Hillside Retreat

March 16th, 2009

The Italian hill town of Assisi is located in the northern region of the country known as Umbria.  it is the home of the beloved monk, Saint Francis and several cathedrals honoring him and Saint Claire huddle together within the confines of its surrounding walls.  The main basilica is ornamented with paintings of Giotto flanking rows of wooden pews that appear dwarfed by the great expanse of space.  Tourists wander through the cathedral in a clock-wise procession, gazing at the vaulted ceilings, the large murals, and the gold-guilded cross that hangs above the altar.  Sitting in a pew as I wait for my companions, I imagine scenes from hundreds of years ago when towns people filled the space – the image is a stark contrast to the emptiness that reverberates through the space now.  It’s as if the very life of the building has been sucked dry and all that remains is a beautiful shell that tells the story of grander days.

Above the cathedral are cliffs where Saint Francis would retreat from the clamor and trappings of the city.  pilgrims still make the trek up the steep slope to enter his hermitage where a small stone chapel and living quarters house several monks who continue the practices of Saint Francis.  Surrounding their humble dwelling are meandering paths that weave through the forest and cliffs.  Make-shift altars made from stones appear along the trails and gray stone cliffs are white from the thousands of crosses etched across their faces.  Tucked into the rocks and planted in the ground are more crosses made from sticks and branches.  They seem to whisper the prayers of those who left them behind.

Visitors honor the silence by speaking in hushed voices or not at all.  They gather in small groups to pray or sit alone on a bench to journal or simply enjoy the quiet.  In the midst of the stillness is a vibrancy that feels almost tangible.  It’s as if the spirit of Saint Francis still dwells in the trees, the sky, the rocks and the birds.  The energy here feels particularly profound in comparison with the hollow experience in the cathedral with all its grandeur.  The simple rustic setting of the hermitage, seasoned with prayer, draws people into its embrace inviting sacred encounters.

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