When I contemplate our pilgrimage, my memory is filled with many bustling days: long hours on the bus or walking back and forth through busy cities and small villages, amazing churches and holy sites, and returning wearily at the end of the day to collapse in our hotel room. I think of sacred spots where I felt almost as though I ought to remove my shoes, since where I was standing was holy ground; prayerful places, and so many other beautiful things, artwork and sculpture and countryside.
But when I come to Assisi, I must pause, and call to mind again the whole of my experiences there. No other place affected me so deeply, for there our pilgrimage reached its most intense moment. It felt like the climax of a story. All that came before led up to it, and all that followed afterward was a crowning glory, a resolution; but at Assisi we came, quite literally, to the crux of the matter.
Before anyone can understand how this came to be, it is necessary to paint in a little of the background of our Assisi visit. The glorious sunset we witnessed on the evening of our arrival, the panoramic hills, and the ancient little town were not the only backdrop to what we did there; even that first sunset was tinged with a darker color for us, as if we felt as though the sun might not rise again. This was because we were, in fact, walking the medieval streets with only half a heart; the other half was preoccupied, back at home. My brother, back in the U.S., had been very ill when we left; we were told, however, that it was merely an unknown virus from which he would recover--with time. Yet, time had dragged on, and on, and by the day we reached Assisi his condition had suddenly grown so much worse that a new evaluation was absolutely necessary. There, in a rather remote town in the Italian foothills, far from any airport and only a few days from the end of our pilgrimage, we waited anxiously for news from the other side of the world. Each day the news was worse, and the doctors, speculating about his illness, began to suggest that it might be fatal. We were in beautiful Assisi; but it felt like Gethsemane.
Yet, perhaps because of what was going on inside of me, what was going on outside of me took on a stronger and stranger significance. Assisi was as unique as St. Francis himself. Indeed, it was St. Francis that made Assisi unique; his spirit of peace imbued the town. It was quiet; it was ancient; it was utterly peaceful. I couldn't look out the window of our room, and view the little church, the hundred swallows flitting about the sky, and the descent into the green plains below, without thinking how very Franciscan everything felt. The upper and lower churches of the basilica are both beautiful, and even in looking at the many gorgeous frescoes there you can see something of the way men were inspired by this one man who always pointed to God with intense fidelity and love. Visiting Assisi, by the way, dispels the cloud of nature-loving myth that surrounds St. Francis in the modern mind; it is clear that he respected Creation only because he revered the Creator. You meet the man there; not merely a person who spoke to the birds and tamed the wolf, but a man who was a soldier, a romantic, a saint; someone who thirsted for God so deeply that he embraced total poverty and suffered intensely if only to come closer to Christ on the cross.
No place gives better evidence of this than in the dim crypt of the double basilica, where there rests a humble altar upon which tall white candles perpetually burn; and in the rocky enclosure behind the altar is a rough, severely simple stone coffin, and one dark lamp hung above it. This is the tomb of St. Francis, and merely a glance at it imparts something of the character of the man himself: the man who went singing a hymn of joy while walking the road of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and who was the first to receive the stigmata.
At his tomb, my mother--too distraught to do anything but pray--spent almost the whole of our time in Assisi, praying intensely for the healing of my brother. Everywhere I went, I prayed, too; in the Basilica, in the monastery, at the Church of St. Clare, in the home of St. Francis. Everyone in our group was so wonderful, gently reminding us that they were praying too, offering kind words and support. Later, I discovered that almost every person in our group had put in a petition for my brother at the Poor Clare monastery--petitions which would be placed in the altar and kept in the prayers of the Sisters for a month.
I don't know how else to describe the experience of these few days in Assisi, except to say that they were the most intense of my life, because every single moment was a prayer. I had heard of living like this, when every act and every thought become a prayer, but out of necessity now I experienced it. I was helpless to do anything else; I could not cure him, I could not even go to him; I could only pray, pray pray. Our rosaries slipped through our fingers hour by hour. One prayer was on my heart day and night. When I returned to the tomb to join my mother, I felt as though I had gone full circle and come to my last desperate stretch of faith. "Lord," I begged, "So far, I haven't asked you for a miracle; so far, I've just asked that you cure him, in your time and way...but I'm asking for a miracle now."
Through the intercession of St. Francis and many other saints, through the prayers of countless faithful who had joined us in besieging heaven, and by Divine Mercy, God granted our request. Late that same night, news reached us that the doctors had suddenly--and almost accidentally--uncovered the source of his illness and had removed it entirely. He would recover slowly, but he would recover totally.
"It's a miracle he's alive," we were told.
Deo Gratias, I whispered; and when the sun rose the next morning, for me every inch of Assisi was glowing in the light of a new spiritual dawn. As every breath had been a petition, so now every breath became an inward shout of gratitude. I never saw anything so beautiful as that medieval little town in the morning light that day, because I saw it in the light of faith.
I'll end by saying, simply, that for me the greatest lesson learned from Assisi--indeed from our whole pilgrimage--is this: never, ever doubt the tender Providence of God, and the mighty power of prayer.