Monday, January 16, 2012

Il Barboni

I had hiked the long, steep trail, cane in hand, from old Assisi to Mount Subasio.  

I visited Francis’s favourite hole in the wall (literally), and walked the paths around the sanctuary of the ‘Eremo delle Carceri.’   After several hours of walking and contemplating on an increasingly sore ankle, I hitchhiked the road back to town.  It's amazing how a hike up a mountain can take hours, and a car ride down a mountain can take 10 minutes.  I descended the steps to San Damiano, and sang vespers with the gathered faithful.  I ascended those steps again, cane still in hand, and I was approaching the familiar gelato shop where I had first met Armando and Mariella and Giovanni.  It was about 9 o’clock, and it had been a very good day, and a very long day.  I was ready to return to my room and call it a night, but the gelato seemed to whisper my name, and I made my way toward the glowing street sign for one last creamy treat to finish the day.  As I approached, I saw a familiar face.

“Ahron!  Ciao!” Armando called.  He stood on the street with Mariella and Giovanni, talking with a large friend with a long, white beard. 

“Armando!  Mariella!  Ciao!” I said.  I shook Giovanni’s hand vigorously enough to get a laugh.  “And Giovanni!”  (Violently shaking a kids hand for a ludicrously extended time is quickly becoming my old-guy, standby kid joke.  It’s a good one!)

They introduced me to their friend, who could easily pass for either an Italian hippy or an American biker.  “This is Nuli,” Armando told me, “He own the, ah, the field.  Where we camp.”

I shook his hand.  “I don’t see too many Italians with beards like ours,”  I said as I greeted him.  It didn’t take long for the three of us to start talking and joking about beards.  

I recalled a conversation I’d had in Rome about my beard.  “You looka like barboni!” he’d said.  “‘Barba’ is beard.  ‘Barboni’.  Man who have no home.  Tramp.  You look like that movie… ah… ‘Into The Wild’!  Ha ha ha!”  Since the man was formerly homeless himself, I’d taken it as a compliment.

I pulled out the reference.  “We are like barboni!” I said.  They loved that one.  

“Ha!  Si, si!  Barboni!” Armando laughed.  It felt pretty good to communicate a joke in Italian.

We had a good laugh, and I lit my pipe, and Armando rolled a cigarette.

Then Saint Francis came along.

I’d seen this man around Assisi a couple of times.  I was not sure if he was devout, or crazy.  He dressed in a habit or tunic that seemed to have come straight out of the 13th century, carried a staff, and walked barefoot.  I’d even snapped his picture on the sly, a bit awed by someone who was so clearly either a saint, a badass, or a crazy guy.  As it turned out, he may have been a bit of each.

“Masseo!” Armando called.  “Vieni qui!  This is Brother Masseo.”

I shook his hand.  “Ciao,” I said.  “Mi nomé Aaron.”  He nodded and smiled briefly, and quickly became entwined in serious conversation with Mariella.

“I’ve seen him around town,” I told Armando.  “Is he Franciscan?”

“Mmm… Yes.  But his own.  He has been dressing like this for just a few years now.  For a while, he was…mmm…come si dice...  ex, ah…. No communion.  But now, yes.”

I noted his beard, and this began another exchange of hardy laughs.   I would not have guessed that a cross-cultural pun about beards would have gotten this much mileage, but that was just fine with me.  A few minutes later, we were standing together for a group photo of the “quattro barboni”, the four tramps in a row, while Giovanni took my dying camera and its feeble flash and attempted to get a picture.  

Giovanni snapped a few blurry shots before my camera finally died.  There was plenty of back-slapping and smiles, and just as I was getting ready to bid everyone a buono notte, Armando asked me a question.

“Have you eat?”

“Uhm… No,” I answered.

“Would you like to come to our camp for food?  For dinner?”

