Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Joy to the World

Monday we traveled to Greccio where Francis first re-created the manger scene in order to capture the hearts and imaginations of the people, helping them to see that Jesus was born as one of the people, and they are part of the story of Salvation.

The small cliff side friary was originally a cave, and we stopped and prayed in the small cave Francis used for that crib scene. Imagine a cow and a donkey crammed in here! Behind this cave is another which Francis and the first brothers used as a refectory/common room and behind that is the dormitory. Later, when Bonaventure was Minister General, he allowed the brothers to build a warmer wooden dormitory above this stone one, and it is called the Bonaventure dormitory. In a cave below the friary is the prison cell where John of Parma (another Minister General), who was suspected of harboring affection for heretics, was kept imprisoned over 40 years. The good news was that he wasn’t burned alive, and that he was eventually rehabilitated and brought up out of the hole and sent off on mission to Constantinople for the Pope (he died on the road coming home). By their cultural standards, the brothers dealt with him with tremendous compassion.

I was moved by the quirky enthusiasm of St. Francis, repelled by the abusive power which imprisoned a man in a cave. Church is such an amazing blend of good and bad. Obviously cultural standards are a source of great bewilderment. Living in an age when we are more aware of the vastly different cultural standards in the world today I hope I can always hold out for forbearance and compassion; rehabilitation and reconciliation are possible. Yet I wonder how long it will take? I’ve been thinking about Bob Dylan’s song:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Leaving Greccio we headed to Fonte Colombo (the “Mt. Sinai” of the Franciscan movement) where Francis composed the Rule of 1223. Here in a tiny cave where Francis used to fast and pray and write, we stood in a small cluster and renewed our Franciscan commitment: “Today we your sons renew and rededicate ourselves to the call you have given us. We renew and profess our commitment to a Gospel vision of life, handed onto us by our father, Francis, and our mother, Clare…” This is a Tau sign made by St. Francis.

The Power of Prayer

Sunday afternoon, June 22, we spent clambering around the Rocca Maggiore, the somewhat ruined castle that looms over Assisi. About the time of Francis the people stormed the castle and pulled parts of it down. Later it was restored, then fell into ruin and again restored! It has quite a history. We clambered over every square inch open to the public. Ezekiel (on the far left) is an expert hunter with bow and arrow, and he showed us how he would shoot from the windows of the castle if he’d been a soldier then. (Blow darts are his favorite weapon for hunting, however.) It was the view from the top of the tower that captivated us, because below the whole city of Assisi was visible, from Santa Chiara to San Francesco.

Later that evening we joined other religious orders in a long procession through the city celebrating “Festa del Voto” a religious/civic occasion celebrating how St. Clare saved Assisi from destruction by the Saracens. As her sisters prayed, Clare took up the Holy Eucharist and went to the door of San Damiano where the invading army was beginning to scale the walls. From San Damiano it is only two short kilometers to the city walls. Holding up the Blessed Sacrament she turned the invaders back. In gratitude the City of Assisi flowers to the tomb of St. Clare every June 22, the anniversary of the event and then takes a year’s supply of candles to San Damiano. We started in the piazza in front San Rufino then walked down the hill to City Hall. There we met the Mayor with a great fanfare of trumpets sounded by a cadre of men in red and blue tights. After the mayor joined the procession we went to the Basilica of St. Clare then, following the road outlined in small candles, to the city gate and down the slope to San Damiano. There after another fanfare the Bishop spoke and we knelt for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. It was all very welcoming, nobody was turned back!

I’ve learned of another time when Assisi was saved from destruction by prayer. During WWII the German officer in charge of Assisi had the city categorized as a “hospital city” thus avoiding aerial attacks, then he willfully disobeyed orders to destroy the city as the German army retreated.

The city inspires love and admiration. I think it must be because the buildings are so closely associated with the narrative of Francis, and the radical call of prayer, love and service and joy. Just looking at the buildings and imagining the early Franciscan movement I feel that our homely efforts are not far off the mark.

