In April 2019 I went on a pilgrimage to Assisi. Aside from the time in planning, I’d been looking forward to this possibility for years. Since beginning work at Ave in 2011 I have been captivated by the Franciscan charism. Over that time, the more I learned about Francis and Clare the more I wanted to learn and the more interesting and contemporary they seemed to me. Being on the pilgrimage I did indeed learn more about Francis and Clare but I was struck by the ‘spirit of place’ in Assisi – which I sum up as peace and beauty. Like any experience, it is impossible to share fully. Yet over the three months since the pilgrimage I’ve felt that the pilgrimage has been at work in me. What follows is my desire to share and express some of that experience.
Wishing you peace and all good.
Spring! Landing in Rome having left autumn behind in Melbourne, I am struck by the greenery, by the colour. This wisteria is a spectacular example.
Being on pilgrimage all this riotous life is so Franciscan and adds another layer to my time. Whether it’s the contrast of the green foliage against the blue sky
Or the life of the flowering plant growing from the rock, it is so insistent.
Then there is this combination of vegetation, mountain and sky from Greccio
Franciscan Missionaries of Mary
The Blue Chapel in the FMM mother house in Rome is Helene’s resting place. The peace in the space is palpable. This is accentuated by the spare decorations: simple white columns, domed blue roof with scattered gold stars and a portrait of Helene in a plain frame above the white marble casket. It is not a shrine to her – but to the peace that we find in connection with God.
Since I studied John’s Gospel over 20 years ago it has spoken to and resonated with me on a very deep level. Such as John 1:14: ‘And the Word was made flesh and lived among us’ upon which our faith in the Incarnation is based. John uses a word in Greek that we translate as ‘flesh’ that could also be translated as ‘blood and guts’ – Jesus really was human. The Incarnation in the Franciscan understanding is that God is present in all of creation. So what better focus for the arch over the altar in the FMM mother house.
By using Johannine imagery in this Franciscan setting, God ties it all together for this pilgrim.
Each of the chapels are unique and each has a feeling of peace. The chapel of the Annunciation is warm and one’s focus is immediately drawn to the painting behind the altar.
The painting is a copy of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It is a beautiful and faithful rendering. We were delighted to discover that it was signed ‘Fra Angelico FMM’! It also asks the viewer, ‘will you say yes to God?’
Aside from being another mountain place for Francis and his brothers, Greccio is the home of the Christmas crib.
Francis wanted to emphasise the Incarnation – God with us. The people of Greccio were touched by what Francis had done and the Christmas crib has circled the world. Yet what transfixes me is the fresco above the small altar that shows Mary with the baby Jesus, breastfeeding him. Since we believe that Jesus was fully human, this must have happened. And yet I find the ordinariness of this scene startles me awake – ‘of course!”. I am so grateful to have discovered this nuance.
A long history
The ancient has captivated me since I was a child. That desire combined with my love of language is why I studied and loved Latin. This helped me understand more about the Romans that led me to grasp their extraordinary influence on the world, up to and including today. Coming to Assisi, I was informed that the name of the town is likely to be a corruption of ‘ascesi’, ‘I rose’, since Assisi is on the way up Mt Subasio. Roman reminders are present including parts of pavement,
the front of the temple which opens on to the Piazza di Commune that is still a centre for life in Assisi
as well as ruins that are now underground.
Having seen other medieval towns there are great similarities in architecture and layout with Assisi. Part of what makes Assisi distinctive is the hue of the ubiquitous stone. Perched on the side of a mountain, there are alleyways (or vicolo) everywhere so this scene is very Assisi and intimately connected with my time there – bringing a smile to my face!
Out of the way
It had been recommended for me to explore Assisi – as many of the little nooks and crannies as I could. Being in Assisi was a balm coming from the many edifices of Rome that seemed like someone’s ego being stroked. When I walked down one of the alleyways near our accommodation into the little Romanesque church of San Stefano, I felt at peace and at home in its quiet, low key set up. This was more ‘me’ than any of the ‘grandeur’ I’d seen…
As a parent, I know that our children are meant to leave us and move on with their own lives. The reality of that is not always easy. And so it would have been for Pica and Pietro di Bernadone, the parents of Francis. This is emphasised as Pica and Pietro had very different ‘ways of being’. The chains in Pica’s hands are meant to represent those that she removed from Francis – put there by Pietro. In part this was because Francis was giving his father’s money to the poor. In a dramatic gesture, Francis severed ties with his father Pietro, following his ‘father in heaven’. Despite whatever differences between Pica and Pietro, they are holding hands, facing an uncertain future together.
Where to from here?
Francis’ journey of conversion and more fully apprehending his vocation eventually drew Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter Catanio to explore the life that Francis was living. Before they took this any further, they travelled from Bernard’s house in Assisi the short walk up to the church of St Nicholas on the edge of the Piazza di Commune to consult the gospels and gain advice as to how they should proceed. The first time they opened the book of the gospels it said: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor’. At the second: ‘Take nothing on the road’. At the third: ‘Who wants to come after me, shall deny oneself and take up one’s cross and follow me’. All that we know of Francis and his companions is that they lived these gospel instructions. The church of St Nicholas is no longer present – except for what you can see here – open to the Piazza.
