When I was twenty and a junior in college, I fell in love. It was a resounding thump that has echoed through the decades since then. And a Jesuit was responsible, no kidding.
I was in Rome at Loyola University (Chicago) Rome Center on Monte Mario. Some three hundred of us lived in a former tuberculosis sanitarium with wonderful balconies, too much espresso and Coke, and far too many cigarettes. We came from all over the United States. I was surprised to find a first grade classmate there. That year was exceptional and it sometimes sneaks out in a Chicago-accent that still sounds strange coming from a Northwest mouth.
It was 1973-74. Spiro Agnew resigned while we were gone. Streaking was a hot fad. (One of our classmates went home after the first semester and showed up in the newspaper streaking at a baseball game in Chicago.) Nixon resigned when we got home. There was homegrown terrorism in Italy. The son of someone famous was kidnapped and his ear was sent to his parents. I rode a train through Bologna. At the station, I stared out the window at a pile of bricks, leftover destruction from a bombing the week before.
All the news we got about the US came from a newspaper with two pages of news, more of sports, and the comics. It wasn't much. We learned instead how others saw the US. And we learned of the concerns of people in Europe who had to live in the shadow of US and USSR politics. I never saw my own country the same.
But I was talking about falling in love. In early October 1973, Fr. John Crocker took a group of us on the train to Assisi. It was three hours from Rome. The train was packed. I sat on a wooden fold-out seat in the corridor and was grateful for it. We spent the weekend in Assisi.
It's a beautiful medieval town with rosy colored stone from the quarry off the back of the hill. The Basilica of St. Francis anchors one end of town and you can walk to the upper part of the town by following the souvenir shops. At the upper end is the Basilica of St. Clare with the cross from San Damiano hanging in a chapel. (That's the cross that's on the left side of this blog, in case you hadn't recognized it.)
That cross once hung in a ruin of a church down below the city. In the early days of his conversion, Francis used to pray there and heard God telling him, "Go, rebuild my church, which you can see is falling into ruins." Francis started picking up stones and rebuilding the walls of that church. Later he would figure out that his mission was bigger than what he'd first imagined, but he started with those few stones. The church of San Damiano is where the Poor Ladies lived, where St. Clare lived out her long life. It was from this place that she prayed that the Saracens might leave Assisi alone. A bouquet of flowers marks the spot where she slept and finally died.
That weekend in Assisi, we tromped all over the place. We saw more than the usual tourists see in their three-hour lunch stop on the way to Florence. "Here's where Francis was born, where his father locked him up for being rebellious, where he stripped off his clothes in front of the bishop's house...." We went up the mountain to the Hermitage. We discovered little archways with a notation that he'd been there. We heard the story about Assisi's war with Perugia and understood the ambition to give everything to a great cause. We sat in an amphitheatre hidden in an upper neighborhood.
That weekend, history blasted alive for me. Here was a place affected by the Crusades. Here were people who'd been caught between pope and emperor. Here was a young man who didn't want to sell cloth but wanted something more. Here was someone willing to risk it all and was the first guy canonized by his nickname, "Frenchy"! (I have to thank a Franciscan sister who told me that, although my given name was not a saint's, it was my responsibility to become St. Shannon.)
History was finally about real people who struggled with the demands of their day and believed. They thought God was telling them one thing, and learned, by making mistakes, that God would ask more of them. There was plenty to be ranted about, and even more to be awed by. I learned that every age can be holy.
It was the same lesson I'd learned a few years earlier when I'd started going to church again. When I left in 8th grade, Mass was in English but that hadn't seemed to make a difference in the town where I lived. By the time I went again as a freshman in college, I had the profound understanding that every language is holy. Even the words that I strung together were heard by God, not because they were in fancy packages, but because they were my own. And all those stories I'd heard and read in Catholic grade school? They were true.
I fell for Francis, and by falling for him, for Jesus as well. I thought I had to be a nun in order to follow Jesus completely--and cloistered, like Clare, seemed the only way to go. I was enamored, for a brief time, by some sisters in Philadelphia who wore pink habits and rollerskated in their enclosure, but in the end, it was going to be the Poor Clares for me.
And like Francis who picked up rocks to rebuild a crumbling church, it wasn't the Poor Clares in the end. Whether it was my deep-seated extraverted nature, or the way I really like being around both men and women, or because I didn't have it in me, I didn't become a Poor Clare. I went into teaching, thinking that the Poor Clares would surely ask if there was anything else I'd ever wanted to try, and I'd be two steps ahead of them... But the abbess didn't think I was called and I discovered I loved teaching. (And that's neatly stepping around the BIG elephant in the room where I thought that since the Poor Clares didn't want me, it was clear that God didn't either.) I loved teaching. And then I loved parish work. And now I love the prison.
In my office, there is a poster of the Cross of San Damiano and Cimabue's painting of Francis. In my heart, I carry the words that Francis wrote to one of the Friars Minor:
There should be no friar in the whole world who has fallen into sin, no matter how far he has fallen, who will ever fail to find your mercy for the asking, if he will only look into your eyes. And if he does not ask for mercy, you should ask him if he wants it. And should he appear before you again a thousand times, you should love him more than you love me, so that you may draw him to God.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:San_Francesco_Cimabue.jpg It's this picture that is in my office--minus all the glory-toting angels. Isn't that just like Francis, a character off to the side and setting a match to the revolution?