Order of Poor Ladies, known today as the Order of Saint Clare. I’d have to say my good nuns were fortunate to have a most beautiful location for their nunnery. At night from my window – and the glow of homes in the valley below.
There must be something tangible about Assisi’s blessed aura as it was privileged to have two saints in its midst, no wait, not to forget Saint Agnes and that makes three. St. Agnes, the younger sister of Saint Clare, ran away from the luxurious family home to join the new order; much to the displeasure of her wealthy father, already none too pleased to lose one daughter to the call of St. Francis and a dedication to a life of poverty. She became one of the first abbesses of the Order of Poor Ladies. Saint Clare is buried in the crypt; the life-like wax representation is not the least bit morbid but makes one give pause and think.
A sunny day, locals, visitors and pilgrims relax taking in the mellow rays along with a glass of vino, maybe two.
The inner courtyard of the Monastery of Saint Francis.
Curious as always I happened to find a door slightly ajar and walked through – I found myself in a small garden where the good monks pray and meditate. I didn’t discover my mistake until gently asked to leave. Oops! I was allowed to take a couple pics of Francis, although not of the monk who asked me to leave – decidedly Franciscan monks don’t like to be photographed. Modesty I suppose.
From any angle, any street corner always an eye-pleasing view, a church, or basilica, warm stones and scads of flowers, roses in particular.
I was fortunate to come upon a mass being celebrated for a group of foreign pilgrims. The saint’s remains are buried in the crypt behind the priest at the lectern; the cool and calm setting was particularly conducive to prayer.
The imposing Renaissance (1569) Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. I’ll leave you with this last photo and promise no such long period between my next post. I’ll surprise you all with something much closer to home – very close in fact. A bientôt mes amis.