Sunday, December 18, 2011

Peace and Serenity in the Holy City of Assisi

Assisi was high on my list of places to visit from the day I arrived in Italy. Everyone I encountered informed me that Assisi was a beautiful city, but I was also curious to encounter the nature that inspired famous St. Francis. In fact, he is such a popular saint in Italy that it seems nearly half the country are named Francesco or Francesca in honor of him. Almost every Italian city seems to have a church of San Francesco which demonstrates his importance in Catholic history and doctrine. Another important part of this trip was just visiting Umbria. I recommend discovering this region of Italy for anyone traveling to the bel paese. Tuscany always gets the attention of foreign tourists for its history and excellent marketing. If I may make a comparison, Tuscany, in my opinion, is like Italian men. They have a reputation for being handsome, romantic gentlemen, and I know many women who would love to have one sweep them off their feet. The truth is that Italian men are not really better than any other, just different, but somehow they have established a reputation that serves them well, just like Tuscany. Umbria is just as enchanting as its northern neighbor. Perugia and Assisi are magnificent cities in their own right, and I have Gubbio still remaining on my list to visit in Umbria. Each of these cities are charming hilltop towns that one might picture when imagining traditional Italy, so don't let this region go undiscovered on your next trip to Italy.

Upon arriving at the station in Assisi, I decided to skip the buses and taxis that shuttle the arrivals to the city center. Instead, I set out on a four kilometer uphill hike on a single lane road through farmland. That brought me to the gate of the city, from which  it was another couple kilometers to the fortress crowning the hillside. My decision to embark on this route was influenced by the history of the famous Catholic saint. He had discovered God through nature, and I reasoned that I must digest the world that inspired his work. My lengthy odyssey up this unkempt single lane road facilitated serene contemplation in the true spirit of St. Francis. I reflected on the life of this man devoted to poverty in the essence of nature as I wandered the same tranquil countryside that inspired his life's work. There were no cars disrupting the scenic landscape. Only a single farmer toiled away on his farm. Birds were singing in a chorus of seemingly thousands, and my only other encounter was with a one-eyed black cat. I reached an almost never-ending walkway of bricks laid along the curvy ascent to the city above. Each brick engraved with the names of those responsible for this path coming to fruition. At this point, I was intensely aware of every aspect of my surroundings, so much so that I discovered a single upside down brick along this path of thousands.

I entered every church that I found, of which none allowed pictures in this truly spiritual city. The tourist shops are filled with rosaries, the Tao of St. Francis, crosses, religious tapestries and numerous relics instead of leather hand bags and t-shirts. The tourist economy of Assisi is based on religion providing an interesting contrast to the typical tourist consumer economy. Somehow, the city maintains a feeling of the 'natural' that is immortalized in the works of St. Francis. In his spirit of interaction with nature, I even befriended a feline. Never in my travels have I encountered so many vocal cats intent on engaging me in conversation. Determined to engage me, one pursued me beyond conversation until I knelt down to greet him. Seizing the opportunity, he leaped into my lap. As we scanned the panorama from the Rocca Maggiore medieval fortress, an Italian family approached to inquire whether or not the cat belonged to me. Truthfully, I was his until I finally put him down to part ways. Even then he followed me partway in my descent, and this moment reminded me of the exact reason that I came to Assisi in the first place.

The religious sentiment in this city struck deep within me. My religious beliefs are quite complex at heart but this trip brought me back to my Catholic childhood. I often entered churches in Italy but usually only for the purpose of exploration and photography. This was not the case on the day in Assisi. I found myself in the pews and prayer rooms of churches. The Cathedral of St. Francis evoked an even more profound emotion than possibly any other of my life. Franciscan monks are eternally in sight in the monastery and church belonging to the famous saint. Beneath the church, I entered into an inspiring room full of the relics of St. Francis. His torn and tattered outfits were on display with his worn out slippers, and even the white robe that he wore in his last year was preserved. There was a robe sewn together in patches to mend the rips and tears. The vow of poverty was powerfully present in each relic within this inspiring room.

The final room was the most inspiring of all. I entered the tomb of St. Francis without knowing anything about it previously. I mentioned that I've been in churches throughout Italy but never have I felt a room filled with powerful faith like this one. Pews were populated with people silently praying over the stone casket of the man who dedicated every ounce his life to the world that provided for him. Women knelt on the cold, hard concrete floor inches from his body engaged in deep prayer. Monks watched over the room to protect its atmosphere of integrity and spirituality. Faith permeated the air. Not even the Vatican had this sense of powerful emotion for me. Writing this now, I can still recall the emotions overcoming every inch of my body and soul in that room.

I knew in advance that I had to make this trip. I spent over 9 hours on the train in one day, with five transfers, just to spend 6 hours in Assisi. I'm writing this on the last leg of my journey from Firenze to Bologna because I felt it was best to write while the powerful emotions remained. I insist everyone planning a visit to Italy finds time for Assisi. It doesn't require devout religious belief to discover the perspective on faith that I found atop the countryside in Umbria. I will forever remember this trip because of its architectural, natural and spirtual beauty.

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