I recently had the incredible privilege of going on a pilgrimage to the land of St. Francis and St. Clare, Assisi, Italy. I’m intentional about using the word pilgrimage. The journey was not a vacation, and I was not a tourist. The journey was in a physical movement signifying a spiritual movement. I was traveling outwardly, and inwardly, on a quest to discover the spirit of St. Francis and St. Clare.
I began my journey alone, flying from the U.S. to Rome. While on the flight, I spoke to numerous fellow travelers. An elderly Italian man and his American wife making a journey to reconnect with his roots. A Chinese software engineer taking a week to tour the country and discover the sights, sounds and tastes of Italy. There were others, all traveling for various reasons. But I met none who expressed what I was about on the journey. A journey to discover two saints who lived 800 years ago. While I attempted to explain this to my new travel friends, they did not seem to understand.
Upon arriving in Rome, I met up with a group of others who were also given the same opportunity as I to go on pilgrimage. Here I found more common ground, as I met my companions who shared to one degree or another the sense that this was a journey that was a little more than typical tourist fare.
Arriving in Assisi, and experiencing 7 days in the land of Francis and Clare, I sought with my heart and with my feet. It was really not very difficult to discover and encounter the spirit I sought. I found my quest rather easy, like looking for something as “plain as the nose of my face.” Francis and Clare were everywhere.
Stepping off the bus that carried us from Rome to Assisi and onto the ground of that holy place I experienced what must have been the genesis of Francis’ love for creation. The beauty of Assisi is in it’s simple way, a reflection of things above. There is a sense of peace and good there. It seems to emanate from the place.
Going through the week with my companions and our guides, seeing in person the square where Francis gave himself to God, the Portiuncula Chapel which he rebuilt with his own hands, the leper colony where he embraced the poor, the Chapel and home at San Damiano where Clare built the foundations of the Poor Clares, the caves of Mt. Subasio and the Cathedral of nature that Francis enjoyed, these all individually and collectively helped me draw closer to the spirit of Francis and Clare.
I found myself touching the stones that made up the buildings where significant events occurred in the life of Francis and Clare. My spiritual, inward pilgrimage was merging with my physical exterior experience, I was walking with Francis and Clare in a very concrete way. In a way that I could not do, apart from this special place.
Unexpectedly, I was at one point transported to a deeper place than I had been in prayer for quite some time. We were just concluding mass at the crypt where the remains of St. Francis are laid. I approached the place where Francis’ casket lay and knelt down for a
quick moment to remember the people I had pledged to pray for on my journey. As my knees hit the kneeler I sensed the presence of God. I liken it to a sense of connectedness, a communion if you will. I was there, God was there, Francis and Clare were there. I lost track of the space I was in and time for that brief period. I don’t know exactly how long I stayed there, but when I opened my eyes I saw my companions had gone. I stood up and I realized I had at that moment reached a destination on my pilgrimage. Days before I had arrived at Assisi and reached a physical destination. At that moment, I had reached a spiritual destination, an encounter with Francis and Clare, and God.