IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ST.FRANCIS OF ASSISIJanuary 11, 2014, 6:15 pm
By L. C. Arulpragasam
As a discalaimer, I need to state that I am not a Catholic, although a Christian. Nor do I claim to have walked in the spiritual footsteps of this man of God. I seek only to narrate my own experience when I tried to trace the physical footsteps of St. Francis during his peregrinations in Italy. I must also state that whereas St. Francis walked all the way in the summer sun and rainy cold of winter up and down the Umbrian and Tuscan Appenines, I had the relative luxury of doing the same journies by car. I got this opportunity only because I happened to live in Italy for many years. For readers who know little of St. Francis of Assisi, I provide a brief biography, but only as background to my personal story of following the footsteps of this remarkable saint.
St. Francis was born in 1811 to the family of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi in the province of Umbria, near the Tuscan border. He was named "Francesco" (little Frenchman) because of his French mother. He grew up among the idle rich, spending his youth in carousing and unruly partying. Although his father wanted him to follow in his successful cloth trade, Francis only wanted glory at that time, in pursuance of which, he set out for the Crusades. But he already seemed to be undergoing a spiritual transformation by this time. For he was hardly some miles from his home when seeing a clotheless beggar in Spoleto, he stripped off his expensive clothes to wrap them around the beggar. (There is a graphic painting of this scene in Assisi). He was thus compelled to return to his family in shame and dishonour, for which his father never forgave him.
Meanwhile, his spiritual proclivities increased and he spent more time in prayer and penance. One day, while praying before an old Byzantine cruifix in the abandoned church of San Damiano in the woods, he believed he heard the voice of Christ speaking to hm from the cross asking him "to repair my church". (I still have a small copy of this crucifix in my room).Taking the words literally, St. Francis soon went to work to repair the decrepit old Church of San Damiano with his own hands, brick by brick. It was only later that he realzed that the call was to repair the tone and fabric of the Catholic Church, which was fast losing its mission in wealth and opulence at that time. Taking to heart Christ’s teaching, he embraced the vow of poverty, assuming the model of poverty and service to Christ by tending to the spiritual and physical needs of the poor. He was a happy man doing God’s work, singing all the while, even when derided in the early days as being "God’s fool".
Despite untold hardships, he and his 12 early followers were able to attract 5,000 friars to his calling within a period of 10 years. Being a born leader, Francis even went to the Church in Rome where, through his sincerity and holiness, he was able to convince Pope Innocent III to initiate a Fransiscan Order pledged to the ideals of poverty and service to God. Francis was not a rebel against his own Church: he was only trying to restore it to its original values in accordance with Christ’s teaching. It is heartening to see that the new Pope, Francis, I has not only taken the name of Francis but is also trying to do the same for the ideals and direction of the church. St. Francis stressed God’s brotherhood with man, with all people, rich or poor. In fact, he widened this spititual embrace to all creation, including the birds of the air, the beasts of the field and to the entire universe itself. It is for this wider vision that he is now acclaimed as the patron saint of animals, the environment and indeed of all nature itself.
I now try to paint a picture of his life, as revealed to me by following in his physical footsteps. It was not diffficult for me to do this, because whereas St. Francis had to walk all over three provinces on foot, I had the relative luxury of doing so by car! I start with St. Francis in his little church of the Porziuncola, which is associated with the start of his ministry. The Porziuncola was the shell of a little old church dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels, which Francis restored with his own hands. It is here that he later gathered his followers to start his small Order of Friars Minor. It is also the place where he received Clare (later Santa Chiara) into the service of God through a life of Christian poverty. The Porziuncola itself is very small, measuring barely 6 x 3 metres. Although gracefully adorned with paintings and frescoes, it is its stunning sprirtual vibration that leaves one breathless. It has made an indelble impression on me, and I have returned to this spitual space (the Proziuncola) repeatedly. It was also the place closest to St. Francis’ heart. On his death bed, he was brought here and actually died within yards of it. Today this unassuming little church is covered by the massive Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels) which not only dwarfs but almost devours it. Nowadays one has to navigate this great and graceless Basilica to get to its vibrant spiritual heart, the Porziuncola; but it is still a visit worth making.
