From The Sun & Moon Over Assisi
PILGRIMAGE DIARY 29
Halfway through our pilgrimage, we needed a break, some space and time for quiet and reflection. Whenever Francis wanted to be alone with God, he always sought out some mountaintop cave which would become his hermitage, but there was one notable exception. In the year 1211 (or possibly 1213), Francis spent Lent on an island. Isola Maggiore is one of three small islands located in Lago Trasimeno (Lake Trasimene), the largest lake in the Italian peninsula. Lent, of course, is a time of fasting and penance, which were both important elements in Francis’s spirituality. Penance, for Francis, was an open channel to complete absorption in God. Fasting helped him curb his appetite for anything not of God, so God alone could fill his heart and his entire being.
Prior to Lent that year, Francis had been preaching in the hilltop city of Cortona, which is not far from the shores of Lake Trasimene. The Fioretti tell us that Francis was staying in the home of a devoted friend when, during the night, he was inspired to spend Lent on an island in the lake. Before dawn on Ash Wednesday, his friend ferried Francis to the island in his small boat. Francis instructed the man not to reveal his whereabouts in order to secure his privacy. He also asked the man to return for him on Holy Thursday so he could spend Easter Sunday with the friars living at Le Celle. According to the boatmen, Francis took with him to the island two small loaves of bread.
Each pilgrim traveled to the island carrying two small loaves of bread. And that is the end of the similarities between our one-day visit to the island and Francis’s extended stay. We journeyed to the shoreside town of Passignano on a huge chartered bus. We then boarded a ferry for a delightful, sun-drenched, twenty-minute cruise to the island. The great stretch of water flashing in the rays of the sun was encircled by undulating hills covered with olive trees and vineyards. The tranquil panorama was a welcome antidote to two weeks of lectures held in stuffy classrooms and visits to crowded shrines.
According to a legend still told by the people living on the island (but which can’t be found in the Franciscan sources), there was a storm on the day that Francis crossed the lake in his friend’s boat, yet he managed to keep a candle alight for the whole trip. Likewise, on the return trip, there was another storm, the one of far greater intensity and, according to the legend, Francis calmed the fury of the lake by merely holding up his hand.
The important part of the story has nothing to do with keeping a candle lit in the wind or calming a storm. The heart and soul of the story is the forty days Francis spent in rigorous fasting. Raphael Brown’s translation of The Little Flowers has it that Francis, after being dropped off by his friend, “went into a very dense thicket in which thorn bushes and small trees had made a sort of little cabin or hut. And he began to pray and contemplate Heavenly things in that place. And he stayed there all through Lent without eating and without drinking, except for half of one of those little loaves of bread. His devoted friend came for him on Holy Thursday, as they had agreed. And of the two loaves, he found one whole and half of the other. It is believed that Saint Francis ate the other half out of reverence for the fast of the Blessed Christ, who fasted forty days and forty nights without taking any material food. And so with that half loaf he drove from himself the poison of pride, while according to Christ’s example he fasted for forty days and forty nights.”
I fasted by forty minutes before eating one of my two loaves of bread. About two hours later, I ate the other loaf, along with an apple I purchased at a local market. Just before we boarded the ferry for the return trip, I had a cappuccino and a small pastry…cream-filled, no less. Quick fast.
What drew Francis and his brothers to fasting and penance? Murray Bodo in The Journey and the Dream suggests a reason: It was a way for them to “be united with God on a new level of consciousness and understanding.” Father Bodo goes on to say, “So the pain of detachment was only a means of union. It was a stilling, of quieting everything that would prevent them from hearing that hushed knock of God within. That is why Francis left his father. Pietro’s world, his values, and what he lived for, clamored so loud in Francis’s ears, he could not hear the Voices in the heart of his real self. That is why he was willing and able to bear the insults and hooting of the citizens of Assisi; he heard a voice within him that was even louder and more real than all the citizenry of the world. That is why he mortified his body when it clamored so loudly for attention that it threatened to drown out the peace of the “Voice” inside. Everything then that he and the brothers had done and suffered was for union with God, who dwelt inside them. They had sacrificed everything that their love might be consummated.”
Upon arriving on Isola Maggiore, we walked together in silence along the western shore. One main road encircles the island. The section of road along the western shore, where the island’s inhabitants live and work, is paved with vertically laid bricks and bordered on both sides by fully restored buildings, some built in the thirteenth century. We walked past the tiny church of Buon Gesu (or Holy Jesus), and the restored church of San Salvatore, which was built in 1155. Outside the little town the road gently winds around and we found ourselves walking past luxuriant hills covered with olive trees, cypresses, pine trees, and poplars on the right, and to our left was the rocky shoreline and the vast expanse of Lago Trasimeno.
Halfway down the eastern shore was a statue of Saint Francis which commemorated his landing at that point on the island. After a short prayer service, each of the pilgrims headed out one-by-one for a day of silent reflection. Some, including me, climbed to the top of the hill which dominates the island. Along the way, we visited a tiny chapel containing the flat rock that served as Francis’s bed during his forty days on the island. Talk about a firm bed! Farther up the hill is the charming Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, a thirteenth-century structure recently restored and containing a number of fine frescoes, one of which is a copy of Cimabue’s depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin gracing the apse of the upper church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Over the altar is a large Byzantine crucifix featuring Francis and Mary Magdalen kneeling just below the pierced feet of Christ. The summit offers a sweeping panoramic view of the lake and the mountains, hills, and lakeside villages on the distant horizon.
After visiting the churches, I found a quiet spot on a large rock on the shore below the remains of a former Franciscan friary. After gazing at the lake and thinking about all I had seen during the first two weeks of the pilgrimage, I decided to read Saint Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey Into God. Just as I reached Chapter Two – “On Contemplating God in His Vestiges in the Sense World” – a couple walked down the path leading to the shore. They spread out a blanket on a small patch of sand located about twenty yards from where I was sitting. After arranging the blanket, they walked up the shoreline a short distance and disappeared into a thicket of bushes and shrubs. I returned to my reading. A few minutes later, heralded by giggles, they emerged from the bushes and strolled back to the blanket. The woman was topless; the man was wearing the smallest, tightest bathing suit I had ever seen worn by a man. The woman was wearing an even skimpier string bikini bottom which left virtually nothing to the imagination.
I tried to ignore them. I looked back down at my book, and read: “For though sight enter the sublime and luminous Heavenly bodies and other colored objects….” I chuckled to myself, closed the book, got up, and walked completely around the island, rejoicing in the island’s beauty.