“I am a person of faith. As to the nature of my faith, it’s really none of your damn business.” – Kevin Murphy, “A Year at the Movies.”
Assisi is all stone and winding paths, and uphill, and this, this is Italy I came to see. In some ways, I think every big city is a little too reminiscent of the last one, and so I tend to prefer the smaller towns. The bus goes up, up, until it can’t go any farther, and then I walk the rest of the way up narrow, climbing stone streets, past a construction site, until I reach my hotel. The view is breathtaking.
The first thing I do when I head out is go to the Basilica de San Francesco, the Church of St. Francis. I’ve always loved the prayer of St. Francis, despite not exactly cottoning to some parts of it.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I don’t adhere to the eternal life part, but I take no issue with those who do and ask that they afford me the same courtesy. My relationship with the spirit world would merit an “It’s Complicated” status on Facebook. I’m not thrilled about the social more that necessitates defining, explaining and justifying ones relationship with whatever higher power(s) one does or does not believe in.
I’ve had moments of religion, of faith, peace, clarity, something in all different places — hearing a song, seeing a painting, a rainbow, in a church, during a kiss, a dance, a lot of different places. I like ideas from different religions. I like aspects of certain prayers. The Hebrew Shehecheyanu, for example, is gorgeous in translation:
Blessed art thou, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.
I am happy to learn where I can. I hope and need to learn more. And so I sit in on the sparsely attended mass for a few minutes, and understand about five words.
The church is not crowded, which I like. There’s something about being in a religious building at an off hour. The people who are there are there because of faith, not because of an obligation or social more, at least that’s how it seems to me. This country is Catholic, Catholic, Catholic, but it seems in the right way, not in the way organized religion has mutilated and raped faith. It’s faith for faith’s sake and not for anything else.
What was it that Gandhi said? “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Or in bumper sticker parlance: “I have no problem with God, it’s his fan club I don’t like.” I’m not saying I agree with either theory, but I can see how each makes a certain amount of sense.
That which makes no sense to me at home does not make any more sense here, but somehow there’s a greater sense of… empathy, perhaps.
I like churches and temples, especially when they’re empty. I like the fact that you have to be silent in there. I like the candles. Here, there aren’t actual candles, just electric ones that turn on when you drop a coin in a box. That’s nowhere near as fun as flames.
I see an offering to Santa Caterina, Saint Catherine. When I lived in Brussels, Beligium in 2007, I lived at the Place Ste. Catherine, and I spent a lot of time in the church on the square. It was a difficult time in my life and the vast, empty space gave me comfort.
I leave the church and keep on walking. It’s sunset now. The sky turns pink and I head uphill, winding along the narrow vicoli. I have a tendency when I travel to walk uphill as far as I can go, to turn down every alley I can find…
Away from home, I am braver and bolder, perhaps more reckless, certainly more curious. I take the forks in the roads, venture unmarked streets, look behind doors…
After sundown, I search up and down for a restaurant, Otello, that the hotel clerk told me about. I pass through piazzi, past far too many souvenir shops, by pasticerria after pasticerria. The selections of pastries are colorful, artistic and tempting. I settle on two to save for later — one brutti ma buoni, translation “ugly, but good,” a cookie of chopped nuts, and one soft, orange flavored cookie. I will savor both, slowly, over the next two days and they are delicious.
From my pastry purchases, it takes me a long time to find Otello, a small, dark restaurant with a friendly proprieter, who leads me to a table in the back. It is here that I have an Ugly American moment, about which I feel terrible: I intend to order the pizza margherita, but accidentally ask for the pizza napoletana instead. Olives, capers and anchovies. Gross.
When traveling overseas, I really do my best to not be an obnoxious tourist. I try to learn at least a few words in a the native language, including “please excuse me, I don’t speak (your language).” I am quiet, polite, not speaking when it isn’t necessary. So this mix up is embarrassing. Fortunately the waiter is very gracious when I apologize profusely for having said the wrong word, and brings me a new order.
After dinner, it’s time to settle in for the night. It’s only 9 o’clock, but I’ve been keeping early hours. I get into bed with my book — appropriately, I’ve brought along Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Bella Tuscany.” Reading before bed is another thing I rarely do at home. There always seems to be too much to tend to, too much to take care of, too much stimulation from things with screens. I am forever frenetic in my daily life. Maybe I can remember to take some of this slow calm with me when I go.