For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.
This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.
I’ll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.
Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.
Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even…
Worldwide Franciscans like me are celebrating the founder of our order today. On the eve of this day, in 1226 St. Francis of Assisi died and went to heaven. Last night we celebrated the Transits to memorialize this sacred story.
Today we remember and honor St. Francis’ story and contributions to the Church. Through his witness 800 years ago, we have all be transformed and inspired.
In his honor and in celebration of this happy day, I wanted to share some St. Francis of Assisi photos from my pilgrimage to Italy in 2014.
Earlier this summer I was fortunate to be able to make a pilgrimage-of-sorts to The Simple Way, a Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia described as “a web of subversive friends conspiring to spread the vision of ‘Loving God, Loving People, and Following Jesus’ in our neighborhoods and in our world.”
Like many thousands of Christian millenials, I have been interested in The Simple Way community ever since I first devoured this book about eight years ago.
In The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne describes an inspiring type of Christian living: a dedicated, communal, prayerful, life of radical simplicity and activism inflamed and inspired by the Gospel.
Some time after first reading his book I remember writing Shane Claiborne a letter thanking him for his work and sharing with him how it impacted me. At the time I was new to my Franciscan community and feeling confused while I discerned commitment. I was starting to become aware of the community’s shadow sides as my idealized sense of who we are waned away. I felt uncertain whether staying with my Franciscan community would free to me to live the way I felt called to live. Plus, I was struggling with generational challenges and the impact of joining a group with a long history. Honestly, I was tempted to leave religious life and instead join a movement with the freshness and ecumenical energy like The Simple Way community that Shane describes in his book.
I must have written my thoughts all out in my letter to Shane because I still remain thankful for the gift of his response as his encouragement to be Franciscan ultimately contributed to my decision to stay with FSPA (and propelled me toward my perpetual profession of vows five weeks ago!). Here is an excerpt from the letter I still treasure and pray with:
“I admire your hope and your discontentment–and certainly the Church needs both—it is a beautiful thing to hear in your words the fiery passion of Francis and Clare—and the humility to submit and seek the wisdom of elders … Our communities and ‘new monasticism’ has its charm and fresh charism but it also has this challenge and vulnerabilities … I certainly will keep you in my prayers as you continue the work of Francis and Clare and ‘repairing the ruins of the Church.’ You are a gift to the FSPA …”
Since that first correspondence, I have remained a fan and follower of Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way. I have heard Shane speak in person a couple of times and I continue to be inspired and influenced by his writing and passion for being a neighbor and disciple of Jesus. I have tried to keep up with all the happenings in The Simple Way, but never before made it there for a visit.
So when a wedding brought me to Philadelphia at the end of June, I reached out to The Simple Way community to see if I could stop by. I didn’t expect to actually see or spend any time with Shane (he’s kind-of famous) but I was really interested in the current state of The Simple Way and how God was working with and through their presence in the Kensington neighborhood.
I was so excited when I found The Simple Way in Philadelphia! I really felt like I was arriving on Holy Ground, a place of faith and wonder.
There, I was hosted by Caz Tod-Pearson (the director of the organization) who had recently returned from maternity leave.
She and I had a deep conversation about The Simple Way story. She told me about the ups and downs of community life and the ways that she is working hard to help the community stay rooted and find a healthy focus.
As Caz explained in an email to me prior to my visit:
“Right now we do not have an intentional community house, or a large amount of service projects, or programs going on as we have in the past (as the stories in the book written 10 years ago speak of).
Over the past year and a half we’ve gone through some major transition, and taken a lot of logs off our fire, that had got pretty saturated, to get the flame burning again. So what happens here on a weekly basis is pretty small and simple, and has begun to look a little different as indigenous neighbors take on more leadership and volunteer roles in the work that had been done by our residents. We’ve had to say no to a lot of good people wanting to come in and help as we’ve listened and made way for neighborhood leaders to take ownership for what our neighbors need and want.
We do still have a couple of families and friends who’ve relocated intentionally, are living and working alongside us, and are sharing life in simple ways. We do still have some rhythms of prayer, shared meals and work, but to a different degree than before. We really have stripped everything back and are ‘starting again’ in a way. It’s been a difficult, yet beautiful season that we know the Spirit will continue to guide us through.”
I love the simple beauty of the main common room where we had our conversation.
Caz spoke about how fame and fire impacted The Simple Way community. In 2006 The Irresistible Revolution and The Simple Way community was put into the national spotlight. During that time Krista Tippet interviewed Shane on Speaking of Faith (now On Being). Then, on June 20, 2007, a seven-alarm fire destroyed several properties in Kensington, including the house where Shane was living.
