A fortressed town of light coloured stone and well supplied with springs, on a tree covered slope overlooking the fertile plains of Umbria. A place traditionally of squabbles between the “haves” who wanted more and were quite happy to go fight with their neighbours to get it.
Its history emerges from pre-Roman time.
Then, in the 12th Century along comes this dude, the son of a local wealthy merchant, who, after being a tearaway in the clubs and pubs of the day and into a good battle when he was able somehow changed. His life of carousing just didn’t do it for him any more. He couldn’t understand his father’s wealth in a land of much poverty and despair or the extremes of the “haves” and “have-nots” or the avarice and corruption of the day. His was another path.
What followed were periods of quiet contemplation in the countryside surrounding Assisi, when his contemporaries thought he had lost it. Then, as if to confirm that, in a broken down church not too far from town, he got this message in the form of a voice from a crucifix “Go and repair my house which has fallen into ruin”. He took this literally at first, nicked some of his father’s goods, sold them and began to literally rebuild the church with the help of a few friends. The job took on new proportions when he disavowed his inheritance and the same corruption and avarice within the church of the day with a simple message of the humble equality of all, no harm to any and the value of not being attached to ego or material goods i.e. not owning anything. Although it could have been taken straight from JC’s Sermon on the Mount or the Buddha or more recently from Mahatma Ghandi, it was a radical departure from the Church’s ethos of the day where egotistic power and accumulation were the currency of the institution.
Fortunately the Pope of that time had had a predictive dream just before this skinny guy and his skinny followers came to ask for the opportunity to teach these values. As a result, the Pope permitted it and so the Franciscan tradition arose to spread the values espoused by Francis.
The Franciscan message was revolutionary in its day and its influence continues. For example a few years ago the then pope did the seemingly impossible by uniting in Assisi religious heads from all over the world in order to determine common aims and objectives.
Francis also had a female running mate from quite an early age, Chiara (Clare), who did her own thing by renouncing her family’s wealth and establishing an order of renunciant nuns, the Poor Ladies, who later became the Poor Nuns of St Clare. Any of you who have seen the Zefferelli movie “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” will get an idea of the depth of their commitment to each other and the “cause”.
And what of Assisi today? Although it plays host to millions of pilgrims and tourists and although its permanent population is only a few thousand, the walled city itself still retains an energetic vibrancy as well as a beauty that is hard to fathom. Maybe it is made of polystyrene and is merely a film set. The energy of the place indicates otherwise.
It has something for everyone although, paradoxically, not all in keeping with the values espoused by St Francis. The grand Basilica which holds his remains is festooned with the frescos of Giotto and his contemporaries and yet built on the site of early executions as was Francis’s request for the resting place of his mortal remains. Churches abound from many ages, or, are they art galleries? Some have great feeling. Others equate with the sensitivity of a railway station. Beautifully finished and adorned railway stations mind you.
Then there is the Damiano, the church he rebuilt that later became Clare’s and her cohorts place of residence ...... I suspect the crucifix is still talking to people. Most just no longer hear.
And the Hermitage about 4 kms out of town, through the olive groves and up in the forest where St Francis and some of his earliest followers would go to meditate in rock caves and commune with nature. The vibe is as strong as ever. These guys really knew how to pick good real estate. Even now, it is still a place of sublime silence to sit and be, even when there are other pilgrims/tourist around. At night it is left to the wild boars that can be heard even close into the town rummaging for acorns and other tasty snacks. I hear them now from my bed in a monastery overlooking the Basilica and glorious sunsets. Sometime after the pigs leave off their feast the birds take over with an ever changing dawn chorus.
As with so many such places of strong energy, water appears to be a central feature and here it is readily available for drinking from ancient fountains dotted around the town and it is delicious....
Of course there are also the compulsory widgets and memorabilia in the narrow wee tourist shops some set in wine cellars from long ago and last but not least the cafes selling not only pasta and pizza but also the best of what traditional Umbrian cuisine has to offer in other respects.
Ultimately, what emerges is St Francis’s capacity to see the Divine in all things. The greatest testament* of St Francis’s life and relationship with his earthly surroundings was his lifting of the veil, that at that time and this, that darkened the dignity of creation. In this way restoring to things: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the wind, water, fire, and Mother Earth, the status of creatures generated by the will of what he called “The Lord” and the inevitability of change/death. It could have just as easily been “Gaia” or the Native American “Great Spirit” or the Maori “Eo”. Little wonder he has been designated the patron Saint of Ecologists.
* Canticle of Brother Sun
Basilica of St Francis from my hotel window
Orb over 14th station of the cross in the church that St Francis rebuilt
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