Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Assisi: Jesus and Gelato

As we left the old walled city of Assisi and headed toward the car park beyond Porta Nuova this afternoon, Katie exulted, "I am so happy. I feel like I'm cruising with God." I was too humble to ask: did she mean Him or me?

It was that kind of day — officially Day 7 of our honeymoon-after-28-years=of-marriage. We laughed and then we sat side by side in awed silence. There was time for both Jesus and gelato, which Assisi combines in about equal measures.

It would be easy to grow quickly cynical about the commercialism of this hill-top town in Umbria. The crowds today matched anything we saw in Venice, and so many of the visitors had that sated look of one-too-many-museums, one-too-many-tourist-traps. Just get me back to my bus and my hotel, please, prego, bitte, s'il vous plaît.

The main attractions within the walls are lined up on a single main drag, where every square meter of retail space has been given over to food, clothing, art, and religious tchotchkes. A carousel did land-office business in the square facing the church where the remains of Saint Clare lie, and I passed a shop offering custom-lettering on every kind of clothing, where a mannequin wore an apron reading "I am the king of barbecue." Welcome to the birthplace of St. Francis!

I did not remember it this way at all from my first visit 41 years ago. That occurred on a chilly day early in March. Today was perfect weather on the first of May, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and a national holiday in Italy. Assisi was swarming.

And still. The holiness of this place trumps all — especially outside this place. Because the two sites that fairly tremble with the presence of St. Francis and St. Clare are outside the city walls, at the Church of San Damiano down a steep hill from Porta Nuova and at the Porziuncola, deeper in the valley below the old town, which looms overhead like an impregnable fortress.

Katie let me guide the tour today, and so we began at San Damiano, where Francis heard the voice of Christ speaking from a Romanesque crucifix telling him to rebuild His church. We sat together in the sanctuary where a replica of the crucifix hangs. (The original is in the Church of St. Clare, in town.) As we entered, I felt the day's one rush of emotion. I have a smaller replica of this very cross in my prayer place at home in Massachusetts, so I have become quite friendly with the Christ of San Damiano. But this emotion was something special: a homecoming after many years at war, a total joy in returning, a Catholic now in Assisi 41 years later.

My first temptation when seated before the Christ that spoke to Francis was to wait impatiently for that Christ to speak to me. But then came a saving sequence of thoughts: there was only one Francis of Assisi, I was not him, and therefore I should probably not wait too long for Jesus to tell me something so concrete. So instead I listened to the silence. Outside in the courtyard dozens upon dozens of people — perhaps as many as 100 — milled about, and yet at any one time there were only a handful of us in the sanctuary. Out there noise, in here blessed quiet.

I realized that I can keep a silent place inside myself even in the noisiest crowd. And in doing so I will never be alone. While we sat, a family of four came in, much like Katie and me with our two young daughters. The mother sat beside the elder child asleep in a stroller, while the father indulged the younger one, as she ran in and out, bringing him prayer cards from a display at the entrance — much as I once indulged Marian. At one point, a Boy Scout, in traditional blue beanie with yellow piping, popped his head in, looked around, and quickly withdrew. I was a Boy Scout myself once in Minnesota, but for a time almost as brief as that boy's appearance today. Those who entered the sanctuary were somehow part of me.

We walked through the adjoining rooms of the Church, several of which were used by the Poor Clares, founded by St. Clare in 1211. I was touched to see the chapel in which the sisters listened to the Mass next door, and I pointed to Katie the opening through which they received communion. Also moving was the refectory, with its six rude wooden tables lining the perimeter, and light squeezing in through two high narrow leaded windows.

We next walked the gauntlet through town, where the crowds massed as the sun climbed. Here I was most struck by the crypt in the Basilica of St. Francis where the saint himself is buried. His remains are encased in a stone coffin placed above the altar at the end of the crypt, and in four corners around him, as on the four sides of a diamond, the remains of four close followers lie in silent tribute. Circulating around the altar was an unending flood of visitors, and I was struck suddenly by a comparison.

Several months ago, with my daughter and her husband-to-be, I visited the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City. Grant has always been a secular hero of mine, and I had wanted to visit his tomb for many years. Here too the entombed hero lies in the middle of things, though in Grant's case, he is buried beside his beloved wife, Julia, and in grand triumphal coffins. (Clare is not with Francis, of course; she is buried in her own church half a kilometer from her spiritual brother — chaste in death as in life.) At Grant's tomb, too, trusty lieutenants gather in homage. Surrounding the remains of General and Mrs. Grant are the busts of Grant's subordinates, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas, MacPherson, and Ord. But with this the comparisons end. The atmosphere in Grant's tomb was one of dusty solitude. There were no other visitors when the three of us were there. A lonely park ranger guarded the door in the anteroom overhead, as though a fourth visitor would be one too many. At the tomb of St. Francis today, the whole world was present, a thousand candles blazed, and the atmosphere was exalted.

Katie and I worked our way down the gauntlet and back, then drove our car to the Porziuncola, about 4 kilometers from town. This is the church that Francis rebuilt, the church that became the center of life for the early Franciscan community, and the church where Francis died in 1226. Here too there is a sense of the silence that can exist within life's grandest places and noisiest moments. The immense papal basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli has been built around the tiny Porziuncola, which huddles humbly beneath the dome of the basilica. The visitor is left with a choice of metaphors. Either the institutional Catholic Church grows too large for its spiritual heart, becoming extravagant where Christ was humble, rich where the goal is poverty. Alternatively, the Holy Spirit, represented by Francis, Clare, and their followers, continues to animate the Catholic Church, no matter how grand and powerful and sometimes even corrupt it may become.

For those like Katie and me, who came as pilgrims and left in awe, the choice is not difficult.

A footnote of interest on our trip so far: Our first full day in Venice was the Feast of San Marco (April 25), patron saint of the city. We visited Siena on the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena (April 29). And today, when I revisited the place that truly started me jonesing for Jesus 41 years ago, the world observes the feast of my patron saint, Joseph. Something is really clicking here.

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