Two enchanting day trips punctuated our first weekend in Italy, with our entire group going first to Lucca, then Assisi. Lucca is a storied city, going back to the third century BC, and known for its intact Renaissance-era city walls and the composer Giacomo Puccini. Our group rented bikes and rode around atop the city ramparts, which are very wide, flat and park-like. We then walked the cobblestone streets, visiting churches, enjoying the town square, sampling the local cafes, and climbing a bell-tower with trees on top (the builders hauled up a lot of dirt to create planters).
Our second trip was a picture-perfect day in Assisi, the home of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. This historic and charming community is perched on the side of a hill, with narrow streets leading up past numerous churches, shops and cafes, to the remains of an 11th century fortress (the Rocca Maggiore) at the top. We toured the two-level Basilica of Saint Francis, the pink and white marbled Basilica of Saint Clare, and the Chapel of San Damien, where Francis first heard God’s call to rebuild (reform) the Catholic Church.
I’ve reflected a lot on the global impact of the humble and quirky Saint Francis. In revisiting his story, I find myself powerfully drawn to his deep and sacrificial life of faith yet also perplexed by some of his stringent ascetic practices. Of all the Italian Saints, he is the most popular in Italy and beyond. His contemporaries exclaimed that he lived out the Sermon on the Mount better than anyone else, except for the man who first preached it. When he embraced a lifestyle of poverty, he reasoned, “What could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige.” Yet Francis would sometimes throw himself into a bank full of ice during winter, staying there until every ounce of sinful temptation had gone. To avoid lust, he fixed his gaze on the sky or ground whenever he spoke with a woman. Though he was known for his infectious joy, he disliked laughing and idle words, not wanting to provide others the slightest occasion for laughing.
If I met Francis today, I believe I would both admire him and be annoyed by him. One historian called him pathologically non-conformist. It is very clear that he loved God deeply. He loved and cared for his fellow humans and all creatures. He took sin and the reforming of his life and the Church very seriously. He cared for the poor and inspired countless others to do so. The impact he and Clare have had on Christians ever since is remarkable and undeniable. Francis and Clare raise heavy questions for me: Am I too soft and lax as a Christian? Were Francis and Clare too ascetic and self-abusive? Where does wisdom lie?
One final thought for fellow Californians: Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions (with all the positives and negatives they brought), was a priest in the Franciscan order begun by Saint Francis. The city of San Francisco is named after Francis and Santa Clara after Saint Clare. Seven hundred years later and 10,000 miles away, the influence of this little hillside town of Assisi can be felt at the birthplace of Apple and Google.
Highlights of this past week:
Hosting our first dinner with six students
Finding all the ingredients or substitute ingredients for our first dinner, including my chocolate chip cookies, which was harder than it sounds : )
Continuing to learn basic Italian
Dinner with program director Elizabeth Whatley at her place
This January, I have taken 30,000 more steps than in any month in 2018, with 10 days still remaining!
Weekend trip to the Eternal City (more soon!)
What I’m reading:
Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, by David Sobel
Rick Steves Best of Italy (Section on Rome), by Rick Steves
Twelve Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson
Finally Comes to Poet, by Walter Brueggemann
What I’m listening to (Rick Steves’ Audio Italy):
Each of these audio tours is available for free on Rick Steves’ app. Carrie and I downloaded them before our trip to Rome and then listened to each as we walked through each of the following sites. It was like having our own private (and free!) tour guide. Shoutout to Brittany Joyner for telling us about these!!
Rome — The Colosseum
Rome — The Roman Forum
Rome — St Peter’s Basilica
Rome — Vatican Museums
Rome — Sistine Chapel
Rome — The Pantheon
Rome — Heart of Rome