It was noticeably colder today as we trudged down Via San Francesco to the Basilica of St. Francis. One of the architectural marvels of the Medieval world, the lower part of the Basilica was completed in 1230, just four years after the death of St. Francis. (The Upper Church would be completed around 1253, the date of the death of St. Clare.)
After a brief orientation outside the Lower Basilica, we proceeded to the tomb which is located below the altar of the Lower Basilica.
As one walks down the stone steps to the tomb, one has a feeling of intimacy and of sacred space. The space is simple and stark, but incredibly warm and serene. The Chapel/Tomb area is not very large, and we had the privilege of have Eucharist in the area with a group of English-speaking Canadian Pilgrims.
At the Prayers of the Faithful, Fr. Steve included a pray for all who have gone before us, and suddenly, it dawned on me that today would have been my Mom’s 95th birthday. (She passed into eternal life on the Feast of St. Anthony [June 13], 2010.) As her memory flooded back into my consciousness, I couldn’t think of a better place to be to remember her and all of our family on what would have been her birthday.
Following Mass we had several minutes to explore the tomb area and lower basilica on our own. Most of the group was so captivated by their time in the tomb that words could barely do it justice. Several in our party were moved deeply by our time there. Surrounding St. Francis tomb are the tombs of four of his earliest and dearest followers: Ruffino, Masseo, Angelo and Leo.
At the top of the stairs before you enter the tomb is the tomb of Lady Jacoba (“Brother Jacoba,” to St. Francis. Jacoba was a wealthy widow with whom St. Francis often stayed whenever he was in Rome. She would bake his favorite almond cakes for him. As I stood by her tomb, I was nearly moved to tears by the story that she arrived at the Porziuncula a few hours before his death, as if some greater power was calling her to be present for this sacred moment.) For anyone who visits the Basilica of St. Francis, their time in the tomb is probably the most soul deepening of all. It is so difficult to describe, but it seems as if you are in the embrace of St. Francis and his closest friends and that embrace is a warm and loving one.
After a half an hour on our own, we were issued transponders with an earpiece that allowed Steve to give his tour of both the Lower and Upper Basilica in a quiet voice (so that those wishing to pray would not be disturbed) and yet allow us to hear.
I have to say that when Steve begins to speak of the art and the spirituality/theology that it represents in the basilica, he lights up brighter than a searchlight. All of this knowledge and insight just poured forth as he led us
through the various side chapels, the vault over the altar in the lower basilica, and the amazing frescoes of the upper basilica which have three cycles: the life of St. Francis and scenes form the Old and New Testament. Aside from the occasional admonition from some crabby guard — Steve occasionally would often have a humous observation about a work of art — our time went by quickly and without any incidents.
When I popped into the religious articles/bookstore I introduced myself to a friar behind the counter, and it turned out to be Friar Baptista, a friar I met in 1978 in St. Louis in my first months in the community. He and another Italian friar had come to the U.S. for the ordination of one of our Friars and spent several days in our Friary in St. Louis. As I told him in my broken Spanish that we had met in 1978, he lit up and warmly shook my hand. Both of us are a bit grayer now, but his kindness and generosity have not waned.
Another bright spot in my day occurred during our orientation when an old friend and former Friar, Michael Toczek surprised me with a “Welcome,” and a hug. I lived with Michael for two years in Washington, DC and he is now married to a local girl and they both work for the Basilica.
As we trudged up the ever-so-steep Via San Francesco to return to the Casa, we had to make a stop at a leather shop, Il Tapiro, which is owned by a delightful man named, Mauro. Remember that we ran into him en route to St. Clare’s Basilica on Sunday. Mauro is a superb artisan of leather and he is always thrilled to see Fr. Steve, Sister Nancy or any member of a Pilgrimage Group. He made many in our group happy shoppers by the time that they left his tiny shop.
We were supposed to head to the Caceri (a Hermitage that St. Francis used that is about 2.5 kilometers outside of town in the mountains) but Steve and Nancy were concerned that with the extreme cold and wind that it might not be the most conducive site to prayer. “The rattling of your teeth may be a bit distracting,” Nancy said. Some of our group did trek up the mountain, where we were told there was some snow, but the rest of us remained in the main city and checked out
When you explore Assisi you have to be prepared for extreme “ups” and extreme “downs.” The downs are not usually a problem, unless you have to contend with a covey of school children and/or the dreaded traffic. Yes, even in this tiny little village with streets no wider than a sedan, there is traffic, sometimes lots of it. Like our bus driver on Sunday morning, they think that it is their anointed mission to race up every street at breakneck speed and see just how close they can cruise by pedestrians. Because of the narrowness of the streets and the tallness of the buildings, the sound of an approaching car or truck is amplified, so you usually have some warning, but when someone is trying to break a speed record, you have to be rather agile. Add to this the steepness of some of the streets or staircases and you wonder if it was a good idea to have that second helping of pasta. I never knew that my heart could pound so quickly and so noisily, while my lungs were working overtime to get oxygen to my blood. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m out of shape…like I was ever in shape to begin with???)
Despite the recalcitrant weather, it was a great day for all of us. For me, in particular, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to my province, my family, my local friary and my co-workers at the retreat center, for giving me the opportunity to make this pilgrimage.
The hills here are a brilliant shade of green; the kind of green that only occurs after a Spring rain. The verdant hills and valley reflect the refreshed and energized state of my spirit as this time unfolds.
Ciao for now….Bob