A symphony of birds escorts Margaret Horne along a cobbled path leading from the medieval stone walls of the ancient city of Assisi, Italy, down a green sloping hillside still wet from the morning dew. It’s a warm Sunday in June, and Horne is walking to San Damiano for early morning Mass on the last day of an eight-day pilgrimage. The fork-tailed swallows dip and dive, echoing their sweet songs to each other, and Horne, entranced by the experience, is transported back to her youth.
She’s 9 years old again and, in the early morning hours of a summer day in Galway, Ireland, she hops on her bicycle and pedals furiously, leaving her seven siblings sleeping in their beds. Turning onto the narrow country road, she begins the three-mile trek to church, passing hedgerows and pastures dotted with grazing cows and sheep. The warm summer air stirs her blonde curls as she pumps.
At the church, she pulls in and lets her bike clatter to the ground. Slipping into the pew at the back, she feels the coolness of the church wrap around her clammy skin and welcomes the peace it brings. She sits alone, reveling in the solitude that is a respite from her chaotic home. The church is the only place she feels the possibility of love, because there is no love at home, not from her mother or her father, only the endless tasks of providing food, clothes and housing for the growing family.
Today, at the church of San Damiano, she feels that peace again. Now 69 years old, Horne has come to Assisi in search of the love her parents could not provide and the resulting self-esteem she never knew. It works. “I got in touch with myself,” she says. “I learned to look at my life and the world as a feast, and that I can turn all the negativity that I’ve experienced into something positive.”
Horne is one of 15 people on a study abroad pilgrimage led by professor of theology Gillian Ahlgren. Titled “Franciscan Spirituality: A Pilgrimage,” the course also attracted several non-students like Horne, who wanted to experience the life and world of St. Francis of Assisi. The famous saint, known popularly as the patron saint of animals, is all that—and so much more. The young man-about-town, reveler, soldier and prisoner became an environmentalist, peacemaker, humanitarian and ascetic. Ahlgren created the trip to offer a glimpse into this medieval world in which Francis lived and to show the parallels of his life with the social, political and economic issues of today.
Xavier is unique, Ahlgren says, in offering such travel options that are both academic study and spiritual experiences. They’re a level beyond typical study abroad programs. And in her new role as director of faculty programs in the University’s Division of Mission and Identity, Ahlgren plans to expand spiritual study opportunities for students and alumni.
“I don’t know of other universities that are this academic and theological. Most pilgrimages are done by churches and missions, not universities. We do pilgrimages because students go away different people. In class, I can’t make the hills of Umbria come alive and walk around Perugia and show how it made one religious. Here I can.”
Like Horne, many of the Assisi travelers are on a personal journey to heal old wounds, discover their spiritual selves or improve their relationship with God. Some seek direction in their professional or personal lives, while others simply want a respite from the daily grind or a lesson on the history and culture of the region. But on visits to six of the most important sites in the life of the saint who inspired generations, everyone develops a fondness for the lovely and ancient city of Assisi—its architecture, people and cuisine—and its most famous son, Giovanni “Francesco” Bernardone.
Yogi Wess has spent her entire life working to help other people. It’s in her blood somehow, perhaps because her mother was a nurse and her father turned to service work after confronting his own alcoholism. Wess turned her humanitarian nature into a profession—developing an agency that cares for the elderly, becoming a registered nurse and signing on part-time in the hospital at the county jail. There she passes out pills and asks the inmates how they’re doing. She treats them as human beings.
“My work has always been spiritually driven,” she says. “I stand at the meds window and look out at 800 young men. The potential is overwhelming.”
So when she walks into the chapel beneath the Chiesa Nuova, the church built over the place where Francis was born and raised, Wess simply dissolves. She feels him everywhere—through the stone walls, the cool floor, the smooth brick ceiling. Sitting on a worn, wooden bench, she leans her head back against the wall during the group prayer and hymn, closes her eyes and lets the tears flow as she listens to the story of Francis’ whole troubled life.
Born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant with a thriving business, Francis was not very serious. He preferred revelry to working in his father’s shop. But shortly after he marched off to war in 1202 to defend Assisi against the neighboring town of Perugia, he was captured and held prisoner for a year. It was his first experience of deprivation, living alone in a small, dark cell with only his thoughts for company.
After being ransomed by his father and brought home, his mother, Pica, nursed him back to health. It took a year, but he was a changed man, weakened by the malaria he contracted in prison and more interested in helping people who suffered as he did than in making money for his father. When he gave his father’s money away, an angry Pietro Bernardone locked him in a tiny barred space in their home. Again, Francis was alone in a cell where he confronted his life and his faith.
“When I walked in here, I was just overcome with the spirit of St. Francis,” Wess says. “It took my breath away. I was joyous. I felt his love and his presence. It was pure and moved me to tears.”
Wess is working on her master’s in theology, and the possibility of going to Assisi to experience the spirituality of St. Francis and earn credit made too much sense, so she borrowed money to pay for the trip. “For me, the whole need to go is to be empty and quiet. I’m trying to find out why I’m here and what direction I’m trying to go in. Assisi shows you that, no matter where you are, the overpowering sense of God’s love is available to everybody, and how we can live that out.”