14 August 2012

Getting Away from It All--Assisi-style

Above the hills of Assisi is a retreat place called i carceri. It means prisons. You might have guessed that by the related word incarcerated. Francis and friends used to walk up to the place, full of trees and caves. The women in this picture are following that example. That's not how most tourists get there though.

Most of them go by taxi.

That may seem strange, but it is a long walk uphill. The road is full of switch-backs and there is no bus. A taxi can get you there in good time, and if you have the money, the taxi will wait. Otherwise, you can walk down, and dodge the taxis that keep streaming up the hill.

It does seem a bit strange to take a taxi to see where the Poor Man liked to retreat. But I digress.

Lots of trees up here and lots of caves. Francis wasn't about building things, but making use of what he found. (You wouldn't guess that from Assisi where every place he ever touched has been churched over.)

Every place is holy. That's what I learned in Assisi. People come from around the world to touch the holy places, holy because Francis and Clare and their raggedy band of followers were crazy in love with Jesus. I don't know how many of them go home determined to find those places in the towns and cities where they live.

I have a suspicion that neither Francis nor Clare grew up thinking their town was anything special. Francis was eager to get away and go off on Crusade. He made it as far as Perugia, the next town over, and got thrown into prison there. He spent a year cooling his heels and returned to Assisi, determined to serve Another Lord.

People come to Assisi because it's a stop between Florence and Rome, about three hours, right around lunch time. Just enough time to check out the Basilica of St. Francis that was damaged in an earthquake back in 1997. Most people don't have the time to walk the length of the town to see the Basilica of St. Clare and see the Saint Herself laid out in a crystal coffin. (Snow White, anyone?**) And they definitely don't see the doorway that marks what would have been a stable where Francis was born. (So the story goes!) Or the post office that was a church when Giovanni di Pietro di Bernadone was baptized. They miss the Roman ampitheatre and the Temple to Minerva that exists under the church of St. Mary Major. And the bishop's courtyard where Francis stripped off his clothes and his father renounced him.

No matter.

The amount of time spent in Assisi isn't important. There's something about the place that dampens the most hardened traveler. It's just a spritz of refreshment, a taste of water that is really Living Water.

People come to jail for all sorts of reasons. Many just pass through, on their way to somewhere else. Some stay for a while, wondering how they ended up in this God-forsaken place. Some just go about their business. It's a job, covers the rent, puts food on the table. Some arrive in a police car and leave on a bus. Some leave with a loved one, or at least one who can tolerate this interruption to the schedule one more time.

But it's a holy place. A place where people become holy if they dare let God in.

**I knew you'd ask. Here's St. Clare. 


13 August 2012


This is a cell.

Not a hermitage but a prison cell.

It's in Assisi and, according to the local story, this is the place where Francis spent some time after his father had him arrested.

What? Dissension within a saint's family? It's a long tradition apparently. There are a number of virgin-martyrs on the Saints List because they didn't want to marry who Papa proposed. All of those were women, strangely enough. Can't think of a single man whose Daddy tossed him in the clink for refusing to marry.

So why did Francis spend time in the Assisi jail? In his efforts to rebuild the crumbling church of San Damiano, seems he sold off some cloth owned by his merchant father and then gave the money to the caretaker-priest. Collecting and refurbishing stones wasn't enough to do the job, so Francis went where the money was.

It got worse. Eventually, his father was so embarrassed by Francis and his actions that he hauled him before the local bishop and told the bishop to make his errant son conform and obey. In one of the great dramatic Lives of the Saints scenes, Francis told the bishop, "Look, I'm clearly upsetting my father. So I'm giving him back his clothes and his name and from now on, I'll only call God 'Father.'" The bishop had the good sense to order someone to cover him up.

There's no record that Francis and his father, Pietro, ever reconciled.

Assisi is a small town. Everyone knew the business man, Pietro. And everyone knew his wildly extravagant, party-throwing son. What Francis did is much like the boy-who-became-Prodigal, who demanded his part of the inheritance although his father was still alive: "I don't need you, old man." What a deep wound to the heart and spirit. Can you imagine the talk around town? The sides that people would have chosen?

How much business did Pietro lose? How many other parents commiserated with him when their own children wanted to follow Francis' example and leave behind the middle-class life?

How many sermons were preached about honoring one's parents? Being respectful? Not causing shame?

Did either man ever regret that day in front of the bishop?

I don't know. But I'm guessing both of them sat in their respective cells, one at home, one in the town jail, and thought about it for a very long time.

12 August 2012

Isolation, Irish-style

This is a cell.

Not a prison cell, but a hermitage.

It's on the Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland. You'll find all sorts of them if you search for "beehive hermitage" on the Internet.

These little places are not on the heavily-traveled tourist route, but I have found myself going back there these days as I think about the jail and the people who live there and try to survive the life they find there.

Life in isolation is not easy. Most people in jail aren't in a one-person cell. (Where I work, those spots are on the upper floors and reserved for people who are in maximum custody, either for their own safety or the safety of others.) At the King County Jail, most people live in a dorm with 19 other people. 

It's noisy. It's never dark. The conversations often don't make sense. If there's a TV, you can bet that Jerry Springer is on. What books may circulate often have the last chapter torn out. That's maddening if you're reading a mystery, although I had to laugh when someone complained that the last chapter of Revelation was torn out of the bible. "It ends with a blessing and Amen," I told the man. "It ends well." Then I got him another bible.

But while most people at the jail live in a dorm, they all live in some kind of isolation: away from regular life, whatever it may have been. Did you know most people don't have phone numbers memorized anymore? It's all in the cell phone--which is locked up in the Property Room. Make a phone call on the pay phone? Only if you have money on your books. How do you get money on your books? Usually someone has to put it there. Which means you need to contact someone to ask if they'd do that for you, but wait, the phone number is in the cell phone which is locked up, just like you are.

 The beehive hermitages make me think of the thousands of people who, over the centuries, have chosen to live apart. Some went for a lifetime. Others just for a while. When I talk with someone who is climbing the walls for being in jail, I call to mind those hermits and ask them to pray. Many of them lived without books, without family, without good weather. They might have a few things to teach us.