Assisi is the birthplace of St Francis who revolutionized the Catholic Church through his spiritual marriage to Lady Poverty and his devotion to a life of simplicity, silence and prayer.
Equally important was his spiritual sister Clare who heard Francis preach in the streets of Assisi. Clare had grown up in the same small town as Francis and undoubtedly witnessed his transformation from an adored, wealthy son of a nobleman to a worshiper of Christ through simplicity, poverty and devotion. Clare founded an order for women inspired by the example of Francis. It is said that St Francis went to her for guidance.
She encouraged him to keep working in the world when all he really wanted to do was live the life of a prayerful hermit in one of the caves above Assisi.
Part of our pilgrimage was a visit to these caves. I stayed far beyond the time the group was there in order to find a cave and meditate. Though some of the caves were closed off with metal doors a few were simply open. I went into the cave of Bernardo which was actually more of a small room with a rock wall at the back and three walls and a door. I sat in silence. Here is a pretty good description of the cave area below. I had an experience at the caves of my feet having a burning sensation. (I have mentioned my foot injury). I had taken a cab up to the caves but I decided to walk down because my foot felt better. It was a two and a half hour walk down! When I finally reached Assisi my feet were burning even more but not painful. Since that time I have been able to walk just fine. This was my experience, I will draw my own conclusions.
We were in Assisi, not as tourists but as pilgrims. Not to gawk (though there was plenty of gawkable material), but to experience, absorb and listen. The pilgrimage and St Francis was why we initially came to Europe. Once we made the decision it was easier to decide to spend April, May, and half of June on the continent. Retiring is so much easier than working!
The pilgrimage to Assisi was lead by Atum O’Kane. Atum’s full time job is taking people on spiritual tours all around the world. Here is a link http://www.atumokane.com/
Atum compared the life of St Francis to the life of Buddha. They were both born into wealth and privilege. They both encountered suffering in a jarring way by going outside their sheltered lifestyle. This experience shifted their perspective dramatically which lead them to seek the answers in a direct and sincere way. They both founded schools though it was not their intention to do so. They both sought a deeper connection to the source of the sacred through silence. They both believed in gentleness, peacefulness and kindness towards others which they exhibited in their manner.
Assisi is a compact, ancient, walled city in the middle of Italy. It is very touristy evidenced by the dozens of souvenir shops where you can buy everything from serious crucifixes to playful St Francis bobble head dolls. However we were part of an intimate tour that involved visiting a number of the churches he rebuilt, the caves he and his followers lived in for a time, and the place where St Clare spent her life. As part of the tour we visited some amazing modern statues depicting St Francis in his various life stages from the “Golden Boy” adored by his rich family
to the St Francis in rags leading his life of complete poverty.
There is a Bascilica devoted to St Francis and one devoted to Clare. No photographs are allowed in either of the bascilicas.
Francis’ deep spiritual awakening began, some say gradually, after being captured on the battlefield and imprisioned and then becoming very ill on his return. Though he went once more to battle he received an inner call to return to Assisi. At some point he received a more direct call from Christ to rebuild the church. He initially took these words to mean he needed to literally rebuild the be the simple church he often worshiped in “St Mary of Angels” which he repaired and which served as a meeting place of the Friars Minor – the order he founded. This tiny church is now surrounded by the mighty Bascilica of St. Francis in Assisi, which is many times the size of rebuilt church. Again I could not take a photo of the church but here is a link where you can see it. It is the tiny church inside the huge Bascilica.
He used his father’s money to do this and his angry father took him to court presided over by the local bishop. In front of his father, the bishop, and curious Assisi citizens gathered outside, he stripped off all his clothes and separated himself from his father wealth. It was at this point he took up a life of poverty and devoted himself to his spiritual path full time. According to our guide he took to preaching and singing and dancing in the streets to raise funds. This caused further distress to his father who went so far as to lock Francis up in a room of his house. His mother apparently saw the true nature of Francis and let him out.
Given the Pope’s formal blessing to preach, Francis attracted more than 5000 followers in just a few years.
I found the relationship between Clare and Francis to be especially compelling. Here is a lovely letter from Clare to St Francis that reveals the level of intimacy they shared. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-davis-phd/a-love-letter-to-st-franc_b_2653317.html
Among other things, St Francis is the patron saint of the environment. It is not a coincidence that the current Pope, who spent his life helping the poor in Buenes Aries, and who has made several bold statements about the environment, named himself Francis. Surely the poverty of many in the world is strongly related to the impoverished nature of our relationship with Mother Earth.
We visited a number of churches in Assisi and they all had their particular atmosphere. My favorite, aside from the St. Mary of the Angels in the Bascilica, was the church of St Stephano because it was so silent and peaceful.
Even though the streets are always pretty noisy, no noise ever seemed to penetrate into this church.
Near the end of the pilgrimage we were all asked to find an image of St Francis that drew us. I found this: