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.

4 comments:

Gringa Vieja said...

Ah, thanks for these recollections of Assisi. I, too, have wonderful memories of that soulful (in spite of the souvenier stands) place. I had no idea about the Assisi War Cemetery, though, so thank you for mentioning that.

Blessings on the continuation of your ministry at the jail!

Fran said...

What a beautiful post - so evocative!

Anonymous said...

At conversiondiary.com, I read in your introduction:
"Murray Bodo, ofm's book "The Journey and the Dream"is the one that had a profound effect on me. Turned me into a St. Francis and Clare groupie."

I knew I had to look at your blog then because on the small table beside my chair Is Murray Bodo's book "Through the Year With Francis Of Assisi: Daily Meditations from His Words and Life." How wonderful it was to read here that you lived in Assisi during one summer vacation, walking all the streets Francis and Clare once walked. I was also delighted to see your photo of the tomb of Francis as we didn't take any photos or buy any postcards when we were there.

My husband lived and taught in Cortona one fall semester, long before "Under the Tuscan Sun," and later we led student tours to Italy for several years and also made a couple of trips on our own. I will never stop missing Italy and its people, would move there in a heartbeat, at least to Tuscany or Umbria.

In 1995, I especially wanted to be in Assisi for Epiphany. We stayed an extra week after the students flew home that year so we could go to Cortona, Assisi, Volterra, to San Gimignano without students, and so on. The town of Assisi was covered in snow, the air as freezing cold in the Basilica as outdoors, if not more so. We rushed past the Giottos, my husband being sick with a horrible cold, and made for the chapel in the crypt, where it was much warmer.

We stayed in the chapel for a long time, kneeling on the stone ledge on each side and the back of the tomb. It was very moving for us both, touching the stone surrounding the bones of St. Francis. I think everyone loves St. Francis and he has always been a favorite saint of mine. That's partly because Francis is the patron saint of ecologists, needle workers, and tapestry workers, and I am or have been all of those. I'm not sure why he's patron of the latter two, perhaps just because of his friendship with St. Clare, whose patronage includes needle workers, embroiderers, and, of course, television. (That last one puzzled me for years before I learned the reason for it.)

We had had to park in a lot outside town and walk uphill on icy streets, which I enjoyed but I had gotten over my horrible cold while we were in Firenze the week before. I remember there were flowerpots hanging on the walls of houses, with flowers in bloom, despite the snow. I think we may have taken some photos of the flowers and street.

When we left the chapel, my husband said he was sorry but he just needed to get back to the car, he couldn't go back into the Basilica to really look at the Giottos or do anything else in Assisi. He wanted to get back to Firenze and our warmer pensionato, after two nights in a convent in Cortona. The sisters there were very gracious and the room quite nice but it was colder at night in Cortona because of the elevation.

As we walked out the door into the sun and cold air, I exclaimed, "Ecco! Tassi!" and got him into the cab before he realized my plan was for us to be delivered to our car in the lot outside Assisi. Soon we were in our rented Renault Twingo on the autostrada and, before long, back in our home base in Firenze, I am sorry we didn't see more of Assisi but praying at the tomb of St. Francis was what I most wanted to do there so my primary mission was accomplished.

Buona notte, Shannon! I hope my story is not too long for you to enjoy a bit. Mi chiama Caterina.

Shannon said...

Caterina! Thank you for sharing the lovely experience of Assisi. I was breathing Umbrian air as I read your note. Something tells me we may have other things in common!

Shannon