I recently wrote about my primary theological and religious hero, John Henry (Cardinal) Newman. And I observed that I regard him even higher than another “hero,” C S Lewis. But you probably know I have other “heroes,” and I’d like to tell you about some of them and how they came into such high regard in my life. #1 (in this listing, anyway) is St Francis of Assisi.
For practical purposes it started when I was in graduate school in England. I made friends with a couple of American Franciscan seminarians who were doing a year abroad. They gave me a brief and very romantic/poetic narrative: “Francis: The Journey and the Dream,” by Murray Bodo, OFM. It had a powerful attraction for me.
Later, in my last year of teaching high school before I first went to seminary, I became close to an Air Force family who had one girl in my freshman class. The family introduced me to all kinds of Christian music, including that of John Michael Talbot. His “Troubadour of the Great King” was a series of writings of St Francis, along with Scripture passages, set to wonderful music. It stimulated my heart.
Then in seminary, we first-year guys had a weekend visit to Assisi. I will never forget the image of that town coming into view from the train (the station is perhaps 1-1/2 miles below the town itself). I was overwhelmed by the sense of peace that town seemed to exude. Some of you know I’ve been back to Assisi (counting only overnights) over 60 times! What attracts me?
San Damiano (a little less than a mile outside the city walls and downhill) was the first of the churches Francis worked at repairing. Though it’s been expanded since then, the outlines of the original building are easily enough seen. There was the crucifix that communicated to Francis and set him on his journey in the humble poverty of obedience to Christ. Down there every evening there is celebrated Evening Prayer along with Eucharistic Adoration; insofar as is humanly possible, I never miss a chance to be there for that time of prayer.
Santa Chiara is in Assisi, and it was built on the site of San Giorgio, where Francis went to school. Not only is the great St Clare buried there, but there is also the very crucifix before which Francis prayed.
Assisi is built on the side of Mt Subasio; at the top are a series of caves associated with what was once a Benedictine monastery, and there Francis often went to be alone and pray. It is now a Franciscan friary, and the peace there is incredible (even if the walk up there can really test you!).
Santa Maria degli Angeli is the name of the town more or less at the same level as the train station—about 2+ miles from Assisi. There is the Porziuncola, the “Little Portion,” a small chapel leased to Francis and his followers to become their spiritual center. It is there that he died. Though it has been “fixed up” (eg, steeple, paintings, and so on—and now inside a far larger church), one can again see the original simplicity of the building Francis also rebuilt.
The grand basilica San Francesco is set in a location that was formerly the site of public executions—Francis explicitly wanted to be buried there, to change the “hill of hell” into the “gate of heaven.” In the crypt is the saint’s tomb, and I have celebrated Mass there numbers of times (as well as concelebrating in the “lower basilica”). The “lower” and “upper” basilicas (all part of the same church) are covered with frescoes from the hand (or school) of some of the greatest painters of the times: Cimabue, Simone Martini, Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers…
The delights of St Francis include the delights of Assisi—most especially at his tomb and in San Damiano. If literature and music and architecture helped capture my imagination, the spiritual connection has my soul.