Some Thoughts About Assisi

I was privileged to spend a semester in Rome, Italy during the Fall of 2007.   My school, the University of Dallas, has a twelve-acre campus in the beautiful rolling foothills just off the Via Appia Nuova.  Once a small farm, it was built up to include a three-story dormitory, food and meeting halls, a swimming pool, sports field, quaint gardens, a chapel, and an administrative area that also serves as rooms for on-site faculty.  The campus sits on a well-appointed (newly-productive!) vineyard an hour southeast of Rome, very close to Lake Albano and Castel Gondolfo where popes go to take their summer rest.  Known as Due Santi (“The Two Saints”), the area is a historic district named in honor of Saints Peter and Paul who are believed to have stopped at a nearby well. Additionally, archaeological finds on and near the campus have uncovered marvelous suburban villas built by ancient Romans who must surely have valued the area for its fresh air and beautiful landscape, as the students have in that glorious space since 1994.

Going to Rome is a rite of passage at the University of Dallas. It is a unique draw for the school and offers students a life-changing opportunity in the vein of the old Grand Tour of Europe referenced by such writers as Mark Twain.  The semester’s “Rome class,” numbering about 80 sophomore students, spend four days a week pursuing a full course-load so as not to fall behind with the rigorous University academic program, but are given three-day weekends for maximum opportunity to travel as far and wide as possible.  My class was also taken on group outings to northern Italy (visiting Florence, Venice, and Assisi) and to Greece, given a full ten-days off just after mid-terms to jet away on our own grand European adventure, and another five days off at Thanksgiving. Suffice to say the possibilities were endless for the mischief we could make!

The group outings, whether in and around Rome or to distant destinations, were always an interesting time.  Our class was divided across two buses, big luggage stowed carefully underneath, personal backpacks stuffed with iPod, headphones, writing supplies, class texts, strange European cell phone, either at feet or above in a bin.  After a rough start to the semester, being outrageously shy and insecure, I had made plenty of friends and so plopped down next to a window near the front of the bus, careless of who sat next to me.  This first part of the trip would be the best time to get some reading done, so I snuggled into my new off-white Italian jacket that  I’d bought on a whim the previous weekend at a midnight festival in the neighboring town of Marino.  It gave me a sense of comfort and freedom for the price of €40, but was an unusual purchase for my frugal self. Comfortable, I dug into Thomas Aquinas.  This endeavor was abandoned about half-way through the journey, I am sure, in favor of chatting with my now-forgotten seatmate or taking a nap (due to a curious phenomenon we dubbed “travel narcolepsy” that strikes after the first hour and a half of a long ride).  I awoke just as we began our approach to Florence and was able to snap some photos of the red-domed city through the pervading chilly drizzle outside.  

Specific events from the time we spent in Florence and Venice are a bit of a blur to me now.  I do remember leaving my purse at our restaurant after dinner in Venice one evening and having to sprint back across the unfamiliar canals in the chilly gathering dusk,  hoping against hope they had not closed for the night (they had not, I was able to get my belongings and thanked them profusely). I also remember that in Venice my friend, Paul, had his room broken into and his passport stolen.  He recalled stepping into the shower and hearing the door open, but thought nothing of it as we shared rooms with our classmates.  When he came back out, he couldn’t find his wallet or passport, both of which had, perhaps a tad carelessly, been left on the bed in plain sight. We were far from the nearest American embassy, and our professors told him he would have to travel by train back to Rome within the next day or two to get a replacement passport and student visa–mandatory documents for travel even within the country– but for now we were pressing on to Assisi.  

Our buses trundled up the road toward what looked to be a medieval fortress. Around us, the Umbrian countryside was shedding its summer greenery revealing a dry, brown, though still lovely, Autumn raiment.  I immediately felt a sort of stirring in my deepest being that I had never felt before, that we were entering a valley of God.  This place, those walls, the ancient village architecture soaring into the skies, they were all beautiful, but in a peculiar way.  Other places I had been during this semester had claims to beauty, some were even lovelier to look at than this. Now, as I gazed out the window, I noted how the Umbrian light of late afternoon fell across the strong walls perched on their rocky spur, could see the dust churned up by the lead bus drift lazily off the side of the road, and I poked in my headphones, not wanting to be disturbed as I held onto these thoughts.

The plunge backward through the centuries intensified as we disembarked and gathered our belongings to take to our hotel. The so-far mythological past I’d read about in the lives of the saints was rushing around me, filling in and shaping sharp, distinct reality all around me.  As I hefted my duffle bag, I felt that at any moment Francis would appear from around a corner, a poor little man in sackcloth holding up his arms to us, wounds of the stigmata clearly visible, or that I would see the beautiful Sister Clare coming up from her hermitage at St. Damiano, which had been behind a slight hill we’d passed on our drive in, monstrance in hand, ready to ward off fresh militant invaders.  We walked to our hotel, a humble, clean place abutting the Chiesa Nuova, the New Church. I slung my bag into a room with two of my lady friends, then immediately went to the window to see what kind of view we’d been afforded.  Rooftops, mostly. But in between the interlocking clay tiled roofs, of which I had an intimate view, I could see we overlooked the plain between Perugia and Foligno. A breeze pressed against the glass; I could feel it through my fingertips.  I looked down into the square below our window and saw, to my delight, a statue I took to be a depiction of my saintly friends, Francis and Clare. I smiled to myself and turned away to prepare for dinner.

Waking up in Assisi is not quite like waking up anywhere else.  Once you have known morning in Assisi, it is perhaps a little easier to wake up anywhere in the embrace of God.  We awoke to the bells of several churches pealing, the uniquely beautiful Umbrian light streaming through the shutters of our room.  Our first steps outside after a simple breakfast allowed us to breathe pure, unbridled air into our lungs and our hearts soared into a pure blue sky– all the elements speaking of new life and the new tenderness of serving others that Francis and Clare are best known for.  

