Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Assisi, day one

This is a very personal blog entry, but I want to share what is happening to me here in Assisi.

I arrived late Monday morning and signed into the guesthouse where I'll be staying until Friday morning. My room looks out onto the Basilica of St. Francis.

My first visit was to the tomb of St. Francis in the crypt, a simple place to pray. After a Mass in the lower church I walked some more and then headed back for a little rest (since many churches are closed from noon to 2 or 2:30).

My first afternoon visit was to the Basilica of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare). There I stopped and prayed before the crucifix that has been in the little church of San Damiano. Praying before this crucifix, Francis experienced a call to rebuild the church.

I knelt and prayed, "Lord, what do you want me to do?"

I had a very clear sense that Jesus was telling me, "Love."
"Love my people."
"Love the little ones of this world, the poor, the people at the margin."

In one sense this is a reflection on what I've been reading.

A few days ago I finished André Vauchez's Francis of Assisi: the life and afterlife of a medieval saint. Vauchez brings out Francis' radical sense of Jesus as God who became flesh, identifying with those who have no place in this world. 

As Vauchez writes on page 258:
"For Francis, the poor and humble not only constitute the necessary instruments for the salvation of the rich and powerful, as the traditional understanding of the Psalms would have it. They are imges of Christ and acquired by that fact their own human and spiritual dignity."

There is much more in Vauchez that strikes a sympathetic chord in my heart, but his insistence on the place in Francis of a poverty based in the vision of Christ as God emptying himself leads Vauchez to offer a vision of Francis as one who followed an incarnate God. And so, Vauchez also writes, on page 32:
"Francis does not flee the world. On the contrary, he rushes to plunge himself into it in order, like his Lord, to conquer it and to reintegrate back into society the poor and all those whom power and money have excluded of it."

And so the voice of God is calling me to renew my love and commitment with the poor. 

On the train to Assisi an event of the previous night left me with a similar message.

I had gone out to a local laundromat in Ravenna to wash a few clothes. No clean underwear! The washer was malfunctioning and the owner told me to come back in two hours. When I returned two young African guys were there and we struck up a conversation. Between a mixture of Spanish, Italian, and English we manage to communicate on a minimal level. They were middle school students, born and raised in Italy, of parents from the Sahel. At one point the older guy said to his friend that I was "simpatico." I felt blessed that, despite difficulties of language and differences of culture, they felt that I had a sense of them. Maybe they felt that I really respected them for who they are.

I felt at home with them, probably at the margins of Italian society, as I feel at home with the campesinos in Honduras.

I think there is something really Franciscan about this.

Leaving Saint Clare's basilica I walked down to San Damiano and sat in the back of the small church where Francis heard God's call.

Again I felt the call to love and be with the poor of the world.

In San Damiano I experienced a joy, though my eyes filled with tears. 

The basilica of Saint Clare and the church of St. Damian were for me "thin places." 

But I cannot remain in thin places. I need to return to the world with all its pain,  boredom, and difficulties, getting into the muck of things.

This had become clear to me in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. 

There's a labyrinth there which I walked. Beginning I felt uneasy, losing my balance at one point. But when I reached the center round circle, I faced the altar with the mosiac of the youthful Christ and prayed. 

The way out was easier, I felt centered. When I left the labyrinth I saw the large round circle in the center of the nave, right in front of me that reminded me of the similar, yet smaller, circle at the center of the labyrinth, I am called to bring the peace of the center of the labyrinth to the center of the world. 

 That's how my days in Assisi have begun. 

Pray that I am open to God's grace these days.

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