Prayer works! No surprise ending here, but sometimes I need to remind myself; it has changed my life and the lives of many other people I know.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

And the Lord gave me Brothers

We walked 4.5 kilometers to Rivotorto outside Assisi, "because that's what Francis would do." We are having a very strenuous pilgrimage. But it was a glorious morning, bright, hot sun streaming down. We walked through fields of wheat and barley speckled with red poppies. Along the way we naturally started telling stories. Ezekiel told me about how he came to be a brother, his parent's initial opposition and how he applied to the brothers. He had been so impressed by a visit of three brothers to his village in the Reef Islands in the Solomons. Samson told of his first days in the order, he joined in 1979, and how life had been in Honiara sharing with white brothers and Melanesian brothers. He has become a teacher, establishing kindergarten schools and teaching in a small day school. Worrick comes from the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea, he has served in most of the friaries in PNG. Hartman confessed to a wild past and that he left school early; nevertheless he managed the regional office and finances for several years. The Society of St. Francis has brothers from so many cultures and backgrounds. Rivertorto is where Francis first lived with brothers. As he said in his Testament: "And the Lord gave me brothers." Bernard, Giles, Peter, Sabbatino, Morico and others came to Francis in the tiny stone hut. Hunkered down in it I kept thinking it is a miracle those men could stand the situation, could stand each other because they were also very different men. Yet their life was remarkable for the love and respect and joy that all could see flourishing among them.. I have been told by several of our new brothers in the Province of the Americas that the reason they joined was because they saw incredibly different men living together with a minimum of tension and a lot of laughter and affection. It has always been a compelling thing, this thing we call community life.This is the Rivotoro.

Stigmata and La Verna

Thursday we went with Br. Daniel (second from left) to visit the place where St. Francis received the Stigmata. The wounds of Christ appeared in Francis' body in response to his prayer for a sign of God's favor; watch out what you pray for! But as we walked around the various places I kept thinking about how all the things in my life that I have found most painful have become the greatest source of blessing. One of the wounds I carry is alcoholism, yet in recovery I can say I am grateful. Gratitude is a big part of my prayer during this pilgrimage.

Francis used to seek out remote and uncomfortable places to pray. The crevice to the right is about ten degrees cooler than up by the church. Francis used to creep in under the cliff on the left hand side; the brothers keep a wood cross there. While I most prefer praying in my room in a chair, I found this place to be very powerful; what I suppose is called a "thin place" where the boundary between earth and heaven is very thin and permeable. The Franciscans say the cleft was created by an earth quake the day Christ died on the cross.

The Sanctuary is filled with della Robbia sculptures, and when we went into the small chapel of St. Mary of the Angels we saw an extraordinary depiction of Mary and the Angels. It happened while we were there a young friar was playing the organ, and the music was the theme music from "Brother Son, Sister Moon:" a great favorite of the brothers from the Solomon Islands. They've worn out their video copy and asked me to buy a DVD, which I will. We often sing the music as we walk around Assisi: "Brother Son, Sister Moon, I haven't seen you, seldom hear your tune, please to occupy the selfishness in me." Behind me is the view from the top of La Verna: hair-raising height but a fantastic sense of the hugeness of creation and the embrace of God.

