The Last Stop: Assisi

I have taken two “pilgrimages” in my life. One was to Jerusalem where I discovered the heart of my faith, the historical places and events of Scripture and the understanding of the Middle East that has stayed with me to this day. I did not set out to take another pilgramage, particularly to a place I had been before. But the journey to Florence turned out to not only be work, but also a place of rest, a time of renewal of faith and a pilgrimage to a new dimension of my faith that has been growing in the last three years. This was a pilgrimage to the church universal, to the wonder of beauty and art to incarnate Jesus Christ, and to the security of a faith shaped by history and tradition. I came to Florence in 1999, but I could not appreciate it at that time the way I do now. It was not until the past three years, and particularly since I’ve come to Pepperdidne, that I’ve come to embrace the Catholic tradition as part of my own. I do not mean that I’ve become a Catholic; but rather, that I embrace the spiritual legacy of 1500 years or more of passionate devotion, epiphanies of God and beauty, artistic expression, deep prayer, informed theology and a prayerful life that I find so inviting about the Catholic faith and one that I’ve made my own. I now teach a course in faith and art, so this time I could fully be present to the art and architecture of churches that before I had only seen as ostentatious, wasteful or wrong. It sorrows me that I ever even felt this way, and I’m grateful I could return here so that I could find the larger kingdom of God that now speaks to me.

There was no better ending to our journey than the town of Assisi. This was the highlight of my trip, and the place I had longed to visit for years. Saint Francis of Assisi is one of my heroes of faith, and no one has taught me more what it means to love the world while renouncing it, what it is to announce good news to all the creation, and what it is to leave behind everything to follow Jesus. His is a beautiful life, and this town was the place where he lived, where he heard his call, and where he called others to follow the Franciscan way of life.

We rose early to make the 2 1/2 hour journey through Tuscany and Umbria, and we arrived in time to join about 1,000 people for mass in the Church of Saint Francis. Although it was in Italian, the service was beautiful and I knew most of the liturgy though I could not understand it. The Italians hugged me and wished me “peace”. A nun sat near me and she cried through the Eucharist. The songs of the congregation were beautiful and the choir was heavenly. As I worshiped in this church built in 1200, I had a sense of all of the faithful for generations that had joined me in this same place to worship the Christ. It was a beautiful moment, and I felt so blessed to be there.

Afterwards, we wondered this charming town perched on a high hill in the Umbrian Valley. After walking its steep streets, Keith and Liz Hinkle and I enjoyed one last Italian meal of spaghetti carbonara and pizza. I slept all the way back to the villa, then had one last meal with our group before my departure for London tomorrow. I had the privilege of leading our communion meditation tonight, and I received many affirmations from my group who felt that I had perfectly captured our week together with my words. It has been an incredible experience I will not soon forget, and I am leaving here more in touch with my faith, more devoted to my work, and more rested for all that is to come.

And so I end this glorious day, and this wonderful pilgrimage, with the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


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