“Francis, go and build my church, which is falling into ruins.”
I didn’t know much about St. Francis, growing up, other than the pet blessing day every year, which meant that we got to take our dog to church. As an adult, I knew about his love for creation; had heard about, but not seen the 1970s movie: Brother Sun, Sister Moon; had seen the garden statues of Francis, with his robe and his tonsured head and a bird on his shoulder or his hand.
And then we went to Assisi last year.
People told me that it was a tourist town. What I found, instead, was a pilgrimage site. Sure, you can find the same sorts of plasticky trinkets that are sold in lots of other places. And yes, there were tour groups with lots of cameras and leaders holding flags: “we’re walking, we’re walking…” And. And we walked the same cobbled streets that pilgrims to the sacred places of that town have walked for nearly a thousand years now. We walked the pathways of Francis’ hermitage at Mount Subasio, and picnicked afterwards higher up the mountain, with wild horses grazing nearby. We walked the places he would have walked, saw things he would have seen.
I hadn’t known what to expect of any of that first trip of ours to Italy after Easter last year, especially the first week of it that we spent in Assisi. We were grateful to be blessed and gifted and sent by all of you, grateful to Liz Caris for her recommendations of places to go (especially for the gelato, my favorite), and so excited to see our daughter Grace after her three months of study abroad.
We didn’t know what to expect. And then we found ourselves at San Damiano.
It’s a little church (“little,” comparatively, in terms of the churches in Italy) at the bottom of a long walk down the hillside from Assisi, through vineyards and along the cypress trees that define property lines. After our walk down the hill, we had waited in the square outside the church, with signs all around telling groups to keep silence (it didn’t happen), not to take pictures (they did). And then we went inside.
The walls of the church are bare stone, and close, with frescoes painted in the arch above the altar. There’s none of the grandeur we would see during the weeks to come as our trip continued, in Siena and Florence and Rome. This church felt intimate, and cloistered, and held. We walked in and the noise that had been outside just dissipated. We were pilgrims. And this was a holy place.
So the story goes, Francis prayed in that same church, before a crucifix that is also an icon, hanging at the arch above the altar.
As he prayed, he experienced God speaking to him: “Francis, go and build my church, for it is falling into ruin.”
It turns out that icon which is also a crucifix, the original from San Damiano Church now hanging in St. Clare’s Church in Assisi looks just like this icon which is also a crucifix, which normally hangs above the fireplace in our Lounge.
So Francis heard the call to build the church, and he looked around and saw the church in which he prayed really was falling into ruins. Stories vary about what happened next. Some have Francis picking up stones right away to physically rebuild the church. Some tell of him offering the proceeds of sales from his father’s silk trade to cover the cost of rebuilding. Maybe both are true.
What is clear is that Francis’ father, a wealthy fabric merchant, was not pleased about the way Francis perceived this call. He reprimanded his son, tried to shift Francis’ focus back to the course he would have chosen for him. The struggle between them persisted until finally, standing before his father and the people of Assisi at a gathering with the Bishop, Francis renounced his inheritance. He left the life his father would have chosen for him. He removed the very clothes he was wearing – stripped naked, and walked away.
Francis would live outside in the creation that became his home around Assisi for the next period of time; the only things he would have were what people gave him as a beggar. Stories are told of his relationship to the natural world: calming wild animals, preaching to birds, hearing prayer in the sound of the wind. I think we do him a disservice by constricting who he was to the caricature that I – at least – had in my mind before that trip. His reality was wilder and bigger and more faithful that all that.
In his writings he would declare that everything God has created has the ability to praise God. The shining of the sun and the cracking of thunder and the blooming of a flower – all of it, praise, all of it, holy.
The church at San Damiano was restored, and still Francis heard the call to build. And this is what makes me love this icon that is a crucifix. It has Jesus crucified at the center; and it also is filled with people.
The thing that might have pushed Francis into his life of faith was a call to build a physical church. But the work of his lifetime, I believe, was to build up the very Body of Christ which is the Church, people coming together as members of that body. His deepest call was to build that. He strove to build a church at peace with itself, each person seeking to be an instrument of that peace; a church striving – not for control over the wild of nature, but finding its harmony with all creation.
“Come to me,” Jesus says in the gospel appointed for this feast today. “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of our time in Italy – any part of it, really – especially our time in Assisi, and at San Damiano.
What I found there was a crucifix that was also an icon. It has Christ at the center and has people all around. What I heard was the story of a call: build the church. Build my church, the Body of Christ in this time and place, knit together member by member of people coming together in praise, and thanksgiving, and petition, and lament, people offering to share the gifts they have been given. Build a church that is at peace with itself and is itself an instrument of peace, a church in harmony with creation. And what I couldn’t stop thinking about, as we walked, and rested, and drank coffee, and lit candles, and ate really good gelato, was you…was the Body of Christ that is this church in this time and place.
It’s good work, this easy yoke, this light burden we have carried together for the past four years now. I knew it before we were across an ocean and on another continent away in the week after Easter last year, and I know it now and still.
So what comes next for us? How will we live into our call in the weeks and months that stretch ahead of us, carrying the easy yoke and light burden that God continues to offer us? How will we strive to be an instrument of peace in a world that cries out for it? How will we find our harmony with all creation, singing praise to our creator?
How will we build the Church?