I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
From where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth
God will not allow your foot to slip,
your guardian does not sleep.
Truly, the guardian of Israel
never slumbers nor sleeps.
The Lord is your guardian;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand
By day the sun cannot harm you,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will guard you from all evil,
will always guard your life.
The Lord will guard your coming and going
both now and forever.
And so we begin a story.
Some stories, however, are better told out of order. Rather, out of time, for the order is as it should be, like a rhyming poem. It’s only time that gets jumbled up.
The sun was golden and bright, and gave to every leaf and budding plant the halo it truly deserved. I stood on the hillside of Assisi, ambling painfully on a sprained ankle down the path to the church of San Damiano. Olive trees leaned gracefully into the bowing sun. Bushes bursting with berries of red and orange lined the road. My right ankle throbbed, and my heart glowed like a bronze mirror in the glistening sun. A prayer, true and rich, came whispering out of my mouth.
“You’re kidding me. You must be joking with me.”
There are moments when a man is so awakened by the beauty of the world around him that he realizes just what God is doing when he spreads such a sunset on the land: that he is going far beyond what is necessary or expected with the beauty he chooses to reveal. In such a moment, God is on the floor, on his back, tickling and giving airplane rides. He is being ridiculous. Grace is ridiculous. It’s a joke, and once in a while a man can be listening well enough to get it. Once in a while, a man laughs.
When the sun had arisen that morning in Rome, I had no foot injuries. I was packing my quick-dry camping towel and giving my bed at the hostel its third once-over (I find it best to do three once-overs. You can miss so much on the first and second, and wind up having left your toothbrush or your passport in a room that’s now a hundred miles away). I settled my bill, drank a complimentary machine-brewed cappuccino, and headed out the door into the wide, cobblestone street. With a spring in my step, I glanced back at the lady lingering by the hostel door. But I sprung the spring too far. I tripped on a bit of that oh-so-charming cobblestone and felt a shock of pain envelop my foot.
I cursed and winced, and walked on, limping profoundly, to find a place to stop and inspect my injury. “Really didn’t need that to happen. Aaah… God… That is a shame. Ow…”
I crouched low, felt the tender ankle, and tightened my shoelaces. It was the best I could do for the moment.
“You totally let my foot slip,” I muttered. Psalm 121 had become my theme for this journey. I was disappointed to find out that the bit about a foot not slipping was perhaps metaphorical.
I walked on to the train station. With great difficulty in language comprehension, much walking, and even more standing and staring at the mysterious timetable, I deciphered that I would have to wait a goodly long time for the next train to Assisi. Hours later, and with some continued confusion, I finally found myself at the Basilica Di San Francesco in Assisi, asking an Italian friar about places to stay.
I should at this point note that there is a recurring theme whenever I travel. I can never, ever book ahead. Try as I might to contact a hostel or pilgrim house or monastery, I simply never get a response. It’s weird. In Italy, I was informed that most guest houses don’t take bookings through the internet anyway. Usually, my improvisational way of finding accommodations works out well enough, though. It can be temporarily frustrating, but usually, with a little walking, something is found.
Usually. With a little walking around.
Newly acquired tourist map in one hand and a list of guesthouses in the other, I climbed the steep streets of Assisi, exhausted, limping, baking in the Umbrian sun. Let me tell you, that little walking-till-something-is-found part is not so little when you’re carrying your life on your back. And you’ve arrived in a city that was built on a dad-gum hill. And every dad-gum guesthouse is dad-gum full of dad-gum tourists and pilgrims and tour groups. And you’ve just badly sprained your dad-gum ankle. (“You pack so light!” everyone says. This is inaccurate. I pack as few things as possible. Trust me, this is not the same as packing “light”)
“Something will work out. It always does.”
Honestly, I knew it would. But my ankle hurt. And my backpack was heavy. I passed by an elderly woman, hunched over with some kind of back problem, one foot in some sort of cast, ambling awkwardly along the narrow street.
“Lord,” I muttered, “may I never, ever, ever complain about anything. Ever.”
I had climbed almost to the top of the city now, with many a disembodied voice over an intercom, or on occasion an apologetic nun, informing me that there was no room at the inn. I passed by a little shop with ice cream for sale. Gelato. I stopped. I looked back at the illustrated sign. I had not yet tasted this famous Italian treat. I heaved a sigh.
“Screw it. I’m getting an ice cream.”
A few minutes later, I was seated at a table on the street with my backpack on the ground beside me, thoroughly enjoying a cold, creamy treat. A lady sat at a nearby table, enjoying some ice cream of her own. With a little english, she asked me to watch her purse for a minute. “Si, si,” I said, giving a thumbs-up sign. I must have looked trustworthy. Or maybe people here are generally more trusting. Anyway, she was back momentarily. At a table nearby sat a group of old Italian men, discussing something or other in exactly the stereotypical manner a tourist like me would hope they would. The lady rolled her eyes and made the yap-yap-yapping sign with her hand. We began to talk, as is customary in these settings, with the expected question.
“Where are you from?”
