Maneuvering our oversized suitcases down the monastery stairways was only marginaly less exhausting than maneuvering them up. The cobblestones didn't do much for the little plastic wheels but we did finally manage to manhandle them down the road, across a four laned highway and down the steps and onto the metro. After checking them into the left luggage department there was one hour before the train left for Assisi, so just enough time for a saunter down a street we hadn't seen before. Past the tiny shops selling exquisite shoes and Panini Veronese was a piazza containing the ancient basilica of Santa Maria Maggliore.
St. Maria was built in the 4th (I kid you not) century, and bits of the original church still survive. It's not the oldest place of worship in Rome, as the Pantheon was built in the second century,but it's still mighty impressive. The place has been added to and renovated over the years, so now is a kind of a museum for all the building and artistic styles from the 4th to about the 17th centuries. It is huge. It is gob smackingly opulent. It is continuously packed with tourists. But while we were there, in side chapels,three masses were being simultaneously said, the confessionals were all in use and in the exquisite baptistry, a family had gathered for the baptism of their baby boy. The bishop conducting the service was using the paintings and frescoes in the baptistry as aids in instructing the family about what he was about to do. This is what they are there for. I would have liked to have stayed and watched but we had a train to catch.
The journey to Assisi took two hours, through countryside that looked quite like New Zealand except for the architecture and the ancient ruined structures all over the place. Little towns perched on hillsides and one of them was Assisi. We caught a taxi from the station and up the steep slopes to the place which has lived in my imagination for decades. I don't know what I was expecting but it was not this. It is pefect. The ancient houses in light coloured brick pile and jumble around the hillsides in wonderfully unpredictable ways. Throughout them are dotted more churches and basilica than should reasonably fit into such a small space. Beneath us the flat green Umbria valley stretches off into mist and far mountains. There are tourists by the bucketload, but here the spiritual power of the place is great enough to accommodate them.
We found St. Anthony's guesthouse. It is like the city, exquisite in every detail. There is a small library and a 12th century dining room. Everything is neat and quiet and homely. Smiling nuns took our details and marvelled that we had travelled so far to grace them with our company. And from most windows there are views out over the town and the countryside beyond. We unpacked and walked out into the streets that are so neat and clean and picturesque that they look like a film set. We went first to the Church of St. Chiari, the resting place of St. Claire, the close friend and soulmate of St. Francis. Her habit is on display, and one of Francis socks, and, in fact, Claire herself, lying preserved in her crypt, dressed in the customary habit of her order. Also here, is the crucifix which spoke to Francis in the forest. I have seen it in my minds eye so many times, but now I knelt before it, or at least before an exact replica of the real thing which was preserved safely downstairs somewhere. It was far bigger than I'd imagined: almost life sized. And as I knelt there, the power of all those stories I'd told for so many years suddenly engulfed me. The little depressed wrecked man who was to become the beloved Saint was transformed as he took up the challenge: Francis, rebuild my church. No fuss, no drama. He picked up the fallen stones and started putting them back into the walls. One small, achievable job at a time. It's the same method he calls me, and you to use now in rebuilding again his shattered church