Sunday, March 18, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Assisi


If I could choose to live in any foreign town in the world, I'd choose Assisi.  This quiet little Italian town nestled on a mountain is the hometown of the famous Saints, Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi.  It is said that the peace of Christ that reigned in these Saints' hearts still rests in this city.  It's true, the entire little charming town feels like a peaceful monastery. 

(Above photo captions:  (left) The mountain that Assisi rests you see little Assisi nestled on the mountainside?  (middle) The charming, narrow cobblestone streets of Assisi, many of which are pedestrian traffic only  (right) The spirit of Saint Francis is still in the city, found in paintings on the sides of buildings and houses. 

After checking in to our hotel, we set off on foot to explore Assisi.  As we walked through the little streets, I asked Dan to guess when the last time any crime occured in this city.  It seemed so safe, so quiet and peaceful, that it was hard to imagine anything bad ever happening. 

Our first stop was the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Inside, we prayed at his tomb.  We asked this great Saint to pray for us and our loved ones.  Inside of the basilica was also displayed several relics, including a letter written by Saint Francis and one of his tattered robes.  Incredible.  Seeing these relics brought this legendary Saint to life. 

In front of the Basilica of Saint Francis was a life-sized Nativity Scene.  Saint Francis was the "inventor" of the Nativity Scene! 

The "Way of Saint Francis"

After visiting the Basilica of Saint Francis, we walked to the city center (near our hotel) and visited the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). This church used to be a temple to the Roman goddess Minerva (in Greece, "Athena"), the goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. However, it was turned into a church dedicated to Mary. The facade and columns are from the original temple.

Christianity Victorious!
Next, we walked to the Basilica of St. Clare, the founder of the Franciscan Order of "Poor Clares." St. Clare was a contemporary of St. Francis who lived in Assisi.  Saint Clare was a beautiful example of holiness and love in the heart of the Church. 

Inside of her Basilica, is the miraculous crucifix that spoke to St. Francis in the Church of San Damiano. Jesus on the crucifix said to him, "Francis, Francis, repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."  This was Saint Francis' calling to give his life to serve the Church.  What an unbelievable experience to pray before that same crucifix!

In the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Clare was the chapel of relics, including tattered and torn tunics and shoes worn by Saints Francis and Clare and other objects used by the Saints.  As I mentioned earlier, seeing these relics brought these Saints to life for me and inspired my heart to greater conversion and service of the Lord following their examples. 

Our visit to this inspirational chapel of relics was unforgettable in another way too.  It had been a long day of traveling, and our patient Peter had run out of patience.  He began making every loud, distracting sound he could muster to express his unhappiness.  As we stood in the suddenly not-so-silent Basilica in the "City of Peace", I felt my peace start to run low as my blood pressure climbed.  Peter!  This is supposed to be a peaceful experience and you're ruining it!  I suddenly realized how ridiculous I was, expecting my two year old to be as quiet as a mouse when he was tired and hungry.  My vocation is to be a mother, which means my service to God doesn't currently mean hours of reflection in beautiful basilicas.  Rather, right now I can serve God best by offering up the most heartfelt 5 seconds of prayer I can muster, and then quickly exiting the church with my distracting toddler. 

I stopped for several seconds by the tomb of Saint Clare and smiled at my sister in Christ.  Our vocations are very different- she was called to a life of silence and prayer- while my prayer is often quick and distracted, in between diaper changes and playtime.  But we are both called to the same mission, to serve Christ in our daily circumstances, trials, and joys.  I felt she understood, and asked lots of prayers for my tired, frusterated soul.  I felt a little of my peace returning as I knew she was listening and interceding for us to God. 

We left the Basilica of Saint Clare and stopped to soak in the breathtaking view as the sun set on the town of Assisi.  We had one more stop for the evening, the Basilica of Saint Rufinus.  To reach this basilica, we climbed up narrow mazes of stairs and cobblestone roads.

We reached St. Rufinus' Basilica as the sun set.  Saint Rufinus is honored as the man who brought Christianity to Assisi.  His tomb is located in this beautiful basilica.  The remains of St. Rufinus are in a marble container under the altar.

Remains of many martyrs are kept under altars...this is to symbolize their sacrifice. In Old Testament times when animals were slaughtered on altars to appease God, the blood flowed under the altar. In New Testament times, the remains of martyrs who offered themselves to God (as Christ did) are found under altars as well.

Since Peter had already expressed his desire to wrap up the day, our visit to Saint Rufinus' Basilica was very quick.  As we left the basilica, we saw a group of religious sisters.  Assisi is filled with young priests and religious sisters on pilgrimage.  It was so encouraging and inspiring to see "God's Special Forces" (as Dan calls them) everywhere we turned! 

Our last mission of the day: finding dinner!  As I mentioned in previous blogs, this can be challenging in Italy as most of their restaurants do not open for dinner until 7 pm.  It was not yet 7 pm, but we were starving and had a tired two-year-old on our hands.  We desperately peeked into several restaurants, all of which the waiters said, "Not open yet"!  We finally found a little bar that served panini.  After dinner, we found an amazing little bakery on our way back to the hotel.  We were drawn inside by the tempting smells of chocolate and pasteries. 

Mmmmm....cannoli!  It tastes like a fried, frosting-filled taco.  : )

Goodies galore! 

Saint Francis of Assisi Bread...and even chocolate salami!

What a perfect way to finish up the day! 

The next morning, I awoke to the heavenly smell of freshly baked croissants.  Am I in Heaven?  Close, Assisi.  Soon, these delicious croissants were delivered to our room with an assortment of other goodies.  Oh, I loved that hotel! : ) 

When we arrived at our hotel the day before, we made the most amazing and exciting discovery.
Our hotel was literally right across the street from St. Francis's paternal home (where he grew up)!  The white stone corner on the right is Assisi's "New Church" built over the remains of St. Francis's old house. Our hotel is above the small pizzeria.

Amazing to think that our son ran around and played in the same place little St. Francis did!

The sign for our hotel (on the left) and the church built over Saint Fracis' boyhood home (on the right). It was so fun to think that we were staying right next to St Francis' house! : )

The church built over St. Francis' childhood home
Inside the church was a tiny cell. This was the cell that St. Francis's angry father threw him in after Francis told him he wanted to be a friar.

Taking a side door out of the main chapel, we found the remains of St. Francis's paternal home. This was his original front door!

 This chapel is in the basement/store room of the house!

 Saint Francis' childhood home was an incredible experience!  After this visit, we walked through the lovely Italian countryside on the outskirts of town down to the Church of St. Damian (San Damiano), the parish church of St. Francis and where St. Clare and her nuns lived.

Inside of the Church of San Damiano, we visited the spot where Jesus spoke to St. Francis in a vision and gave him his mission in life, to "rebuild My Church".   The Church of Saint Damian is also the location where St. Clare of Assisi died on August 11, 1253.

The Church of Saint Damian

Soon, it was time to wrap up our wonderful stay in Assisi and head to the train station.  We grabbed a quick lunch at the station (more panini!) and soaked up the sunshine in this beautiful, tranquil town.  Soon, we would trade the quiet, small town of Assisi for exciting, unforgettable experiences in the last city of our trip: ROME!  Roma, here we come!

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