On Pilgrimage Gillian T. W. Ahlgren “A pilgrimage is a quest for grace. The word ‘pilgrimage’ comes from the Latin word peregrinum which means one who comes from a foreign land… a stranger. A pilgrim is a displaced person whose normal routines and relationships have been suspended and who is now free to contemplate and respond to God. Pilgrimage is not about tourism or postcards; it is about change.”
Leading a group of pilgrims is an immense honor and privilege and responsibility. Pilgrims (like all of us) have tender souls. And pilgrimage is a unique time set aside to let those tender souls be touched by experiences of insight, discovery, realization, novelty and familiarity. To be a pilgrim is to engage a journey of the mind, heart and senses that makes us aware of the sacrality of life. Pilgrims honor the questions in their own hearts. They might not even know what those questions are at first, but they let them take shape and form… and then, as the questions move outside the littleness of us, pilgrims follow the trails they leave behind. The pilgrim is on a journey. The physical destination, and all that it takes to get there, and all that happens once one is at the destination—these are all integral parts of a pilgrimage. But there is a great deal more. Franciscan Murray Bodo explains: “It is not so much where you are going as the going away, the leaving itself, that matters. It is consigning to God what you thought was so dependent upon your presence: your loved ones, your affairs. You leave, not knowing for certain that you will return. You embark upon a journey of faith, from faith to faith.” Being on pilgrimage is, most primarily, a statement of vulnerability. It is a recognition that one has unanswered questions—and that one is unable, on one’s own and in one’s own place and space and time, to answer them. Thus pilgrimage is also, ironically, a profound experience of deepening relationship—with the self and with whatever Other and others one opens oneself to discovering. Pilgrimage is a practice with deep historical roots, practiced in many, many different religious contexts. All religious traditions have forms of pilgrimage—experiences that facilitate the person of faith’s engagement of her or his encounter with the holy, 1
experiences that seek to revivify the faith and faith commitment of individuals and religious communities. Maybe we are all pilgrims and just don’t know it. We wander, we seek meaning, we yearn for integrity and truth and something solid to believe in. And we can’t sit, still and silent, waiting for that “something” to come find us. Yet neither can we expect that our wandering will take us to the place where we will find all the answers we seek. Pilgrimage is at least as much about coming home to ourselves, wherever we find ourselves, as it is about leaving all that is comfortable to us in order to find something that we’ve never seen or known before. As for me, I’ve been on pilgrimage forever—long before I even knew what being a pilgrim was. Maybe that’s why I felt very much at home from the moment I stepped off the plane this year. I’d co‐led a Franciscan pilgrimage to Assisi once before, in 1999, with Rosie Miller, also of the Theology Department and an Oldenburg Sister of St. Francis. So, when I picked up the microphone at the front of our bus as we pulled out of the Rome airport on June 10, 2008, I smiled at how comfortable it felt—like being proverbially “back in the saddle.” Over and over again through the week—sipping a cappuccino, enjoying eating “al fresco,” taking in favorite vistas or journaling in favorite spots—I would feel that feeling of “home” as I did things that I’ve done so often over my years of travelling and living in Europe, first as an undergraduate, engaging my own spiritual questions, and then, as a graduate student, researching and writing my dissertation on Teresa of Avila, and all of the intervening years. * * * Christianity has a rich tradition of pilgrimage which developed as an integral part of the cult of the saints—that is, as the early Christian community came to recognize the powerful witness of the early martyrs and saints and to visit shrines erected where they were buried. In medieval times, pilgrimage could have penitential, pastoral and spiritual elements. The medieval pilgrim left home, family and safety to engage in a trip fraught with dangers ranging from thieves and brigands to illness and dysentery. The rewards, though, apparently outweighed the risks: for some a pilgrimage signaled the emergence of a significant life change rooted in the deeper knowledge and affirmation of one’s purpose in life that pilgrimage evoked. The modern pilgrim is perhaps more insulated from some of the dangers that a medieval counterpart would face, but we have our own set of challenges, not the least of which is creating the time and space to engage constructively in a pilgrimage. As our group slowly and painfully took shape over the course of the spring, I kept noticing and marveling at all of the logistical details that each participant had to overcome… and at all of the support and help each of us had, without which the trip would not have been possible. With each 2
meeting prior to our departure, the group had a clearer sense of the small miracle that was taking shape, in our very midst. So it was with great respect for all that pilgrimage can evoke that I approached that microphone at the front of the bus on Tuesday morning. After a really good breathing exercise, we settled in, took in the scenery, and, about two and a half hours later, the bus hit the turn‐off to Greccio.
