“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”Luke 10:41-42
In Orvieto, we had the opportunity to pray in a chapel holding the Corporal of Bolsena, a holy relic of the Eucharistic Miracle of Orvieto from 1263. It is a beautiful place, holding a special relic, and commemorating an astounding event. Kneeling in that place, I found it nearly impossible to clear my mind, to focus, and to be fully present in the moment. The stream of visitors, picture takers, and whisperers with all of their shuffling, shifting, clanging, and bumping, were massive distractions for me.
Yesterday in Assisi, shuffling past the crypts of St. Clare and then St. Francis, both laid to rest in amazing chapels sitting below Basilicas dedicated to their memories, I realized that these brief brushes with legend and Holiness are just that, moments and glimpses. There is no way to share it all without the mass production, the tourism, and the lines. And every single person walking in front of a relic, crypt, cross, altar, or glorious work of art is on their own unique journey of faith and experience.
I may be a tourist passing through the moment, but the moment need not pass without meaning. I may have just a few minutes in a line, but I can carry that moment away with me to contemplate, and discern, away from the bright lights, long lines, endless chatter, and distraction that conspire to lessen it. That is a choice.
As I suggested a couple of days ago, when you’ve seen one walled city on top of a mountain, you’ve seen one walled city on top of a mountain. Assisi affirmed that, no matter how majestic, impressive, beautiful, or awe-inspiring the last walled city was, there is always another to to take it to that next level.
We can actually glimpse Assisi across the valley from Perugia. In the distance, it looks white with no variation in color. After a few moments of adventure getting the car out of the garage, around the walkers, and down the 2-meter-wide alley, the roadway opened up for the 30 minute drive to Assisi. As we got close, it was pretty much white…well, white and a subtle pink. Like some master-planned medieval community, the look and feel of the city was remarkably consistent and stunningly beautiful.
The tour buses rolling onto the narrow roads converging on the city confirmed that ours would not be a private tour of these holy grounds. The good news is that significant thought has been put into accommodating bus loads of the faithful and the curious so there is appropriate infrastructure for loading, unloading, parking, and moving people about.
It turns out that yesterday was the start of a four day celebration for Blessed Carlo Acutis, a fourteen year old boy on the path to sainthood. This young man and his story have been a beacon for Catholic youth all over the world and we saw a many teenagers moving about the city. Acutis, who died of Leukemia in 2006, was a preternaturally kind and gentle young man who developed a keen interest in Eucharistic Miracles and Marian Apparitions, eventually cataloguing all of them on a website. He was Beatified in 2020.
St. Clare and St. Francis
Our guide, Paulo, met us in the piazza in front of the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare). Many tours were beginning, marked by large groups moving in unison, small headsets in place, and a guide with some kind of flag or other marker to follow visually. The white look of Assisi comes from a uniform building code using white and pink limestone plus travertine as primary materials. They are literally quarried on the backside of of the mountain on which the city sits.
Clare of Assisi, inspired by the teachings of St. Francis, founded the Order of Poor Ladies (the Poor Clares). The oldest daughter from a noble family, Clare’s desire to enter religious life was met with great resistance from her family. Francis helped her through the process and she founded her order in the Franciscan tradition, centered on strict poverty. The Poor Clares are a cloistered community – there are 27 women living at the convent connected to the Basilica – and their life centers on prayer and labor.
Paolo described the great effect of St. Francis’ and St. Claire’s teachings as emphasizing the humanity of Christ to make him more accessible to the vast majority of believers. One example is the Franciscan Crucifix which was a distinct departure from previous designs to emphasize Christ as man.
The story of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, St. Francis, is way too much to cover here. Along with Catherine of Siena (we’ll get to her in a few days), he is considered the Patron Saint of Italy. His Feast day was last week and I’m certain Assisi was quite a buzz of activity on that day. He was a traveling preacher who focused on simplicity, poverty, and the Word of God. Francis’ calling came in the form of a vision in which the Icon of Christ Crucified told him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my church, which as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
The Basilica of San Francesco was another beautiful work of white/pink limestone and white-washed brick, consecrated in 1253 – thirty years after the death of Francis. Below the upper church is a lower church with the crypt of St. Francis below that. The Upper Church is one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy and holds the story of St. Francis told in frescoes painted by Cimabue, Giotto, Cavallini. The lower church is Romanesque. From above or below, the Basilica is absolutely beautiful.
Assisi on Foot
We moved about this city of about 28,000 people, winding our way up and down roads, stairs, and ramp ways. The tomb of Carlo Acutis was around the corner from the Basilica of St. Clare – as was Francis’ place of birth and boyhood home. Young Carlo is on full display, perfectly intact and wearing the clothing of a fourteen year old from 2006. The city began filling up as the celebration would begin in the evening.
We ate lunch on a terrace over the main square of the city – it was bustling. Rabbit nuggets and chips was a special and quite good with a honey-mustard type sauce. Moving along the streets after lunch, we visited a few of the shops and made our way back toward the upper parking lot.
The city itself reminded me a bit of Minas Tirith from Return of the King. The white-washed walls, clean, symmetrical streets, and stairways leading up and down to mysterious places, gave it such a feel of the mystical and fantastical. Dad and I decided to trek up to Rocco Maggiore, the “big fort” or castle sitting at the very top. A place of refuge for the city’s residents in times of trouble in the 12th and 13th centuries – primarily from Perugian forces opposing them from across the valley.
The castle afforded a complete view of the surrounding valley and we were able to see Mom and Sally at a small bar down below (once we had oriented ourselves). Relative to the rest of Assisi, the castle was rough hewn, with uneven floors and stairs, including a winding stair running the vertical length of the main tower. Small doorways and narrow passages forced us to duck and nearly crawl to move between some rooms. I thought of the joy my grandchildren would have running around it – and the puckering my 6’7” son-in-law would endure trying to squeeze through its passages as he chased them.
Dinner was casual last night. Aurora told us the 30cm pizza was for two people and that we’d need a 50cm. Looking over at the table next to us, I asked, “What size is that?” “30cm,” she answered. “Aurora,” I countered, “How much pizza would you eat?” She smiled sheepishly and shrugged. There was no way they were eating an 11 inch pizza – it must have been 12 inches wide but it was about 19 inches long. We were stuffed with a “30cm” pizza.
I’ve been alone for several hours now. The dark, quiet of the morning is gone, but the calm remains and I begin to see the choice as we move toward the escalating energy of bigger cities, more people, and the urge to see it all. We have a couple of days in the Chianti region, including a total “down” day tomorrow. Then Florence, Venice, Milan, and Rome. Finally, I begin to see that “seeing” is only the first part of the experience, and the opportunity, in these special places.
Taking a deep breath this morning, I pray for patience and an open heart that I might see fully in the moments and be able to carry pieces back with me for deeper discernment. In this way, I might find what needs to be found and leave what is unnecessary.