The Swiss Air flight from Zurich to Rome is the last stretch on a journey that’s proven one thing: I am simply not built for long flights. I’m taller than average: long on legs, short on tolerance for tight spaces. Sleep is impossible and sitting still for hours is a chore.
It’s my mind, though, that is my true adversary: Every time I’m in the air, Don McLean’s “American Pie” plays in my head like a cerebral iPod with a grudge. But all fears and discomfort vanish as our airplane descends over a spectacular Italian wheat field ablaze with a gold I have never seen. I know I’m not in Cincinnati anymore.
I have been selected, along with 28 others, to participate in Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs’ Assisi and Rome experience. We are also slated to visit La Verna, Greccio and other places that touched Francis and Clare. A few of the people on this trip I already know, but most are strangers. In the coming days, we will become a family of ragtag seekers on a unique experience.
Our group assembles at Terminal C of a crowded airport in Rome. Here we are—drained and disheveled huddled close to Sister Joanne Schatzlein, O.S.F., and Father Joseph Schwab, O.F.M., our guides for the next two weeks.
Some pilgrims introduce themselves and make friendly small talk. Others look too tired to utter a word. I fall into the latter category: I can only sit on my luggage and ponder what the next two weeks will bring.
And all I can do is smile.
There’s a 45-minute bus ride ahead of us to Assisi. I eat copious amounts of candy for quick energy and marvel at the expansive landscape. As I exit the bus, my first impression of Assisi is the air. It’s never still. The mild but steady wind carries on its shoulders the scent of every flower, every olive tree, every busy kitchen found on this mountainside. I am awestruck. “It won’t be hard to be quiet here,” I journal. And I’m not usually the quiet type.
There is indeed a level of calm in Assisi. But, as I already know, this is in opposition to the lives of Francis and Clare. Though they longed—ached—to find a lasting stillness with God, their lives were anything but calm.
A colleague once told me that, deep down, all Franciscans are anarchists. One day into my pilgrimage, I’m beginning to understand his point. The tranquillity I find in Assisi is something Francis and Clare might not have had. Revolutionaries seldom find peace.
We know their stories: Francis, born into privilege, shed all material trappings to embrace a life of poverty. Clare, born a notch below royalty, sought refuge from a life she didn’t want and joined Francis, who received her into religious life.
Our pilgrimage group will follow in the footsteps of Francis and Clare, trying to comprehend the holy anarchy that started it all.
Our first few days involve a dizzying number of churches and sites, each one of them significant in the lives of the two saints, and each memorable in its way:
■ Chiesa Nuova: a small church that sits on what is believed to be the birthplace of Francis,
■ San Rufino: the place where Clare first heard Francis preaching,
■ San Damiano: where Francis encountered Christ, and
■ The Portiuncula: a small church where the Franciscan movement began.
We pilgrims spend the days being quiet, being loud, walking with sore muscles and sweaty brows, questioning, pondering, laughing. We are eager as children with eyes full of questions, following Joe and Joanne down uneven cobblestone roads, through alleys and inside centuries-old structures. They must feel like workers at an adult day care. Yet their patience and knowledge never falter.
In our off-hours, we break the ice by breaking bread. Wineglasses are raised—often. We share a euphoria in being here, being alive. We taste food too good to be true and a morsel of the Franciscan tradition more nourishing than we imagined.
Solitude aids in the experience, too. At Assisi’s Casa Papa Giovanni, where we stay, my twin-sized bed is next to two large windows. Each night, I open them wide and listen to the activity in the street below. Guitar music and laughter, bickering couples and amorous cats fill the night air.
“I’m exhausted but anxious,” I write in my journal. “I don’t want to move but I just can’t sit.” In my simple way, I can understand Francis’ tired body and tireless spirit. I put on my shoes and quietly sneak onto the rooftop of Casa Papa Giovanni one last time before going to bed. The darkness is splintered by lights from a hundred homes in the Umbrian Valley below.
I feel at home myself.
So important to the Franciscan tradition are the stigmata of Francis. The enormity of it is lost on me as I trudge up a steep hill on my way to La Verna, seated about 4,000 feet above the Casentino Valley. We are six days into our pilgrimage.
Count Orlando of Chiusi gave La Verna to Francis in 1213, specifically for retreat and contemplation. Francis sought refuge here six times in his life. As I look around, it isn’t difficult to understand why: Barely a sound can be heard. The tango of the wind and the trees is all I hear. Travelers wander the grounds barely speaking, as if trivial conversation would show disrespect.
We pilgrims have splintered into separate pilgrimages: Some go up the mountain, some go down. A few of them trickle into the nearby gift shop; others find a quiet place to read, to rest, to reflect. I sit on a modest stone wall overlooking the seemingly never-ending countryside of Tuscany. I’ve never felt less of a need to speak. The weight of this place begins to weigh on my mind.
In 1224, on his last visit to La Verna, Francis received the stigmata. In Pilgrim’s Companion to Franciscan Places, we read: “[Francis’] experience at La Verna imprinted the Passion of Christ upon his flesh. This is the basis behind his prayer where he asks for two graces: to know the love Christ had in his heart and to experience the depth of his suffering.”
