This past weekend, Jhan and I had the privilege to travel to Assisi, along with our friend Lori (who is both a regular Global Chant member in Tucson and also one of my students here in Orvieto). We arrived on a Friday afternoon after a two-hour train ride from Orvieto. Once we got settled in, I was drawn like a magnet into the Basilica of Saint Francis, which is visible in the foreground of the picture on the right. The basilica has three levels and is breathtakingly beautiful, but what makes it most special--in my eyes, at least--is the crypt where St. Francis' remains are entombed. These are found on the lowest level of the basilica, which is also the humblest and least ornate.
The crypt itself is a concrete pillar with a simple altar on one side. Ten years ago, I spent three days sitting in meditation there. It was one of the most important experiences of my life, and returning there was no less profound. It felt like a homecoming for me and a chance to reconnect with the beautiful, joyous energy of my beloved San Francesco. Although I always feel his presence with me, there is something extraordinary about being in physical proximity to his remains. It's like getting a recharge from the most powerful spiritual battery one can imagine.
In the evening, we stayed in the basilica until it closed. As we were leaving, we encountered a vespers service on the main floor, with some of the most beautiful, heartfelt chanting I have ever heard outside of Global Chant. Dear fellow chanters, I know you were there with us in spirit.
We were privileged to attend special services of various types held for the local people at the beginning and end of each day. These generally took place on the main floor of the basilica, shown here., although we also took part in mass and vespers in the tomb area. At one point, Jhan, Lori and I had the tomb area to ourselves, sitting in perfect silence in this magnificent place. If this had been the extent of our time in Assisi, we would have been more than satisfied. But we were extremely blessed to experience much more.
On Saturday, we walked down to San Damiano. This is the small ancient sanctuary that San Francesco and his tiny group of monks rebuilt themselves after he received his famous vision (more about that in a moment). The sanctuary itself, which had been in shambles when San Francesco began repairing it, is intimate, perfectly preserved, and extremely peaceful. Surrounded by gardens and other buildings, it eventually became the living space for St. Claire and her order of nuns. The site where St. Claire died is marked by a small sign in the dormitory room that sits just above the sanctuary.
Later that afternoon, we visited the Basilica of St. Claire, which is right above San Damiano within the walls of the ancient city. As legend has it, San Francesco heard Jesus speak to him while he was praying to a cross that hung at San Damiano. Jesus said, "Go and repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruins." At first, San Francesco interpreted this message literally, which led to his reconstruction of San Damiano, but eventually he came to understand its broader significance. The reason this story is pertinent here is that the Basilica of St. Claire holds the very icon to which San Francesco was praying at the time he had his vision. Seeing this icon was inspiring to us for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it has survived so perfectly intact for 800 years. But also, we received our own personal messages from it as we sat in the church. I will share much more about this at a later time.
The last stop of our pilgrimage was the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which is where San Francesco resided during the final years of his life and is also the site of his death. As you can see from the photograph, there is a small simple structure within the expansive sanctuary. This structure, known as the Porziuncola, is another tiny church that San Francesco rebuilt and that also served as his primary place of worship for many years. As with most of the churches in Assisi, this one closes for lunch, and because we had a train to catch back to Orvieto, we had only a limited amount of time here. But Jhan and I agreed that this sacred site alone merits another visit to Assisi. We do not yet know when that will happen, but it could be soon. The Feast of Saint Francis is Oct 4, and this year Pope Francis will be in Assisi to celebrate San Francesco's birthday. We know that the city will be receiving millions of pilgrims from around the world on that date, and we do not plan on being among them. But perhaps just before that date, we will return to Assisi for another spiritual retreat there.