From there we go to San Damiano, a church restored again with Francis’ own hands. It was during these visits to the woods that he started communing with the birds and composed his famous canticle to the birds, asking them to praise the Lord for their freedom to fly, for not having to sow or weave in order to feed and clothe themselves. Completely blind in his dying days, he composed his famous Canticle to the Sun, in which he praises all God’s Creation, including Brothers Sun, Moon and Stars, Brothers Wind, Fire and Water, praising them all as part of God’s Creation. It is this universality of humankind and its bond with the rest of the universe that has made him the patron saint of nature and the environment.
Adjoining the Church of San Damiano is the nunnery where Santa Chiara (St. Clare) lived in a single-room dormitory with her sisiter-nuns for more than 30 years. In her last years, afllicted with tuberculosis, she moved to an adjoining room with a balcony. It is from this balcony that she is reputed to have stopped the invading armies of Frederick II and later of Muslim invaders by holding up the monstrance (the host) while praying for God’s intervention. (This scene is captured in a famous painting in Assisi). Most touching of all, however, is the refectory where the mark of St. Clare’s plate at the same dining table for 30 years has left a deep indent in the wood of the 700 hundred year old table! A bowl of fresh flowers marks the spot as a poignant reminder of her dedicated and devoted life. The nuns quarters also possessed a picturesque clositer around which the sisters walked in meditation, while their cloisterd courtyard still holds the 13thcentury well from which they drew their water
Much of the Saint’s’ life is brought to life by the frescoes and paintings which adorn the walls of the Basilica in Assisi. No attempt is made to describe this treasure trove of religious art, since the reader can access it in any travel book. Hence reference will only be made to a few which illustrate particular aspects of our saint’s life. The Basilica of St. Francis is actually comprised of three parts: the Upper Basilica, the Lower Basilica and the Crypt where the remains of the saint lie buried. The Lower Basilica contains a number of frescoes and paintings by the 13th century master Cimabue, who lived closest to Francis’ time. Unfortunately these frescoes are fading away; but we do have a contemporary (13th century) portrait of St. Francis by Cimabue, a copy of which I still retain in my room. The Lower Basilica also contains the painting by Pietro Lorenzetti known as the Madonna of the Sunsets because a wayward ray of light from the setting sun finds its way into the dark interior to light up this picture in its brilliant gold. I actually still have a copy of this painting in my bedroom after 30 years. The Upper Basilica has the famous frescoes of St. Francis attributed to Giotto, including especially his communion with the birds. The frescoes go on to illustrate events in St. Francis’ life, including his receival of the stigamata, the wounds of Christ in his own body.
There is also a painting of St. Francis’ encounter with the fierce wolf of Gubbio. Gubbio is a picturesque medieval town near the border of Umbria with Abruzzio, quite far from St. Francis’ usual haunts. It is a completely walled-off town with steep cobbled streets, which it strives to keep alive in its former medieval splendour. We have visited it many times. It is said that in St. Francis’ time, a savage wolf used to attack the villagers, even carrying off little children for food. When St. Francis visited this village, the people beseeched him to save them from this ravenous wolf. Addressing the animal as "Brother Wolf", Francis was able to pacify it and make a pact between the wolf and the village, whereby the wolf undertook not to harm the vlllagers, while they undertook to feed and look after it, which they did. The wolf ultimately died of old age as the village pet! There is even a painting of St.Francis accosting the wolf at the entrance to the town.
Today the town of Gubbio is touted to tourists as a medieval town that is frozen in time. Archery contests are held here in imitation of old times, with the men dressed in medieval costumes unfurling their different cantonal flags, while the women parade the streets in their medieval finery. Heralds with banners and trumpets issue the challenge of Gubbio to an archery contest on written parchment in 15th century style to other medieval towns such as Sienna and San Marino. Then the rival archers, armed with old-style crossbows (but jazzed up with hgh-tech telescopic sights) vie with each other in the contest. It is all much fun – and attracts much tourism!
I also followed St.Francis’ footsteps to the Island of Trasimeno, which is within the large Lake of Trasimeno between the boundaries of Umbria and Toscana. Francis spent only one year there in order to rest, during his otherwise active life. He does not seem to have done much there except to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of the poor who fish on this beautiful lake. I must admit that I followed St. Francis’ footsteps to Trasimeno as much for my love of the lake as for my love of St. Francis!
