The birds are singing outside our window in Assisi this morning. Yesterday we arrived at Santa Maria degli Ancillotti, a bed-and-breakfast just over the hill from the home of Sts. Francis and Clare. That sounds like one of the names attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Santa Maria) but in fact Ancillotti is the name of the famiy that owned this ancestral farm for many generations. Now the brilliantly converted property is owned by a 38-year-old named Alessio and his mother, father, wife, and sister. Since yesterday afternoon, when we arrived, Alessio has been our Virgil, showing us around. Today, he has promised that he will take Katie and me underground, like Beatrice and Dante, to the chapel on the property dating to 1179 BC. That is two years before Francesco di Bernardone was born over that yonder hill.
My journey to the Catholic Church effectively began in Assisi 41 years ago. The Vietnam war was still on in 1971, while many of the best things about the world I had known growing up as a child in Minnesota were coming off. First of these was my religion. An Episcopal altar boy from age 12 to age 15, who had dreamed of being an Episcopal minister, I arrived in Assisi on a chilly day in March as a wise-guy agnostic on a vaguely eastern spiritual search. "Wise-guy" is not fair, I know. My search was sincere enough. It was driven by need (what adolescent is not needy?) and desire (for God, for answers, for the key to my destiny). For reasons that haven't fully come back to memory, I did not believe that I could find what I desired in the Episcopal Church.
I found it in Assisi. Yet as I confessed to Katie last night at dinner, I do not know if I will even recognize Assisi when we round the hill this morning. For this I blame aging, the way love stories become legends, and "Brother Sun, Sister Moon."
I am 41 years older that I was then, and I have forgotten most of what happened when I was 19. Whether that memory loss has anything to do with certain recreational activities we 19-year-olds enjoyed during that era will be left to the reader to guess. I forget most everything about Assisi, except St. Clare. The body of the sister saint to Francis lay in a glass casket covered only by a thin gauzy sheet. Beneath the sheet, Clare's entire intact body was clearly visible. I have read since that time that what lies beneath the sheet is her skeleton, exhumed intact in 1850. But the vision of a woman so certain in her faith, so stabilized by it, that she could "hold together" 800 years beyond death was one that will never leave me.
The rest about Assisi in 1971 is completely vague, partly because that visit was like a first date in the story of a love that has spanned a lifetime. And who remembers one's first or second or third date, or in what order they happened? One remembers (I remember) that one was in love, pure and simple. That's how it was for me with Katie when we began dating 28 years ago (after knowing each other as colleagues for 12 years), and that's how it was for me and the Catholic Church and St. Clare and Assisi. That's where it started.
Unfortunately, my memories of Assisi itself have been conflated over the intervening four decades with images from Franco Zeffirelli's film "Brother Sun, Sister Moon." For reasons too lengthy for this short post, I have seen this film about thirty times since 1976, and not on DVD or on-demand. In fact (short version of long story), I was part owner of a movie theater for many years, and one of our most popular films was this fanciful, flowery biopic of the young St. Francis (Sun) and Clare (Moon), driven by a soundtrack featuring the folk singer Donovan.
So I do not know what I will see or feel today when I visit Assisi today. Will Graham Faulkner, who played Francis in the film, chase a sparrow across a rooftop? Will he cut Judi Bowker's hair with sheep shears? Will Brother Wind and Sister Air "open my eyes to visions pure and fair"? I do not know. But chances are it will be memorable, and if I write about it as soon as I return to Santa Maria degli Ancillotti this evening, perhaps I won't forget too much about it.