Tuesday, June 10
As we ascended the hill, I welcomed them and started reminding them about the history of the space. It was here, in 1223, that Francis re‐created the Nativity scene in order to open up for his contemporaries contemplation of the quiet and holy mystery of the humble birth of Jesus. Through his assembling of Christian history’s first crèche scene, Francis wanted to communicate something of the tenderness and holiness of life. He wanted to make the incarnation real by making it visible. Eventually, the Franciscans established a monastery at Greccio built over the cave where Francis stayed and the site of the original crèche. 3
We arrived at the site over lunch, which meant that we pretty much had the run of the place to ourselves, once we’d had a snack. The caretaker opened up a chapel for us, and we did our first worship service together, focusing on our intent for the pilgrimage: what did we want to offer the Christ child? What did we want to take from this experience? Then we walked through the chapel dedicated to the site of the first crèche, and there was so much to notice: The artwork, the centrality of Mary and the intimacy between Mary and Jesus, the simplicity of the place where the early Franciscans often came for contemplative space, a small cave where Francis slept with a kind of earthy sanctity wafting through the crack of the cave, ten, above those most primitive spaces, an early Franciscan monastery, where Bonaventure lived, with cells and an incredibly lovely choir space. That’s where we stopped to talk, pray, reflect and sing.
We talked about what the incarnation really is. We talked about the moments and the spaces where God and love have become real to us. For that intersection of God and love was built right into the wood of the space: the prayers and hopes and petitions and blessings of all those who have gone before us. Somehow we tapped the power and energy of them as well as engaged the energy of the circle of prayer that surrounded our journey. I could literally feel the energy of those who had pledged their prayers begin to infuse the group with something more: There was an energetic engagement of people to people in prayer that was somehow effected in that choir space. The Spirit was doing her work, enlightening our hearts, drawing us all together, giving us a profound communio right from the start. Once back on the bus, I began to work the microphone a bit and had the group process some of what they took from Greccio. Honestly, I didn’t even need to teach. They all said it for me. “Peace… Love… Incarnation (and they put this in their own words in various ways)… that we’re connected to one another and to all creation…” These were all things that were known, all the more profoundly, because they were felt and experienced, right then and there—not as concepts but as a living reality. We had seen and felt the reality of 5
how prayer and contemplation and a loving disposition of self‐offering actually transform a space, from a simple cave to a home for God. And, as far as I was concerned, it felt so nice to both facilitate the group’s noticing of that and yet not feel, as the “teacher,” like I had to “do it all”… that the Spirit herself would facilitate the connections and the learning. What a great start to our pilgrimage. It was already an answer to the questions I’d been asked before we left: “What exactly is a pilgrimage? How is it different from other forms of study abroad? Do other schools do this sort of thing? Is it really worth it?” We settled into our hotel and reunited for dinner and then just walked around town that evening. Assisi is such a wonderful place. So picturesque. And such a wonderful, joyous spirit. A spirit of innocence and simple joy.
You “catch” that spirit each night up at the Piazza del Comune, so I took the group up there right away, figuring that they could then explore the piazza on their own terms each night once they knew how to get there. There is a temple from the 1st century (dedicated to Minerva) up at the piazza—it has since, of course, been converted to a Christian church dedicated to Mary, but the columns were kept, and it makes a real impression the first time you see it. Then there’s a fountain and a bunch of gelato places, as well as tables for a coffee or a drink and conversation. 6
We didn’t stay for too long, but it was a lovely breath of fresh air, and it was truly extraordinary to realize that we hadn’t really had any jetlag whatsoever. We were pleasantly tired by the end of the day but also very joyful to be there—almost like the joy of coming home.
The Roman Temple of Minerva (1st century) in Assisi’s town square.
Wednesday, June 11
View from a balcony of the Giotto Hotel.
On Wednesday morning I’d planned on not getting started until 10:00, knowing that folks might need sleep. I myself was up at 5:15, fresh and ready to go. Again: the supportive energy of others’ prayers kicking in. The bar that I found for breakfast at about 6:00 became my morning hang‐out each day after that. There was a great guy who worked the cappuccino machine, and I always had the place to myself at 6:00, so I could have a local pastry (my favorite, called a rocciata di fruta secca, is a smidgeon of rolled‐up puff pastry with all kinds of dried fruits pouring out of either end), and work through the day’s schedule and re‐read our reading packet and make notes about what I wanted to be sure to cover. Oh—that was also our first daylight tour of the town, as well, and so many lovely details came alive as we walked. I took a nice long morning walk, snapping pictures everywhere, from 7:00 to 8:30—window boxes full of flowers and little shrines and frescoes on every other street. It was a delight to take pictures of all the little details that make the city so friendly and inviting.
I was able to point out a lot of them once the group left on its morning walk at 10:00. We’d stop every 100 or 200 meters and I could just lecture right by the side of someone’s house or stop at an old church and use the iconography for a theology lesson. It was great. I hadn’t entirely planned on making use of the morning, wanting to give people plenty of time to sleep in and recover from the jetlag, but the truth was, we were all very much ready to go at 10:00, so I figured I’d take them through the details of Francis’ early life and introduce them to Assisi all at once.
We ended our morning walk up by the house where Francis was born, which, of course, has now been turned into a church, la Chiesa Nuova. The inside of the church contains a small space where it is said that Francis’ father confined Francis to punish him after Francis took cloth from the family storehouse and sold it over in Foligno in order to finance the re‐ 11
building of the church of San Damiano. Seeing that cell and having a visual point of reference to that space proved helpful as we tried later that day to re‐imagine Francis’ imprisonment in Perugia.
