Last month I was fortunate enough to be part of a group undertaking an Ignatian Pilgrimage of Rome.
Before joining them, however, I had decided to spend a couple of days by myself in Assisi.
I have been influenced by a Francis effect, generated by the Pope choosing to take Francis as his papal name. He had been prompted to do so by Cardinal Hummes, who upon his election in the conclave, embraced him and said “Don’t forget the poor!”
So in preparation for my trip, I immersed myself in a number of books such as Eager To Love by Richard Rohr and St Francis – A Model For Human Liberation by Leonardo Boff, as well as a good straightforward biography, St Francis and St Clare of Assisi by Sr Clare Agnes OSC.
Arriving at Assisi I was immediately struck by its beauty and how compact everything was within its walls. I visited the impressive Basilicas at both ends of the town – one dedicated to St Francis and the other to St Clare.
Although it was mid-October, there were still a large number of tourists visiting, and both places were crowded and somewhat noisy, full of tourist chatter. It seemed as though photos were the main priority, and praying was a somewhat distant second.
I was somewhat disappointed that this personal attempt to try to disconnect and engage in contemplation was quite difficult to achieve. As a London Jesuit Volunteer, we aim to be “contemplatives in action.” I am relatively fine on the latter, but struggle with the former! So I knew I needed to make time to get away from the crowds and find space to contemplate.
The following morning, I set off early to Eremo delle Carceri (“Hermitage of the Prisons” or “Isolated Places” ). It is now a monastery located three miles outside Assisi, up in the forests of Mt Subasio. It is where Francis would often come to withdraw and pray and contemplate.
You can go by taxi, but I opted to walk, and was glad that I did. It allowed me to take in the sights and sounds of the beautiful Umbrian countryside, and prepared me mentally for the visit.
After seeing the caves where Francis and his followers prayed and slept, I headed to the chapel. It was a perfect place to initially just sit and gather my thoughts, before undertaking some contemplative prayer. It was a true oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of Assisi’s main tourist attractions.
I walked back to Assisi (much easier going downhill!), and headed outside the walls again to San Damiano. This is the place which was in a state of abandon during Francis’s time and where he heard God tell him: “Go Francis and repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruin”.
Francis took these words literally and did rebuild San Damiano. But he then realised that God was referring to the task of rebuilding the Church generally.
San Damiano has so much history relating to Francis and Clare, and I make my way around slowly, taking it all in. It was noticeable how there was always a respectful silence maintained throughout by the visitors. The Friars who live at San Damiano maintain and animate the place with liturgical prayer and with spiritual hospitality to pilgrims. It meant that I could find the space to truly pray.
‘The edge of the inside’
When I left Assisi to get the train to Rome, I reflected on my visit.
The places that I had felt closest to the charism of Francis and Clare, had been outside of Assisi itself – Eromo delle Carceri and San Damiano. I think the fact that there are resident communities in both places helps facilitate a sense of reverence and contemplation that I had found lacking in the large Basilicas within Assisi itself.
This should not have come as a complete surprise, I thought. Francis and Clare had to go outside the walls in order, as Richard Rohr puts it “to live on the edge of the inside of both church and society”. Renewal does not come from the centre, but from the margins.
If you are able to, then I would strongly encourage a visit to Assisi. If you do, take the time to go outside the town itself to gain an inner contemplative experience that takes you closer to Francis, Clare and God Himself.
Danny Daly is a London Jesuit volunteer and works for a charity helping homeless people