Yesterday we set out on a circuit around some of the lesser known Franciscan sites. Firstly to Santa Maria Della Angeli which is a truly immense basilica about 5km across the Umbrian Valley from Assisi. Inside the enormous church, like a dolls house is the tiny church of the Portiuncula. This little stone building was the chapel of Francis' second community. Around it would once have been scattered little hermitages where the brother lived. There is one other building remaining, also preserved within the church: a little storage shed where Francis died. He died in the night with his brothers gathered in anguish around him, wanting to help but unable to do anything. One asked if his beloved Francis needed anything to eat. "Parsley" whispered Francis. The brother rushed outside into a night that was so dark he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. How on earth was he to find parsley? He squatted, grabbed something that felt like a plant and rushed back inside to find his hand full of parsley. For me this story speaks of the utter simplicity of Francis' message of radical dependence on God. How does that simple, practical faith gel with the immense opulent structure created around the simple chapel? It seemed to me a metaphor for the church: how do we find our way through the great Byzantine structure we have built and back to the simplicity of faith which finds parsley in the dark night?
We walked across the plain about 4km to Rivotorto, where there is a similar arrangement. The tiny building that housed the first Franciscan community is encased in a gigantic church. The original stone hovel of the brothers is better preserved, completely undecorated, and I suppose the church acts as a sort of preserver of such an historic place. We walked back to Assisi as it started to rain. We went past bright green barley fields and acres of mustard made all the brighter by the damp, dull light and arrived tired, cold but somehow exultant to the hospitality of the sisters.
And this morning it was 2km down the hill to San Damiano to the jewel in the Franciscan crown. This is the church in which the crucifix spoke, and which, in response, Francis set about restoring. It is bigger than I had imagined it, and would have represented a very serious restoration project for a man in his late teens. He did it so well that most of his restorations still stand. It is comparatively empty, being somewhat off the beaten track and therefore difficult for tour groups to visit. It is in pretty much the state it would have been in the early 13th century when Francis gave it to the sisters of St. Claire for them to use as a convent. Once we had sat and prayed in the church we made an amazing discovery. Attached to the side of the church, completely unadvertised and completely open is the original convent, absolutely unchanged in 800 years. We walked all alone through the sisters' dormitory, their cloister and choir, peered down their well, and sat on the benches that Claire and her sisters would have sat on as they maintained their life of absolute isolation and prayer. It was all so redolent of the life Francis lived with so much passion and so little compromise; the everyday life of simplicity, self control and selflessness, on whose rediscovery and reestablishment the future of our own church so utterly depends.