October 23rd, 2009
A transportation strike forces me to walk Via Flaminia all the way to the Metro near Piazza del Populo. Ever since it was first constructed, during the censorship of Gaius Flaminius (220 BC), the Via Flaminia has been the principle northern entrance to Rome for pilgrims and farmers, monarchs and invaders. I think of Martin Luther, still a monk, on his first trip to Rome, walking through a less spectacular version of this gate to his nearby monastery at Santa Maria del populo, so-named for its grove of popular trees. Times would change. About 150 years later (1655) Queen Christina of Sweden, who had just made a spectacular conversion from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism, processed down the street with a 250 person entourage. Bernini had topped the Porta del Populo with the massive star and mountains insignia of the reigning pope, Alexander VII (Chigi) and inscribed the pope’s message on the inside façade of Porta del Populo: "FELICI FAUSTOQUE INGRESSUI MDCLV" (For a Happy and Propitious Entrance). Due to rerouting of the trams and other excavations, this entrance to Rome is far from being happy or propitious. I duck into the nearest entrance to the Metro, saving a walk through the gate for a better day.
October 24th, 2009
I join a group of 38 pilgrims on a trip to Franciscan shrines in the Rieti Valley. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) delighted in visiting the Sabine hills surrounding Rieti and living with the hermits. In their caves, he believed he was not just close to the earth, but close to God. An English-speaking Dutch pilgrim attends our Mass at Rieti’s cathedral. He tells me he has walked here from the Netherlands; it took him four months and he has another week before arriving at Rome (our bus made it in 90 minutes). The young man is overjoyed at coming upon our Mass. For pilgrims, such happy coincidences are seen as a small sign that God continues to watch over them. I mention his Tau cross and, excitedly, he tells me it was given to him by a friar up north who said that every pilgrim must have one. At Fontecolumbo, an oak forest owned by Farfa Abbey, Francis drew the Greek letter Tau (“T”) on the wall of a tiny chapel. He had seen hermits use the Tau as their symbol of the crucifixion and the saint appropriated it as a way of expressing his radically simple approach to the gospel of Jesus. This sacred graffiti is still in place, poised like a butterfly, near a lancet window. Just beneath this chapel, two other sites are preserved: the stump of the tree in which Francis beheld a vision of God and the cave where the saint took refuge to formulate a rule of life for his friars in 1223. (Francis was convinced that the a cleft in the cave wall was made by an earthquake on Good Friday.) We struggle to see these places which, in themselves, are meager remains. But their fragile link to the past only makes them more poignant. On the cobblestone path back up the hill, we take in a view of the forested hills turning autumn gold – this was the natural world known and loved by Francis of Assisi. One further site awaits us – the refuge used for a primitive eye operation performed on the saint at the insistence of his superior, Cardinal Ugolino. In 1219, following an inspiration to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt, it is believed Francis developed conjunctivitis, but he not only met and impressed the sultan, he reached an agreement, good to this day, for the members of his order to maintain Christian sites in the Holy Land. The viral infection caused constant fluid to drain from his eyes. According to the best physician of the day, Francis should have a hot iron placed above and to the side of the diseased eye to “burn away” what was wrong. Finally, Francis made his peace with this well-intentioned torture by asking “Brother Fire” to be gentle with him. He is said not to have felt a thing, but he wore his hood up the rest of his short life because the scar might become a source of pride. By scandalous contrast, our lunch today begins with a degustation of six pastas of the region, including a memorable fregnacce alla Sabinese, redolent with fresh tomatoes and whole black olives. Francis, who put ashes in his food for extra penance, would not be amused. Another steep hill, near Greccio, awaits us after the repast; at the brow of the hill, we enter a cave which Francis turned into a tableau vivant of the birth of Christ, as only he could. We have to imagine rote efforts at the same thing (the saint may have heard of them from visiting friars), but with il Poverello’s singing, fervent commentary and even sound effects, villagers were moved to tears and conversion. The cave itself is decorated with two, side-by-side 14th century frescos – one depicting the historic Nativity and the other, the Greccio re-enactment. With pageantry and drama, the saint made it clear: one did not have to visit Bethlehem (as he could not) to be filled with the spirit of that place, God was everywhere. As if further proof were needed, we finish our tour in the friary built into the rock above. The rough paneling and floor is original. Only the cell of Francis is a simple hollow in the living rock, recalling for him the death and the birth of the Savior. Night is falling on the Rieti valley, which lies below us -- as protected by the gentle Sabine hills as Shangri-la, and as potent, for those on the pilgrim trail.