July 7-8, 1996. From my travel journal:
After a week and a half in Rome, we left early on this morning [July 7] for a new destination in our pilgrimage -- Assisi. As the train climbed into the Umbrian hills, we immediately sensed the change in atmosphere. We were leaving the chaos, the noise, and the contradictions (as well as the spiritual and historical vastness) of Rome, and entering into a place of quiet and simplicity of focus.
For Christians, Rome is the second greatest place of pilgrimage in all the world (second only to Jerusalem and the Holy Places). But it is also many other things: tourist center, historical, archaeological, and artistic center, economic and political center, and now also -- in these most recent years -- immigration center.
The proportions of Rome are everywhere huge -- supernatural grandeur, human grandeur, but also "splendid vices," and (today especially) ever enlarging tunnels of physical and personal misery. Assisi is something markedly different. Assisi is a place of pilgrimage... and nothing else.
|Assisi, a place of pilgrimage|
That "one thing" is a man. One man who lived 800 years ago. One human being who fascinates everyone. Francis.
Indeed, every saint generates fascination; it is of the nature of a saint to fascinate (because holiness is true and good and beautiful). But Francis fascinates like no one else. He remains a living icon of Christ and a living icon of the human vocation in its purest and most transparent form -- which is simply to find the truth, and to love... to love "without measure," to love "madly" ; indeed to love without measure because the Beloved is immeasurable, to love madly because the Beloved is good and beautiful beyond every limit of human calculation.
We had all of our baggage with us, so we stayed in a small hotel right across the street from the train station, at the foot of the hill where the old medieval town rises up to the sky. The window of our room had a perfect view of Assisi.
After checking in, we went immediately up the hill (in a bus) to the Basilica of San Francesco, where we attended the high Mass and then visited the crypt. There is the tomb of St. Francis, surrounded by the tombs of his first and most beloved brothers. I was struck by the power and the palpability of the affection of this most extraordinary companionship.
Above all, however, I was amazed by the pilgrims. They prayed at the tomb, kissed the ground in front of it, and pressed their heads against the grating in order to draw closer, as though they could perhaps rest their heads in the bosom of Francis. Nowhere did I see mere curiosity. Hearts were exposed here; the unfathomable human desire was wrestling its way toward the surface of those faces that crowded around St. Francis in the tiny crypt.
I held the hand of my dear Eileen and entrusted all the prayers of our pilgrimage to Francis's singular heart. We prayed that we might, in some way, begin to love Christ (and each other, and our vocational circumstances) the way he did....
[Later that afternoon] we came upon a little shop where Eileen and I were both struck by a beautiful, hand carved olive wood crucifix in the window. We loved the reverent noble simplicity of Jesus's face -- the simplicity of an abandonment to the will of the Father, expressed without any artificial sentimentalism and evidently carved with devotion.
The woman in the shop told us that her father carved the crucifix himself. It was quite large (two and a half feet long) and it cost 250,000 Lire [that's Italian currency in 1996, before the invention of the Euro], which equals about $160.00, but we decided to buy it. We both loved it so much that we thought it would be perfect for our bedroom [in fact, it has always been in the most prominent place in the house, near the front door].
It is a true work of art in its own right; a work of religious art by a person who has probably breathed the air of this holy place all his life.
...to be continued.