Saturday, March 13, 2010

St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 to Oct. 4, 1226)

"Lord, grant that I might not so much seek to be loved as to love." 
(St. Francis of Assisi)

    The best part about my trip to Assisi, Italy was that I had no intention of going. Having read so much about it as a place filled with crazed pilgrims on a quest to find St. Francis and of streets lined with souvenirs made it not so appealing. Still, my curiosity prevailed.
    I knew St. Francis was a great man who chose to live a simple life. He said, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace," and was the subject of Franco Zefferilli's film "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," which my parents forced me to see at eight years of age.
   My journey began o nthe local train to the medieval town. I sat beside a group of nuns. They spoke no English and I knew minimal Italian, but we still managed to communicate.
   The long, rope-tied robes they wore this very hot day had been part of their attire for more than 20 years. Many times throughout our conversation, Sister Maria suggested I join the Franciscan Missionaries di Gesu Bambino. But, tot he agreement of of some Italan guys nearby, lively Sister Evangelista said I was too pretty to be a nun.
  The spirited women, concerned whether I had eaten, gave me a bag of freshly picked plums. The nuns invited me to stay at the convent, and I probably would have, but my reservation was already set at the Hotel Subasio.
   When it came time to leave, they kissed me goodbye and handed me prayer cards with their names and addresses should I ever decide to join their order.
   I was now at the entrance to Assisi, at the base of a high hill where cobblestone streets and alleyways curved every which way. And to my astonishment, I immediately felt the presence of St. Francis. It was not in the material things but rather in the nature that surrounded me.
   I could practically touch the Basilicia di San Francesco from my terrace at Hotel Subasio. I went directly there in the aftenoon.
   I walked everywhere until, quite by accident, I found myself in a room that is only open select hours each week and was off limits to the public that day.
   Inside a glass case, I saw a rock, a pair of worn sandals, and a familiar brown cloak that was shabby with patches. Before I realized the importance of what I was looking at, a guard began yelling from behind me in Italian to get out. I wasn't supposed to be there.
   When I turned around and faced him, he saw that I was upset.
   "What is this?" I asked pointing toward the items.
  The guard said that they were relics: St. Francis used the rock as a pillow, and. as I figured, right there in front of me were his sandals and robe from the 13th century.
  I stood there for a long time, finding it hard to believe what was before me. Suddenly, St. Francis became a very real person to me.
 "And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life," finally made sense to me. I know that there is something after we die. No one can convince me otherwise.

  The next day, I visited the Eremo delle Carceri (Hermitage of Cells), located 3 km up from the town. WIth the temperature at a near 96 degrees, the hotel manager looked at me quizzically when I asked for directions. I never was good with the metric system, so 3 km up a very steep hill didn't seem like much.
  I could have taken a bus or taxi as most people do but I wanted to walk as St. Francis so often did to the very special place of retreat. I wanted to sweat it out and feel some discomfort before the finale that would be well worth it.
  Cars and mopeds whizzed by, missing what Assisi is all about, a long trek up a road of serenity, save for a small eating establishment along the way. Each time I was offered a ride, the language barrier became a game of charades. I'd ask how much longer to the hermitage and the answers would range from 10 to 90 minutes.
  And at one point, I heard a noise coming from some bushes. It was a small, wandering donkey. Maybe he was nodding his approval that the best way to truly experience the wonders of Assisi is the simple, peaceful way. I think St. Francis would agree.

  Since most people are familiar with St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, I will be brief. He was born to a wealthy cloth merchant in 1181/82. His father was Italian and his mother was French (the same ethnicity as myself).  
  "All praise to you, Oh Lord, for these brother and sister creatures," he said. As we all know, he loved animals and they loved him.
   St. Francis met his dear friend St. Clare of Assisi around 1209. He received the stigmata. He died on Oct. 4, 1226. Canonized: July 16, 1228. He is the patron saint of animals and the environment, and is credited with creating the first nativity. Feast day: Oct. 4.

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