After settling into our new home in Florence, Italy, my friends and I thought a day in the countryside would do us some good! We woke up at 6 a.m. to catch a bus to Assisi, a tiny medieval hilltop town overlooking the Umbrian countryside. This trip was a student pilgrimage, so our day was inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment. We planned to visit the basilicas and holy sites where St. Francis lived out his mission to rebuild the Church and to promote peace among all of humanity.
Two hours after we left, we were trekking up narrow medieval cobbled streets to the Basilica of St. Francis, the site of his burial and home to beautiful frescoed walls and ceilings by masters of late medieval art, including Giotto. This Basilica is the site where Pope John Paul II held an interfaith peace conference in 1986, in honor of St. Francis’ active promotion of peace and interfaith dialogue. Our guide, a Franciscan friar from Kenya, pointed out the chair behind the altar which is reserved strictly for the Pope.
The most inspirational part of the day for me was hiking down a pathway, surrounded by silvery green olive trees, to the Franciscan monastery of San Damiano. This monastery is where St. Francis received his call from God to rebuild his Church as it was in disrepair and in need of spiritual guidance. In fact, the Cross of San Damiano, which St. Francis was praying in front of when he received this directive from God, is currently in the Cathedral of Santa Chiara in Assisi. Our pilgrimage group had a chance to pray the very same prayer that St. Francis spoke when God communicated with him while in front of this same cross:
Most high, glorious God,
Cast your light into the darkness of my heart.
Give me, Lord, right faith, firm hope,
And profound humility,
With wisdom and perception,
So that I may carry out
what is truly your holy will
(St. Francis of Assisi)
To be in the very same location where St. Francis received his lifelong vocation was an experience only heightened by the vast swath of misty countryside sweeping below this monastery. This is the very same landscape over which St. Francis wrote the “Canticle of Creation” at the end of his life, blind and gravely ill yet always in awe at God’s gift of creation to the human race. His references to aspects of nature such as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” have been widely adopted into songs and poems that likewise glorify the beautiful earth that we have been given!
To finish this short story of my day in Assisi is a lesson I learned on this pilgrimage: Peace is the greatest element of happiness, because when you are at peace with whatever vocation you have chosen for yourself, the prospect of happiness finds itself in this purpose!