Monday, October 4, 2010
Staring into the face of St. Francis
By Mary DeTurris Poust
I have this urge, this longing to go to Assisi, so when I went to Italy last month, I fully intended to skip out on my classes for a day and high-tail it up to Assisi on the express train. But it turned out that my program was so good I didn't want to miss a day, and I realized that a rushed day trip to Assisi was not what I was longing for. When I finally get there -- and now I have a reason to go back to Italy -- I want it to be a real spiritual pilgrimage, a rich and slow experience of Francis and Clare's city.
What I didn't know when I went to Rome, however, was that I would get my St. Francis moment in an unexpected place -- the Monastery of St. Benedict in Subiaco. During a day trip to the beautiful monastery clinging to a cliff on the very sight where St. Benedict lived as a hermit in a cave for three years, we viewed the above fresco of St. Francis of Assisi, who visited there in 1223, according to monastery records. The image is the only known painting to be done by someone who saw St. Francis alive. They know that because Francis does not have a halo, signifying that he was still alive when the fresco was painted, and he does not have the stigmata, which he received in 1224.
Although everything about the monastery, and the Monastery of St. Scholastica just down the hill, was awesome, it was this portrait of St. Francis that brought me to tears. I had to go back a second time to stand before it for just a few more minutes. To know that I was looking at the face of St. Francis was so powerful, to walk where St. Francis and St. Benedict once walked was humbling. I may not have gotten my trip to Assisi, but Francis managed to enter into my visit and make his mark nonetheless. Not surprising when you consider this saint's staying-power and his beloved status among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
So we can celebrate St. Francis today with moments of peace, moments of prayer, and maybe some obligatory doting on an animal or two. But it's good to remember that the real man, the one without the halo, was not a saccharine saint but a fierce defender of the faith and powerful promoter of peace and justice. These many years later, he still shows us the way, even if we can't get to Assisi to walk in his footsteps.
For more on St. Francis, read my column, "A Saint for All Seasons," over at Not Strictly Spiritual.
Posted by Mary DeTurris Poust at 10:48 AM