The truly sacred spaces in this complex, for me, though, are not in the Chiesa Nuova at all. There are two very small, very simple chapel spaces. They are below the church and you have to know that they’re there in order to use them. Since they’re lesser known, few people visit them, and the Spirit was with us, so we had one of them for our morning prayer 12
space. We had such a lovely meditation there. That’s where we ended up repeating, as a sung mantra, “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” Over and over again until we just faded off wordlessly and drifted into deep prayer. Some were really caught up in God, with tears and quiet wonder, so I left some of them there for a little while, and took the rest up to the Piazza del Comune for a quick lunch before setting off for Perugia at 2:00.
Now I had never been to Perugia before in my life, so I was a bit nervous serving as a “tour guide.” I was still kind of “de‐rusting” my Italian, and I knew that we had this labyrinth complete with a long set of some 8 or 10 “scala mobile” (escalators) to negotiate, just to get up from the bus stop to the Galleria Nazionale, the Umbrian art gallery. Fortunately, that didn’t prove to be a problem, and, in fact, the trip through the “bowels” of the city (this underground area is the actual medieval city; the modern city, like most Italian cities, was built directly on top of it) turned out to provide the perfect teaching moment on the way back to the bus. The Galleria Nazionale was amazing. I would most definitely do it again, and, although most people don’t do it this way, I would certainly include Perugia as an integral part of the pilgrimage. The art gallery was, quite honestly, up there with the finest art galleries in the world, even though it has pretty much exclusively Umbrian art. In other words, it’s quite specialized. But it is such a wonderful collection that makes so much about Francis come alive. You see the body of Christ on the cross taking form and shape and becoming deeply human, deeply real. You see the suffering, you see the self‐offering. There is even one crucifix, in simple wood, that is one‐of‐a‐kind. Christ is reaching out, leaning down toward the world, with an open‐armed embrace. If I hadn’t seen the museum’s identification of it as mid‐13th century, I wouldn’t have believed it. In fact, when I first noticed it across the room, I wondered why they’d put a modern cross up with all of the other medieval ones. It was such a spontaneous, loving gesture, free from the details of suffering that begin to appear on crucifixes toward the beginning of the 13th century, that it was just about shocking. Then we saw all of these Madonna‐and‐Child pieces coming alive—Mary ceasing to be a wooden‐like “throne” for Christ, and coming into herself, her humanity, her beauty, her maternity, with wonderful details of the intimacy of mother and child working their way into the images as the decades spilled on. We saw the tilt of their heads and their attempts to engage us, the viewer, and draw us into the same intimacy with God and with the holy in us and in our own lives. I couldn’t have communicated this in thousands and thousands of words: Make the incarnation come alive so clearly. And my comments and explanations were helpful, I think: It was incredibly gratifying, by the next day, when we were touring the crypt and museum of the church of San Rufino, back in Assisi, to hear my undergraduates analyzing iconography and identifying scenes perfectly—they already knew, from the day before, how to identify certain saints or gospel scenes. I was so proud of them: In one day, they’d picked up half a semester of art history. I said to them, right from the heart, “The best reward a teacher ever gets is to put herself right out of business.” We spent nearly three hours in the gallery, and they just flew by, although our feet were really hurting after standing on them for so long. So we sat down on the main drag, which
is a pedestrian zone full of shops and cafés, and had a coffee and talked for a while before proceeding back down into the bowels of the medieval city.
Relaxing on the square in Perugia after touring the National Gallery of Umbria. It was then that I commented, “We can’t know exactly where Francis was imprisoned. Even if we had archival indication of where the regular medieval jails were, we don’t know that prisoners of war were kept there. But if I could do one more thing in this town, I’d want to give us a visual sense of Francis’ confinement.” And, of course, it happened. We were halfway through the maze of scala mobile and turning into a dark passage, when I caught, out of the corner of my eye, a glimpse of a barred cell. Now I don’t know that it was ever 15
some kind of prison cell, but it certainly wasn’t hard to imagine it. Especially after having seen the little space where tradition says that Francis was confined by his father. We stood outside the cell and had another teaching moment, as people walked around us.
Perugia was a town known for its violence and even its opulence. And we had experienced that with the visual feast of the Galleria Nazionale and then the luxury of a fantastic cappuccino and snack and all the people‐watching we’d done on the streets above. But Francis did not experience Perugia that way. Not at all. The Perugians were his enemies, determined to take over Assisi, and Francis rode off, innocently enough, to defend his home and his family and his people, only to be captured and imprisoned and suffer malaria and dysentery and God knows what else in the solitary confines of prison. Everything—his dreams, his cherished ideals, his future—came tumbling down in a mass of misery there, and you could just see the wretchedness and darkness of it all as we peered through bars into this lonely, tiny cell. I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect, and I don’t know if I could ever quite re‐create the moment and its spontaneity. But we left Perugia with a strong sense of that pregnant space that is both our woundedness and human vulnerability and our strength—our openness to God and to all that we trust God can and will work within us. In our readings for the day we had read about the “gift of tears”—what Alan Jones, in Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, calls the tears that flow “when the real source of our life is uncovered, when the mask of pretense is dropped, when our strategies of self‐ deception are abandoned… To come to this place where one is truly alive, one must hit rock‐bottom. There must be a breakthrough to the place of deepest helplessness. ‘Then at last,’ writes Andre Louf, ‘a beginning can be made.’ Tears come when we learn to live more and more out of our deepest longings, our needs, our troubles. These must all surface and be given their rightful place. For in them we find our real human life in all its depths.” We could see this inner ripening happening in Francis, and we took it in, slowly, ourselves. It recalled an image of Francis weeping that we had seen at Greccio the day before. We had done enough, I thought, for the day, so we had no meeting after dinner—just walked up to the Piazza again and kept breathing in the grace.
