The first thing we did upon arrival in Assisi was check into our hotel, take off our shoes, and wash our faces. There would be time to get all the plane nastiness off later– we had a city to see. It was drizzling outside, so there was no need to get purty anyway.
The afternoon was full — but relaxing-ly so. That was the whole trip — we didn’t slack off, but we were never rushed. We saw a lot of wonderful things, but we were never on a strict schedule. The afternoon consisted of wandering the streets, which is in itself such a pleasure. I love the winding streets of Assisi — the little stairways connecting the different levels of streets, the twisting corners and low doorways. You can’t get lost in Assisi — there’s always a little path to get you to where you need to be. You can exhaust yourself — walk too far down and you have to eventually come back up — but you can’t get lost.
I’m sure Megan grew tired of me saying, “Oooh, I want to live there!” “And there!” “Oh, and look over there!”
It’s a city you can’t capture on film — even though I tried.
We went first to the Basilica of St. Clare, my patroness. It houses the original San Damiano crucifix, which spoke to Francis, and many relics of St. Clare and Francis (her hair, her habit, one of his tunics, etc). In the crypt, still behind the bars of the cloister, is the body of St. Clare. The Sisters moved the proto-monastery up from its location down at San Damiano up to the Basilica, and there she lays, still in cloister. It never fails to move me to kneel at that iron gate and pray at the tomb of such an incredible woman.
We walked down to the Basilica of San Francesco, on the opposite side of town, getting lunch on the way. We hadn’t stopped at a bancomat at Termini (the one in the airport didn’t work), so we were still working off the euro I had brought with me and we were starting to wonder if they had bancomats in medieval Assisi. Where were the pilgrims supposed to get their money to buy St. Francis statues and little terracotta holy water fonts that say “Pax et Bonum” ?? We finally found one later in the day (and of course found three the next day).
There are really two (two and a half?) churches at the tomb of St. Francis — the chapel down at his tomb, the Basilica built directly above his tomb (it’s main altar is built on top of the top of his tomb) and then the Basilica built directly above that basilica. The Basilica “superiore”, or the one on ground level, is famous for its frescoes of the life of St Francis by Giotto. The lower Basilica (“inferiore”) is likewise beautifully frescoed. You’ll see familiar images everywhere you look… like this one and this one downstairs, and this one upstairs.
You always see something new, no matter how many times you make a pilgrimage. In the upper basilica, tucked to the side, was a simple bronze statue of Francis. I wish I could have taken a picture of it, because I don’t remember seeing anything that better captured the “spirit” of St. Francis. The bronze statue was of him kneeling, humbling himself, and next to him, part of the same bronze statue, was an rock outcropping. The rock was actually a tabernacle (although not in use. But you could tell it was one, based on the door in the rock and the place for a sanctuary lamp). One statue, together, Francis and His Lord in the Eucharist. So often people try to explain or portray Francis and forget the Church and the Eucharist. It’s a fatal mistake — without the Eucharist, without the Church, Francis is a crazy man.
After visiting his tomb, we headed back to Santa Chiara for evening Mass. It was crowded (a pleasant problem) and it was good to be back at Mass in Italy, for all its craziness. Again, a confirmation came– this is why you’re here. You needed to remember that the Church is big. And universal. Much bigger than the American church, where people stand in an orderly line for Communion. Much more inclusive than a close-minded parish where people gossip and criticize. Much more universal than a few people sitting around complaining about the “new words at Mass.” She’s old, She’s beautiful, and She endures.
After Mass, we sat in the Piazza of Santa Chiara, watched the sunset, watched the Italians, and talked. And remembered why we were there.
Dinner was pizza in Piazza Minerva with more people watching, more talking. And to finish — the first gelato of the trip. Pistachio and chocolate for me, hazelnut and chocolate for Meg.
After the trek up the hill to the hotel (we were staying at the top of the city), we took the best showers of our lives (it was the classic Italian shower situation where the entire bathroom is the shower… just a drain on the floor … but it was hot!) and called our first day a success.