Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Assisi: parking ticket and all

We came to Assisi seeking St. Francis and Clare. We found them. We found, as well, a greeting from the Assisi police: a parking ticket. Parking in Assisi is limited to residents only.

Unaware of the ticket that awaited us on our return to the car, we blithely visited the Basilica of Santa Chiara and knelt before St. Clare's “miraculously preserved” body which, though blackened from its exposure to air, is in much better condition than poor St. Lucy, whose "in-corrupt" body I’d viewed years earlier in Venice.

a chapel at the Carceri on Monte Subasio

We then set off for the Basilica of San Francesco, and happened upon a side alley leading to a small shrine I’d not been to before. The Chiesa Nuova is the home where Francis once lived and where his father – a wealthy cloth merchant -- once imprisoned him.

Francis, as the story goes, had been praying in the rundown chapel of San Damiano, when the crucifix spoke to him, requesting that he “rebuild [Christ's] church which is falling into ruin.” Francis, believing he was meant to rebuild the decrepit chapel where he received the message rushed back to his father's shop, sold an expensive bolt of cloth, and gave the proceeds to the priest to use to restore the chapel. Francis’ father, duly enraged by such profligacy, had imprisoned and repudiated his son.

While on the way to the Basilica of San Francesco, I was reminded that people actually live in Assisi when we encountered a small group of Italian toddlers dressed in checkered pinafores and linked hand and hand that wavered like tiny butterflies across the Piazza Comune.

To get to shrine, which very immensity would embarrass the saint were he alive, one must traverse many narrow, winding, cobbled streets that, without a map, could totally confuse the traveler. But the view as one walks downhill toward to Basilica from the city makes it, in my estimation, the best way to approach the shrine. The sweep of the Cathedral before us, the wide boulevard and sculptured lawns, made getting lost well worth our confusion.

Beryl on the walk down from the city to the Basilica of San Francesco

I'd hoped that in visiting Assisi, Bill would encounter some of the spiritual aspects of its heritage that had led me, as a teenager, to enter the Poor Clare Franciscans. The Basilica is famed for its art depicting Francis's life, so while he moved thoughtfully from one Giotto fresco to another, I sought the lower level, drawn by the knowledge that there I’d find the tomb of St. Francis.

The lower Basilica is a place of dim light and silence. There, away from the voices of guides and pilgrims praying in large groups, one can kneel or sit quietly, to contemplate the mysteries of a life so filled with love of Jesus that its light still radiates throughout the world.

I’d named my daughter Francesca after this beloved saint, and while kneeling there, bathed in the light of a hundred or more flickering candles, my heart was filled with thoughts of her. I asked for a mass to be offered for Francesca who’d died nine years earlier, praying that she'd found the peace she'd been unable to find in life. I lit a candle for my son Thomas. On the way back to the upper Basilica, I passed a modern day Francis: a young pilgrim in torn sweater and ragged pants, kneeling, arms cruciform at the back of the chapel, his face uplifted in prayer.

There is much to see in Assisi and we packed as much of it as we could into one day. We visited the convent of San Damiano, the birthplace of the Poor Clare Order, where St. Clare had lived and where bouquets of flowers marked the place where she'd sat in the refectory and the floor where she'd died.

The refectory at San Damiano

We walked the paths of the Carceri on Monte Subasio. We visited the hovels at Rivo Torto. We stood within the tiny chapel of the Portiuncula where Clare had dedicated her life to God and where Francis – marked with the wounds of Christ – yielded back to God the life he’d lived for love of God.

Our souls surfeited, our legs aching, we went in search of food and found it across the street from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli where the Portiuncula sits like a precious gem within the great vaults of its interior. Legs rested, appetites satisfied, we headed back to the Hotel Delfina in Foligno for a night's rest before heading to Florence on the morrow..

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