Saturday, September 26, 2009


Assisi - this city of pink and white stone nestling on the green slopes of Mt. Subiaso. I last came here in 1977 dressed in the habit of Francis. At first sight little seems to have changed, except it all looks - fresher. But look again and there are still the cranes rebuilding houses shattered in the terrible earthquake of 1997. But the work of restoration has been painstaking and few would know what has been lost of the great frescoes which adorn the churches here.

I arrived by bus from Perugia on Wednesday and am staying with the Atonement Sisters whose convent guest house overlooks the basilica of Santa Chiara. The views are breathtaking. I discovered I had arrived at the beginning of the Novena for the Feast of San Francesco and went down to the basilica for the 5.45pm Procession and Concelebrated Mass, presided over by the Bishop of Assisi. Once in the lower basilica I realised I was seated beneath the Giotto of Francis (they say its a true likeness) and, as the Mass progressed, found myself moved to tears. A mixture of emotions - knowing that when I was last here I would have been dressed in the same habit as the scores of Franciscans, many of them quite young; the sense of the universality of the Catholic Church; the wonderfully haunting folk music which accompanied the Mass - all this and more brought on an overwhelming sense that here one touches the divine. And it was that, that unexpected encounter with God, which brought on my tears.

Later I found a small, empty restaurant and ate supper in the garden with its panoramic views over the plain and watched the moon as it rose over Umbria.

Yesterday I attended Mass at S. Chiara (in Polish with an interminably long sermon to a score or so Poor Clares) before walking down the hill to San Damiano. That was where the crucifix spoke to Francis and told him to "rebuild the church"; where he first lived before moving to Rivo Torto, and where S. Clare began her first community. It is redolent in meaning; one of those thin places where the mystery of God is to be known.

Afterwards I decided to make a day of it and walked another 4 km to Rivo Torto arriving just as the church closed for siesta. So, finding a cheap roadside cafe, I stretched out my legs and spent a long time over a couple of cups of coffee. I was pleased to have waited as the church, containing the (doubtless rebuilt) huts in which Francis and his first brothers lived and where his body lay for a while after his death, was a tranquil oasis of calm.

Leaving Rivo Torto I was fortunate to find the (hourly) bus to Santa Maria della Angeli arriving. So that meant I didn't have to face another 2km walk!

Whilst many despise the baroque basilica built to house the tiny chapel of the Angels and the place where Franis died, I do not find it overbearing. Indeed, because the place wasn't full of pilgrims and tourists I enjoyed the sense of spaciousness. And this is, first and foremot, a place of prayer. As if to underline that I counted no fewer than 24 confessionals, many of them clearly in use and advertising the languages spoken by the priest. The tiny church possibly goes back to the 6th century and has some moving frescoes. But it is the stillness and prayerfulness of the place (spoilt only by an English tour guide), and the devotion of pilgrims which communicates.

After spending time in the church I walked through to the Chapel of the Roses, past the statue of St. Francis bearing in his hands the tiny nest of white dove. And, with great joy, I found the dove was there, blinking occasionally as a hoard of schoolchildren marvelled at the sight.

The day ended when I took Br. Thomas Anthony SSF out to supper. Today, being yet another fine, sunny and hot day, I think I shall walk up to the Carceri. So many memories...

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