In an instant, I reviewed the itinerary I’d kept that day, my palm a little cramped from gripping that blessed cane.  Armando’s camp was half way back down the hill to San Damiano.  It was nearing 10 o’clock.  My legs were tired.  My feet were tired.  My injured ankle needed rest.  And I knew the wisest answer to Armando’s question.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sister Water

Praised be You, my Lord, for Sister Water, 
who is most useful and humble and precious and chaste. 

He knelt next to the crooked stream and laid his hand on the surface of the cool, rushing water; sun sparkling on top, small stones shining below.  From where he knelt, the water lapped at his toes and leapt at the hem of his garments.  He looked up to the source of this twisting river, running free and lovely from the hills of Assisi.  He turned to his left, to the hovel that he now called home.  Perhaps he might call it his bedroom in the great house of God.  There were a small group of men here now: Francis and his two friends, Bernard and Peter.  

Peter, the oldest of them, was seated on the grass, hunched over and attempting to fix yet another a broken sandal.  His clothes were worn through at the elbows and knees, and he looked just the same as any other aimless beggar of Assisi.  Except that this beggar, until very recently, was an important figure in the town church community, and a lawyer by trade.  He was accustomed to many things, and educated in a great many more.  Basic shoe repair was not one of them.

He watched Bernard, dressed in the same plain, patchy garments as Peter and Francis, speaking to another friend, a leper from the nearby hospice.  Bernard held the leper’s shoulder, and Francis thought how strange and wonderful it was that this same young man was the one with whom he’d perfected the art of drunkenness just a few years before.  

The leper had wounded his foot, and it badly needed attention.  It was crusted with the dirt of the long road on which he had been begging, and this particular leprous friend had an aversion to cleanliness.  Bernard’s arms were doing most of the talking, somehow both pleading with and commanding his stubborn friend to allow him to attend to the infected foot.  Finally, Bernard came walking to the stream, a  hobbling leper begrudgingly in tow like a cantankerous mule.  

He helped their friend to a seat by the water, and Bernard stepped into the stream in front of him with a roll of his eyes, a shake of his head, and a “Can-you-believe-this-guy?” smile to Francis.  Francis smiled back as Bernard took the leper’s foot, washing it gently in the clear, cold waters.  Days and days of dirt and filth flowed from the leper’s feet.  

Bernard held his patient’s foot, and scowled an inspection of the injury.  “You stepped on a nail, my friend.”

“How do you know?” his friend asked.

“Because it’s still there!”

The leper shrugged.  “What do you do.”

Bernard sighed, and with utmost tenderness (and personal fortitude, for he was quite new at this) attended the most unusual injury.  He removed the small spike while Francis held the leper’s foot as still as he could.  Bernard washed the ravaged feet clean and bandaged up the leper’s foot with a piece of his own tunic.

Peter came strolling to the shore, a pair of dubiously repaired sandals in his hand.  “My friend, you should have something on your feet.  Please.”  Peter held out the humble footwear.

“No, no, no,” the leper protested.  “These are your sandals!”

“Please,” said Peter, “At least I know when I’ve stepped on a nail!  They’re not the best, but they should last for a while.  Please.”

The leper relented, and Peter and Bernard and Francis helped the humble sandals onto the bandaged feet.  The four of them shared a joke and a laugh as the sandals were tentatively tested.  Francis breathed in deeply the scene that surrounded him.  He felt a warmth in his chest that was not unlike a sip of brandy.  Not long ago, he had been alone.  And now, he thought, the Lord has given me brothers.

And the sun glowed gold on the green trees, and the water, like a friend so useful and precious, came running down from Mount Subasio.


It was a long, thoughtful walk from the old city on the hill.  My questions persisted, and I knew I was not guaranteed any answers.  As I’ve written before, it can be a difficult thing to be 37 and single.  God in his mercy had granted me some insight into my vocation over the years, chief among them the fact that he wanted me to remain unmarried.  But where did that leave me?  And where would that take me?  

