August 31, 2008
Thoughts of Assisi
It seemed inappropriate, or even unthinkable to interrupt the spiritual blessing that I was receiving in Italy to concern myself with computers and a blog. Now that I’m back, I have had time to reflect.
Walking the hills where Francis of Assisi walked was a humbling and incomparable experience. The town itself is incredible. Just imagine a place where
everywhere you look is something that has been there for hundreds of years. A
man and his short lifespan seem almost inconsequential here (see Psalms 39:4-6
In a setting like this, it’s easy to see how a person without faith could easily succumb to the temptation
of living life for the moment, hedonistically, with material possessions and fleshly pleasures being one’s sole motivation. Thinking of the countless souls who have lived and died in a place like this over
millennia upon millennia, only the hope of a resurrection and life in heaven can give one’s life true meaning and purpose.
San Francesca di Assisi (as he’s known
here) and those who have followed in his large footsteps have found just that; a meaningful life.
Saint Francis was a wealthy man who gave up his privileged position to care for the poor. One painting in the church bearing his name portrays him naked except for a cloak he borrowed from a bishop
as he returned all of his possessions to his father, including his clothing. Bystanders
had to hold his angry father back. It doesn’t get any more powerful than
that for me.
It seems as if the weather is perfect in Assisi all
of the time, or at least it did for the week that I was there. The red tiled roofs give Italy a poetic quaintness. The picturesque view of the Umbria
valley, with its farmland and grand farmhouses that have no doubt been there for generations is breathtaking. My photos don’t do it justice.
Thoughts of how hard life must have been 700 years ago could not escape my mind.
How did they get all of these rocks up here, how did they build all of these buildings, how did they provide for food
and water, what about the cold of winter?
When modern Christians in America
talk about sacrifice it pales in comparison with what people in the past (and in parts of the developing world today) had
to do just to get out of the door in the morning with a positive attitude.
Many Protestants would not have made a journey like I made to Italy. Unfortunately, too many still believe that Catholics aren’t saved. This is sadder still, given the fact that the Roman Catholic Church accepted toward the end of the last
century Martin Luther’s foundational teaching, rejected at the Council of Trent in the 16th century; that
man’s salvation comes from God’s grace, and that this grace is based on faith alone (see Romans chapters 3 and 4).
I never bought into this schism stuff. The gospel is clear that there
should be no sectarianism (see Mark 9:38-41 and Luke 9:49-50). I consider myself nondenominational and attend many
churches of various denominations. In fact, despite my disagreement with some
Catholic teachings I believe that many of the choices that the early church made were necessary for the growth of the faith
and ordained by the Lord. I agree with much of Catholic dogma. Regardless, we as Protestants are their progeny and they are the progeny of Paul and Peter; who saw and
spoke with Jesus Christ.
Yet, there were many things about the Catholic faith as I have seen it practiced in America that I just didn’t get. Well,
after my trip here I get it.
At first glance, it is easy to dismiss Assisi as
a commercial tourist trap. With its pizza shops, gelato stands, and kitsch on
top of kitsch one pauses. After visiting church after church, it would be easy
to dismiss it all: “Once you’ve seen one old church you’ve seen them all.” But when you attend a mass here everything changes.
Perhaps, it is the incredible history here. The place is steeped in
the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s the generation after generation of growing
up learning the catechism. But, when dozens or hundreds of people begin chanting
the liturgy (much of it in Latin) by heart the power is palpable. The quality
of the praise and worship to God is clear.
Protestants prefer talking directly to Jesus and confessing their sins. However,
when you see people literally lining up to confess during a Catholic service here it is hard to question the quality of their
faith. Can there be any doubt that a confession of one’s sins isn’t
really concrete and complete unless made to another human being? Many Christians
miss this incredibly important point (see James 5:16).
I attended mass three times while I was in Assisi
even though I understand very little Latin or Italian. I was blessed. My prayers, and praise and worship in Assisi
would have been incomplete without it.
The holiness of the town of Assisi was palpable. Visiting the crypt beneath the San Francesca Church where St. Francis is buried revealed
a place where many were kneeling in prayer. I was particularly struck by a girl
sitting on the floor reading her open bible and a monk lounging on the floor with his back to the wall in deep prayer. I felt the presence of Jesus Christ strongly there.
I was overwhelmed with thoughts of what it must be like to be the Lord--just in this one small place, hearing the petitions
of hundreds, day after day.
Nevertheless, experiences like this led me to constantly pray for others and that their faith would be deepened,
especially if I perceived that they were unhappy or having some type of crisis of faith.
The Sunday that I spent in Assisi included two very
special encounters. I walked downhill about a half mile from the monastery where
I stayed to San Damiano monastery. This is the location where a cross spoke to
St. Francis while he was praying (read the prayer). In addition, another saint from this town, St. Clare, founded a convent on
this sight in collaboration with Francis.
In a small humble chapel I attended mass with townspeople, other vacationers, and many monks. I received communion, as well. The importance that Roman Catholic
dogma places on receiving the Lord’s Supper is one of their most significant additions to our faith. I believe we all should be receiving it daily, or nearly so.
Anyway, shortly after the monk gave me the host I was leaving the chapel. Suddenly,
I felt someone grab my arm. It was he, the monk who had presided over the mass. He had run after me after the end of the service and caught up to me just as I was
at the top of the stairs. He realized that I did not speak Italian and asked
me where I was from. I told him that I was from America and said, “God bless you.”
Then I turned and left. I don’t know what he felt when he gave me
the host but it must have been something powerful and different to cause him to come after me like that.
Later that day I visited a thousand year-old fort at the citadel of the hill above town. There, I encountered a nun from the Philippines
and her Mother Superior in the company of a young girl for a Sunday outing. There
was some problem at the ticket booth and the Mother Superior said, “Signore” and motioned for me to go in front
of them. She sat down rather dejectedly on the steps and I perceived that they
had a financial problem.
The Holy Spirit told me to help. It was only nine euros for me (about
$15), but I imagine that it meant a lot to them and that I had been an answer to a prayer.
The young Philippino spoke some English, but it oddly failed her. I said,
“God bless you,” and moved on. Sometimes with the Lord the moment
and the experience is the important thing, not words.
Later, as I walked back down into town I saw the three of them enjoying a gelato.
I imagine that they would not have had the money for it if I hadn’t helped out.
I counted it a blessing to be able to play a small part in their blessed day.
In the first encounter I believe I could have helped the Lord answer a prayer.
In the second I was sure of it. A lifelong memory for me, but just another
day in Assisi.