April 22, 2011

Assisi [jenna]

“Totally give yourself over to the One who gave Himself totally for love of you.”—St. Francis to St. Clare

A city set on a hill, I thought, looking at Assisi for the first time. The train had carried us through miles of open countryside, leaving us at the base of the mound on which Assisi sits like a fortress. We caught a bus and rode to the hilltop.

A breeze met us in the center of the city, sharp with fall’s chill and threatening rain. I wrapped my sweater and rain jacket around me—the warmest clothes I’d brought—and we headed toward the basilica of St. Francis.

After a week in Rome, where the fast-paced modern city hurtles over, around, and through Baroque churches and pagan ruins, it was a relief to walk along quiet streets. Assisi lacked the force of Rome and the fashion of Siena; it was simple, settled, at rest. We peered through the windows of tiny tourist shops and admired softly reddish Italian buildings that seemed on the point of crumbling with age. As we approached the basilica of St. Francis, the quiet began to feel consecrated, as if the town itself were hallowed by the spirits of its two well-beloved saints.

Giovanni Francesco di Bernadone—St. Francis, brother of all creatures, lover of poverty, wholehearted in everything he did, is one of the best-known saints in Christendom. Francis founded the “Lesser Brothers”, a monastic order that wholeheartedly renounced wealth. Their example for that was Francis himself, who stripped off his name and social standing along with the very clothes his father gave him.

When he heard Christ speak from a crucifix in the little church of San Damiano, saying “Rebuild my church”, Francis took the request literally and began rebuilding the run-down structure by hand. The deeper result of Christ’s call came later. As Francis’ faith and works became more widely known, his obedience to that call became known to Pope Innocent III, who had a dream about the passionate young monk. Now, outside St. John Lateran (the Pope’s parish basilica), Innocent’s vision stands: a statue of St. Francis, placed so that when you look at it from the right angle, you can see the little man holding up the big Church.

Back in Assisi, a woman named Chiara (Clare) Offreduccio heard Francis preach and took his messages to heart. Clare’s parents wanted her to marry a wealthy man, but she escaped with Francis’ help, eventually becoming his friend and founding an order of nuns that joined Francis’ brothers in a life of poverty, hard work and prayer.

Both of those saints, neither of whom owned anything that was not given to them, now have basilicas named in their honor. St. Francis’ basilica is dark and lovely, with broken frescoes in the upper level and a simple little chapel around the tomb of Francis himself. St. Clare’s interior is mostly destroyed; its beauty lies in its pink and white marble façade, the splendid view of olive groves and countryside from its courtyard, and in the crucifix from San Damiano church, where you can kneel and try to pray with some of the devout joy and loving surrender that Francis and Clare once did.

Other churches in town contain relics and memories of the friends. The Chiesa Nuova (New Church) hosts the little cupboard-under-the-stairs sort of room where Francis’ father locked him for his disdain of money, and somewhere I remember seeing the coarse, simple garments the saints wore—small things and few, in aged brown and cream colors.

The humility and devotion of Francis and Clare drew attention from popes and put Assisi on the map, at least as a place of pilgrimage. But humility and devotion still linger in the art and air of the town. With less grandeur than Rome boasts, and decay sped by the earthquake that damaged the basilicas, the city isn’t much of a tourist destination compared with the rest of Italy unless you’re interested in the faith.

I wanted to stay there. After touring a few big churches, the wealth and glory starts to blur together. Assisi was a place to stop and breathe, to write, to think, and most of all to pray.

"Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him” — St. Clare

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