Assisi at Last!

(This post is from the evening of October 25th)

I left Valfabbrica later than usual, knowing that I had a very short distance to get to Assisi, and that the path I had to take would not be very difficult.  Like much of the second half of this pilgrimage, the walk was nothing particularly special, although I did get some pretty views of leaves changing color just before reaching Assisi.  I really had no idea what Assisi would look like or how it would be situated geographically, so I wondered what the gigantic building was that I could see perched on the edge of a hill in the distance.  It didn’t look like a castle, but it was too big to be a church, I thought, so I had no idea what it actually was.

At the foot of this hill, I crossed over a small bridge named for the Santa Croce monastery resting on one side.  The buildings of the monastery, as well as the bridge, were being restored, and it looked like the work was going nicely.  The small buildings and bridge seemed to be in a good state, and had held up much better over the centuries than all the abandoned houses I had seen over the last two weeks.

The path to town now began a long uphill stretch along a road with traffic going down the hill.  Because the road was so narrow, I had to be careful to make sure that the cars saw me and could give me room to walk.  Based on my guide, I wasn’t expecting such a steep final approach, but I knew that this was the very last bit of walking I had to do, so I kept pushing on until I saw the large, medieval gate of the city.

I passed through the gate which rested at the crest of the hill and saw a narrow road stretching out before me, leading down to the huge building I had seen from miles away on the road.  Now I understood.  This was the Basilica of Assisi, the ultimate destination for pilgrims to the holy city.  I was more emotional than I expected as I walked down the medieval street to the giant church.  I couldn’t stop smiling, and although I didn’t undertake the pilgrimage for particularly religious reasons, nor do I hold St. Francis in unusually special regard, I still felt the joy of arriving at my destination after two long weeks of hard work.  I walked down to the church and set my bag down in the square before sitting on the ground myself, soaking in the incredible sight.  I paid little attention to the groups of tourists—one large collection of Germans was led by a robed monk—as I sat there, having reached my goal.

After a few minutes, I got up, and saw a vast plane stretching out on the opposite side of the hill.  A city lay bellow, and you could see for miles and miles.  In the square in front of the lower level of the basilica, a large stage was being erected, and there were vans from RAI—the Italian public television company—parked along the side of the road.  I wondered what it was all for, but there seemed to be a definite air of excitement with lots of tourist groups—some comprised of monks and nuns, and there even appeared to be a children’s musical ensemble which began  singing and playing guitars in the middle of the square.  I went back to pick up my bag in order to visit the church, and saw a man dressed in burlap walking with a large walking stick.  He had nothing else with him, and was not even wearing shoes.  I had no idea how far he had come, but even walking one day without shoes would have been impossible for me.  This guy looked sufficiently crazy enough to pull off the feat, however.

Entering the church, I was disappointed to discover that you were not allowed to take photographs inside.  The interior of the huge building was beautifully frescoed with both biblical scenes and events from the Saint’s life.  Giotto, Lorenzetti, and Martini each lent their talents to the decorations, and the bright colors bring life to what might have been a dull and gloomy place with no windows to speak of.  I walked out the back of the church and visited the “Treasure Museum” which contains a number of beautiful religious artifacts from the middle ages and renaissance.   Going downstairs, I discovered the Lower Basilica, whiich is basically another giant church built under the first one.  The Lower Basilica has a more typical layout, with side chapels along the central nave.  Again, a room that could easily have resembled a dungeon is brought to life by the beautiful art work on its walls.  Down in the Lower Basilica, I noticed several television cameras set up on tripods that were on and recording, but without operators.  I still didn’t know what all the hubbub was about as I found the stairs leading to the crypt and the tomb of St. Francis.  This area was appropriately dark, and there was a small chapel in front of the tomb.  It looked like his sarcophagus had been placed into a shaft under the floor of the Lower Basilica, and then a portion of that shaft had been cut open so that it would be visible from the crypt.  There were several people—all men, curiously—who were praying in the chapel, and I walked up to the altar and found that surrounding Francis in the apse were several other friars who had been his companions.  On one side of the altar in the apse, a monk was chatting cheerfully with another man.  I thought it odd that the two of them were laughing and speaking so loudly, when just around the corner, people were sitting quiet prayer.  I left the crypt and went to find the place where I would receive the final stamp on my credential, and a certificate for having completed the pilgrimage.

Walking out of the Lower Basilica, I turned to my right and faced the entrance of the large convent.  Although there was a closed gate, I knew I was supposed to go here to get my stamp and certificate, so I walked through the large arch and found a small office inside.  I opened the door, uncertain if I was in the right place, and greeted the man sitting there with an, “I’m a pilgrim…”  “You’re in the right spot,” he replied.  “Your credential?” he asked.  I handed it over and he stamped one of the few remaining spots.  “Now, what’s your name?”  I pointed to the spot on the credential where it was written, knowing that it would be useless to try and tell it to him verbally.  He pulled out a manila folder and picked up the first paper.  To my surprise, it had my name already printed on it, as if they knew I would be arriving today.  He stamped and signed the certificate and then gave it to me along with a small piece of PVC pipe to wrap it in.  I thanked him, and that was it.  The pilgrimage was over.

Looking at the certificate as I walked out of the office, I discovered why there was such a commotion around the Basilica today.  In two days, Pope Benedict would be coming to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the World Prayer for Peace Day, which had been held by his predecessor here in Assisi in 1986.  Police were out with dogs, searching for bombs, and some others were going around with a blow torch, welding shut all of the grates in the nearby area so that they could not be opened.  Everyone seemed excited for the Pope’s arrival.

It felt a little strange finishing my pilgrimage to Assisi, especially with the anticlimactic conclusion at the office of the convent.  After all, I was proud to have achieved my goal, and overcome some challenging obstacles in my way.  There were times when I felt lost, afraid, and alone, and exhausted beyond anything I knew before, but there were also moments when I experienced the great hospitality of strangers, and feelings of complete peace and harmony.  I expect that the difficulties of the pilgrimage will become footnotes in my story, with the larger text describing the breathtaking scenery, the interesting and kind people I encountered, and my new familiarity with—sometimes quirky—Italian customs and culture.  I leave Assisi with the pride of accomplishment, and a real sense that, with earnest effort on my part, good fortune usually awaits around the next bend.

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~ by pminnig on November 25, 2011.

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