On the Road Again -- Assisi

I’m all for everything St. Francis stands for, yet I’m oddly apathetic about his undeniably beautiful little hometown. But Mom really wanted to go to Assisi, and I couldn’t stand the thought of her hitch-hiking.

So off we went. Assisi is a well-preserved medieval city situated just above the broad Umbrian plain and nestled against the side of a mountain. We started our visit at Santa Maria degli Angeli, a huge church built in the 16th and 17th centuries to envelop the tiny and very modest 9th century chapel where St. Francis basically founded what we now call the Franciscans.

The church-within-a-church is very striking and moved even me. But then my Assisi apathy returned as I spotted the many ways the ingeniuous designers incorporated crowd control into the church. It was, after all, built to accommodate the hordes of pilgrims — the tourists of their day — who were flocking to Assisi in the first few centuries after his death. To start with, there’s a humongous souvenir stand-lined plaza out front and massively proportioned entrances to the church.  I felt downright cycnical and decidedly un-Franciscan contemplating this church cum convention center.

Joining large tour groups identified by the distinctively colored scarves shuffling through the crowded glassed-in hallway to see (but not smell, much less touch) the mystical thornless rose garden didn’t help my mood. And someone really needs to assure me that no one has clipped the wings of the dove that appears to sleep peacefully in the hands of the St. Francis statue in the breezeway. Please tell me that’s not a prop.

As we headed into town, I was able to remind myself why Assisi is what it is. It honors a man who was a spiritual leader, who devoted himself to works of charity, and who was rightfully revered for his love of nature and wild creatures. Images reminiscent of Graceland gave way to appreciation of the authentically good reasons there are crowds to be controlled.  My attitude appropriately adjusted, I helped Mom order up a memorial Mass for my saintly grandmother, then we drove a few minutes up to the actual town of Assisi.

We parked in a modern and user-friendly parking structure and walked up to San Francesco, a large and Very Important Church (VIC) in a country of many large and important churches.  We noted the irony that this grand and imposing church was built in honor of a man who devoted his life to the poor and sought simplicity and modesty always and in all things.

Due to its VIC status (and maybe the warm weather), we explored the church in two parts. We started with the lower church, dense with rich frescoes. There’s so much there that it’s hard to absorb and I regretted being an art ignoramous.

But first, we broke for lunch — and I was touched again by my Assisi ambivalence. My remarkably bad gnocchi and Mom and Paige’s mediocre pizza contributed, but my real problem was how thoroughly the town markets its saint. Having spent my career amongst some of the greatest marketers in American business, I really have nothing against it. But soap is one thing … sainthood is another.

We returned to San Francesco to visit the upper part of the church. Sated with beauty and filled with strong and conflicting emotions, I was about ready to go when it was time to meet Suzanne, my friend from Ohio and art professor extraordinaire. Her understanding of and enthusiasm about the art brought me around again.  We returned to the basilica, and her spirited “best of Giotto frescoes” tour brought me around again. Understanding a bit of the magnificent art made everything sparkle.

Suzanne is back at home with her family  now.  This, though, might take some of the sting out of missing her terrific tour.

At its core, Assisi is a remarkable place of beauty and a monument to faithful spirituality.  I’m determined to work a little harder to overlook the nearly inevitable commercialism and seek the inspiration of the countryside and the monuments to this man who still represents so much good to so many people around the world.

Just as Suzanne helped me appreciate its art, I’ll turn to another expert to help me develop an insider’s fondness for Assisi (maybe we can start with a good restaurant recommendation), and I think I have just the person: Anne Robichaud of “Anne’s Italy” is a friend of a friend who lives in Assisi and helps visitors get the most of their visits to Italy.

And in the meantime, I’ve modified his prayer, with apologies…

Lord, make me appreciate Assisi;
Where there is commercialism, help me see sincerity;
Where there are crowds, people of faith and commitment to the good saint’s ideals;
Where there is a megachurch, Francis’s humble little chapel …