The effect of these two events occurring so close together was an explosion of financial support, organization, projects, collaborations, associations, press and visitors. The initial grass-roots, intentional-community flavor of The Simple Way shifted some. It is still an intentional community, but it’s not of the same type as when it was founded. The Simple Way has essentially remained in a state of discernment and transition since 2007, while still serving the neighborhood and being faithful to the Gospel.
Here is the lot that remains empty since the fire.
The Simple Way is now committed to being a loving presence in Kensington, building relationships of mutuality and establishing sustainability.
And in a place hurting from poverty and its impacts, they offer tremendous beauty and love to the neighborhood by cleaning up spaces and sponsoring artists who paint murals.
They also have a few garden projects.
What I encountered during my visit to The Simple Way was inspiring and exciting for God clearly is actively influencing the life of community. What was especially fascinating, though, were the indicators that the members of this new form of religious life are dealing with similar questions as those of us who are newer to Catholic religious life. In different corners of the country, living different forms of religious life, we all seem to be riding the same wind that the Spirit is blowing throughout God’s people who are eager to build God’s reign of peace and justice.
Just like the peers of my generation in Catholic sisterhood, The Simple Way is grappling with questions of identity and call and how to respond to the signs of these times. They are trying to discern who God needs them to be now, as they stay open to the Spirit’s work and revere the legacy of their founders. They are trying to establish relationships of mutuality with those on the margins of society and build bridges across lines of culture, class and creed (and I have also heard some of my Catholic Worker friends of my generation express the same sort of desires).
Clearly, God is up to many great things through Shane and Caz and their friends and neighbors, who are working hard to help Christ’s peace and love be known in our hurting and troubled world. Thanks be to God for how they offer themselves as true instruments of peace. Let us pray for them and support them in all the ways we are able.
They—like many other Christian millenials—are challenged by the Spirit and the signs of these times. We desire to help God’s peace and justice be known by all people, in every broken place of the world.
No matter what type of Christian community we belong to and whether we are joining a new movement of the Spirit or a 800-year-old tradition, all of us are eager to build deep relationships of mutuality and strong communities. Together we are on this journey of building hope and proclaiming peace. So, let’s pray, discern and follow the Spirit together, now matter how messy, mysterious or confusing doing God’s good work may be! AMEN!
I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.
I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.
I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that…
This past summer I had a profound experience that helped me to remember that heaven and earth are one.
I was in Assisi, Italy, on pilgrimage. I was there with other Franciscans who were preparing for (or discerning) final vows, and participating in a study pilgrimage sponsored by Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs. As a Franciscan sister, it is understandable that my heaven-on-earth experience occurred in Assisi, as the village is holy ground for those of us in the Franciscan family.
After a morning Mass with our pilgrimage group at the tomb of St. Francis, I went into the upper church of the basilica of St. Francis. I then found myself praying with Giotto di Bondone’s vibrant frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. Much was stirring in my heart as I examined the scenes depicting St. Francis’ life of conversion and penance.
Specifically, I was feeling very uncomfortable with my weak and imperfect …
I have been back from Assisi for a few weeks now, after spending over two weeks on pilgrimage there. The effects of the experience are still sinking in. Slowly, I am coming to know what the after-effects of my Assisi experience actually are.
It has occurred to me, though, that certain images and experiences linger more loudly, causing my Assisi memories to stay very alive, even though my life here has built layers on top in my mind.
It’s very difficult to really articulate what I experienced, so bear with me. I hope that the photography I’ve chosen helps.
1.) The art within the Basilicas
Photography inside the Basilicas of Assisi is not allowed, so I can’t share actual images with you. I’ll just say that seeing the originals of art that I have studied and prayed with since my entrance into FSPA was truly awesome. It was a thrill for me to pray with the actual San Damiano cross, the larger-than-life and vibrant frescoes by Giotto in St Francis’ Basilica, and the beautiful, simple Porziuncola where Francis lived with many of the early brothers. Somehow, the art in each of these sacred spaces caused me to encounter Christ in a way unlike I have before. I felt connected to Francis and Clare, to centuries of pilgrims, to the shared tradition of prayer.
This image of Francis is on the outside wall, above the door into the lower basilica of St. Francis.
