Updated: Sep 26, 2020
We can't actually go there together, so I am going to try to take you there with words...............To Assisi, in Umbria, in Italy's "green heart." It is 30 years ago this month that I first arrived in that special place and I will never forget it. There had been the inevitable delays at Gatwick, we set off hours later than intended. I had had to wake up at some unearthly hour to get there in time, half a cup of coffee and a slice of toast and we were off. As things turned out, I could quite easily have had a lay in, a full English breakfast, a walk on the Downs, and then set off for the Airport! Our flight didn't take off until well after lunch. I remember the stewardess had the broadest smile and the most shining eyes, probably company policy to make up for the late start. But when the plane touched down in Rome and the doors opened, then it was I took my first gasp of Italian air. The humidity was so strong that I never thought I would get used to it, it was as an old lady in Wales used to say, as if there "wasn't enough air in the air." And the heat, such as I had only known occasionally in the UK before. We were catching a train from Rome to Assisi but of course, as our flight had been delayed, all our timings were out. Eventually clear of Customs, we emerged into the sweltering heat and the melting pavements outside the Airport. Hosts of Nuns, Bishops, Priests all got into sleek, black, shining limousines. We, as mere Anglicans humbly made our way toward the Taxi rank. To drive by Taxi through Rome at rush hour is to either take your life in your hands and cast it to the winds, or else turn to drink. It is manic madness. They not only drive on the irregular side of the road, they have also no consciousness of death and no awareness of the highway code. Going around a roundabout, three times as it worked out because of the vortex of spinning, our driver was on two occasions unable to get in the right lane to turn off. All to the cacophonous clamour of car horns honking and Italian swearing. Prayers to Mary have never been so incited! Mama Mia!! I too prayed as I perhaps have never done before......... Having lost several years of potential life through sheer fear, we eventually arrived at the Railway Station in Rome and a beatifically smiling driver waved us on our way, as though we had wafted there on a cloud. Enquiries were made, we had of course missed our train, the next was due in two and a half hours' time, plus another three hours I think it was on the slow, stopping train which was our only option, before we had any chance of arriving at our destination. We would now arrive in Assisi way after nightfall, probably after any restaurant would be open for dinner. I wondered whether I would have done better staying at home. A friend and fellow traveller and I decided to go for a walk to stretch our legs and take advantage of actually being in Rome, even a not too glamourous part. We left our cases in the capable hands of another of our party who was gnashing his teeth and off we went. I had been Ordained for just two months by this stage and this was by way of a pilgrimage. There before us was a beautiful church, with doors wide open and people wandering in, so in I followed. There before me was one of the most informal Roman churches I had ever seen. There were young people everywhere, playing guitars, chatting, laughing, gathering in groups. One of the priests came up to us, a smile on his shining face. "Buonasera.....Sei Inglese?" How do they guess? "Anglicano." I said, "Deacon,"I added. "Ah, then you must Deacon our Mass my friend," he said in impeccable English. "Church of England." I retorted, "Si, Si, of course, you must still Deacon our Mass, is good no? We all friends in Christ?" And in a sentence, it was as if the Reformation was but a dream and communion between the Church of Rome and the Church of England could not be any closer. But the Mass would not be for another two hours so regretfully I had to decline the generous offer. What a start to our pilgrimage that would have been though and what a welcome to Rome. Eventually our train arrived. it was ancient and one of the noisiest I have ever travelled in. When clear of Rome, fields flashed past, towns, big and small, the light faded, townships grew scarce. The air blowing through the windows got cooler, sharper, now it was beyond gloaming, night was falling. Then, like a mirage, pin pricks of light started appearing on the surrounding hills, swathes of them and medieval walls and towers were espied like something from a Zeffirelli film. And then, ultimately, we saw Assisi, standing proud, ancient, majestic, smouldering with significance like the treasure at the end of a rainbow, glimmering in the night light. It was as if the train had not travelled kilometres, but centuries, taking us into the golden past where air was scented with olives and herbs, the moon was more luminous, a stillness and an expectation were in the air and then I knew: it had been worth every single moment of delay and inconvenience, noise and fear, just to come here and be part of this moment where to breathe, to look, to listen, was to feel quickened into life. A Taxi whizzed us up the steep hillside, though the city gate, along narrow streets of high stone buildings shrouded in darkness and soon we came to a halt outside an ancient, unlit door. I was bemused, dehydrated, travel weary, hungry and yet deep down, I would not have wished to be anywhere else. It was hard to conceive that a modern car, rather than a horse and cart, had gained us admission to this city. It was a clash of centuries, and yet one which the Italians do so well. In no time at all he had deposited us outside the hostelry where we were due to stay. We pulled a rope which hung suspended to the side of the door and vaguely heard a bell ring deep within. After a few anxious minutes, bolts were shot back and a light was ignited, then the door creaked open and the smiling face of one of the sisters greeted us, evocative scents of coffee, garlic and fresh bread escaping into the air from within. One of our party babbled out a rambling tale of our torturous journey, our catastrophic sequence of calamities, explaining why we were so late. She just smiled, then in an accent surprising us by being American she said, "Thank you for sharing that with me." "But we have not eaten!" came the contribution from one lady who had been silent for hours. "Leave your things here, they will be quite safe and go to the restaurant down the lane, I will 'phone to tell them you are on your way, they will serve you, they are well used to dealing with such things. We do not approve of visitors collapsing from hunger!" And in no time at all, we were sitting, sipping a Campari and ordering our food in the fragrant warmth of a small, family run trattoria. Slowly we began to relax, unwind, soon we were eating pizza or pasta. We all slept well that night. The next days were a revelation. So