Once I stayed in the walled town of Assisi for seven days, alone and silent. It wasn’t planned, it was wonderful.
On some whim or inspiration, I had taken a tourist bus up the mountain and into this ancient town. I had been busy and would be busy again. There were free days between a conference in Italy and a meeting in Paris. I longed for quiet; I meandered through narrow laneways away from the tourist trails. There, above the narrow footpath, atop a flight of stairs, was a convent. The sign on the door read MONASTERIO SAN GUISEPPE. I rang the bell of this convent of Saint Joseph. ‘Does someone here speak English?’ The sister who opened the door found that someone. ‘I would love to stay here for some time of prayer. Is that possible?’
She showed me an attic with a bed, a chair, a tiny bathroom. The one window faced the sky. ‘People book years ahead, but this is free until Pentecost’. Eight days. Perfect. I could stay seven days then take the train to Paris for Pentecost. All that I needed was with me: a New Testament, a notebook, a few clothes and toiletries. I normally ‘travel light’. I moved in immediately.
The notebook is still with me. It seems important to read it now, twelve years later. Christmas is coming, and Francis of Assisi leads me into Christmas. It was in Assisi that I bought a book, The Prayer of Saint Francis by Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan priest from Brazil. He wrote of Francis as a man of simplicity with reverence for all of creation; a man who cared about people most marginal as well as for the animals, the sun, the moon.
I took that book with me to the field of olive trees close to the place where Francis repaired an old church; I sat on the grass, leaning back against the dark gnarled trunk of an ancient tree. I was needing to understand this man Francis who sought to ‘sow love’. In 1223, two years before he died, he created the first Christmas crib. All the elements of creation that he had reverenced in his life were represented there: the fragile newborn child, the animals, the straw, earth, manure, the starlit sky. God in all of creation.
I have a print of an oil-painting portraying Joseph asking for a place in the inn. Joseph looks up the stairs to the innkeeper; Mary, very pregnant, sits on a donkey and waits. The inn is chock full of onlookers. Joseph was advised to look for a manger instead; there was no room in the inn,. This was was good advice. A birth in that inn would not have had the simplicity and quiet connection with all of creation of a shelter under the stars..
Leonardo wrote about Francis’ spirit of good will, tender kinship, and peace. He wrote that his continues to reverberate and to inspire people of every faith and none all through these centuries.. Leonardo is a man who puts his life on the line in his option to stand with people who are poor. Though he is a clear-headed realist he knows the power of ‘tender kinship.’. He writes ‘It can, even if only for a moment … bring everyone together in a spirit of peace and love’.
May there be many such moments for you in this Christmas of 2021.