I told her I was from Canada. She told me her name was Margherita. She was thin of frame, with long, full reddish black hair that, with her free and easy manner, made her younger than her actual years. She smiled well, and often, and was happy that I had come to Assisi.
“Every night I go to vespers at San Damiano. You should come. Seven o’clock. It is very beautiful. Very spiritual.”
I agreed that I should, assuming that I would find a place to stay by that time. And then, she was swept along as if by the wind, smiling and waggling her fingers, with an easy “Ciao!” on her lips.
I sat a little longer. I took a deep breath. “Alright. Let’s go.”
An hour later, with no guest house to be found, I found myself hesitantly entering the lobby of a hotel. I set my price limit in my mind and approached the desk. The lady told me their rates, and I let out a long, slow exhale.
“You look for something… sheaper?”
I sighed. “Si.”
“Let me make a call. I know a man at another place. They are sheaper. Maybe they have room.”
Twenty minutes later, I was checked in at another accommodation that was three times ‘sheaper’ than the hotel. I hobbled up the stairs to my room. As the backpack slipped from my shoulders, I was reminded of that scene from ‘The Mission’, when DeNiro is freed from carrying the the debilitating weight of his penance. Like DeNiro, I nearly cried with gratitude as I flopped down on the miniature bed.
Evening came as I ventured forth, limping but a little happier, to go down to the church of San Damiano. The streets were a little kinder now, and I allowed myself the time to take them in. There were souvenir shops and cafés, strange and winding turns, tourists and pilgrims in strange attire, and a church glowing gold in the falling sun. I followed the tourist’s map to the walkway which would lead to San Damiano, taking each step of the stairs with caution. I came to a narrow road that cascaded down the hill. I stopped along the way, and found myself staring out at a scene that had come to life from a storybook. I realized that all those classical Italian landscape paintings were not just from fantastical human imaginations. They were inspired by Someone Else’s fantastical imagination. My lips parted in a gentle kind of awe.
“You are being ridiculous. You’re kidding me. You must be joking with me.”
I came to a childlike painting set in a grated shrine at adjoining stone walls. A simple sign sat below it which read “SAN DAMIANO,” with an arrow pointing to the right. I followed the arrow to the small friary, where pilgrims and praying folk gathered with the friars to worship God. An hour-and-change later, I stepped out of the small chapel of San Damiano. Margherita found me and smiled. She was standing with an earthy-looking couple and their son.
“My friends and I, we go get ice cream after the vespers. Would you like to come?”
What a silly question.
We began the climb up the hill to the old city. The climb was slow, and my ankle was unimpressed with my choosing to come down in the first place, but there was company, and this always makes a hard walk a little easier.
Armando was in his fifties, small of stature with a distinguished, if Bohemian, beard and thinning ponytail. He spoke a little english, and he was friendly. His wife Mariella spoke no english, and had a smile that was both a little weary and endearing. She, too, was small of frame, and her hair was pulled back in the style of a woman who wants to keep things simple. Giovanni, their son of about 12, wore a red Che Guevera t-shirt and an oversized newsie cap over his long, frizzy, ponytailed hair. He smiled shyly, as a kid does when meeting a foreigner. Margherita led on.
“This one, it has the best ice cream. And they give me Italian price, not tourist price!” she said as we approached a small shop which advertised gelato. I chose my ice cream wisely (though I could tell there was no way to choose poorly). We sat outside, and I tried with moderate success to eat an ice cream cone with a beard. (I had the beard, not the cone.) Margherita rolled herself a cigarette, as did Armando.
Our conversation was pleasant, and peppered with the smiles and laughs of two languages trying to make sense of one another. Margherita translated, Armando spoke a little self-conscious english, and his wife spoke so swiftly in Italian that it sounded made-up. I learned that Armando and his family were camping on the hillside between Assisi and San Damiano. They had been there for several months. As near as I could understand, it seemed that they came and went from Assisi often over the years. They seemed to live “off the grid”.
“Tomorrow, do you want that we meet for coffee? I can show you around Assisi. It will be wonderful.” Margherita smiled, gracefully holding her cigarette and awaiting my reply.
“Sure! Yes, that would be great,” I said.
Soon we parted ways, double-kissing in the Italian style and waving goodbyes as I headed toward my guesthouse. The streets were quiet, but warm with shop lights and open doors. Along the way, I wandered into a little shop, where I found several canes for sale. I chose the simple, black wooden one. It was ten euros. It was the wisest ten euros I had ever spent.
That night I lay on my tiny bed, the ache of a sprained ankle reminded me that even it had played a role in what had become a very good day. After all, without that twisted ankle, those booked-up rooms, without that confusion and delay, I would never have stopped for a rest and some ice cream and met a new friend. A phrase imprinted itself on my mind: “Adversity is the left hand of providence.”
The memory of kindness, of haloed trees, of the sun’s evening song, took me slowly to sleep.
So it was every evening in Assisi, with vespers and sunsets. The sun would bow low to the earth, as a knight to his lady, and kiss her hand, and bid her good-night.
Praise be to Thee my Lord, with all thy creatures.
Especially for Master Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
and Thee, Most High, he manifests.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.