much beauty so close together; seeing the actual crucifix through which God had spoken to Francis hanging now in the side chapel at Santa Chiara, the one through which Francis had heard God say "Rebuild my Church." Seeing the sun slowly set over the far Umbrian hills across the valley below Assisi, swaying, whispering olive groves giving way to the settlement of houses and the thin line of railway track and the imposing profile of the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, the last rays of the setting sun shimmering on its glowing dome. Being shown around the Basilica Santa Francesco by an enthusiastic Friar. The Giotto, Lorenzetti and Cimabue frescos so fragile and so exquisite. The blues richer and more sensually satisfying than blues we use now, the pale faces and believable expressions of the angels and saints, as though taken from life not imagined, as though existing independent of any artistry or invention, compelling in their authenticity and moment of wonder, adoration, revelation or agony. Being allowed to celebrate Mass in one of the oldest and quietest parts of the basilica, in a stone built room which had witnessed hundreds of years history, heard hours of heartfelt prayers from countless pilgrims. A tree trunk for an altar, a small window looking out onto the valley the other side of Assisi, not seen from the city itself, as though a secret landscape: meadows, grazing, crops, sheep, air, birdsong, perhaps Paradise itself. The main Piazza in Assisi at midday, an ancient man, with stooping back and slow step, emerging from a doorway as the clock rang out twelve-noon to feed the pigeons. For at least fifteen minutes previously seemingly all the pigeons in Italy had been congregating in the square, trying to find a perch to wait for this highlight of their day. And as the clock chimed twelve they started to swoop and swirl and fly and flap in mounting expectation, creating a whirlpool of excited anticipation. And our old friend, carrying a bucket under one arm, threw handfuls of seed into the air with his other hand. Most of the seed seemed to be devoured mid air with practiced skill, that which fell upon the ancient cobbles was quickly descended upon and devoured. It was street theatre at its very best and all felt exhilarated by the scene. Finding in a lane well off the tourist track, a dusty doorway with an even dirtier window on one of my walks around the city, which had carvings within. I entered into the dazzling darkness within of this carpenter's shop. Again, the smile, this time with a mouth boasting only intermittent teeth, eyes aglow with pride in his carefully carved work. He reached down behind the counter and took out a parcel wrapped in scruffy sacking, gently removing it as though a living, breathing thing lay slumbering beneath. He revealed the piece of carving he was currently working on: a naive nativity scene- donkey, ass, lamb, Mary, Joseph, faces all surrounding the central image of a cradled child, as though time had stopped, as though this was the central event of human history, and the moment was one charged with wonder. Perhaps the day which spoke most powerfully to me was when a friend and I , too excited to take our siesta, decided to climb the hill, still higher than Assisi, to the place where Francis' hermitage was far beyond the city streets, deep within the hush of trees. It took about an hour and a half to ascend and when we got there, the Friars who have a small community house there, were obviously all resting. There was the potent fragrance of a delicious lunch still hanging in the air, even the birds were silent, though we saw the bright white of doves and heard their occasional cooing, which seemed to re-enforce the sense of stillness. We made our way toward the cave where Francis spent long hours in prayer and praise and solitude. After the lofty and impressive basilicas replete with fabulous frescoes; after all the candles and crowds, here was a simpler Assisi to encounter, stripped of all save the mountain side, trees, rocks, birds, animals, and air so fresh and silence so serene one felt in the very presence of Heaven. We walked toward the cave and, bending my head, I entered. The silence was immediate and entire. By the light of the bright early afternoon sun I could see to my right the hollow in the rock where Francis had once lain. About five foot in length, just over two feet in width. There was no one around, there was nothing telling me not to, so I lay there, on the cool, smooth rock and closed my eyes. Francis had lain here, a man of intense prayer and fervent commitment to Christ, whose excitement for God had infected the world, whose spirituality is still a potent force, whose fervour for the gospel is still an energy which resounds in the Church, whose passion for living simply is a compelling call to our current generation as we seek to live in respectful harmony with the creation of which we are part. Here this extraordinary life force had once lain and I dared to feel his nearness and his brotherhood. I emerged, eventually, as though from a tomb, like Lazarus, to embark upon my life from a different perspective, changed as I had been by my time in Francis' cave, awakened to a new reality, living from a different place within myself, realigned with my creator. I walked into the lush grass of the grounds nearby, simply to breathe. Here a little man had grown excited by God. Here that excitement still trembled in the air. Here one began to sense things in a more vivid way: the blue of the sky, the song of the birds, the pouring of the stream, the scent of the air, the warmth of the sun, as though everything was of God, was God, as though all was an outpouring from the heart of our Creator, who caused all things to be and all things to be blessing, because He did not just make them, but loved them, loved us, into being. And all sounds and all sights which surrounded me seemed to live as though in response to Him, as though caught up in a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. And I stood, and breathed, and looked, and listened, and felt alive and blessed and gave thanks. With blessings and all good wishes. Jeff P.S. As Francis found, experiencing God is not enough, one also has to "express" Him through one's life: how we live, our ethical choices, behaviour, use of money and relationship with the natural world. Following on from your inspiring contributions toward the Anthem of Gratitude, may I now invite you to write to me of your "commitments for the future" based on the appreciations of what really, lastingly matters that you have experienced since March. I will then try to form your comments into a Statement of Commitment, which will take the form of a prayer, that the positive things we have all discovered anew may be taken forward as we pledge ourselves to the healing and rebuilding of our lives, community and world. Thank you. Jeff
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