Meeting St. Francis

Because I promised: some reflections on my lovely day at Assisi, exploring the Basilica di San Francesco and taking in the view. I’ll be brief, because really I’m brimming over with excitement about my next post……

I apologize that there is some overlap between the messages I’m transcribing, but it’ll give you a sense of my preoccupations:

To Jeff:

“I wrapped myself in the beauty and wonder of the world by spending almost three hours in the Basilica of St. Francis. The walls and ceilings are covered with splendid frescoes by such artists as Cimabue and (it’s debated) Giotto, depicting the lives of Jesus, St. Francis, St. Martin, St. Mary Magdalene and more. The Romanesque and Gothic arches are covered in bright geometrical designs. The choir seats are made of intricately carved wood. The altar on the second story is directly above the altar on the main floor, which sits directly above St. Francis’ tomb in the crypt. Countless pictures of sick family members, scribbled prayers, and other tokens have been pushed through the iron bars on the sides and back. Several Italians were kneeling there, gripping the bars, fervently praying. When I think that they have sought out this saint, to help their loved ones or themselves, it fills me with wonder and admiration. I thought to myself walking back up the stairs, what if everyone trusted in God the way they do? The world would probably look a lot like it did in the middle ages, but supposing everyone in the 21st century world had entire, unwavering faith in whatever creed they chose, for just one day? I would really like to know what that would look like.

“I could go on and on about Assisi. I’ve attached a picture of the town from the fort on the hill. No photos are allowed in the church, which was a relief, because I was able to sit and let my gaze travel over the walls and ceilings, without worrying about the lighting or my zoom. I remember once you asked me, when I see something beautiful, do I just soak it in, or try to take a picture? Lots of times, with views and quaint things in towns, I photograph them. But I rarely carry a camera on my walks around Florence. I guess I have the luxury of plenty of time here, but as I used to tell the kids at work this summer, “your eyes are your camera. see what you can observe.” In the Basilica, the no-photography rule was a relief, because I got to really be present there. Now, not only do I have a picture in my memory of the church itself, but attached to that picture, I have all the feelings and thoughts associated with my experience of exploring it. Wasn’t finding presentness the whole point of coming to Italy and running a marathon in the first place?”

To Paul:

“The thing I crave is not grandiose gestures but people simply showing that they care. That’s what I started thinking about after exploring the glorious, bright upper nave of the Basilica of St. Francis, with its colorful frescoes, its stained glass, and its intricate wooden carvings on the choir seats, then descending to the more somber but still magnificently illustrated lower nave, and finally going down underground, to the crypt that houses St. Francis’ tomb. I got so much more of a sense of the power of God from the humility of the friars in quiet prayer, and the everyday Italians who made a pilgrimage here to grip the iron bars of Francis’ tomb on behalf of their loved ones or themselves. The three kneeling on the tomb itself were so deep in conversation with God that they didn’t even register the presence of the tourists tiptoeing around them. Upstairs, in all its glory, they had to keep annoucing over the speaker, “SILENZIO,” but in the crypt, no such measures were necessary. The presence of God was so strong that no one dared say anything.”

To Nate:

“When I descended from the colorful upper nave of the Basilica of St. Francis, filled with daylight, into the somberly lit but brilliantly illustrated lower nave, to the silent crypt that houses St. Francis’ tomb, and observed the candlelight, the friars kneeling in the pews, and the ordinary Italians gripping the bars of Francis’ tomb in desperate, fervent prayer, I experienced a longing for the kind of faith that built this magnificent church, and the kind of faith still held by those who, on bended knee, seek out St. Francis in their suffering. And beyond that, I longed for that faith and love to fill every soul in the world. That feeling, not what I felt gazing at Cimabue frescoes or the view from atop the mountain, is the one I keep returning to in the days following my trip.”

Now you can see, if you think I never shut up in my blog posts, it’s not any better in my emails. I should hire an editor.

Have any of you been to Assisi or any pilgrimage church? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Love to all,




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