Thursday, June 12 Thursday was “conversion day”—and we did much of it from the hotel. We spoke about conversion as an ongoing process—the work of a lifetime, actually, often sparked by a restlessness, a dissatisfaction, and often—as in the case of both Sts. Francis and Ignatius— by unexpected and unfortunate circumstances. For our morning prayer we used the prayer of Francis from his early life in response to his sense of an inner calling to which he had not yet decided how to respond: “Most High, glorious God, illumine the darkness of my heart. Give me a right faith, a certain hope and a perfect love; and grant me insight and wisdom, so I can always observe your holy and true command.” Francis’ prayer readily acknowledges that we must engage the shadows of our hearts if we are to maintain our fidelity to God and to our deepest self. Francis must have prayed this prayer often, for Clare knew of it and incorporated a passage from it in her Testament. We considered Francis’ early conversion as having three distinct but interconnected moments: •
A time when the presence of Christ in all people “broke” into his consciousness and he found himself able to embrace lovingly a leper who had previously repelled him.
The call of the crucifix in the rundown church of San Damiano where he heard the words, “Francis, rebuild my church. Don’t you see that it’s in ruins?” His stripping of himself and renunciation of his inheritance in the town square before the bishop, shortly before he left the city and began to live as a beggar.
We considered these transformative moments in light of the new vulnerability that had been imprinted into him after his imprisonment in Perugia. Much of this reflection took place in a lounge that looked out over the valley down below the city; at one point, we all headed out, for the site of the former leprosarium was visible from our very balcony, and re‐imagined the encounter with the leper near a clump of trees halfway between San Damiano and the Portiuncula. There were many profound teaching moments, and we finally had to break off conversation because we’d hit intellectual and spiritual saturation. We took some time, over lunch, in paired conversation, to talk about transformative moments in our own lives—mostly those which had taught us something essential about love… either what love truly was or what love was not. For those moments, when love enters our lives either like a ray of radiance or a flickering flame that holds off the darkness of night, are usually the moments when we become aware of the “something more” that wants to be a deeper part of our lives. For Francis, this “something more” was the love of God, drawing him, always, more deeply into simplicity, peace, joy, generosity… an inner abundance that was his to discover and explore and share.
The Cathedral of San Rufino, near where Francis renounced his father and turned to God.
We took a lunch break and then reconvened at 3:00 for a walk up to the piazza outside San Rufino, the town’s cathedral. Both Clare and Francis were baptized there, and it was in a piazza near the cathedral that Francis stripped himself and renounced his father’s name and all social standing so that “naked he might follow his naked crucified Lord, whom he loved.” We re‐imagined the scene and then visited the church and its crypt, which is where Francis was said to have spent a good deal of time in prayer—one of what Murray Bodo calls the “lonely spaces” that Francis sought out in order to encounter, in simplicity and naked familiarity, the simple God he sought… and finding in them peace and even joy.
A fresco in the crypt beneath San Rufino Cathedral.
Friday, June 13
Of all the places we visited, San Damiano had to be the group’s favorite. We left our hotel early, at 9:15 a.m., so that we could arrive with plenty of time to linger. It was a profound blessing to have the grounds to ourselves for a while. We savored the time, listening to the birds and feeling the whole valley around us waking up slowly. We were just enthralled. There is a small altar on the patio outside the entryway, where I recalled a passage from our reading packet—“God’s gaze of love over the course of years transforms and empowers us. Eventually, God recognizes God’s own image in us. It is important to think of this process in terms of relationships and the holy mystery of growing in love. I personally am not sure anyone can truly pray without being in love.”—and prayed that we might know, behold, and lovingly cherish the image of God that is us.
The entryway to the Sanctuario San Damiano.
It’s a process, of course, this finding of the image of God within us. Not only does it take time, but maybe it takes a certain dedication to reverence… a reverence of God and creation and self and other that is enhanced as we cultivate the sacredness of the world around us. Francis and Clare knew all about the importance of co‐creating a sacred space in which their own hearts could flourish. One can’t visit either San Damiano or the dear little Portiuncula, where Francis lived and died, without seeing that. Both of them are surrounded by simple but glorious gardens. Groves of olive trees encircle San Damiano and then there are roses everywhere, at both San Damiano and outside the Portiuncula. Birds sing constantly. It’s just the most glorious hymn to creation and to the Creator.