How do I do this, God?  Where would you have me be?  Do you want me back in Modesto?  Am I supposed to clue into something this year?  Is there a new direction you want me to go?  I want to take the vows of Francis, God.  I want to be yours completely.  But where?  How?  Would you have me join an order?  Could you send me a Franciscan to talk to?
I retrieved the small plastic water bottle from my bag as I walked the paved, winding road, and took a satisfying sip of the best water in Assisi.  There was one thing in particular that I was grateful for in Italy.  I was rarely thirsty for very long, for there was water all around.

Let me digress.  Most backpackers I know travel with some kind of Nalgeen bottle, or stainless steal thermo-zone ultra-canteen, or sport pack camel back hydration elimination unit.  I prefer finding an empty bottled water bottle and keeping that for a few weeks.  It’s not that I’m against having some kind of quality water bottle, I just can’t seem to keep one.  It inevitably ends up disappearing, falling somewhere between a crack in space-time, doomed to drift helplessly in a freaky one-dimensional glass prison, providing refreshment for General Zod and Ursa and Non in their captivity in the Phantom Zone.  At least, that’s one theory.

And while I did have occasion to actually purchase bottled water once or twice in Italy, it was a rare occurrence.  Rome, Assisi, and in fact much of Italy, is completely proliferated with potable water.  You can hardly walk a block without seeing a running stream of water emanating from an old spigot into a lovely stone basin.  I suppose, of course, most of the tourists either don’t know what the fountains are for or don’t trust them, because I rarely saw anyone but locals use the things.  But the water is clean and healthy and cold and refreshing.  And easily inserted into a cheap plastic bottle.

So I stick to used bottled water bottles.  They’re great, and you can lose them without cussing.  Throughout my journey in Italy and Assisi, I believe I had a total of two, perhaps three, used bottled water bottles, which lasted throughout my time.  My favourite was the one I found by the fountain in Saint Peter’s Square.  That one lasted a long time.  I liked that one.

Armando, the Bohemian friend who Margherita had introduced, had directed me to the best water spigot in Assisi.  Just outside the old city walls, on the corner, was the water that he and his family used.  It flowed into the familiar stone basin, and I held my simple plastic bottle to the tap and filled it to the brim.  I tasted it.  Armando was right.  This water accompanied me for the long walk down to the Rivotorto.

I now stood, at last, by the Santuario Di Rivotorto, the Sanctuary of the Crooked River, reflecting on yet another of the bronze sculptures of Francis that dotted the city and countryside of Assisi.  Francis was kneeling at the feet of a leper, water basin at his side, ready to wash the feet of the dejected young man.  It was here, by the winding Rivotorto, that Francis first came when he began his mission.  He had been alone, taking shelter in an abandoned hovel.  It was here that he began caring for the lepers that lived at the nearby hospice of San Lazzaro.  And it was here that his first two followers, Bernard and Peter, came to him to join him in his life of simplicity and obedience.  It was here that he first proclaimed with utter joy, “The Lord has given me brothers!”

I thought of my family in California.  I thought of my own older brother, who I’d missed so desperately for the last 18 years.  I thought of the friends and relationships that had shaped me over the last several years, that had taught me so much about love and simplicity and faithfulness and kindness.  I thought of the tenacity of love that held me, even here on the other side of the world, to these friends that were so much more than friends.  I thought of our strange, wonderful, and humble little community, and a phrase dropped through the surface of my consciousness, into my spirit, descending like an anchor, ever deeper into the waters below.

The Lord has given me brothers.
I can’t say that the course of my life was unrolled like a map before me in that moment, but perhaps I was given a new pair of glasses with which to see the path before me.  Whatever may happen, whether I found myself in Thailand or Timbuktu, Ontario, Canada or Ontario, California, that strange little community would be at the centre.  They had always been, and ever would be, my family.  My fraternity.  My brothers.

My closest friends are brothers, yes.  A gift from God and a great palliation for the physical sibling I lost so long ago.  But Friendship itself?  She is a lady.  She is beautiful and chaste, useful and humble, and she flows like water among us.