THE SURPRISING GIFTS OF ASSISI

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Assisi

In Assisi I was to receive a soulful gift, a joyful gift and a life lesson. But not in the way you might expect. For these events did not occur in one of the many churches there, nor in the famous Papal Basilica di San Francesco – one of the most impressive, expensive and art-abundant religious constructions made by man. They happened, as you will read, in the simplest of places – in solitude, in a cave and in a garden.

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The hilltop town of Assisi can be seen from afar, the monumental Basilica complex cascading down the slopes of Mount Subasio, the fort of Rocca Maggiore placed like a crown above.

rocca-maggiore

Rocca Maggiore Fortress

The medieval walled town is very pretty, there is no other word for it, as it is well-kept, flower-laden, with tourist shops selling local produce and religious memorabilia. The narrow stone-flagged streets wind up and down around the town and around almost every corner you come across a church, a monk or a nun.

The pretty Assisi streets; San Rufino Cathedral & Sisters

Assisi’s famous son is, of course, St Francis, who was born and died here. Francis came from a wealthy family and enjoyed a well-educated, rather rowdy, youth before experiencing a holy vision in his 20’s which led him to renounce his family’s affluence and embark on a life of absolute poverty and spirituality. He soon founded a new community of friars with the blessing of Pope Innocent III.

With a context of regional Umbrian wars, and conflict and religious crusades abroad, Francis’s message was one of love, peace, compassion and universal brotherhood regardless of race or religion. These were the messages he preached as he travelled around Europe and further afield, making a deep and lasting impact and forging friendships with people who were seen by others as enemies.

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Francis died in 1226 aged 44 and was made a saint two years later. From then on Assisi became a pilgrimage destination and a number of churches and religious orders grew up in the town. Though one can always be inspired by the man and his teachings, some of the ‘marketing’ of St Francis is not always in tune with his message.

The Upper Basilica di San Francesco

The Upper Basilica di San Francesco

The extensive Papal Basilica has an upper and lower church, the lower completed first in 1230 in Romanesque style, the upper shortly afterwards in Gothic. The Basilica was commissioned by Pope Gregorio IX who employed the most gifted and renowned architects and artists of the day to produce this ‘special’ church. The breath-taking interiors, covered with paintings and frescoes by Giotto and other masters, are said to be amongst Italy’s finest works of art. No photographs are allowed inside most Assisi churches but you can see the colourful beauty on Google images. It seemed a far cry from Francis’s earthly life of simplicity, poverty, and the most basic of possessions and I did not find him there.

postcards

My postcards showing 1) the frescoes of the lower basilica leading to Giotto’s ‘four sails’ above the altar   2) Giotto’s ‘Allegory of the Vows’  on the four sails ceiling  3) The pictorial cycles of the stunning Upper Basilica depicting the lives of Francis and Mary  – once described  as the most beautiful house of prayer in the world.

In the crypt beneath the lower church, with its incredible ‘four sails’ ceiling over the altar, stands St Francis’s tall tomb – though he evidently asked his followers to bury him by the gallows on a hillside execution site, in emulation of Jesus who died alongside common criminals. The tomb is constantly surrounded by burning candles and people at prayer, but it struck a sour note that close beside it a monk sat takings bookings and payment for personalised masses. I saw him refuse one woman’s coins and explain that she needed to give him “paper money”.

I visited several other churches in Assisi, a notable one being the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, the 7th largest church in the world, which preserves in its centre the tiny Porziuncula Chapel where St Francis first worshipped after his conversion. To me this simple yet beautiful old chapel felt more holy than the larger churches in surrounding Assisi.  Over the door is a Latin inscription saying “This is the gate to eternal life”. In the gardens outside is the only place in the world that one can see the strain of Assisi roses said to have miraculously shed their thorns forever when Francis threw himself into them to test his faith.

The Basilica of Santa Chiara

The Basilica of Santa Chiara

In the Basilica de Santa Chiara is the story of St Clare, Francis’s contemporary, told in tableaux around her tomb. Another wealthy young heiress, she was inspired by Francis, turned her back on her family and set up a closed Order of nuns who became known as the Poor Clares. One of the tableaux shows Clare’s parents trying to wrest her from Francis’s hands, and I was reminded of modern day parents trying to rescue their children from cults, it must have seemed no different to them. Francis’s own father disowned and beat him when he declared his holy mission.