San Damiano Francis and Clare created a dwelling space for God through their prayers and through the purity of their intentions and through their commitment and single‐mindedness and through the goodness of their work. The reality of that abiding love is palpable… it becomes an actual ingredient in the world, and remains, like a residue, after the meal has been taken, blessed, broken, shared. We savored this residue of love and holiness and grace… the generous largesse of the Spirit, built in and through the small, daily tasks: There was a genuine love that was worked into those gardens and into the very stones of San Damiano, first by Francis as he physically re‐built the church and then by Clare as she gazed upon Christ and sanctified the space with her prayers. One takes in… breathes in, really… San Damiano as a kind of elixir… a formal “tour” I couldn’t really do a “tour” of San Damiano—and wouldn’t have wanted to, in any case. The spirit of San Damiano permeates one at so many levels—one needs to approach it with a disposition of silence so that one can hear all that it will whisper. So we did a simple anointing ritual before we went into the chapel for silent prayer. We held hands around a circle, prayed quietly and then anointed each other’s hands with Frankincense‐infused essential oil as a reminder of our own holiness. Then we spent some time in the chapel, following the counsel of Clare: just gazing at the cross. 22
In his reflections on Clare’s letter to Agnes of Prague, in which she urges a particular form of prayer—gaze, consider, contemplate, imitate—Roch Niemier writes: “Gazing calls for a quiet attentiveness, simply being open to the wonderful presence of God with no words, no thoughts, just being there. The object of our gaze is the crucified Savior who stands before us as a mirror in which we see ourselves. To gaze involves desire, a response to the restless love that God has for us. To gaze is to have an openness to the Spirit of the Lord and an intent to strive for purity of heart. In Franciscan prayer the practice of gazing is critical. It is to pray long but with few words. Too many words, we known, can inhibit prayer.” This contemplative gaze of love invites us into “a relationship that changes us over the course of time… the prayer that allows God to pray within us so as to draw out what is best in us and speak to us in loving personal terms, so that we go away from prayer a transformed person and we discover in ourselves the image God has always wanted us to be.” It wasn’t at all hard, through that contemplative gaze of love, to begin to think differently about the words Francis heard here back in 1205: “Francis, rebuild my church. Can’t you see it’s falling into ruins?” To see that this invitation was not only about rebuilding the church of San Damiano itself and even the church as an institutional body—i.e., the reform of the corporate church—but also, and most primarily, about the “reform,” the “rebuilding” of ourselves; the re‐making, body and soul, of each one of us individually and communally into a deep communio rooted in love. What if the “church” God was drawing Francis into, through the invitation of Christ’s outstretched arms, is that very image of God that is in us and that is drawn out of us in and through love? What if that is church? Here’s how I wrote it out in my journal after we’d returned to San Damiano for Mass early on Sunday morning, and I’d gazed once again on the cross: “Once I settled into the chapel and started to gaze, I got a very different sense of Your “Rebuild my church.” We are the living stones of Your church, are we not? Indeed, if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then rebuilding Your church might well mean reclaiming Your holiness in our midst… within ourselves as individuals and in our communio. Maybe we haven’t gotten the heart of the meaning of “church.” Surely what Francis and Clare teach us most eloquently is how to love… how to love You… and therefore to love You in one another and in ourselves as well. That love invites us into a new way of being; a new way of being human, a new way of being us and a new way of interacting with others, of being in relationship, of being church.” It rings so true! How Francis got that! And Clare, too! How they saw and knew that what we call “church” or ”religion” or ”spirituality” is nothing more or less than the desire to be loving put into daily practice in the prayerful cultivation of a reverential life. God love ‘em! The courage it took to break away from all that they had ever known of “church” and 23
“religion” in order to search for God in true poverty—of body and of spirit. And the liberation and joy they found in going right, straight to the heart of things—to the very heart of God.
The space in the dormitory of St. Clare where she died at San Damiano. We went around the inside of the monastery after that—you can see the space where Clare’s dormitory was and the refectory and the lovely little choir—very plain, very simple—unfinished wood, really, recalling the stable of Christ’s birth and its poverty and simplicity. And then we were in the cloister area, with its little rose garden, and looking at the groves of olive trees and just breathing in the peace and love. The group knew right then and there that we would come back for Mass on Sunday morning… early, so we could just sit there for a while and breathe in the God who was so palpably present.
But then it was time to meet the Xavier group over by the Basilica of San Francesco—50 undergraduates in the University Scholars Program in Rome who were coming to Assisi for the day, including Profs. Paul Colella in philosophy and Suzanne Chouteau in art history and several former students of mine, so there were hugs and smiles and the orientation packets to be handed out. I’d done a 25‐page packet complete with floor plans of the basilicas so that they could “read” and interpret all the frescoes and then made some suggestions for a walking tour of the city after their visit to the basilica was finished. Such a shame to have only one day in Assisi, which, if you don’t know the stories of Francis and Clare, comes off as a charming town, to be sure—very attractive and one senses the ambiance of peace and joy—but, gosh, there is so much to be savored here.
Professor Paul Colella and Assisi pilgrim Jane Blinka.
