San Damiano, San Rufino: Bringing Lessons to Life
During her sophomore year at Xavier, Lauren Myers went to a psychic with some friends from school. It was just for fun. The woman asked her a few questions then told Lauren, “There’s something missing, something off track in your life, and you need to find it.” Lauren tried not to pay too much attention to what the woman said, but it bothered her a lot, because, since coming to college, she’s been thinking the same thing.
Myers, a special education major, now finds herself in Assisi, sitting on a bench facing a rose-studded courtyard at a sanctuary called San Damiano. She’s journaling, something she hasn’t done in a while, and it feels good. The stone structure encircling the courtyard houses a church and chapel, dormitories for the Franciscan friars who live there and the ancient wooden stalls of St. Clare’s choir room and refectory where she and her cloistered sisters followed the teachings of Francis.
It is here that Francis, still nursing the wounds of war and pondering his uncertainty about his family’s wealth and social standing, stumbled upon a crumbling little church and stepped inside to pray. A voice spoke to him from the cross telling him: “Go. Rebuild my church.” Believing God had spoken to him, Francis suddenly had a purpose, and he set about rebuilding that church and many others to follow.
People thought the merchant’s son had gone mad, but others came to help, and a few stayed on, attracted by his simple interpretation of Jesus’ message. Men donned tunics and sandals and walked with him through the Umbrian hills rich with olive trees and vineyards, preaching the gospel, ministering to the lepers and meditating in hillside caves and grottos. He often returned to pray at San Damiano, one of his most famous sanctuaries, and eventually gave it to Clare and her growing order of religious women.
“I really liked San Damiano,” Myers says. “It was so peaceful and gorgeous and beautiful, and you could feel it around you. I could just sit there all day. I felt very at peace with myself and able to reconnect, and I haven’t felt that way in a long time.”
The place reminds her of what the psychic said to her months before. Now she knows what the woman was trying to tell her. “I honestly believe what she said. She noticed that something was missing in my life, and I feel I definitely found it. It was my relationship with God.”
In a vision she had about 15 years ago, Margaret Horne is extracting herself from her mother. They are entangled, like spaghetti, and she manages to pull herself free. Afterward, she weeps in the arms of a friend, feeling relief for the first time in her life. “I felt I had given birth to myself and was separating from my mother,” she says. “I had been so connected to her. It was a very liberating experience.”
Horne tells her story in a lounge of the Hotel Giotto. The rain beats down on the muted countryside beyond the patio, creating a rhythmic backdrop to the conversation. It’s a good day to explore the life of Francis, who went through his own liberating experience on a piazza near Assisi’s Cathedral San Rufino.
On a cold March morning in 1206, Bishop Guido held court on the piazza to hear Bernardone’s charges of theft against his son. Francis had given away his father’s money, clothing and a horse to help fund the rebuilding of San Damiano. Bernardone beat him in public and locked him up for weeks. Months later, appearing before the bishop, Bernardone demanded his son repay him and come home to the business. But Francis had other ideas. Facing the crowd, he announced he would return his father’s money and clothing. Then he dramatically stripped himself naked, handed the items to the bishop and declared his intention to follow God. From now on, he said, he would recognize only “Our Father, who art in heaven,” not his own father.
It was a poignant moment in Francis’ life, a turning point that severed him from his family and his old life and set him on a new path as a follower of God. For Horne, the parallels are unmistakable, as she still struggles with her anger toward her parents. Her father always said she’d never amount to anything, and her mother never showed affection.
“I always thought she didn’t love me, and her emotional absence was the factor that kept me tied to her,” she says. “Now I’ve gotten an awareness about how Francis’ life was so negative as well. He was treated like dirt by his father, yet he did not allow those experiences to tear him down. I think St. Francis has really taught me how to be accepting of who I am and how important it is.”
Alyssa Hagy’s grandfather is a minister who’s traveled around the world, including to the Holy Land. But he’s never been to Assisi. He convinced Hagy, a junior studying occupational therapy, that a trip to the ancient city would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
So Hagy came. And now, she’s sitting inside a medieval church on the side of a mountain, about 35 miles south of Assisi, wondering: Why am I here? What does God mean to me? Who were these people who built this place?
“I’ve heard stories of Jesus all my life,” she says, “and instead of just sitting in a class, I thought I wanted to feel something and emotionally be able to experience God.”
The sanctuary at Greccio is a place where Francis came to do the same—to meditate and pray, sometimes retreating into a natural grotto in the woods. It was also here in 1223 that he created the world’s first Nativity scene, complete with livestock and local residents standing in for Joseph and Mary. An altar now sits in the large cave where the scene was set up, beneath a faded fresco of Francis at the crèche.
Many ancient and modern Nativity scenes are on display throughout the church, but it’s the rest of the sanctuary that piques Alyssa’s interest—the wooden dormitory built after Francis died where 15 Franciscan friars lived in simple cells, each with a Roman numeral carved above the door, and the original friary cut out of rock down below with the tiny cave at the far end where Francis slept.
Later, walking the ancient streets of Assisi, Hagy sees Franciscan friars in their brown, hooded robes padding across the town square. After experiencing the places their predecessors created, she gains a sense of real history backing up the church stories of her youth.
“There’s this underground world where these saints really walked, and seeing all the monks means this must be real. They’re living their whole lives for St. Francis and God,” she says. “My relationship with God is growing since I went on this trip. For awhile I questioned a lot of things, but Assisi just brought proof of what I’m trying to find.”