10 June 2010
Valley of the Inbetween
Three full weeks of vacation and I'm still fidgety about it. I haven't taken this kind of time off since I was a school teacher back in the 70s and 80s. In those days, the ten weeks of summer were a time to catch up on some required course, haunt the local library, and one year, spend 10 delirious weeks in Assisi, Italy.
Every doorway in this town is related to something in Francis' life: here's the stall where he was born, the post office was once a church where he was baptized, this hole is where his father threw him for a time out, this bishop's courtyard is where he stripped himself naked and renounced his father... I came away from that summer knowing that every town is holy, carries the marks of the holy people who live there. While you can find your way from one end of Assisi (Basilica of St. Francis) to the other (Basilica of St. Clare) by following all the souvenir shops, the paths through our modern sainted towns is not always so easy.
High above the city is the Hermitage, originally a series of caves cut into the hillside used by Francis and his followers as retreat space. The walk up the hill from town is steep, but manageable. The woods are gracious and inviting. The only "say what" moment you might have is when the limousine almost runs you down on the hairpin turn. (It's a taxi.)
And this is one of my favorite spaces in Assisi. It's beneath the basement of the Basilica of St. Francis. On the top floor are the famous Giotto frescoes. On the middle floor, a wealth of artwork that includes what is probably a good representation of what Francis actually
looked like. And then, down a steep stairway made of rock, to a chapel that fits fewer than fifty, there is the resting place of St. Francis. He was buried here, secretly, because his bones were worth big money and the Franciscans didn't want to lose him to Rome. Notice the bars around the casket, as well as the stone. No chance of an escape from here.
I loved to go down into the cellar and sit in a pew, watching the pilgrims come and go. Dozens of different tour groups speaking every language under the sun came throughout the day. Whatever else we might have had in common, we shared a love for a man who defied the convention of his day and chose Jesus as his friend and companion.
Tonight I look at the image again and think how seriously connected are the different pieces of my life. I didn't know thirty years ago that prison bars would be such a big part of my life in the new century. The fact that Francis spent a year as a prisoner of war has always been part of the story, as has that piece about his father tossing him into a home prison.
Assisi came to mean a breathing space for me. I found fresh delight in the ordinariness of human life lived in the midst of war, politics, art, family squabbles, church craziness. When I moved into prison work, I discovered that rare joy again. No matter the circumstances or the really bad decisions, here is a place where the Great Dance happens at all hours of the day and night.
This last picture is taken from the plains below the town. Assisi stretches across the hill, but you're standing at the gates of the Assisi War Cemetery--and it says that in English, not Italian. Hundreds of Allied troops are buried here. Not many people visit, but it is part of the mystery and draw of Assisi for me.
Three weeks between prison and jail have been a kind of Assisi for me, allowing me to remember Who loves me, Who calls me, Who I serve. I cannot wait to pass through the gates into another city-on-a-hill and to start looking for the souvenir shops full of stories.