To Have Eyes to See as the Saints See!

An Evening in Assisi

In the spring of 2016, I spent ten days in Assisi and its surrounding region on a Shalem pilgrimage to visit the sacred sites of the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare. I went without knowing much about either saint or Assisi, but trusting that whatever the trip offered would respond to the persistent yearning that tormented me day and night. It might not answer all my spiritual and emotional needs, but it would undoubtedly be worthwhile in ways not known or imaginable ahead of time. The mystery of what would come during the pilgrimage was a large part of its appeal.

For many years I had been searching and longing for a sense of inner peace, which I tried to manufacture through my relationships with others, but these efforts had brought just the opposite. Instead of becoming calmer, more confident, serene and grounded, I grew more anxious, eager to please, and unsure of my identity and worth. After my marriage suddenly dove into a divorce, I spent a few years in an emotional eddy. Slowly the swirling confusion began to ease and I sensed that St. Francis and St. Clare could help guide me to firm ground, a place to begin building a new life around truth and love, rather than manipulation and fear.

I did not prepare conscientiously for the pilgrimage, spending more time Googling Italian train schedules than reading the suggested books. This was partly intentional, wanting the pilgrimage to consist entirely of my experiences once I began the journey, without infusing it with preconceived notions about the saints, their lives, their religion and their city. Also, I was afraid that if I tried to prepare spiritually for the trip, I would have to confront a truly horrifying aspect of St. Francis’s life, namely, his encounter with a leper woman whom he greeted as the Virgin Mary, embracing and kissing her with unconditional love. I feared there might come a time during the pilgrimage when I would feel an inner invitation to kiss a leper (whatever that might mean), and I wanted to be free to resist such a disgusting gesture. I was willing to go on the pilgrimage without knowing what it would entail, but I wasn’t willing to surrender to it unconditionally. So, not doing my homework was an indirect way to try to assert control over the experiences ahead.

The journey proceeded smoothly, safely and gently. My room in our convent home looked out, through beautiful open windows, on the breathtaking Umbrian valley stretching from east to west below Assisi. In the morning its green fields and woods would glow in yellow rays of sunrise; roads and towns would appear as the mists rose, and scattered throughout the vista were ornate churches honoring events in the ministries and lives of Francis and Clare. Their bells rang hourly all day long. As evening came, the valley grew lush with blue evening light and the lamps along the roads and streets crisscrossed the landscape like a net of pearls. My room, a sanctuary in a sanctuary convent in a sanctuary city, was the epitome of safety, and it gave me the courage to remove my emotional armor when I was in our pilgrim prayer circle or walking with the other pilgrims to sacred sites in and around Assisi. The cobbled streets themselves supported spiritual surrender, holding centuries of pilgrims’ footprints, and it was easy to feel the companionship of the millions of seekers before me who had sought the same soul-solace that I was after.

While many pilgrims focus on the famous Basilica erected in honor of St. Francis within just a few years after his death, spending hours absorbing the artwork depicting his life, the statuary, the gold, the mosaics, the grandiosity of the architecture and the vast expanse of the entrance plaza, the place did not touch my heart. More genuine in its reflection of the saint himself was La Verna, a castle in the woods about 50 miles from Assisi, where Francis and a few of his followers would go for periods of silence. A place was marked in the forest where he slept on the ground, without shelter—rain, snow or shine. Other such sites slowly infused me, over several days, with a sense of the man’s absolute trust in God’s love, without asking God to do anything for him. His freedom from need, enabled by his acceptance of what is, just as it is, was both inspiring and daunting. I was drawn to it, and I fled from it.

On our last evening in Assisi, after a rich day of exposure and encounters with Francis and Clare, we were left to make our own plans for dinner. I watched others form small dinner groups and wander off in search of truffles, wild boar, and other local specialties, but had an urge to be alone. The sun was setting behind the Basilica, and a full moon was rising at the opposite end of the valley. I longed to find a place where I could sit and watch this celestial dance and see the stars come out across the whole sky. I began wandering up and down the streets on the valley-side of the city, searching for breaks in the buildings and trees that would provide the view I knew was just within reach. But, there simply were none, as precious minutes passed. The sky turned bluer, the pink sunset fading, and I began to fear that this simple desire—a moment alone above the valley, beneath the sun-, star- and moon-lit sky, to take in all I’d come to appreciate about these saints and their city—would be denied me. Feeling a little ashamed of my desire, I blurted an interior prayer to be led to a place where I could see the sky.

As I wandered along a few more steps, I suddenly remembered an obvious possibility: the Hotel Subasio, which rose majestically out of the hillside, facing the valley, just a few steps from the Basilica. I hurried back to it and went into the lobby. The reception clerk greeted me warmly, in English, and I asked if there was a place to sit outside and watch the sunset. “But of course, Madam,” he said, coming out from behind the counter and leading me toward a short hallway. He opened French doors and gestured for me to pass through. I came out onto a vast balcony with tables and chairs, and not one other person. The view I had longed to see lay spread out in front of me. I slid into a soft cushioned chair, and the clerk turned to leave me, but stopped and asked “Would you like a glass of red wine, Madam?”

Sipping my wine, turning slowly from the setting sun to the rising moon, standing to look over the balustrade at the lights twinkling on in the growing darkness below, sitting down and leaning back to search the sky for stars, I was filled with gratitude and peace, with a serenity I had rarely felt in my life, and certainly not in many years. The reality of it all began to sink in—my prayer had been graciously answered immediately and beyond expectations. More than that, the yearning that had impelled me to join the pilgrimage had been met and I was at peace; there was nothing I wanted or needed in those moments on the balcony; I was complete, safe, contented. Appreciating how unusual this moment was, I mentally “dropped a pin” on this location on the map of my biography, so I would be able to find my way back to it in future times of doubt, fear, and neediness.

The next day, as we gathered for our last pilgrim circle, sharing insights gained over our prior days together, I noticed in my recollections that at no time had I felt the dreaded call to kiss a leper. I had been afraid that God would expect me to prove my faithfulness by doing something repulsive, like the hazing at a malicious fraternity initiation. I saw how distorted my fear had been. Through the support of the pilgrimage, I could engage with Francis in a way I could not have managed on my own, and I was able to see more clearly through his eyes of trust more than my fear-filled vision. I saw that Francis had not done something he found repulsive when he kissed the leper woman. The story is that he saw the Virgin herself when the leper approached him, and his experience was not that of embracing a disgustingly sick beggar, but of the elation of honoring and adoring the revered holy mother of God.

Oh, to have eyes to see as the saints see!

December 12, 2019 by Susan Dillon 2 Comments
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Miles Kierson
Miles Kierson
4 years ago

Brilliantly done, Susan! I read through the article, wondering where it is going, looking for some revelation that I could treasure. A relic from Assisi. But no, my relic came from that hotel balcony, delivered with these words: “…there was nothing I wanted or needed in those moments on the balcony; I was complete, safe, contented.”

And then I was complete, safe, contented. I would add reminded…As I sit at my desk in my hotel room in Wooster, OH, overlooking a busy street, with many loud, smokey, trucks passing by.

Of course. All there is to do is nothing.

David Rensberger
David Rensberger
4 years ago
Reply to  Miles Kierson

I’ve kept this post open in a tab in my browser for weeks, finally getting around to reading it today. Thank you, Susan, for sharing your experience and its meaning. I know that I am so often annoyed at what is, or afraid of what may come, and your beautiful description helps me toward that place where I too can set aside these anxious and grasping responses to reality, and let myself into Francis’s “absolute trust in God’s love, without asking God to do anything”–just letting God be God, and letting that be enough for me.


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