San Damiano

San Damiano

The nuns lived in a quiet spot just outside Assisi in a place that Francis had once occupied, the peaceful sanctuary of San Damiano. It is said that Francis heard the voice of God here, asking him ‘to rebuild his house’ and it was here that he wrote his famous ‘Canticle of The Creatures’ –  a hymn of thanksgiving expressing Francis’s feeling of oneness with all of creation, including the sun and the moon.

Francis overlooking Umbria from San Damiano

Francis overlooking Umbria from San Damiano

I visited this delightful, well preserved convent where the reclusive nuns lived cut off from the world, communicating only through a grille when necessary.   You can stand in the small wooden choir where the 13th century nuns sang from the stalls, marvel at the pretty oratory where Clare prayed, often prostrate on the floor for hours.  In a barn-like dormitory is a corner where St Clare died after her life of acute self-denial and prayer – apparently Clare was so given to fasting that Francis sometimes had to order her to eat.

I have always loved to climb steps that have been worn away by centuries of other people’s feet imagining and feeling a connection to those who went before.  Here the stairs lead to Clare’s colourful oratory, below left.

San Damiano was a haven of peace, but generally my view of St Francis was obscured by all the wrapping and trappings of Assisi. Then one day I walked up to his Hermitage, the ‘Eremo della Carceri’, and there I was able to glimpse the man.  High up on Mount Subasio is the cave where Francis would retreat for prayer and contemplation. It is surrounded by woods where he studied the stars with his fellow friars. There is a happy statue of them stargazing on a path through the trees which is now set aside for visitors to walk in silent meditation, past the wooden pulpits where Francis would preach in the open air. Here one could get a sense of this interesting, intelligent as well as deeply spiritual and inspirational man.

The Hermitage on Mount Subasio

The Hermitage on Mount Subasio – the chapel leading to the cave on the right

Francis’s woodland altar. He took the letter Tau as his own symbol. The last in the Hebrew alphabet it signifies salvation.  And who is the photographer in the window?!

From the tiny chapel one can walk down a narrow stone entrance to reach Francis’s cave, which I did alone. In this underground space I felt drawn to open my heart and hands in silence.

I emerged in a state of deep calm and peace such that I have rarely known. I was content to lean on the wall outside and pass a long, blissful time watching the green lizards playing hide and seek through the tiles beside me, or gazing down at the Umbrian countryside or up at the scudding clouds.  The world slowed down.  The few people who passed seemed louder than usual.  The beauty around me appeared more pronounced.  This feeling of complete contentment was to last well into the evening when I sat watching the sunset from the special seat in my garden.

Umbria stretched out below and my green lizards

What was the source of this perfect peace? Was there an echo of Francis’s state of grace left behind in his cave? Did the walls remember an essence of him? Had he chosen an ancient site of special energy? Or had I just opened my heart to a treasure that is within all of us if we allow it to flourish?

As I left the Hermitage I noticed a sign for the end of the Via Francigena, St Francis’s way, and smiled as I was reminded that Day One of this Journey had started on this pilgrimage path in Aosta many weeks before. There seemed significance in this and I reflected on how these lone journeys give me important life lessons that I still need to learn –  I had been shown again the merits of silence and how through it one can access a well of inner peace that we all possess.

My happiness in Assisi was boosted by the fact that I was staying in a charming, vintage-style cottage in a sheltered garden, down the hill from the town.

On my last evening I caught sight of curious flashes in the garden from my window.   Venturing outside into the night I was immediately surrounded by dozens and dozens of flying lights.  After my soulful experience in Francis’s cave my instant, fleeting thought was that I was now even seeing fairies – before I quickly realised that the flowers, bushes and trees in my garden and those in the adjacent olive grove were alive with fireflies that flew hither and thither around me and settled high and low creating a magical spectacle that made me laugh aloud.     My garden was full of tiny bright lanterns as if lit up for a wonderland party.  I stayed outside with them, and simply revelled in the joy that this last gift from Assisi gave me.

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Comments
One Response to “THE SURPRISING GIFTS OF ASSISI”
  1. Joannie says:

    I could sense your spiritual experience. I just wish I could grow to be similarly moved. It was a joy to share this journey with you. Thank you +

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