The Language of Assisi

I’m in Assisi, in Italy. I’ve been here for over a week now.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am here on pilgrimage, participating in a program with Franciscan Pilgrimages. It’s an incredible 24-day program. We are a group of newer Franciscans who mostly are discerning/preparing for final vows. Basically, each day has a format: a guided tour of a certain Franciscan site, mass, free time at the site, lunch (pranzo), free time and naps (repossa) in the afternoon, a lecture about Franciscan history or spirituality, a prayer service and supper (cena) and then maybe an evening walk or sunset viewing.

The rhythm of prayer, learning, community, solitude, and adventure that we have fallen into is drastically different from my normal pace at home. Typically I try to cram too much into my days. Here, I have had to adjust to the slower pace and the experience of being a pilgrim who is on a migratory retreat. It’s been a great adjustment! I feel much more relaxed and joyful. Plus, each day has been very thought-provoking, stunning, exciting, thrilling and prayerful.

My experience ranges from the fun and exciting (like my first time in an actual castle and a discovery of a new chocolate pastry) to the more profound and significant (like the impact of prayer at the tombs of Sts. Francis and Clare). In short, a lot is going through my heart and my mind, and my journal is quickly filling.

Within the richness of this blessed time, I have been trying to pay attention to the constants. What do I find myself pondering the most? One of the constants, not surprisingly, is the effect of being in a country where I don’t speak the main language. (And no matter how much I try to remember Italian phrases, they seem to just float through my mind. It’s frustrating, but I suspect it is because I have so many other things to think about.) Certainly, I am not the only one here who doesn’t speak Italian. Even so, here are my reflections:

  • Assisi is holy ground, a medieval Christian city on top of the ruins of an ancient Roman city. The layers speak of love, joy, peacemaking, history, tradition, humility, Gospel service and now, tourism. Beauty in frescoes, pristine mountain views, wildflowers and the mysterious stone all seem to have a message. There’s a strong spiritual vibe and I keep thinking a silly question: if these stones could speak what would they say? Even an artist that I spoke to one day admitted that she loves it here because there is a great spirit about the place. I am challenged to listen and tune into my surroundings more deeply.
  • I’ve learned that I tend to be pretty wordy or chatty with people like shopkeepers and waiters. Here, I am challenged to communicate with less words, and still express my gratitude and respect. Indeed, smiles and gestures go a long way, right with “grazie” (thank you). Related, even if someone does speak English like me they may not always be hearing what I am trying to tell them, just as I may not be listening too well.
  • Most importantly, I am in awe with the beauty of the universal language of prayer. One day I was sitting in a chapel and a couple came and sat next me to in a pew. Before then, I had never heard the rosary prayed in Italian. But it didn’t take me long to know which prayers they were praying. Similarly, no matter the language that mass is in, I can tell where they are in the liturgy. This is one of the reasons I love being Catholic. Likewise, it doesn’t matter where pilgrims originate that I encounter in any chapel; we understand each other’s reverent gestures and need for quiet and space. Respect is a language too.

Overall, the languages of love and joy are permeating my experience in Assisi. I am retuning my life to the love of God and the joy that comes from knowing that love. At times, I am bursting with song and laughter, for I am so grateful for the affection that I am experiencing. The beauty, the faith, and the strength that am gaining here are all affirming my vocation: I am totally Franciscan. We Franciscans are a global family that speaks many languages. Yet, we are united together in the language of faith, for we are faithful in our desire to follow Jesus Christ and live the Gospel in the style of Francis and Clare. Thanks be to God for the languages of Assisi! Grazie! 

"Assisi at sunset" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Assisi at sunset” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

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