After lunch we joined the Friars in the choir of the Sanctuary and walked in procession to the place where Francis received the Stigmata. It is now enshrined in a beautiful chapel. But every day for hundreds of years the brothers have gone to this place to pray, to give thanks and to dedicate themselves to serving the world in the name of the Crucified One.
On the wall of one of the buildings is this inscription: "Mount of secrets most holy and divine: St. Francis here with the wounds of Jesus marked, united his life with the sufferings of our Lord, streams of life now flow into all the world."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Perugia or Bust

Today we set off to explore Perugia. I told the brothers that part of being on a pilgrimage is to accept whatever happens as being part of the pilgrimage. I told them about how in the examples of other people on pilgrimage learned to think of all the good and difficult things that happened as part of the pilgrimage. A man bought us all coffees at the Assisi train station--a first espresso for most of us. This we reckoned as a blessing. We spent several chunks of time (I won't say how long) wandering around hoping to find where we were going: part of the pilgrimage. St. Francis was incarcerated in Perugia after the men of Assisi lost a battle to the men of Perugia. It was during his convalescence that he received his call (or rather it was during that period of his life he wandered over to San Damiano and prayed before the crucifix there). So Perugia is an important place to think about dreams of worldly glory and what God might do about them. We explored the churches and the museum, stopping to pray at a little church dedicated to St. Mary of the Light, a place built after a barber, losing badly at cards, swore profanely and a nearby statue of the Blessed Virgin reportedly closed her eyes in disapproval. She kept her eyes closed for four days. It is a very beautiful place to pray in, and we knelt there before the Blessed Sacrament. It is a great blessing to pray with other people.

One of the things we have been talking about is how everywhere we go we meet people from all over the world. We were resting the other day near some nuns. I heard them speaking English and asked where they were from. A sister replied: "America, India and Germany." Br. Ezekiel commented: "St. Francis is for everybody!" Today we met an Englishman we'd met Sunday in Church in Assisi, and he very excitedly introduced us to his companions: "Three from Solomon Islands, one from Papua New Guinea and an American!"

One of the things I love about traveling with these brothers is their good humor in nearly all situations. They are especially playful. After visiting San 'Angelo Oratory we came out of the church to find two girls playing with their hula hoops. Their faces lit up with smiles and we immediately got them to have their picture taken with us.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Assisi Pilgrims

We made it to Assisi! Pictured above, from left to right are Br. Ezekiel Kelly, Br. Samson Amoni, Br. Worrick Marako and Br. Hartman Dena. They are from our pacific Islands Province, Worrick coming from Papua New Guinea, and the others from the Solomon Islands. We have been making a wonderful tour of all the holy places where St. Francis lived. Saturday we visited the Basilica of St. Francis. Sunday we went to San Damiano. Monday we trekked all the way out to La Portiuncula and back, and today we went up the mountain to the Carceri, the caves where Francis used to go to pray. Part of the fun is not only the devotion and interest in seeing places we have all read about and wondered about, but also the fascination with the wires carrying electricity, the underground parking garage. Here we are examining an olive tree, which they have only read of in the Bible. We are all taking turns cooking for each other; shopping is a laugh as we act out for the shop keepers what we want. As we walked up to the Carceri today, a nun coming down said there was only a kilometer to go (she was from Indiana) so the brothers all decided to sprint. We arrive, sweaty and laughing.
There seem to be a lot of beautiful statues of St. Francis to interact with.

Chapter Meeting

One of the ever-present aspects of my life is attending Chapter meetings. So far it has been about one a month. In my experience these are normally up-beat, positive events where the business of the order is transacted in each province. I have a voice and vote on every provincial Chapter. During the first week of June I attended the Chapter of the European Province. In addition to the Chapter meeting the European Province also has an All Brothers Meeting, so I got to see pretty nearly all of the brothers from the European Province. Br. Colin gave a wonderful lecture called "Rebuild My Church." In it he suggested 5 "strategies" for Franciscan life and work: to be humble; to invest our emotional and financial resources in community life; to seek to live in unity with each other as Franciscans and all other people and constituent parts of creation; to seek to live stable lives, rooted in prayer and care for all even when we live mendicant or itinerant lives; and to be accessible to others, seeking to show in simplicity and joy what it means to be a Franciscan.
Pictured at left are brothers Hugh and Philip Bartholomew, during the All Brothers Meeting. At right are Austen and Raymond Christian, waiting for Colin's lecture to begin.