A Visit to The Home of The Beloved Saint Francis of Assisi
What can I say about Assisi?
I hardly know where to begin.
Maybe it’s best to start with the ending.
As I left the convent in Assisi, the same nun who welcomed me in, took hold of my face and kissed me twice, blessing me on my way.
With tears in my eyes, I opened the door from the monastery into the tiny courtyard where my car was parked. The nun opened the gate for me and waited while I slowly negotiated pulling my car through the gate, out onto the street facing the Basilica of St Francis and up the road through town that led to the nearest arched exit way.
I drove slowly, but confidently, nothing like I had driven into the city two days ago, afraid and unsure. Or sure that I was going to hit a wall or another car, or even worse, a person.
I had laughed on the phone to my son the night I arrived, that if any of the kids had been in the car with me, they would have been yelling at me and saying there was no way I was supposed to be driving on these roads.
I had arrived at noon on a Sunday, probably not the best time to drive through tiny streets filled with pilgrims to Assisi. But faithfully following my map, I drove higher and higher, until I was right in front of the most famous church in Assisi and heard the words “You have arrived at your destination.”
I had no idea where I was supposed to go. I was in the middle of a road filled with people and no place to park, when a small gate to my left opened up so that a car could exit the courtyard. Had a car not pulled out, I’m not sure I would have known to pull in, or how to get the gate open or even that the gate was for me to enter.
This small miracle of the gate opening just as I arrived is what my entire visit to Assisi was like.
The same sister that kissed me when I left watched me park my car and welcomed me in. She spoke only one phrase in English (Everything is ok?), but somehow managed to communicate to me without words that I was welcome, that I must be tired from the journey, that I could find rest here.
Slowly and deliberately, she led me to my room on the top floor.
My window looked out over the roof and caught the far left edge of the Basilica. It was my favorite of all the rooms I stayed in on my trip (which is maybe why I have 92 pictures of it). I can’t describe why I loved it so much.
Maybe it was the replica of St Francis’ famous cross on the wall.
The simple wooden desk.
The old wardrobe that had extra pillows and blankets.
The sweetly made bed.
The way soft light came in the window at sunset.
Or the way the colors of the roof tiles seemed to change throughout the day.
I don’t know, but I could have stayed in my room the entire time I was in Assisi and been happy. I can’t think of a more perfect place for a silent retreat.
Except maybe for the place where St Francis himself enjoyed silence and solitude, the forests above the city of Assisi, in the shadow of Mt Subasio.
About an hour’s walk up the mountain from Assisi is a Hermitage (Eremo delle Carceri) where St Francis and his companions enjoyed communing with God.
A statue of him welcomes you to the silent, sacred woods.
You can descend into the caves where he prayed. You can step on the ground where he walked.
I walked these quiet woods for a couple of hours, noticing the remnants left by those who’d come before me: crosses made of sticks, stacks of rocks, prayer cards and rosaries.
I wondered how many folks have come and left their worries and woes among these stones and trees.
I only saw a few others there (maybe 5) and only on the main path through the Hermitage.
Many trails left the main path, up and down the mountain. They were all marked with funny signs, warning that you shouldn’t undertake to walk the steeper trails unless you are trained. I am certainly not “trained” but I dared to trek off the main trail to see the caves where saints hid away. I hid myself for a while from a passing rain shower and to lift my own prayers.
I stacked rocks that probably no one but God will ever see, piece by piece. One for each of my loved ones.
I had already visited the churches of St Francis and St Claire the day before, the hallowed, holy places where their remains are laid, but I think maybe there is something more of them in the woods, in the quiet Hermitage.
I had walked on the road to get up to Eremo delle Carceri, but I took the official Via Francesco through the woods back to Assisi.
I’ve been reading a biography of St Francis while traveling and I was carrying it with me, so I stopped on the trail down to read a few chapters and eat my picnic lunch.
All day the sun played hide and seek with me, so when it was out, I would find a spot to soak up its warmth and dry out my damp jeans.
After I found my way back into Assisi, I wandered around aimlessly taken photos.
So this seems like a good place to insert a LOT of pictures of Assisi:
After a while I went and found a quiet corner of the Basilica. The Basilica of St Francis is divided into the Upper and Lower Basilicas, and the walls of the upper one are covered in 28 fresco paintings of Francis’ life (all by the famous painter Giotto).
Every time I walked through the church, I would look for whatever scene I had just read about from the biography. This time I sat next to the fresco of St. Francis kneeling in front of the Crucifix of San Damiano, from which he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him.
I’m reading Paul Sabatier’s biography of Saint Francis, which was written in 1894, so there are modern notes from the editor throughout. (The biography has been so beloved that Paul Sabatier even has a street named after him in Assisi.)
It’s been such a lovely companion to my time in Italy and especially in Assisi. After I read about St. Francis giving away all his clothes in the market square, I walked through that very square and back into the church to see the painting of this scene.
When I read about St. Francis leaving Assisi through the Porta Nuova, I walked to that gate to see the blessing from him written on the walls.
After hearing about his journey to Rome to get his Rule approved, I went to see the painting of his meeting with the Pope.
I went twice to the Church of St. Claire to sit in front of the very Crucifix that played such an important role in St. Francis’ conversion.
And I saw the habit he wore, made out of rough brown wool, hanging next to the clothes of St Claire.
The stories were brought to life all over the town. When I first arrived in town I climbed to the north edge of town to see the old castle, Rocca Maggiore, where you can see the whole city of Assisi.
The town is not really that large, less than a mile long and even shorter in width, so I walked it several times during my stay, always making my way back to the sweet little room at the top of the convent of Angelina di Montegiove.
My next project will be to read something more of her. There was a note up in the convent that explained that she began this order of Franciscan sisters to be a more open group of women, so that they might be a refuge for mothers and sisters who found themselves without protection after the death of a husband or a father. Her idea of being less closed off to the world around her was somewhat radical in her time, and in fact, was rejected at first, but she succeeded in founding the order in 1403.
The sister I met certainly carried on her legacy. At breakfast, she walked around the room touching us all and wishing us well. Whenever I saw her, she would look directly into my eyes and softly say,
“Everything is ok?”
And somehow, even with all the things in the world that are decidedly not ok, I could smile back at her and nod, sincerely feeling that in those moments, yes, everything is ok.
I’ll leave you with the prayer of St. Francis that is posted in front of the Crucifix of San Damiano:
Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me
and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.