I can remember the first time I visited Assisi nearly twenty years ago. My father was driving a rental car with Suzy, my mother and me and we had been planning to visit the basilica of St. Francis to see the famous frescos by Giotto that depict the life of the saint. As we arrived in town, despite there being a perfectly good parking lot below the basilica, my father insisted on getting closer to the basilica, ignoring the "pedestrian only" and "restricted access" signs and driving into the enormous piazza right in front of the church. I had no idea how athletic my mother really was until that moment, as she was able to fold herself in half and literally hide herself underneath the passenger seat as we parked our van in front of a sign that read "reserved parking." I'm sure the pope didn't mind that we parked there that day.
That turned out to be the first of what has been dozens of visits to the the birthplace of St. Francis.
We often describe our humble home in Cannara as being situated "in the shadow of St. Francis' home town" and it is, in many ways. From the grounds of our villa this gleaming white city, built of stone but seeming to ooze down the side of Mount Subasio, is always visible. And in our little village of Cannara the side of a house along the road into town displays a tile painting of the saint in one of his most famous moments - giving his sermon to the birds - a scene which is also captured in the Giotto frescos depicting his life. Within walking distance of the villa is a small, innocuous shrine on the side of the road which marks the spot where Francis is said to have given that famous sermon. Strangely, it is across the road from a large gas station. Fill 'er up, get a car wash and meditate on the life of St. Francis.
Shortly after moving into the villa I took it on myself to learn about the life of this most famous saint, the patron saint of Italy itself, as well as the patron saint of the environment. There is no shortage of books written about his life and although I am not the most avid of readers, I devoured several different accounts of his life. What a guy! A real saint!
Frankly, if any person deserved sainthood it was Giovanni Bernardone, Francis' real name. He is a man who lived a life of service to his God so complete and so uncompromising that he still inspires loyalty among religous and lay people nine hundred years after he passed through this area. He was a radical in a time when absolute, unquestioned obedience to the church and its authority was demanded and received. He was a revolutionary thinker who singlehandedly changed the course of history through his example, altering the way we see and relate to God and His creation.
As you can tell, I'm pretty smitten with this guy.
So our tour of Assisi yesterday, with a ragtag group of relatives, hailing from various Pacific islands, Hawaii and the south was another test, a moment of anxiety for me. Will they love St. Francis too?
Well, Giovanni Bernardone is still batting a perfect 1.000. In the dozen or so times I have taken a tour of his hometown, the story of which is really a backdrop for the story of his life, not a single tour participant has come away with anything other than complete awe over the life of this saint and a love of his home town.
What's not to love? There is the basilica built in his honor, an enormous structure that is really two churches built upon one another (buy one, get one free!), covered from floor literally to ceiling with some of the most important works of western art, frescos not only depicting the life of the saint, but literally transforming the history of art in the process. On the other end of town, reachable by foot, is the church of Saint Claire, his partner in crime, a deserving saint in her own right but from whose life you can see Francis' humanity in even greater relief. There you can see famous crucifix from San Damiano, which spoke to Francis and led to him turning from his dissolute, rich playboy life to one of service to God and man.
Along the way between these magnificent churches you happen across a perfect Roman temple, a reminder that this town prospered for well over a century before Giovanni Bernardone put it on the map.
A dozen guided visits to Assisi, each one reaffirming the richness of this city and the greatness of its famous saint. If you ever visit this area and have time to do just one thing I would cast my vote for visiting Assisi and learning about the life of St. Francis. I am pretty confident that I would be seconded by the dozens of guests who have shared this journey with me.
Bill and Suzy