Tuesday, July 24, 2012

GraceLand Assisi

Today is the last day of our 24- day Assisi Study Experience.  A bunch of the people from our group are down at the Basilica of St. Francis to take a look at some of the artifacts (including the saint’s autograph) in the library.  Not me.  I’m sitting in my room at our pensione, the Casa Papa Giovanni, looking out the window at a perfect, perfectly grey morning.  Praying for rain. I’m so sick of the perfection of Umbrian land and townscapes.  Let it pour!  We need a little, momentary misery to wash over this all too perfect place.

What do you say on the last day of a three-week pilgrimage experience?  How do you wrap it all up into a tidy package with a pretty pink bow?  Or not.  What image offers itself as a suitable summary of so many power-filled and individuated experiences?

The first image that comes to my mind is that of –well,   Graceland.  Yes, as in Elvis’s Graceland.  Memphis, Tennessee.  Let me explain.  Some time ago, a friar friend was telling me about his road trip across the country.  “I started out early from New York so I would be sure to get to Graceland before dark,” he told me.  Wait a minute.  Graceland?  As in the epicenter of  Middle American tackiness?  “Yes.  I really wanted to go to Graceland.  I’ve always been a real Elvis fan….  Really, it was great.”

I did not pursue the matter, secretly convinced (now as well as then) that my brother-friend was a little off on this point.  Well, whatever.  We all have some parts of us that are a little off.  But, Graceland?  You’re kidding, right? 

Hmmm.  Well, come to think of it, why not.  Why not drive a long—a very long distance—to visit and do homage to the ground of one so loved and admired?  Was not our “land” “graced” by his presence and music and life?  Why not go to the place where The King lived and died.  The place where he created his music and shared it with the world.  This man who clearly has touched the lives of so many people—and continues to do so even in death—that his home is second only to the White House in terms of the number of visitors it receives each year.  And why should I be such a snob, who am I to mock people’s fascination and fixation with Elvis.  Hello, I’m in Assisi, Italy!  What’s this place all about, after all, if not about fascination and fixation with St. Francis?

It’s true.  Assisi is the “grace land” of Francis and of St. Clare.  Each year, its permanent population collectively prepares and braces itself for a steady stream of the pious, the curious, the aesthetically driven, and even the ambulatory bored.  Two million of them, as a matter of fact—twice the number of annual visitors that stream into Memphis-- eight full centuries after the birth of Il Poverello, the little Poor Man of Assisi?  What does that say about this place?

I read somewhere that the Irish talk about the ‘thin places’—the cracks in the surface of our waking, walk-and-workaday worlds where the numinous breaks through.  Where one can most certainly  imbibe the soul-searing, life altering scent and sense of—the Other—or dare I say it—of the Divine? I believe there are such places. I am a convinced and convicted romantic and seeker on that score.  Such places—physical, palpable, protean—the direct experience of which calls and reminds us that our lives are made of  mystery as well as mud.  For my money, the Holy Land (all of it), Lourdes (minus the commercial schlock), Chimayo, New Mexico, and  Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland—are such places.  Part of the discovery for me has been that in addition to their spiritual attractiveness, they are also actual.  They’re on the map; they do, in fact, really exist.  And at the same time they are also (and ironically) finite and reserved.  (Once you come down from the mountain, pass the city limits, the magic stops). But most importantly, they are graced—they all lead to Somewhere, Something, Someone Else.  Assisi has become for me another such truly “graced land”.

One of the gifts of Grace Land Assisi for me has been to experience a sense of healthy dis-illusionment with its saints—to see more clearly their real limitations.  Francis and Clare of Assisi are not the answer; they—indeed any and all Christian saints-- can only ever point towards The Answer—a living and loving God whom they worshipped with their entire being, and with whom they longed to unite.

We celebrated Eucharist at the tomb of Francis.  One of our team leaders,  Friar John Quigley, preached.  His words really spoke to my experience:  Coming to Assisi as a pilgrim is not about leaving for home as a ‘better’ person, he told us.  It’s not about becoming a more perfect friar, a more committed and dedicated member of our religious family or faith…. Will there be Franciscans in heaven?  Would Francis (or Clare, for that matter) be available to us then in an earthy, recognizable way, habits and all?  I doubt it, unless it would be an expression of a God condescending to our human weaknesses.  Besides, it doesn’t really matter  No!  

What does matter is that Francis was a human being who was, throughout his life, completely himself and at the same time completely focused upon Christ.  The Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, whom he grew to love with all his heart and soul-- and with whom he identified ever more completely through the course of his all too brief life.  Taking on Christ, taking Christ into himself, being taken himself into  The Christ—fully, utterly, madly, passionately, endlessly.  So that in the gift of his stigmata, Francis received into his body the imprint of the wounds of Christ Himself.  Christ bleeding into and through Francis, in and through the centuries, into and through our broken, longing world.

So, we are called (and perhaps, as believers, it is our not so secret longing) to walk with Francis and Clare, not as demigods, but as trusted companions.  We ought to long,  then, not to be like Francis, but rather, like Francis to be more like Christ:  “sine proprio” – without anything of our own-- possessed without possession by the presence and love, joy and compassion— of Christ  Crucified and Risen.

Jesus left his mark on Francis and Francis and Clare, in turn, have left their mark upon this “graced land” of Assisi.  People talk about the ‘spirit’ of Assisi and I believe there is something to that.  Here, on a day to day basis, folks seem to slow down, quiet down, behave a bit more politely, more respectfully here than in other places along the tourist trail.  And besides, Francis and Clare themselves are here. Literally.  Their enshrined tombs like bookends to demarcate this sacred space.  Their spirits are here as well.  Found not only by friars and nuns in their cloister, but by every dreamer in every breeze.
What do I take home with me at the end of this pilgrimage?  Strong memories, vital  impressions, genuine in-spiration from the beauty, strength, and Mystery of this Graced Land:  Assisi. //