We reconvened at the hotel at 4:00 for another intense session of conversation, reading aloud several of the texts and breaking them open for meaning. A huge downpour was, for us, an invitation to hunker down a bit and rest and reflect and prepare ourselves for the trip to La Verna the next day. “We are created to express the Word of God in our lives,” we read, from Ilia Delio’s Clare of Assisi: Heart Full of Love. “In fact, without striving for such a goal, we remain incomplete and lost, ambivalent, restless and anxious. What Clare calls us to is not something other than what we are but rather what we truly are created to be—icons of Christ. Christ lives in us and becomes our life when we come to live our true identity (or self) in God. To put on Christ is to allow God to take root in our hearts and put on our flesh, not hiding God in the little pockets of our hearts but rather allowing the grace of God to shine through our lives—fragile and weak though they may be.” And again: “One senses that, for Clare, life in God was a perpetual deepening of union in love, a constant progression ‘from good to better, from virtue to virtue.’ The soul is conceived as a spiritual universe in eternal expansion towards the infinite source of love. The soul of the human person, like Clare, continues to expand in love which knows no boundaries. Clare’s movement toward God connotes a type of perpetual ascent, being drawn by the infinite love of God toward happiness, fulfillment and immense joy. There is light and levity in her pursuit of holiness, as if each discovery of God’s immense love is a new beginning.”
Saturday, June 14
La Verna is a mountain in Tuscany, the region of Italy that adjoins Umbria, where Assisi is located. This mountain was donated to Francis and his brothers in 1213 by a wealthy nobleman who wanted to give the brothers a place they could go for prayer, reflection and retreat space. The mountain itself consists of dramatic rocks, complete with promontories, crags and caves where the early Franciscans would meditate. In 1224, two years before he died, Francis made his way to La Verna to devote himself to a 40‐day fast in honor of St. Michael the Archangel. About halfway through the fast, at the time of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, he is said to have experienced Christian history’s first expression of a spontaneous stigmatization, where he received on his own body the marks of the crucifixion. Francis’ biographer Bonaventure says that this came naturally out of his deep experience of prayer, as “he experienced more abundantly than usual an overflow of the sweetness of heavenly contemplation, he burned with a stronger flame of heavenly desires, and he began to experience more fully the gifts of heavenly grace.” This was, Bonaventure continues, a “total transformation into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by the martyrdom of his flesh, but by the fire of Christ’s love consuming his soul.” To visit La Verna is to take in the reality of the cross—to contemplate and come to terms with that which crucifies us, and, ultimately, once one has turned over to God that which is too much for us to take on alone, to find new life in the mystery of the cross and the loving embrace of God. After his searing experiences at La Verna in September 1224, Francis wrote a prayer which he gave to his stalwart friend Brother Leo, which I’ve excerpted here: You are the holy Lord Who does wonderful things. You are strong. You are great. You are the most high. You are the almighty. You Holy One. You are love. You are wisdom. You are humility. You are patience. You are beauty. You are meekness. You are security. You are rest. You are gladness and joy. You are our hope. You are justice. You are moderation. You are all our riches to sufficiency. You are beauty. You are meekness. You are the protector. You are our custodian and defender. You are strength. You are refreshment. You are our hope. 27
You are our faith. You are our charity. You are all our sweetness. You are our eternal life. It’s a two‐hour drive from Assisi to LaVerna, and I was pretty quiet with the mic on the bus until we started to drive up the mountain. There was a pilgrim on foot, slowly making his way up the switchback‐like road, and we could imagine Francis, toward the end of his life, weak and truly ill, leaning on his walking stick as he made the slow journey up the mountain. We arrived early, but crowds were pouring in behind us.
The entrance to the Sanctuary at Mt. La Verna in the mountains of Tuscany. I had originally conceptualized the day as being something of a mini‐retreat, in which we’d be there for about six hours and convene as a group three times, with plenty of space in between for private prayer or conversations or walking or whatever people wanted. La Verna is a place of profound power, and visitors need the time and space and freedom to let it touch them where they most need to be touched. Complications of crowds and rain unraveled easily the structure I’d thought out, and the best we could do, as a group, was an initial reflection where people were asked to identify their cross—especially the “nail” of it—that which cut into them in such a way that it really impeded their sense of God’s loving embrace—and to write it down. The idea was then to 28
pray with that cross in such a way that they might turn it over to God. I’d intended to do that together in some ritualized way, but I couldn’t seem to put my hands on empty chapel space, and the crowds were just heartbreaking.
We could all feel easily exactly why Francis and his brothers sought out the lonely places in order to “refuel” and recalibrate. I needed such a place badly. By the time we reconvened at 12:00 for lunch, our second gathering, I’d had the idea of purchasing guidebooks for people so that they could do their own self‐guided tour if they liked. This went over well and bought me a little of the quiet time I was craving. By then, the rain had stopped, the clouds were broken and the vivid colors of the landscape gave us a deep sense of the majesty of God.
The most sacred place in the entire La Verna complex to me is not the chapel of the stigmata so much as the little cave where Francis stayed. They’ve kept it as it was—small, cramped, damp, with an iron‐slatted bed frame. You actually walk down a flight of steps and through a small, wooded opening, then down into the crag of rock where he slept.
