“We walk back now to San Damiano. There is special service tonight for Francesco. Would you like to go with us?” Armando spoke english well, but that Italian song still rang out in words like ‘San Damiano’ and ‘Francesco’. “It is not far,” he added.
The evening had been spent at the ‘Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli’ (which is a fun and lovely phrase to say in Italian). This basilica was built overtop the small chapel that Francis and the brothers called “the Little Portion”, or “Porziuncola” (It took me a while to get the correct “tune” for that word. It’s something like, “PortsYOONco-lah!”). When I say that it was built overtop the old chapel, I don’t mean that it was built on its ruined foundations. I mean that inside the basilica still stands the little chapel. It was by this chapel in the clearing of a small forest in the Spoleto Valley that the first brothers lived in a grouping of simple huts, like pups clustered around their mother. It was here that Francis and his friends lived and prayed and served the poor together and found in this humble church their source of life and communion.
Today was his “transitus”, the anniversary of Saint Francis’s death. Each year the modern town of Assisi, which lays at the foot of the old, hilltop town, celebrates the saint with festivities unlike anything one would ever see in North America. There is fire involved. Lots of fire. Men running around on fire. But that’s another story.
Armando wasn’t lying when he said it wasn’t far from here to San Damiano, he just had a different definition of “not far” than I did. I had walked from San Damiano to the Basilica earlier that day, so I had a pretty good idea of just how far it was. Before I ran into them tonight, I had planned on catching the bus back to the old town. I considered his offer for a moment, and remembered my first rule of the road: “Always say yes.”
“Sure,” I said.
“We know a better way. No cars.”
Forty minutes later, we were walking in the moonlight along a darkened path to the old church on the hill. As usual, Giovanni was fifty paces ahead of us, with a dog named Grizzo in tow. Grizzo belonged to Flavia, a student friend of the group, who often left him in the care of Giovanni. He was a perfect dog. Like the family taking care of him, he was of a smaller frame, but a true dog’s dog through and through. A beautiful mutt, he was regularly showered with hugs and kisses from Giovanni.
Leaning on my cane as I walked (it had become a part of me that week), I looked to the left, and saw what used to be the Big Dipper. Margherita had given me the proper Italian name.
“Il Grande Carro,” she’d said. “Like, ah, the car. But from before, with the horse. Carro.”
Indeed, it only lacked a horse. Now that I’d seen it that way, it looked much more like a cart than some boxy celestial spoon. I looked from the Spoleto stars to the old city of Assisi ahead of us, and I was a little confounded by what I saw. It was glimmering mysteriously, as if the tops of its walls had somehow been enchanted. The glow was not electric. It was too fluid for that, too beautiful. It shimmered and flickered, and the old city shone like some kind of earthbound constellation, a descending New Jerusalem.
“Armando, what is…,” and I pointed, “this. Is that…?”
“Is, ah, foculo. Fire.”
There is a funny story about Francis and Claire. One night, Claire came down from San Damiano (she and her new order of sisters had moved into the church some time after Francis had rebuilt it). Francis and a few of the brothers had prepared a picnic meal of all the food that was available: bread and water. But Claire received it with joy, and the few brothers and sisters went into the woods for an evening meal. Soon, what began as a simple blessing over their bread and water became an old fashioned praise and worship jamboree. They prayed and sang together under Umbrian moon to the God they so dearly loved.
Unbeknownst to them, a strange, orange glow rose up from them, many times greater than their small campfire. The light of it was so bright that the townspeople thought the forest around the hermitage was ablaze, and threatening to destroy the beloved Little Portion. They scooped up buckets of water and rushed to the source of the strange light, only to find Francis and Claire and a tiny group of brothers and sisters praying and singing together, filling the night sky with their praises.
I wondered if this story had something to do with the presumably safely burning city I now saw above me, glowing in a strange communion with the stars and the satisfied moon. Like the stars, the city on the hill seemed to speak of some mystery, something unknown but beautiful nonetheless. Walking these paths was a mystery, too. But my companions knew where they were headed, and the guide up ahead, staff in hand and dog at his side, knew the path well. The moon and stars would be light enough.