Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Pilgrimage to Assisi
Why travel so far, when you can tap into God right here at home? Fact is, we all will go someplace this year – so why not travel to a holy place, with other seekers after God, and at least try to sanctify a journey? It is the reality of the place, and thus the saint or Jesus himself, that is so striking when you find yourself in a holy place like Assisi. Not a pastel myth for a child’s coloring book any longer, Francis becomes as real as the notes he wrote in his own hand, which we inspected, or the elephant tusk the Muslim sultan gave him as a present, a lock of the hair of St. Clare, Francis’s friend, or the stone caves in which Francis prayed, and slept.
So we call this kind of travel “pilgrimage.” For centuries, Christians have left home to make arduous treks to holy places, believing the act of going will imprint some holy mystery forever upon the heart. Timing is everything during a pilgrimage. We arrived at Santa Chiara, one of my favorite, most prayerful churches in Assisi – but three other busloads dumped out at about the same time we arrived, so the prayer chapel was choked with people. Bad timing.
The ability to take some time in a holy place is everything. I adore the simple chapel of San Damiano, which Francis rebuilt with his hands, and where he prayed and heard Jesus ask him to rebuild the church; but my group was unimpressed, as we were rushed, the press of lunch and closing time bearing down upon us. And yet when we scaled the heights to Monteluco, the prayer convent near Spoleto, we could dally – and so we sat in the monks’ chamber, and tendered moving prayers to God for the world, for loved ones, and for ourselves.
Art and architecture in such pilgrimage zones are both lovely and tacky. We see buildings that have stood since Francis walked into them, but then we grimace over the Baroque kitsch stuck over the original stones, glitzy gilding someone must have thought was attractive once upon a time. The famed Giotto frescoes of Francis’s life are startling in their humanity and emotional intensity. Yet seeing them from floor level is a challenge – hence our gratitude for the touristy books for sale at the gift shops, so at home you can see what you could only dimly see on location.
Sometimes the dissonance of the gaudy and the lovely can be jarring: the monumentally ugly Santa Maria degli Angeli looms over the little dollhouse-like stone chapel, smaller than your kitchen, which Francis adored and kept standing with his love and masonry skills.
Seeing the mummies of people who arrived at these medieval churches centuries before we did reminds us it’s all about the people. Pilgrimage thrives or falters depending upon the people on the journey, whether they buy into the program of prayerful contemplation, arduous climbing as a spiritual pattern, and trying out holy hospitality on one another. My group in Assisi was marvelous. Being on time is crucial – so when one couple was rather late, everyone rallied around them with compassion, love and laughter. We prayed, and we shared.
Pilgrimage forms community, as travelers form lasting bonds that endure back home. Not surprising: the places we visit were places where ancient people befriended one another. In a square in Assisi, St. Clare saw St. Francis dancing as he preached, left her parents and formed a band of women to live at San Damiano.
At the convent Le Celle in Cortona, the silence of the place, the absence of the sounds of cars, electrical appliances – the general din that is the omnipresent background music that never can be shut off – was overheard with placid delight.
This pairing of people, the merging of the centuries is for me nowhere more poignant than in a British World War II cemetery, dotted with small stones, each displaying the name of a felled soldier, with some tender sentiment from mum or dad or a wife (“our dearest boy,” “the light of our life,” “we will miss you forever”).
I am a firm believer in Christopher Lasch’s thought: Children need to learn about faraway places and olden times before they can make sense of their immediate surroundings.” This is why Jesus, his mother, everyone in ancient Israel, and Christian pilgrims throughout the ages, have made pilgrimage to holy places. “Blessed are those in whose heart at the highways to Zion” (Psalm 84:5).