Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A City on a Hill

I'm sure Assisi was built high atop a hill so that the people could protect themselves from the warring faction of Perugia, but as we approach the city I cannot help but think of Matthew 5:14--"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."

From below Assisi appears to be one massive monastery but as we make our way up the winding road I can see that it's not quite that. After locating a parking spot, we exit the car and ascend several flights of stairs which lead to a very modern looking set of shops and eateries. Unfortunately, all them are closed today because for whatever reason Italy all but shuts down on Mondays.

So we traverse through the shopping area and let ourselves out the back where we're met with slushy snow that sometimes turns to rain. It's cold but we keep moving toward the steps that seem to lead up to the Monastery, however, we soon discover that they don't. Instead, we find ourselves in a small community that resembles something you'd read about in a fairy tale.

The streets are narrow and paved with various types of stone, and almost seem to be one with the walls that climb well into the sky. It's hard to believe that cars actually drive on this street and that the people don't mind walking there as they do but that's in fact how it is.

Because the walls are so high, and the streets are so unconventional, it's difficult to tell which way to go. We ascend and go to the left, we ascend and go to the right, we make the best judgments we can at each juncture but the only thing we're certain of is that we don't quite know where we're going.

Pretty soon we happen upon a restaurant that's open and decide to get a bite to eat. It's a quaint little place with home bake goods, soothing art, and a little pug dog that wanders the dining area in search of affection and, of course, donations di cuisine. In Italy, eating is an event. It takes time. So we order the cheapest things we can find on the menu and settle in for what our Mexican friends call a siesta. It's nice to feel warm. It's nice to be in Assisi.

The food is simple but delicious, and on such a cold and dreary day it sure does hit the spot. We begin plotting our next moves but don't even consider asking for directions because both John and I love adventure and, of course, we're men. As we stroll towards the door I try to tell the restauranteur that the food was excellent and the ambiance was superb but I must not have done a very good job because she looks at me as though to say, "That's nice, you irritating tourist, now move along." I'm not offended but I sure wish I would have taken the time to learn a little Italian. That would show more respect and garner a better response to my compliments, I'm sure.

We walk back into the cold, wet air and decide on what we think is the best course of action which turns out to be, not the best, but not bad. Eventually we find what we're looking for, the Basilica of Saint Francis.

The Basilica is not very impressive from the outside. It's attractive but plain, inspiring but not pretentious. But as we enter the upper Basilica my impression immediately changes. The more than 30 frescoes, as well as the unique design of the ceiling, move my heart and capture my attention. Without thinking I grab my camera and click off a shot. The attendant, who's dressed like a policeman, quickly makes his way over to me and whispers that I'm not allowed to take pictures and that I should remain as quiet as possible. I apologize profusely which seems to affect his demeanor. He tells me I can keep the picture but that I shouldn't take anymore. I assure him I won't.

It doesn't take long to notice that we're in a different kind of place today. I don't know exactly why it is, but I don't feel as put off by this place as I did by Saint Peter's. It's humble. It feels more like an attempt to communicate something sacred than a display of the church's power. I can't tell exactly what the frescoes are trying to teach me but I can see that they're inviting me into something bigger and more important than myself, and yet they're not doing so in a forceful way.

We traverse the entire upper Basilica and then decide to head downstairs. We get a little turned around but then finally discover the steps that descend into the lower, and older, Basilica. It's modest but very moving. Unique architecture, carved wood, vibrant frescoes, and near silence combine to make one feel reverent, even if he doesn't embrace Catholocism or agree with every aspect of the various depictions of the Bible. I wonder again if Protestants have gone too far in rejecting the potential of structures to inspire the soul toward God.

I look toward the back and notice twenty or thirty people sitting on several pews looking as if they're waiting for something. Slowly we approach the area where they are and notice that just in front of them and to the right there is a set of stairs leading down to where Saint Francis' remains are kept. We want to go down but it's hard to tell if we should, so we stand atop the stairs for a moment and then, hearing no objection, begin our descent. I don't know what John is thinking but I'm thinking, "If we're doing something wrong someone will stop us."

But no one does and we soon find ourselves in what feels like a very sacred place. It's scantily lit, even more quiet than above, and every aspect of it is obviously designed to strike reverence in the soul. We pass through a gate and approach the actual tomb, but again, we both hesitate to come near to it because others are keeping their distance and, at least for my part, I can't tell what I'm supposed to do.

So we sit for a few moments waiting and watching, and pondering what we see. I think to myself, "I don't agree with the theology that drove Francis to be who he was, and I certainly don't beleive all the stories about him or think it's a good thing that his remains are enshrined like this, but I can see that my life too will be short and I don't want to waste any of it. Francis lived to be forty-four; I'm now forty-one and who knows how long I have left to live. Father, for the glory of your Name help me to make the most of what remains."

Within a few minutes a younger couple approaches the tomb. This gives me the permission I need to do the same so I get up and begin to make my way around but as I do something of the sacredness of the moment is broken for me. To my left I notice that the priest who had been off to one side praying on his knees is now sitting at a desk, filling out some paper work, and taking money from the young man. John whispers to me that he's paying for mass to be said in his name.

Without thinking I feel the putridness of profitting off of people's devotion to God. It seems to me like this whole thing has been a set up to make me feel something that would in turn cause me to fork over my money. I'm sure this is not true to an absolute degree but I can't escape the fact that I'm witnessing a version of what caused Luther, Calvin, and so many others to break with the Catholic Church at the cost of their lives. I feel the outrage that is Protestantism in a way I've never felt it before.

We fairly quickly make our way back upstairs, not so much because we're offended but because we don't want to disturb those who are on a pilgrimage. We take our time exiting the Basilica and then make a quick stop by the gift shop since we were unable to take pictures. Both of us find books that meet our needs, after which we take one last look over the city and then begin the journey back down to our parking place. Soon enough we descend into the valley below and make our way toward Florence.

It's dark now and I feel a strange mix of emotions. I'm very moved by the wonder and beauty and uniqueness of Assisi. I've never seen a city like it. I'm inspired by the architecture, the art, the culture and I wish I had grown up in such a place. I also appreciate the humble magnetism of the Basilica and I do feel inspired toward God. But at the same time, I'm very much disturbed by the fact that the Catholic Church is, in so many ways, a money making machine designed to take advantage of people. It seems to me that the reason they don't want to reject their traditions in favor of close adherence to the Bible is because it would cost them too much. I don't feel arrogant about it, but I'm more confident than ever that it's right to be Protestant and I'm sure that the deaths of our forefathers were not in vain. I feel willing to lay down my own life for the truths that cost them theirs.

In a sense Assisi is a city set on a hill and it is a light for all to see. But it's not at all clear to me what the source of that light is and whether or not it will prove to be of God. God knows. For my part I pray for Assisi and hope that all who live there will come to know the true light of the world and lay their lives down to make him known, no matter what the cost.

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