The pilgrimage group convenes for personal reflection in the Chapel of the Stigmata. It’s eerily quiet here. The significance of where I’m sitting finally sets in. “La Verna is a place of huge importance, and we are, each of us, so small,” I journal.
Sinking into my uncomfortable wooden seat, my head resting against the wall, I’m winded without having moved.
A visit to Greccio marks our ninth day in Italy. The impending levity of the morning is palpable among my fellow travelers. People are giddy. I’m dubious.
Francis spent years at Greccio off and on in search of peace. It was here he recalled the birth of Christ to his brothers in 1223, even reenacting the event complete with a manger scene. We celebrate Mass and sing Christmas carols. I only mouth the words at first. (I’m no caroler.) But looking into the eager faces of my companions, I cave and join in. When in Greccio....
The irony of the moment isn’t lost on me: I’m sweating through my collared shirt while singing a Christmas tune in a place where Francis celebrated the birth of Christ. And then it hits me: Each year, in the days before Christmas, I’m sweating through my corduroy coat and rushing around, spending money I don’t really have on gifts people don’t really need. This oddly timed celebration rings truer.
After the celebration, I come across a quote by Saint Clare that resonates, particularly at this altitude: “I come, O Lord, unto Thy sanctuary to see the life and food of my soul. As I hope in Thee, O Lord, inspire me with that confidence which brings me to Thy holy mountain.”
Coming down off that holy mountain, we experience soul food of our own. We gather for lunch at Mondo X, a restored 13th-century Franciscan friary nestled in the Tuscan hills between Rome and Florence, now used as a drug-rehabilitation center for young people. The bright-eyed 20-somethings, all in recovery, make this afternoon possible: They prepare and serve three courses like seasoned pros.
Saint Francis said, “Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” The people of Mondo X have done just that: In conquering their demons, they are conquered by grace. Language divides us so we can only stand and applaud our hosts at the close of lunch. They are beaming. Their quiet pride isn’t sinful—it’s pure redemption.
In the heat of a warm Tuscan day, it is indeed a merry Christmas.
We are on the bus to Rome that same day. I’m torn: I don’t want to leave Assisi, but I can’t wait to get sucked into the frenetic energy of a big city. I loved the quiet. Now I want the noise.
A day is set aside for touring St. Peter’s—stunning, though my eyes can barely contain it all. I lean more toward the small churches of Assisi. Still, I love Rome. It’s a city with a quick pulse. In our downtime, a few of us eat gelato at the Spanish Steps and wander, though we don’t know where we’re going. Honestly, I’m indifferent. I’ve never been so happy to be lost.
Several in the group are less enthusiastic. “The pilgrimage ended for me when we left Assisi,” one says. But it’s an essential leg of our journey. It was in Rome where Francis sought papal authorization for his brotherhood in 1209. Pope Innocent III saw Francis as a holy contractor of sorts—somebody with a willing heart and a strong back who could repair a broken Church.
Visiting the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome brings this point home to me. This is Day 10 of our pilgrimage. In 1926, a bronze statue was created of Francis and his brothers and erected across the street from the basilica. Francis is dressed like a holy pauper, his arms raised high in the air. As our guides point out, the view from behind the bronze statue makes it look as if Francis is holding up St. John Lateran. I’m in awe of the paradox: his frail arms, wreathed in tattered clothes, keeping aloft an opulent Church.
Rumor has it Pope Innocent’s advisers cautioned him about meeting Francis, thinking him too radical, too controversial. But the pope was taken by his pious humility. Francis’ Rule was formally approved in 1223, just three years before he died.
Centuries later, his efforts flourish: The Franciscan spirit surrounding this area breathes. We pilgrims inhale deeply.
It’s here: the last day of our pilgrimage. We receive a papal blessing and use our free time the rest of the afternoon drifting around. I spend my last night on the balcony of my hotel room, eating unbelievably cheap pizza and looking up at the night sky. I feel anchored—not wanting to leave this spot. I peer into my pilgrimage book and read how Clare was sometimes so overwhelmed with a hybrid of emotions that she was immovable—not knowing, it reads, “whether she had a feeling of holiness, a sudden bashful impulse, whether she ought to pray or just sit and dream.” I know the feeling. But it’s time to leave Italy. My Roman holiday is over.
The mood on the bus to the airport the next morning is a medley: Some are quiet, some are chatty. I’m somewhere in between. I crave conversation, but I also want to remove myself and savor these final moments.
We exchange contact information and vow to keep in touch. Hugs and handshakes are in abundance. I hope to know these people for a lifetime. Time will tell.
I spend the long hours in the air back to the States journaling, half-watching movies and looking at digital pictures, memorabilia, schlock I’m bringing home for family and friends. We land at Chicago’s O’Hare for a layover.
As I wait for the last flight, my mind regains some focus. It’s time to resume my life. My shoulders hang low from backpack fatigue. My eyes are strained and weary. But it’s my pilgrim heart, ageless and restless, that still wanders the winding roads of Assisi.