2.) The valley below Assisi
Apparently, during the time of Francis and Clare the Spoleto Valley was a marshy land where few people would venture. It contained leper colonies where members of Francis and Clare’s communities would serve. One hot and sunny afternoon, I tried to walk across the valley from the place where Francis lived with the early brothers (the Porziuncola) to where Clare lived with early poor ladies (the Chapel of San Damiano). Even though I got overheated and never made it to San Damiano that day, I was in awe about how the land felt somewhat familiar. Perhaps my Iowan roots help me to feel comfortable in any agricultural setting. Or, perhaps praying with the stories of Francis and Clare during the past few years allowed me to feel at home.
I took this picture when I was walking through the valley.
3.) The dancing colors across the sky
Nearly every day I was able to take in the magnificent sunrise and sunsets over Assisi. The scenes were like bookends of the blessed days. In between the sun coming up and going down I would encounter the way that this small town of peace offered hospitality to people of all types; to all sorts of colorful characters from all over the world. Some of us were tuned into the Spirit and sacredness. Others were joyful about what was quaint and calm. No matter where we are all of us, whether we believe it or not, are God’s children sharing space under the beautiful sky.
This is from the sunset the first night I was in Assisi.
4.) The joy of being Franciscan
I mentioned it earlier, but I am happy to say it again. In the land of St. Francis, I felt very joyful and like my truest self. I would randomly sing hymns and find myself muttering prayers, more than normal. I am so thankful that God has blessed me with this vocation and made me part of this wonderful Franciscan family. Now that I am home again with many more sisters from my community, I understand why so many eyes sparkle with deep gratitude when the talk shifts to our Franciscan roots. I suspect that my eyes do that too. I hope we help others know God’s goodness through our joy.
In this picture, one of my pilgrimage companions lifts up his arms in Assisi.
Thanks be to God for the way that this pilgrimage continues to enrich my life! Pace è Bene!
It’s my last morning in Assisi. Soon I will depart and go on the next leg of my journey before returning home. I’m restless and nervous, for transitions and travel challenge me.
I came here as a pilgrim two weeks ago. I experienced this city as a pilgrim. Now I understand that I also leave as a pilgrim, for I am always on a journey of faith.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul. -1 Peter 2:11
I can trust that God will take care of me and remain my trusty companion, for sure. For me, a certain worldly desire wages against God’s invitation to be a disciple who take leaps of faith: I long for a sense of certitude about where my life is turning. I realized this here in Assisi. This is one of many lessons that I will bring home to integrate.
Indeed, God has utilized my time on this holy ground to teach me lessons that I need to learn. Overall, my experience in Assisi has provided many graces.
To teach me these lessons, God has used many teaching tools. There’s the tools you might expect: liturgies, homilies, readings, lectures, silent prayer, meditation, religious art, tombs of saints, and churches.
God’s truth has been revealed in other ways too: through people, places, music and in random moments in caves, on mountain paths and busy streets.
In particular, God has spoken through the wisdom of other pilgrimage companions, all who are Franciscans. I’ll feature one:
David Hirt, OFM Cap.
Entered Religious Life: 2007
Solemn Vow Profession: 2013
Hometown: Terre Haute, IN
Current Ministry: Campus Minister and Spiritual Director at Mount Lawrence High School Seminary, Mt. Calvary, WI
My Question to Br. David: What have you learned about the messiness of Franciscan life during this pilgrimage?
Br. David’s Answer: Franciscan life is like any one of the old churches here in the Spoleto Valley. It’s old and rough and broken and beautiful, but built to show that one perfect sanctuary that is the reign of God. Franciscan life is the mix of ideals and the nitty-gritty reality of what you have to deal with in the world, and the ideal and reality don’t always meet.
Another teaching tool that God has utilized is the beauty of the scenery. It has frequently felt as if every direction I look gives me a picture worth contemplating. Many sights feel as if they are pictures right out of a European photo book or off a postcard. And, I get to be part of it! The beauty and God’s goodness has given much to ponder, much opportunity to do as St. Clare has instructed: gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate.
Here is a photo from my time here that I offer for your own consideration and contemplation. What of Christ does this photo invite you to imitate?
As I journey onward, I am carrying some solid intentions and hopes about how I will integrate what God has taught me into my ordinary life.
Wisdom and beauty is propelling me into mystery blessed with trust. While I move, I pray that I shall imitate The Great Teacher and the lessons I’ve learned here in Assisi. Amen!
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!
