“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” (Marcel Proust) One of our favorite stops in Italy was Assisi, home of St. Francis. It was built on the slope of Mount Subasio and surrounded by a protective wall, and it is very old. Roman ruins have been found dating back to 295 BC. And so, all the streets are very narrow and winding, built for pedestrians and horses, not automobiles.
The first place we visited was the Cathedral Church of St. Rufino, named for the bishop who converted Assisi to Christianity in 238 AD. St. Francis was baptized in this church 1182, and preached there often during his adult years.
Next, we descended a small steeply-sloping street (take it from a man with bad knees, Italy is one sloping street after another) to the Chiesa Nuovo (“New Church,” built in 1615) which was built over the childhood home of St. Francis.
After lunch we descended (again) to the Basilica of St. Francis, the mother church of the Franciscan Order. It actually consists of two churches, one above the other. And below both of them is a small chapel containing the tomb of St. Francis. We spent time in the upper churches admiring the medieval frescoes; it was very cool to realize pilgrims have been coming here to worship for 400 years.
But my moment came in the chapel containing St. Francis’ tomb. We sat for a bit on the benches; my intention was simply to rest my knees, but as I sat and gazed at the tomb I was overwhelmed. I suppose it came over me all at once, the reminder that one man with a heart to know God can gather like-minded companions, and literally change the world.
I prayed, “Lord, give me a life to give away, that will draw men to Jesus, who will in turn change the world for Christ.”
Behind the tomb was a stack of paper that you could use to write a prayer to St. Francis. I wasn’t interested in praying to a man, even if he was called a saint, but I wanted to reinforce the moment, so I wrote out my prayer and put it in the box.
It was a powerful moment, and caught me off guard. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since God often ambushes me in places like this. Thomas Merton said he was drawn to sacred sites, not because he knew the places, but because he believed the places knew him. Well said.
How about you? Have you been pulled in closer to God through history and architecture? What is your story?
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32