As I entered the cave, I knelt down low by the bed, body doubled way over, until my face and eyes were not more than two inches from the iron slats. I just stayed in that position as tears completely overcame me and floods of love and self‐understanding and self‐ compassion poured over me. I cannot say for sure, of course, but it seemed that something of the holiness of God, known and experienced by Francis, resided right there, radiating out of that place where his body had lain. Who knows what kinds of prayer he experienced there? But there was a “holy residue” permeating the place that embraced me like the softest cloak of love. I tried to be quiet and subtle as I knelt there and drank it all in, tears pouring out everywhere, but I was terribly shaky when I finally got up and tried to make my way back up the steps.
The cave at La Verna where Francis often retreated for meditation and prayer. Back up in the hallway that leads to the Chapel of the Stigmata there is a small glass window overlooking the entry to the cave, such that you can look down and see the trees and moss and outside of the crag where he slept. I stood there for a while, catching my breath as wave after wave of insight broke through me.
It was there that I realized that God does not give us the cross that we bear—the world does. God’s “cross,” just like the scriptural passage, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” is pure gift. And we are to let nothing, nothing keep us from the pure joy of that cross—the “essence” that is our uniqueness as human persons… the image of God that is us. That is our cross. And I sat with that in wonder as I walked toward the Chapel of the
Stigmata, and, of all things, pulled out my journal and started scribbling away. Here is what I wrote: “I knelt by the bed of St. Francis here at LaVerna and understood my ‘cross.’ My cross is to be a theologian. And it is a glorious gift indeed. I’ve never understood the cross prior to this… not from this perspective, anyway. “The world nails us to the cross. Not God. Never God. I have suffered, yes. I have been pierced by harsh nails in my life, especially these past two years. But… but, although God has been with me in that piercing, God’s yoke is always ‘easy and my burden is light.’ “What a light burden You have given me, dear God of my heart! To lead people to You, to discover You, to explore life with You, to love You, to know You as love. To bring people here, to Assisi, in the hopes that their journey here will help them on their way to You! Such a privilege! Such a joy! “Help me to be faithful to this vocation. Help me, Sts. Francis and Clare and Bonaventure, to find the words! Help me to live in love that the words will follow… to live in the love that I want to find words to describe. Foolish as that may be.
“I had to laugh. I always get things backwards. As I left the cave of Francis and turned back to see the woods outside it, I prayed that I would be able to write. And then prayed that I would love You in order to write You, write the song of love that You sing in my heart… and I had to laugh at how extraordinarily silly that was… to love in order to write?! Why, I must be a theologian through and through if my reason for wanting to love is in order to write! And I felt a kind of compassion toward myself as well—it’s laughable and even OK to get things backward like that—I probably always will, but it’s OK, isn’t it? You love me anyway, love me enough to laugh with me when the tears dot the page, and I just write right through them and the words blur and the tears flow and I can’t even see what I’m writing but I write anyway, and You are good and holy indeed, the fountain of all goodness… may Your spirit come upon me and guide these simple words… and may I finish these books I’ve started and may I come back again with more pilgrims and more people whom You have called Your own.” With what profound joy did I make my way slowly back to the bus, sneaking in a small detour into the woods. The rain had cleared up around 1:00 or so, and things were gorgeous… the greens were just explosive, and birds were everywhere, trumpeting their songs to the heavens. And I prayed, in the quiet, musky space of wood and moss and earth, for something of what Francis experienced on that sacred moment: that same total transformation of the self that the fire of love burning within us makes possible… A passage from our reading packet, taken from Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved, written to a dear friend of his, made that prayer easier: “I beg you, do not surrender the word ‘chosen’ to the world. Dare to claim it as your own, even when it is constantly misunderstood. You must hold onto the truth that you are the chosen one. That truth is the bedrock on which you can build a life as the Beloved.” As the group slowly made its way back together and assembled onto the bus, we came back to one another slowly, trying not to lose the pure and absolute radiance of the day’s transpirings. The trip back to Assisi went by quickly, and we felt we were returning home.
