We couldn’t stay away from Assisi, the home of St Francis and St Clare. We planned to visit Assisi for one day, but found our way back two more times and, could we have justified not seeing other places (like Siena, Orvieto, Civita, Montefalco, Trevi, and Norcia), we may have spent our entire week peering into the history of what Paul Sabatier dubbed a reformation before the Reformation — namely, the Franciscan revival.
The difference between Rome’s ruins and Assisi’s continued legacy could not be more notable. Not that Roma lacks its own modern glory, but one need only walk among the ruins of the Via Sacra — the road that leads one from the Colisseum to the Capitoline — and then to walk through the Patriarchal Basilica of St Mary of the Angels and one is struck by a dead past and a living present.
The Forum excited my imagination beyond what I ever expected — I was walking where Cicero walked and speaking to Kris where Cicero spoke to the Roman elite. But I was walking next to broken pillars, faded monuments, shattered dreams, and crushed pillars. There was the ghostly and empty Palatine hill, where the emperors lived, and there was the Arch of Constantine — which, however majestic in its own right, is now but a monument to an age — it is sealed off so people can observe the splendor of an ancient glory. I could go on.
But if one descends the hill of Assisi to the plain where St Francis served the poor and met with the Brothers Minor, one comes upon the Basilica — wherein lies a powerful living history and an exceptional illustration. St Francis was greatly exercised at the sight of the (“Little Portion”) chapel in the plain, so he rebuilt it. Here’s the illustration: when one walks into the Basilica one is struck by the presence of the Portiuncula inside the Basilica, a kind of “church within a church” or a kind of “life within the Body”. That is, it is monument to a person’s own restoration surrounded by a community that has totally embraced St Francis and his vision. Little churches and little people become what they are meant to be in the context of an embracing community.
Which leads to the living history: Assisi is weighed down by tourists and by shopsellers who know what they can get out of tourists, so there is plenty of stuff to buy. But, one must be careful to discern that, though Assisi is filled with people, most of those are there as much as pilgrims as they are tourists. Assisi is entirely a religious city: it is dominated by three major churches: San Rufino (where Francis and Clare were baptized), the Church of St Clare (wherein one can see the cross that led to the stigmata of Francis), and the Basilica of San Francesco (Giotto’s painting of Francis preaching to the birds was my favorite fresco). There are other things to see, too, but the city is about St Francis and Clare. And they are religious figures connected to a revival of faith among common people. Tourists who are in Italy to see Italy and to taste wine and eat risotto cannot put up with Assisi very long. And the living history is that millions visit Assisi per year.
On the National Holiday we went to three places: Trevi, Montefalco and Assisi. Trevi was barren, closed down; Montefalco had a ristorante or two open; these two places were deserted. Assisi was packed — bottom to top. Tourists, perhaps, but more importantly, on Italy’s national holiday the people decided to visit Assisi, to listen to service after service in its churches, and I can’t be but grateful to see that sort of thing going on what amounts to Italy’s July Fourth.
This is not the place to get into a debate about Protestant theology and Roman Catholic theology. Someday, maybe. St Francis is for all of us. If you’d like to read up on him, try Paul Sabatier’s The Road to Assisi and L.S. Cunningham’s (slight rebuttal of Sabatier) Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life. They put together the history and the myths on top of the history, while Little Flowers had little concern with the former.