I am on pilgrimage now, in Italy. I arrived Monday evening and started having physical reactions right away. As I was leaving the Rome airport and looking around at the vegetation, it crossed my mind that the landscape I was seeing probably would have been familiar to St. Francis of Assisi, plus many other holy people I have studied and prayed with for years. My mind was full of wonder and my heart was vibrated with joy and excitement. At the thought of it all, tears filed my eyes. Before arriving at the hotel where I am staying, I was surprised to suddenly have this site fill the sky:
The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is something I have seen countless pictures of throughout my life. When I saw it all lit up and making such a statement about the power of faith, I gasped. Really loud. It didn’t matter that I was in a shuttle-taxi van with a bunch of strangers, it was like the sound came from the depths of me and surprised all of us. Physical reactions can be like that. Since then, I actually got to go inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s enormous and filled with great art and devotion. It’s amazing to me what people create and do because they know and love God. Thousands and thousands of people from all over the world were inside praying, taking photos, and listening to guides share facts. Some were crowding around the sculptures by Bernini and Michelangelo to try to see the masterpiece with their own eyes, and maybe get a good photo. Some were in line to touch the feet of the statue of St. Peter, which were worn down flat. Some were in the adoration chapels off to the side. Others were praying with the non-corrupt body of Pope John XXIII. At one point, overwhelmed and trying to take it all in, I realized I was crying–another physical reaction to a spiritual reality. Most recently, I was able to visit the Vatican museums, which includes the Sistine Chapel and its masterpiece paintings by Michelangelo. I got to spend over thirty minutes in there, crowded among hundreds, in dim light, bending my neck back and staring up at the phenomenal art. For part of the time I sat, prayed, and people watched. I started thinking about all the prayer and pope elections that have happened in that place over hundreds of years, and all the holy people who have also been in that place. Then, I became aware that my shoulders were shaking and tears were streaming down my face. Another physical reaction. I’ve only been here three days now yet I am clearly being moved intensely by the experience already. The actual pilgrimage program began this afternoon and at our opening mass one of the guides, Father Rick Martignetti, reminded us that we are all called to be pilgrims and strangers on our journey through life. We pray with the physical world in a very sacred way. Places are “sources” that can speak to us, that can change us and that we can change–by our being and through our prayers. Many of the places that we are to encounter are places where heaven has met Earth, for this Christian faith of ours is a very physical faith. As I move on this holy ground I learning more every day about how the spiritual and the physical intermingle. I am amazed and blessed to be part of it all. For all this, I give thanks and praise. Amen!
“It would be like we have been living underwater, and for the first time, we would be able to come up and breathe.”
I heard one of the undocumented immigrants say this. We just had finished a meditation of imagining what the day would be like when we, a group working on immigration reform, win citizenship. The tears of real joy, laughter, and heartbreak showed me a glimpse of reality of the 11 million people who are undocumented in our country.
As a result of this emotional reflection, we decided we needed to make this issue felt in our community and then created our Pilgrimage for Citizenship. Our journey was to tell the immigrant story and our path brought us through the very suburban communities I grew up in.
Walking past houses that could have been my parents’ elicited in me the feelings I often get as the white male organizer working on this campaign: first, a pang of guilt of about my affluence, then movement towards “I can fix the world on my own” mood, then a return of the sense of guilt, and the cycle repeats.
After acting out of these emotions often, it has become clear to me they are simply unhelpful. They ignore the real individualist sin of “whiteness” at work.
This sin directs me ask the questions, “Should I work on this or not? How should I work on this and with whom?” It all presumes and focuses on my choice.
Listening during the mediation on citizenship and walking the Pilgrimage have taught me that the questions I should be asking are not about my choices but about my commitment. Is my commitment to my own freedom of choice, even good choices about justice and right, or to the freedom of the community? Is my commitment accountable to God and reality, or simply to my own feelings and preferences?
My immigration work has pushed me to be in more relationship with reality and people’s suffering, and this has set the tone for my commitment. On this issue it has meant using my gifts to be the most helpful and strategic in getting a Republican congressman to support citizenship.
Citizenship is necessary not only to stop the tremendous suffering caused by our broken immigration laws but also to give a democratic voice to 11 million aspiring voters in our community.
Our pilgrimage’s purpose was to start living into this desired reality by giving space for immigrants to have a voice and for voters to really listen to them. We talked to over 800 people at churches, yet our own Congressman would not even meet with us. (Read about the end of the pilgrimage here.) His response echoes a national answer. The door of the possibility of real immigration reform this year is continually closing.
Our faith-filled response in the face of this reality is to work as hard as we can to win citizenship now and if we don’t, buckling down next year to do the phone banking, door-knocking or whatever it takes to build the voting power to make this happen.
I believe we are only in relationship with God only as far as we are in relationship with reality.
My spiritual path therefore lies in this commitment to working with my immigrant brothers and sisters, and everyone in our community who wants a society where all can come up for air and breathe free.