Our first outing of the day was a guided tour of the magnificent Basilica of St. Francis.  Built within a generation after Francis’ death, the saint rests in a cavernous crypt alongside his closest early followers. His bones are situated on a ledge behind a grate right above and behind a simple bronze crucifix with two kneeling figures at right and left.  His friars were intent on making sure his remains did not fall prey to aggressive relic-hunters. The saint’s relics rest under a nameplate declaring “S. Francesco 1182-1226.”

I would not describe myself as a mystic. I had never prayed at anyone’s gravesite or tomb.  I was set on crossing the Tiber to become a Catholic at this point, but all the external habits still seemed a little foreign to me.  I had not prayed at St. Peter’s tomb in Rome,  I had given only a long, curious stare at the gravesite of the incorrupt St. Vincent in Paris, I had not even knelt at the tomb of St. Nicholas (yes, that one) whose relics give off a sweet liquid every year.  Now I knelt, and I spoke to God.  I asked him why he had invited me into conversation here, now, at this place of burial.  What benefit could there be?  In my spirit, I heard, You are with my servant Francis’ mortal remains.  And I would like to visit with you here. Now.

I did not move.  I could not hear anything except the steady beating of my own heart in my ears.  I sensed a presence over my shoulder, and thinking I was blocking one of my friends, I opened my eyes just a crack and turned my head so I could give them room.  But there was no one near me.  Returning to prayer, I thought the feeling would leave me, but it did not.  As real as anything, I felt very deeply that it was St. Francis himself at my shoulder.  Still, I chided myself, surely this was only the power of suggestion in an overwhelmingly appropriate environment.  But I felt a question forming in my mind: Can you honestly deny that presence is not there?    The answer was obvious.  I accepted the presence for what it was, and it remained at my shoulder through my whole time in prayer.  The warm peace I felt washing over me again and again, this saturation in the charism of this extraordinary shrine, was beyond description.

In reflection, this was a really curious experience for me, obvious points aside, as I had not been drawn, spiritually, to St. Francis.  I liked his story well enough, his impact on the Church echoing through the centuries, but here in this holy city of Assisi, I felt like I was finally in a place I’d always known, but never seen.  It was joy too, unlike any I’d experienced.  Unexpected joy. Curious joy.  A taste of sweetness like the wine from the vineyard terraces that lined the hillside below the city.  I thought for a long time afterwards just what that experience was about.

We were given the afternoon off to enjoy the reverent quietness of the streets.  My friends and I, including Paul, the one who’d had his passport and wallet stolen, wandered up and down the shopping district, picking through faux medieval weaponry, leather goods, religious trinkets, and other kitschy tourist trophies. I could not help but notice how tremendously agitated he was, but I was not sure what I could do for him.  He was genuinely unable to enjoy our time in Assisi because he was so concerned about traveling back to Rome to replace what had been lost and what that meant for the rest of our time in Northern Italy.  Even after a beautiful Mass in the Church of St. Stephen and dinner with our friends, his agitation escalated to such a pitch that I suggested we take a walk.

As our friends and the rest of our class drifted away to find out whether Assisi had any nightlife,  Paul and I bundled up against the chill that had descended with the darkness—I wore my multi-colored striped gloves, mismatched with striped knee-socks, plaid hat, and my new Italian jacket—and we made our way in the direction of the Basilica of St. Francis.  The winding streets were abandoned at this time of night, though they were well-lit with romantic gas lamps, and our feet took us on a course no less meandering and deserted.  We passed through ancient stone gates, past shuttered residences, and ended up close to what I recall being some kind of great fortress overlooking the townsite.  As we crested this last hill, I gasped audibly.

Was it some low, white clouds, or was it the Milky Way? Should I even try to locate familiar constellations among so many thousands of stars? Above the townsite, between Assisi and the fortress, Paul and I had come across a flat, open ground and the most glorious view of the stars I had witnessed during the entire semester. I spun in the darkness, reveling in the black sky edged only at the horizon by some distant golden glow, the velvety darkness holding pinholes punched into it by some great god—no, an infinite, creative, masterful God. I felt my spirit lift and give a great shout of joy and appreciative astonishment as it gazed upon this part of creation.  There was no greater possible end to that day.  From dawn until now, it had been sensual, but in the best meaning, saturating every sense so that flesh became finally a thing of such goodness that I blessed my Creator for making me and for holding me in existence.  

How fitting, how wonderful it was to be here.  We sat on a low-lying stone wall and talked about Paul’s troubles.  I told him every detail of my experience in the crypt that afternoon.  As I talked about the presence I had felt, I saw him drinking in every word.  It was not by accident that I was able to be there for my friend in his time of need after having such an experience.  We Christians take very seriously the “communion of saints.”  The Body of Christ is a real body, with all parts connected, and death does nothing to disturb this reality.  We can, through the grace of God, encounter those who have gone before us, as I did.  The presence of St. Francis, known for his peaceful nature, was precisely what Paul needed at that very moment and there I was conveying that to him and even amplifying it by being physically present myself.  Here in this medieval town where once an extraordinary young man had penned divine praises to God, as a lover speaking to his beloved, here the restoration of man to his true self (as he was intended by his Creator to be) was no longer only a dream of a saint.  My friend was now visibly relaxed and as we prayed together for guidance in sorting out his worries, I saw him tilt his head and gaze upward at the sky, the peace of Assisi and St. Francis, the peace of Christ Himself, finally breaking over him too.

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