Day 6 – When you are in the light, and I am lost, please remind me

Some of us walked all the way to the church along the path of the pilgrims. Here, the gang is being inspired about the songs that will accompany us through the morning experience.

The facade of St. Maria degli Angeli

Padre Gianmaria held a special mass just for our group in the Porziuncola in St. Maria degli Angeli.  This was a BIG DEAL as far as special treats for visitors who come here for a connection to the life of St. Francis.  The Porziuncola is a small chapel in the center of the very large basilica, St. Maria degli Angeli.  This chapel is the chapel of the heart of the Franciscan history.  It was given to Francis and his brothers to pray and live.  Francis laid down and died just a few feet from the chapel and some of his miracles happened there.  There are no photos allowed in this part of the church, so you can look at the above link to get a feel for the space.

Padre Gianmaria also told us that there were two very big earthquakes in the past 150 years (the last was in 1997 and really destroyed Assisi).  There was great destruction from both earthquakes, and St. Maria degli Angeli also had parts of its ceiling collapse.  This little Porziuncola, however, was left unscathed by both events.  In fact, during the one in the early 19oo’s, there were no deaths in the basilica because all of the friars were praying inside the chapel as the ceiling from the larger basilica fell in.  Padre Gianmaria said, ‘This is not legend; this is history.”

During the mass, he reminded us that “God is in You” and spoke with us again about the importance of the recognition of the divine in each person, regardless of our religious orientation.  I should mention that our group is not a Catholic group.  The mention of our particular religious orientations did not come up often this week, but some of us are Catholic, some protestant, some secular Christians, some secular Jews, and at least one person who was raised atheist.  The fact that we all came together for this Catholic ceremony and that the ceremony was offered to all of us equally is really a gift of the great work Mirka is sharing!

Padre Gianmaria told us that if we are pushed out of this chapel through the door, to come back in through the window.  I felt very welcome even in this place of worship that is not in my ancestry; I was not the only one to feel this welcoming love.

As he began the ritual for communion by blessing the wine and bread to become the body of Christ, he said in a whisper, “This is a really important part!”  It was very sweet like a mother helping her child to pay attention to something important.  He performed communion for those who felt moved to take it, and our friend Sandra led, quietly, a song (“I am opening up to sweet surrender”) as people moved forward to receive.  A group of mixed faiths receiving Holy mass in the Porzuincola while a pagan chant is being sung is probably something not seen everyday in Assisi!  These Franciscans are definitely not like the idea of the Catholic church that I have in my head.

After the mass, the group followed Mirka over to a rose garden nearby.  In the hall to get to the view of the roses, there were two doves sitting on top of a pillar in the hall.  I am not sure what they were doing there, but they just seemed to be hanging out next to a small statue of Francis in the hall.

Next to a modern piece of art depicting the miracle of the roses, Mirka shared her understanding of this story as depicted in the artwork (and this is my version of her story.  I tried finding the official version online, but I didn’t have any luck).  One winter day, Francis was in a very dark place (a place that many of us have experienced in our lives at one point or another).  He went out into the thorn bushes in this dark frame of mind and threw himself into them.  He passed out and was awakened to a vision of two beings of divine light in the form of angels who helped him to rise.  Before him, he saw a vision of Christ (and the Holy family and enlightened beings) who spoke to him.  He told Francis that he has been chosen and he must go to the Bishop in Assisi and talk to them.

In addition to Francis’ initial reaction, which was to doubt that he could be chosen to speak for God, he also said that there was no way the bishop would listen to him after all of the trouble he has made for the town.  After all, Assisi lost some of its most promising sons when they renounced their material lives to become beggars with Francis.  He asked God for a sign so that the bishop will see it, and know that Francis is the one.

So, the thorns bloomed into roses in the middle of winter.  Francis took these to the bishop, and then the bishop begin to listen. The roses that were reported to have come from this miracle are also thornless, and these thornless roses grow in Assisi today (Rosa canina assisiensis).

This idea of rising from darkness into light reminded me of a favorite poem by American poet Sarah Williams.  After this poem came to my mind while walking in the basilica, I really see this idea of transformation and devotion in it that I didn’t recognize before.  The old astronomer in this poem is a Truth-seeker who is gaining perspective of the big picture at the time of passing on his legacy.

“The Old Astronomer to His Pupil”

“Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then to now.

Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet,
And remember men will scorn it, ’tis original and true,
And the obliquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn,
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn,
What for us are all distractions of men’s fellowship and smiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles.

You may tell that German College that their honor comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant’s fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

Mirka and Jennifer deep in conversation – The old astronomer to her pupil 🙂

On the way back from the mass, our friend Gabriella found a very special memento of the week.  The path from Assisi to St. Maria degli Angeli is a pilgrims’ path, which is paved by stones that people purchased as an offering to the construction.  The bricks on the path have the names of the donors on them.  Gabriella found the two stones with her parents names who have become part of the story of Assisi.  The tourist office here has a map, so if you have a name, they can guide you to it.

Gabriella’s parents

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