PILGRIMAGE: Assisi, Italy—Speaking Of God by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Assisi, Italy—Speaking Of God by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

A mile and a half of wet, black road stretches in front of me like a shiny sword pointing to the medieval hilltop town ahead.  Menacing gray clouds swirl low over the flat farmland beneath Assisi.  The thirty-minute walk takes me alongside furrowed fields that sleep in the chilly drizzle and dream of sunshine and clear summer skies.

In 1203 Francesco Ber-nardone, the son of a cloth merchant, known for his high-spirited and worldly ways, suddenly renounced all of his possessions and his former life in order to take the gospel literally.  Although he had no intention at all of founding a religious order, Francis soon attracted like-minded men to his new way of living the gospel.  The rest of his short life (he died at forty-four) was a marvelous mixture of joyful poverty, prayer, preaching, and suffering both physical and spiritual.  An extraordinary young noblewoman of Assisi, Clare, was inspired by his vision and became his follower and friend, ultimately founding an order of women based on Francis’s principles.

The town on the high hillside keeps getting closer.  At its very top, the old fort sits like a retired soldier – sodden, sad, and obsolete.  Halfway down, medieval town walls slice across the face of the hill.  Within five minutes I’m through the fortified town gate and walking around inside old Assisi.  The guidebook makes a fuss over the great basilicas built to honor Saint Francis and his spiritual sister, Saint Clare.  These churches are lovely, of course, but what really captivates me is the old town itself, which dates from the time of the two saints.

I wander through the maze of narrow streets connected by steep stairways.  Cobblestone alleys wind between shuttered stone houses, beside terraces and beneath retaining walls.  The medieval roadways, glowing silver in the drizzle, are barely wide enough for the little European cars that scuttle up and down the hill.  I find myself standing in front of a building whose ground floor is now a small oratory.  This, a sign tells me, is the site of the cloth-merchant establishment run by Francis’s father.  The living quarters upstairs are where the future saint was born and raised.

It takes very little imagination to picture the youthful Francesco and his friends strolling along these same steep streets singing and carousing and keeping an eye out for the young ladies.  I can hear the jangle of swords and armor, and the clatter of horses’ hooves as a band of warriors thunders out of the town gate to join in the almost constant warfare against one neighboring city or another.

Under my dripping umbrella, I weave my way across the face of the hillside through streets and alleys and up flights of slippery stone steps, meeting only an occasional hardy pedestrian.  February isn’t a bad time to see Assisi, I think to myself, if you like to be alone.

I stop for a few moments at the edge of a terrace that overlooks the valley.  Far below, in the misty gray distance, lies the tiny train station and, farther still, the overly solemn silhouette of Santa Maria dei Angeli, which houses Francis’s little Portiuncula chapel.  In the foreground, just beneath me at the foot of a sloped retaining wall, lies a soggy little terrace garden asleep in the winter rain.  Near its outer edge is a small tree about ten feet tall.  It doesn’t seem to be a fruit tree as far as I can see.  Maybe a nut tree?

Ah!  Maybe it’s an almond tree!  I smile as I remember the story from the Fioretti, a collection of edifying legends about the deeds of the wonder-worker Francis.  On a cold winter’s day not unlike this one, the tale goes, Francis stopped in front of a bare almond tree and said, “Sister almond tree, speak to me of God!”  And with that, the almond tree burst into a mass of lovely blossoms.

Francis was already in the habit of letting the creatures of nature or the events of daily life speak to him about God.  This was his way of praying constantly, of staying in touch with God in every waking moment.  So when the saint saw a bleak bare tree shivering in the drizzle, he just naturally asked it to say something to him about God.  And in response, the Lord let the tree speak eloquently to Francis about the Lord’s fruitful, joyous, and overflowing love for the world.

The practice of lectio divina teaches you to say, “Speak to me of God.”  As you read the sacred text, you keep asking yourself, “What does this word, phrase, or story say to my life here and now?  What is God trying to say to me through this word?”  As you get in the habit of asking that question about scripture passages, you start asking it about events in your life: What is this particular experience saying to me?  What is God telling me through this particular emotion?

It’s not easy to look at a bleak situation or a deep disappointment the way Francis would have, or to invite a piece of bad news to “speak to me of God.”  When my carefully laid plans go awry, I don’t always remember right away to ask the calamity to speak a word to me about God’s care and concern.

The winter rain is thumping on my umbrella and cascading down the streets.  Cool water is now seeping into my shoes.

“Speak to me of God!”  Isn’t it the job of every Christian to do that for others?  For better or for worse, we tell one another about God all the time without even realizing it.  We speak about God without opening our mouths, by a compassionate smile, a conscientiously prepared class, or a thoughtful gesture to a stranger in a crowded supermarket aisle.  What are the chances that by watching me a person can learn that God is love?  Do my actions with my fellow workers speak to them of a God who is infinitely patient and slow to anger?  Has a student in trouble ever walked out of my office after a talk with me saying to himself, “How beautiful God must be!”

My fingers are cold and numb from holding the umbrella.  I shiver as I think what a bad impression of God some folks have gotten because of my indifference or impatience.  On the other hand I console myself with a lesson that I have learned over the years from countless brothers and sisters, friends and family members.  Their acts of patience and forgiveness have spoken to me of God and said, “Even if you’re not always what you should be, God is always compassionate and kind, slow to anger and rich in mercy!”

My feet are now soaking.  Time to get indoors and dry out for a while.  As I take a last look at the stark, black branches scratching against the gray sky I promise myself to return one day under a warm summer sun – to see if that little tree has almonds.

Reflection

Lent invites us to spend extra time in quiet prayer and meditating on scripture.  Choose a passage from the Bible, perhaps one assigned by the church for this day, and as you slowly read it, ask the Lord to let a word or a phrase speak to your heart.

Think of a recent event in your life and ask it to speak to you of God.  See what it might teach you about the Lord’s love for you, or about your relationship with God.

 

Sacred Scripture (Hosea 14:5-6)

Israel shall blossom like the lily.  His beauty shall be like the olive tree, and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.

 

Wisdom of the Desert

A certain philosopher asked Saint Antony: “Father, how can you be so happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books?”  Antony replied: “My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.”

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