Friday, July 12, 2013

Newlyweds in Italy: Assisi, part II

Giotto: Death of St. Francis
Francis is entirely a living image of Jesus, and his whole life is nothing but a radical testimony to Jesus. Still, it is fascinating to see how people who don't believe in Jesus, or even in God, are drawn to this place. They bring their hopes to this place. Perhaps it is the kindness of Francis, not only to persons but to all creatures -- his experience of communion with all of reality, his capacity to address everyone and everything as "brother" or "sister" -- perhaps this aspect of Francis's character draws people of every kind to go there.

Of course, people distort the image of Francis to fit their own preconceptions. Still a spark of the mystery of the human vocation can shine through even the distortions. Francis resists being reduced to an environmental activist, or as someone who brings "peace" through sentimentality. He remains the man who abandons everything that we think is important in life in order the follow that which our hearts tell us is truly necessary. So many wandering and confused people look for a sign that "conflict and emnity" are not the final words on life. We are called to be brothers and sisters, and to be at home in our world as we journey through it. Francis finds everything by giving it all up to follow Another who is greater than everything.

People are drawn to this because grace is at work in their hearts. Only God knows what so many take away from their visits to Assisi, their "anonymous pilgrimages" -- these journeys of restless hearts that do not know (or are afraid to admit) that they are searching for true peace.

We believe in Jesus, and yet we are searching for a deeper and ever more pervasive conviction that He really and truly renews all things in Himself. In Francis, that conviction is radiant, and stones and paint, streets and hills, grass and foliage and even sun and moon still speak about his witness, after 800 years.

From the travel journal, July 1996:
In the upper church of the basilica we marveled at the magnificent frescoes of Giotto portraying the life of St. Francis. We were helped significantly by our guide book, but I was helped most of all by Eileen's deep spiritual attunement to the work of Giotto. It was incredible to think that these were painted within living memory of St. Francis.
All of the painting in the basilica radiates the glory of the events themselves; it emerges from an immersion into the actual experience that had been generated by the grace of the Holy Spirit around St. Francis and his original followers. This is perhaps the secret to the transcendent humanism of Giotto's figures; this is why they are so humanly real and so "iconic" at the same time. Their tender realism draws us from concrete human forms situated in the world to the Infinite God who became man.
In the afternoon we strolled all around the town. Or, rather, at times we strolled and at other times we hiked. Everywhere there were beautiful vistas, hidden alleys that wound through little nooks between the buildings, and a pervasive sense of peace. We had a few moments in St. Clare's church, and we watched the sun set behind the hills, the cupolae, and the bell towers of Assisi from the heights of the Piazza Santa Chiara.
And the moon shed a gentle light on the streets that night.
The next morning, on our way to the basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli, I bought a new pair of brown leather walking shoes (Eileen had bought shoes last week in Rome).
This grand 17th century basilica was built to surround and enshrine the Portincina chapel. In the early 1200s, this tiny chapel was all by itself in the woods outside the city. Francis loved to come here to pray; and later he came with his first friends to live. Finally, he came here to die -- another chapel in the modern basilica marks the place (which had been the infirmary of the "little brothers") where Francis died. In the painting, his disciples are kissing the holy wounds on his hands and feet.
It was time for our journey to continue. But it was difficult to say goodbye to Assisi.