Sunday began as rainy, windy and a bit chilly, but our spirits were warm and ready as we walked to the Basilica of St. Clare to spend some extended time in prayer before the San Damiano Cross, the “cross of the call,” as some have called it. The previous evening, Steve gave us some background on the history, spirituality and theology that this cross represents. When Francis was trying to discern what to do with his life, he wandered into the chapel of San Damiano (St. Damian, a Roman, who was martyred with his twin brother, St. Cosmos in 237. Both were physicians who practiced their craft and refused payment). As he prayed in front of this large, dramatic cross, he saw the lips of Christ move, and heard a voice say, “Francis, go and rebuild my house.” Francis took the voice literally and began to repair the little chapel. He would eventually repair and/or rebuild several chapels, one of his favorites being Our Lady of the Angels (nicknamed the Porziuncula, or Little Portion), our next stop of the day.
San Damiano later became the residence of St. Clare and her Sisters, but they later moved to a convent attached to the Basilica of St Clare, which is within the walled city of Assisi. The cross used to hang in their refectory until it was brought out for the public to view in the 1950s.
We spent about a half hour in silent prayer here. A good way to begin the day’s journeys. The serenity and peace of that space so early in the morning was a real blessing for us. We then walked to the bus stop to catch the bus to Our Lady of the Angels which is in the valley below.
Since it was early in the morning, and there was little traffic, the bus driver could take the hairpin turns down the hills at a rapid clip, luckily the contents of my breakfast did not come up on the bus floor.
In the late 16th Century, a large, baroque-style church was built over the tiny chapel that Francis repaired. It seemed a bit anachronistic, but Sister Nancy said that the large church was built to protect the original chapel and the many pilgrims who came to visit. We were not allowed to take pictures in the church, and Mass was in progress, so Steve and Nancy gave the orientation on the portico of the church and we went inside to spend time in the tiny chapel that St. Francis so loved and which served as the heart of the Order.
What always strikes me about this place is the explosion of color in the paintings both outside and within. It is a place filled with a sense of peace and a strong sense of love. Later, Sister Nancy described this place as a place of mission, because this was the site from which the Friars would be sent forth to places near and far. This was a place very dear to St. Francis, and in a small infirmary next to the Chapel, he died in 1226. Nancy referred to the Portizuncula as “the womb of the Franciscan Order,” an image that seemed apropos for this place of sending forth.
We returned to the Casa for pranzo; afterwards, Kris, John and I tried to find the leather shop that Steve had spoken of. (On our walk to the St. Clare’s Basilica that morning, Mauro, the owner and leather craftsman extraordinaire, spotted Fr. Steve and raced out to greet him.) We didn’t find Maruo’s shop, but we did find this chocolate shop with this fabulous display window.
For the afternoon, we trekked on foot to San Damiano, which is outside of the city walls. Mercifully, the walk was downhill, but it was quite steep at time. The landscape was a dramatic contrast with clouds rolling by at a quick clip and a strong wind blowing against us as we made our way to the Chapel. Our path cut through a large grove of olive trees, whose graceful forms and delicate leaves were a visual delight.
Before we entered San Damiano, Sister Nancy explained the significance of the site prior to Christianity. The temple of Minerva in Assisi was actually dedicated to Castor and Pollux, the twin Roman gods of healing. There is a spring somewhere on the site of San Damiano, and in Roman times, people would journey here for healing, though Castor and Pollux only worked in the evening, so it required a stay here. Along comes Christianity, and Cosmos and Damian are swapped out for Castor and Pollux. For some unknown reason, Cosmos’ name is dropped and the site was called San Damiano.
St. Francis gave the site to St. Clare and her Sisters and Clare died here in 1253. Often St. Clare is depicted holding a monstrance. There is a story that the Saracens were storming the convent, and ultimately the city, and Clare took out the Eucharist in a monstrance and the Saracens fled. Nancy said that according to the sources, the Saracens had climbed over the wall surrounding the convent/monastery, and Clare took the box containing the Eucharist in it, and placed it on the floor in front of the locked door. She knelt in prayer along with her sisters and prayed that Christ would protect his city and all within it. As the sisters prayed, they heard a voice, the voice of a child say, “I have always protected my city and will protect it again.” The Saracens left. There is a lovely fresco showing Clare and her sisters in prayer that is on a wall near the niche where the Eucharist was kept. In the niche is a fresco of Christ as a child.
We walked up the steps to the dormitory where Clare and her sisters slept and where she died. The spot is cordoned off and a vase of fresh flowers is always there. While in this space, Steve led us in a healing service and invited all of us to a non-sacramental anointing. He invited us to pray for anyone we might know in need of healing at this time, and one by one we approached him and he anointed our hands. (Another group came into the dormitory and some of them got in line as well. I could see the one spouse whisper to the other, and I imagined her saying, “What are they doing?” The husband shrugged, but they thought it was a good idea to get in line as well.)