Sunday, May 27, 2007

Assisi Pilgrimage: Sanctuaries

St. Francis: Brother Sun, Sister moon

Not everyday last year was spent in Assisi. We of course spent time in Rome. However, today I want to spend some time talking about the sanctuaries or hermitages Francis and the friars developed and used.

The friars rejected the notion that you could be either in the world or separate from the world. They preached the good news (occasionally using words!) in the world. Their numbers grew, in the world. However, to keep the focus on God and not them they needed to constantly have time with God. For that they needed solitude and for that they created a number of sanctuaries.

Our day off last year was on The Feast of the Accession, so we ascended! Not like Daniel Jackson or Jesus. Rather, we climbed and climbed and climbed and… Ron and Lil Schumacher, Peter Ghiloni and Peter’s friend who just happened to join us climbed Mount Subasio. The mountain is part of the Apennine mountain system. We climbed above the city, above the fortress and we climbed some more. We were sweating, laughing and stopping and saying, “Oh, look at that”. The view, the panorama was breathtaking.

Two hours later (or a 10 minute taxi ride) we reached the top and entered The Carceri Hermitage. This was one of the original sanctuaries. In this secluded forest on the side of the mountain were caves, grottos, places to be alone and to pray. I walked up and down the valleys, a small cave here, another there. These were tiny openings in the earth not to be mistaken with Mammoth Caves! Most would only accommodate one person, some were too small to stand up in, and some were so small you would have to lie on your back. Francis and the friars would withdraw to the mountain, the forest, the caves to meditate. Once they were “recharged” they were back in the world.

The commune realized the value of the friars to Assisi. They had already built a stone hut at the Porziuncula. Five thousand Friars and five hundred novitiates attended the “Chapter of the Mats” held at Porziuncola from 1220-1221. It was called this because the friars made temporary housing for themselves using mats. The commune made the hut to shelter Francis. Francis responded by climbing on top of the building and throwing down roof tiles. Once guards from the commune informed him the hut belonged to the commune he stopped trying to tear it down!

The commune also claimed the forests around The Carceri. They recognized the importance of this site to the friars. Franciscans have a “Mountain Spirituality” that is part of their Charism. It is as much a part of them as “Desert Spirituality” was a part of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

We spent half the day walking along the valley, mountain side and among the caves. We went to the Hermitage and chapel. We viewed the sculpture. This is a place of beauty and quiet.

Assisi is in the Spoleto Valley. This valley is the home of Franciscanism. The cities of Spoleto, Perugia and Assisi are testaments to the birth of a mendicant movement. However, it is not the only valley that can claim a powerful influence on the Franciscans. The Rieta Valley is the home of numerous hermitages.
Saint Francis visited Rieti many times. Francis popularized the crèche or “Living Nativity” in Greccio, the final Rule of the Franciscan Order and the Canticle of All Creatures are all associated with Francis and the Rieti Valley.

Rieti valley is ancient. It is in the center of the Italian peninsula. The Romans recognized its potential strategic valley. However, during Roman times the valley was a lake. So the Romans used their famed ingenuity and drained the lake creating a valley that served as the perfect military staging area.

There are five Franciscan retreats in the valley. We stop at two, Greccio and La Foresta. At Greccio we view the models of nativity sets. In Greccio the Incarnation is not old history, it is today. When the valley had been hit by an earthquake the nativity scenes were of tents and first responders and baby Jesus! We celebrate Mass. We tour the dorms and secluded space of the friars. All of this is built on the side of a mountain. It is beautiful.

Then we go to La Foresta. Outside is Mundo X, this is an agrarian rehab center for serious drug addict. It is run by the friars. The gardens are beautiful. One of the friars and one of the residents are our guest speakers.

We have lunch together, all around a huge table in a magnificent room. The meal is a typical Italian Christmas Dinner! Our prayers are Christmas Carols. This was a wonderful day. And then we leave for Rome. Our time in Assisi is over but we were about to experience Francis time in Rome. As I write this our current pilgrims have also completed their time in Assisi and are beginning to be introduced to Rome. I hope they were prepared for culture shock!

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