Sunday, June 15 Sunday: our Sabbath day of rest. I had deliberately scheduled nothing formal except for our celebratory dinner that evening. Many of us had decided to attend Mass at San Damiano, and there was still the Basilica of Santa Chiara, where St. Clare’s relics are housed, and the Portiuncula, where Francis lived, to visit. Our time in Assisi was ending, and everyone would have to come to grips with that as best they could, each in their own way. The Mass at San Damiano was extraordinary—both for its simplicity and its holiness. And the trip to the Portiuncula afterward reinforced our perception of a quiet love that spilled 34
out of San Damiano and radiated all the way through the valley over to the Portiuncula. One can see the Portiuncula from San Damiano. And vice versa. Francis and Clare were within eyesight of each other; they watched over one another in prayer; they were always prayerfully with one another in solidarity and support, making one another holier, stronger… giving each other inner fortitude even as they shared that melting tenderness that God alone can give. I was struck and heartened by the profound example of male‐ female complementarity that Francis and Clare radiate. We so deeply need that. We need first simply to know that we can be helpmates in holiness to one another, but we also need to see that in action, need to see and hear people witnessing to the reality of this… able to talk, with the credibility of experience, about the co‐journeying in such a way as to invite reflection on our own relationships. Only then will people believe that such a life, of joy and holiness and love and affection and goodness, is truly possible. The celebratory dinner that evening was truly memorable. We’d reserved a table at a restaurant that had a lovely outdoor terrace with flowers overhead and white lights strung everywhere. Just charming. But it had rained buckets, worse in Assisi than in LaVerna, the previous day, and, when I went over to check in with the owner in the morning and drop off our menu order, he said quite strongly that the weather would be too cold and it would be too hard to dry out the terrace in time for dinner. I already knew that that wouldn’t sit too well with the group, and, over the course of Sunday, at least four people came up to me individually, expressing their hope that we could eat outdoors that evening. So I bit the bullet at about 4:30, after we were back from the Portiuncula, and telephoned the owner again. I did the whole conversation in the best Italian I could muster, very gently, and, I guess, with just the right words, something like: “I have a very small problem.” I must have used the word “piccolo” at least three times. “Not a real problem, exactly, and, of course, the group is all looking forward to our dinner tonight… But my problem… and it’s a small one… is that there are many in my group who really love to dine al fresco. And I just know that, when we pass by your beautiful terrace, they will be asking me why we aren’t eating outdoors.” This is when he went into a long story about the “tempo bruto, bruto” (I love how they use that word “bruto”—brutal, brutal weather—and how it had rained buckets and buckets; I think he used the verb “inundare” or to be inundated, and I remember picking up “diluvio” or “flood”) and I kept responding, sympathetically, “I understand.” (“Ho capito.” I’ve found that “ho capito” goes a very, very long way in Italy.) Then I told him that if it was for me, I wouldn’t trouble him with the request, but that I knew that there were many in the group who had their hearts set on eating al fresco, and what a perfect last memory of Assisi that would give them… and again the diluvio and the “non sera posibile.”
So I said again, “Ho capito,” and I told him that I would explain everything carefully to the group before we left the hotel for dinner, and that, if I needed support, would he please help me by explaining when we got there? And hung up with lots of grazies. We walked up the hill to the restaurant, knowing it was our last trek up to our beloved Piazza del Comune, but in good spirits at the thought of the festivities still ahead. As we rounded the corner of the Piazza and went through the archway into the restaurant terrace, the owner’s wife came rushing out to greet us, with the words, “We have made a miracle. A little miracle. ” (Un piccolo miracolo) And there was the terrace, all lit up with white lights, a long table set brilliantly, and the group just oohing and ahhing—after I’d just given them a five‐minute explanation of why we were going to be eating inside. I kissed the woman’s cheeks, and it was just heaven from there on out. We’d pre‐ordered everything so as to reduce confusion and so that the kitchen staff would have a bit of a heads‐up for the preparation, and I think they really appreciated that detail. The service was phenomenal, and the group was just full of toasts and comments about the trip and what they’d learned, and we took a long walk home, complete with gelato stop and last looks at the nearly full moon. I think everyone was glowing. Our pilgrimage was ending. The next day we would head back to Rome and the Vatican and a final day of adventure…But our hearts would belong to Assisi. As always, it had left a sacred space in our hearts, to which we can return at will. What a precious gift. There is so, so much to take in from the Franciscan tradition of contemplation and the simple counsel of Clare: Gaze on the cross. It is the way to the truth of love. Here is what Ilio Delia says: “The power of contemplative vision for Francis was a desire for God. His contemplation of creation was not merely a passive seeing but a deep penetrating gaze into the truth of the other. His continuous desire for God led him to realize that each creature is uniquely loved into being by God. He embraced each God‐centered creature as if embracing Christ himself for, indeed, each spoke to him of the presence of Christ… Francis’ way of contemplation is encapsulated in Clare’s directive to Agnes to ‘Gaze upon that mirror [of the cross] each day… and contemplate the ineffable love that led to the wood of the cross.’ Contemplation, inflamed by love, is the basis of discipleship. Contemplation is not an end in itself but a path of union that ultimately leads to action because to see God is to love God, and to love is to act. It is a demanding type of vision because if we really see the truth of God hidden in fragile flesh, how can we turn away? Are we not impelled to reach out and touch this God we so desire? Thus, she says to Agnes ‘let yourself be inflamed more strongly with the fervor of love.’ We must do what we say we are: God‐lovers. It takes all that we are to unite with God in weak, fragile, suffering humanity… The cross is the mirror of truth, where we come to see ourselves in our capacity to love and in our brokenness.” 36
This kind of honesty about self is liberating, for we are free to be who we truly are, even as we are invited to live within our capacity to love, which, is, in God, absolutely limitless. It takes a genuine connection with the loving gaze of God to grow into that kind of love. And we had experienced that during our week as pilgrims—had even, perhaps, glimpsed ourselves as we are named and known by God. If Francis and Clare are right (and I think they are) this kind of “self” is the gift of contemplation. And it is the fruit of a pilgrim’s heart… a heart that reaches out of itself to find its home in God, wherever that may be.