Visiting Assisi and meeting its saints
My wife, Carolynne, had always wanted to take a trip to Assisi, a town in Italy, north of Rome, noted for the saints who were born, lived and died there, and who profoundly impacted religion as we know it.
In 2019, Carolynne found the pilgrimage that she had been waiting for, led by an old friend of hers. Being the husband, I got invited on condition that I would carry the bags, pay the bills and behave appropriately at all times.
The Pilgrimage group totaled 17 travelers. We all gathered at the Rome airport on Oct. 15 to take our bus to Assisi. The people in the group looked as though they had experienced a lot of life, yet were still acting like excited teenagers setting out on a new adventure. We fell in love with the group immediately.
Traveling north from Rome in the sunshine, we traveled through the Umbrian landscape, passing flatlands with a backdrop of hills and mountains. At the top of each hill I saw clusters of buildings and spires, glowing in the evening light.
After a 2½-hour journey, we arrived in Assisi. The town is situated atop one of the larger hills. It is a beautiful sight in the late afternoon sun.
Suddenly, we came through the old walls of the city, and our time clocks rushed backwards to before the year 1200 AD. Yes, there were cars, normal utilities, etc, but the town layout and buildings pulled us back 900 years. All of the streets are shared by pedestrians and vehicles.
The streets are extremely narrow, so it is one-way traffic on the majority of the intersecting, winding streets of the town. The ancient streets are paved with cobblestones with no sidewalks, so when a car passes, you better be pressed against the nearest wall, or you could become that vehicle's hood ornament.
It is a town committed to St. Francis and St. Clare, both of whom were born in the late 12th century and died in the early 13th century. The town lives on its heritage, but more than that, it lives its heritage.
We walked the cobbled streets, (which always seemed to be uphill), and entered the actual buildings where St. Francis was born, lived, and was baptized and then converted, preached and died. We viewed the cloths actually worn by both saints, including two hair shirts worn by St. Francis.
I had read about hair shirts being used in ancient times, and the vests looked even more uncomfortable than I had imagined.
To see so many original buildings, cloths, handwritten letters and artifacts made us gasp in wonder. This included St. Francis's tomb, St. Clare's embalmed body, the St. Damiano Crucifix (which teaches the meaning of Christ's Crucifixion and thereby strengthens the faith of the people), and the list went on. It became overwhelming, there is so much to take in.
And then there was the Italian food — it was wonderful!
A visit to the Museum of Memory illustrated the culture created by its saints in Assisi.
It focused on the years 1943-44 through the end of WWII. The German war machine directed by Adolf Hitler rolled over Italy as it attempted to conquer the world. It spread its forces throughout the country to control the population.
An Army colonel was put in charge of Assisi. He had been a doctor by profession before the war and was a devout Catholic. Before the arrival of the army, all the churches in Assisi, controlled by their cardinal, had been sheltering Jews from all parts of conquered Europe.
They created a pipeline that moved the fleeing refugees into neutral countries, supplying them with appropriate documents to ensure their safety.
The cardinal, with the help of the German colonel and the town mayor, created a large hospital center for war victims in Assisi.
This led to the city being declared a "hospital city" meaning that Assisi could not be entered by German troops and could not be bombed.
This saved Assisi and many Jews. This event happened 700 years after the death of Francis and Clare, but their influence showed Assisi was still clear in its beliefs, even in those grim times.
We absorbed the influence of Francis and Clare in today's city. We felt like we had travelled with the saints through their lives and could understand how they influenced not just the town, but the world.
We arrived back home feeling our lives had been changed forever.
Roy Houston is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.
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