Many tributes to Il Poverello (the poor one), that is St. Francis of Assisi, will appear today on blogs and websites. Reports of special services in which animals, a part of Francis' beloved world of God's creation, will be blessed in his name, will appear in local newspapers. Many, as part of their daily prayer practice, will repeat the well-known prayer of St. Francis saying, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred let me sow love; where there injury pardon...",
Here I would like to share a memory held since the summer of 1961; the summer in which my mother, father, younger sister and I drove through Europe for three months. I was sixteen years old, the perfect age to see and to grasp the meaning of other worlds, other cultures. My father, in his orderly German fashion, had meticulously planned each day of our trip. A stack of index cards marked the itinerary and what we simply could not miss at each stop along the way. Often we went to places far off the well-beaten tourist track; the small museum in a remote section of East Berlin where we was the famous bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, Dante's tomb in Ravenna, and the catacombs of Palermo.
Assisi was, on the other hand, a popular tourist spot. Neither of my parents would have chosen it as a place to visit for only religious reasons. The motivation was to see the architecture and particularly to view the Giotto frescoes in the upper church of the Cathedral of Assisi. Just recently I spoke to my father about our visit and he commented, "We saw them before the earthquake." We also shared the same memory of our approach to Assisi by car. From the back seat, I was the navigator for my father during this trip. Each time we entered a city or town, I invariably had my nose in the AAA map book. On a number of occasions I would break my concentration and look up from the map only to find something unexpected and astonishing before my eyes. As we approached Assisi via a dusty road on the Perugian plain, I looked up to see the town rising before me, a Shangrila miraculously perched on on the prow of a hill. This is the steep side of Assisi which just seems to tower over the plain. My father and I agreed on the image and its breath taking effect.
We left Assisi on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. Departure days always required an early start. My sister and I wanted to go to Mass on this holy day of obligation and our only option was a very early morning Mass in the crypt of St. Francis. As I recall, not many were present. I found it a very intimate experience of devotion combined with the significance of history and the aura created by the presence of the holy remains of the saint.
My grandmother's sister had a great devotion to St. Francis. When I was a young girl I asked her what prayer she would recommend that I memorize beyond the usual ones required. She thought for a while and then said, "Memorize the Prayer of St. Francis." In youth I did not appreciate the wisdom of that choice. I have come to treasure both the memory and the prayer.