Up we climb Mt Subasio’s steep slopes passing those who walk up, grateful I’m travelling in a car. When we arrive it is so green and so peaceful, no doubt the reason why Francis came here so frequently. We wander through the simple buildings seemingly moulded into the landscape. In this springtime trees and flowers share their bounty. The view, the vibe resound the small sign we pass ‘ubi deus ibi pax’ (where God is, there is peace).
This is topped off by the statue of Francis lying on the ground, looking up. This brings his quote to mind: Looking at the stars, Francis said: ‘If these are the creatures, what must the creator be like?’
When I travel I like to capture moments – frequently in photos. I know I’m not the only one! Then a major obstacle appears in one place or another – ‘no photos’. What!?! ‘Why are they doing this?’ Aside from being a major inconvenience to the 21stcentury traveller, what might be the logic behind such a rule? My speculation, since I’ve not asked, follows: To not spoil the moment of ‘being here’ for fellow travellers. To be present myself as there is something ‘bigger’ at work. This is not a moment that I can capture. I cannot turn this experience into an object and somehow ‘claim’ it. What better way to force me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to be fully present? Annoying, but wise.
St Mary of the Angels
St Mary of the Angels is an important home for the Franciscan family. It was the base of operations for Francis and his companions, close to the leprosaria of the marshy plain below Assisi in the 13th century. Based on the tiny Romanesque church called the Porziuncola that seats about 10 people, there is now a Baroque basilica that completely houses this touchstone. Such an expression is literal with 800 years of Franciscan history contained in this simple stone and wooden building from the 8thcentury. It has been beautifully adorned in honour of its special significance – and ignoring Francis’ ‘keep it simple, don’t let things claim you’ approach. There is something special about being here (Francis was here and touched these stones!) that is impossible for me to capture in words. The photo is blurry because I was afraid a nun would tell me off! The logic of ‘no photos’ is correct here for me – the photo doesn’t capture anything. And the blurry photo is an expression of my lack of control over this wondrous place and moment.
St Francis and the cricket
In preparation for my time at St Mary of the Angels and the Porziuncola, I read about Francis and the cricket. It is like many other such stories that connect Francis intimately with creation but in a way where it is always about praising God. After visiting the basilica and the Porziuncola you come out a side door and a sculpture of Francis and the cricket is there. What touched me most is the look of wrapped attention and delight on the face of Francis.
Monastery of San Damiano
The church and monastery of San Damiano includes the area where Clare lived and died.
It is another place of extraordinary peace. Plain rooms for a practical purpose as well as chapels that draw you to stay. As someone who is constantly ‘on time’, that doesn’t matter here – this is about God’s time. There are many trees, bushes and flowers around the monastery. Noted as the place where Francis wrote the ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ (aka the inspiration for Laudato si) there is a marvellous statue of Francis looking out over the Spoleto valley pondering and rejoicing in God’s creation.
Basilica of St Clare
We go to the Basilica of St Clare for Vespers.
The nuns are ‘behind the grille’ but their singing is angelic and evocative. All this occurs in the Chapel of the San Damiano cross (on the right). To be there with the cross about which I’ve heard so much – Francis being told ‘rebuild my church which as you can see is in ruins’ and knowing that Clare spent hours in prayer before this cross – is very moving. The singing just amplifies the occasion. Then we go out and witness sunset across the Spoleto valley.
Round 2 comes later when we have the chapel to ourselves. I have been drawn to the San Damiano cross for many years. To then be in this chapel and receive my own replica was a deeply emotional experience for me.
We travelled for two hours to the mountain fastness of La Verna in neighbouring Tuscany. The cold that day went through to the bone! (We discovered on our return that it had been cold in Assisi too, judging by the sprinkling of snow on the top of Mt Subasio!)
La Verna is noted as another of Francis’ special places – this is the place where he received the stigmata.
Male and female religious communities are a continuing presence here at La Verna. In all things, Francis wanted to emulate Christ. I accept as a fact that he had the stigmata – it is attributed by a large number of people. I take the stigmata of Francis as a kind of ‘final seal’ that he was indeed like Christ. The Franciscan sister who was one of our pilgrimage leaders, the humbly knowledgeable Sr. Nancy shared a story to explain the stigmata that goes something like this:
When I was a child, my mother told me that we were going to a party for George and Mildred who lived down the street. It was their wedding anniversary. ‘Wedding anniversary?’ I exclaimed. ‘I thought they were brother and sister because they looked so similar’. My mother replied ‘When you live together for a long time you grow to look alike’.
I finish my pilgrimage sharing by talking about the view since it continues to be a powerful memory for me. After initially pinching myself, ‘I’m in Assisi’, what struck me was the view over the Spoleto valley. While the view took different shapes and colours according to the weather and the time of day, for me the view was always about peace and beauty. As I have remarked, I wanted to cram every piece of peace into me!
The view from the basilica of St Francis
Morning view from on top of our accommodation, Casa Papa Giovanni
From the basilica of St Clare
Or the view from my room!