My main interest centred, however, around St. Francis’ activities in La Verna. The latter was hardly habited in St. Francis’ time, being set in woodland forests littered with mountans and caves. It is a long 123 km climb from Assisi, climbing high into the Appenines of Tuscany through many miles and mountains of slippery slopes in winter rain. St. Francis used to spend some months a year meditating and praying in these caves. There are many stories about those times, one of which is about a hawk that used to fly into his cave to wake him at 3 o’clock every morning. Instead of upbraiding the hawk, St. Francis sang an ode thanking "Brother Hawk" for waking him in time to praise the Lord! There was also a rough robber named Rufino (Rufus) who came to rob Francis while he was praying. Francis spoke to Rufus in words to this effect: "Brother, I have no money to give you; but come pray with me so that you will find even greater riches in the Lord". So Rufino knelt and prayed with Francis, and thereafter became his staunchest follower. So much so that Brother Rufus is now buried opposite the Saint in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
The whole area of La Verna is heavily wooded, adding to its sylvan beauty. Nearby is a Fransiscan Sanctuary with its white-pillared arcade set into the side of a hill, while fluttering white turtle doves further provide a peaceful picture. On the adjoining hill lies La Verna with its Basilica of the Sanctuary of La Verna. My wife and I have been visiting La Verna since about 40 years ago, when the place was unheard of and largely deserted. Now it has been built up with so many additional buildings including tourist accomodation. The additions include some beautiful porcelain works by the della Robbia brothers plus the Corridor of the Stigmata which leads to the Chapel of the Stigmata. But in those days in the late 1960s, there were no guides or sign posts anywhere and few of the buildings existing now. Thus, when we were looking around, we chanced upon a small cell in which St. Anthony (also of the Franciscan Order) used to meditate and pray during his stay at La Verna; it was a very small cell hardly 8 ft x 8 ft, but with a wonderful view of the valley below.
On walking farther on the hilltop, we stumbled upon an embedded rock whose writing proclaimed it to be the spot where St. Francis received the stigamata or wounds of the crucified Christ. (The stigmata are wounds of nail-pierced hands and feet like those of Christ, with an added wound on the side). St. Francis was the first person to receive such a manifestation of his faith, but suffered greatly from these wounds.
Walking farther on the hill, we came across a quaint little chapel, seemingly frozen in time. Not knowing what it was, we nosed our way into its dim interior. It is now known as the Chapel of the Stigmata. We just had time to note the ornate choir stalls when we heard the sound of sonorous chanting in the distance, but coming ever closer to us. Soon a little old friar bustled in, fissy-fussing to tidy up before the oncoming procession. He almost died of shock to see us there: for no one was supposed to be here, least of all a woman (my wife). Although outraged, he could not chase us out into the path of the oncoming chanting procession which was now almost upon us. Not knowing what to do, he shoved us behnd a narrow curtain and hushed us with fierce warning signs. Soon the procession entered. Not being a church man, I had never seen the likes of this before, and stood transfixed! The monks had apparently taken the vow of silence, coming out of their cells once a day to this chapel to sing praises to their Lord. They filed in two by two, heavily cowled so that one could not see their faces, looking rather sinister to me in the dimly lit church.There was pin-drop silence, except for the deep Gregorian chants. Entering the chapel, the monks peeled off to the left and to the right in well rehearsed order, with each side taking its stand in the ornate choir stalls facing each other. Their faces could not be seen, nor was any word spoken: their leader only called out a line and the friars chanted their response. After about 20 minutes, they suddenly stopped without any word or sign, peeling off in formation with cowled heads bowed, one following the heel of the other, with no word spoken! It left me breathless! It was not long, however, before the officious little friar descended upon us, berating us for our intrusion on this sacred ritual. It was an experience, however, that I will never forget.
And so we come to the death of this immortal saint. He was ailing for a long time, blind and suffering from his stigmatized wounds. In death, he wanted to be brought to his beloved Porziuncola, his spritual home, where he was attended by his spiritual partner St. Clare (Santa Chiara). In his dying days he composed his wonderfu Canticle to the Sun, which is a song of praise for God’s whole creation. He died in the year 1226 at the age of 44 and was canonized two years later. The government of Assissi had to send soldiers to guard his remains, for in the medieval superstition of those days, everyone wanted a piece of the saint! Thus ended the earthly life of this saintly man, whose physical footsteps I was privileged to follow. I can only conclude with the prayer attributed to St. Francis: a prayer relevant to all religions and one which I continue to keep by my bedside:
Lord, make me the instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is error, the truth; Where there is doubt, the faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek To be comforted as to comfort; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
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Last Updated Jun 24 2016 | 09:03 pm