BY Gretel Ehrlich | MAY 1, 2000
Gretel Ehrlich walks in the footsteps of St. Francis through the Umbrian countryside and ponders the life of a saint who was “radical without bitterness, vital yet gentle, dramatic—even outrageous at times—without narcissism.”
The road to Gubbio veers north by northwest from Assisi. It slides under La Rocca—the feudal fortress that once guarded the inhabitants of the town—then straightens out and cuts down through steep mountains and thick forests to the river Tescio. Sometimes a footpath, a horse track, or a Roman street, it is now a gravel road that winds through a rollercoaster landscape of treeless peaks and deep stream-cut valleys, all dotted with tiny farms and fortress-like monasteries where thirteenth-century travelers could spend the night.
As I shouldered my rucksack on a cold March morning almost eight hundred years later, the Piazza del Comune, lined with religious souvenir shops and zinc bars, was empty except for pigeons and dogs. Bells chimed the hours and robins sang wake-up songs. All over town, Franciscan monks—the order of mendicant friars which is St. Francis’ legacy—were praying. Soon the roar of cement trucks and rubble pouring from the blank windows of buildings being repaired filled the town. Since the October 1997 earthquakes, all of Assisi was being restored.
Assisi had been many things: Etruscan stronghold and Roman spa, where Catholic churches were erected on top of the ruins of Roman temples, one set of gods segueing into another. During World War II, Jews were hidden in convents by Catholic clergy. In 1797, Napoleon stabled his horses in the Basilica at Santa Marie deli Angelli where once, St. Francis, in a state of angst, threw himself on a rose bush. After, the stems lost their thorns and, eight hundred years later, still grow smooth-stemmed.
“Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money”—a verse from St. Luke (9:3) that spurred St. Francis on. In a similar spirit, I found that all my money had been stolen—not in Italy, but on the airplane from New York, and though I tried to entertain the joys of disburdenment, I failed. Three runners in Lycra sped by, and a nun with a cell phone clutched to her ear. Why not just walk to Gubbio? I thought. Then, with my companion, Tony, an Australian with a Franciscan’s hard-won sense of joy, I ambled up the street to the gate that would lead us out of the walled city.
At Porto Giovanni a blind man stood in the shadows. His eyes were blue oceans, and under his feet the cobblestones shone still wet from the previous night’s rain. A hand-carved cane hung from his folded arms. I thought of how St. Francis passed here on just such a freezing spring day, spiritually blind as he began his long journey, and literally blind twenty-two years later when he was carried back through the gate to die.
The blind man began singing and talking as we passed by, the two sounds rolling together into squeaks, grunts, and held notes. Then he stamped his feet in place, as if he too had decided to walk along.
The Sentiero Francescano della Pace—or any path—is a place where going never ends, where arriving is always happening. It is a wavering that receives our falls, a gash in geology’s stacked floor where our uncertain feet break through to another dimension. Blind or sighted, it is impossible to know one’s direction. The path is all space, falling out from under our feet, and rising up above our heads.
St. Francis was still known as Francesco di Brendan when he began walking. His father was a wealthy silk merchant who had changed his son’s name from Giovanni to Francesco because of his love for all things French. In training for the clothier guild of Assisi, the young Francesco was often more elegantly dressed than his clients and given to lavish spending when it came to banquets.
He envisioned himself as the Prince of Assisi with a castle as his home, not the Prince of Peace who slept on the ground. A libertine and charming gadabout, he wooed women with the troubadour songs of Provencal, spending each year’s 150 religious holidays sauntering through the Umbrian countryside on foot and horseback. He was born with a natural affinity for the outdoors: he loved the mountains and rivers, as well as the forests and farms, birds, insects, wolves and bears. In turn, almost tropistically, they began to love him.
What leads a medieval playboy to sainthood, and where does the journey begin? That’s what I wondered as I followed the saint’s footsteps out of Assisi. I had been attracted to St. Francis because I’m a walker myself, have walked away from a life-threatening encounter with lightning into health. I’ve lived with the herds, slept under the stars with them, and now share a house with wild birds—a family of canyon wrens was born and fledged in my bedroom. When I began writing about St. Francis, a sparrow began perching on a rafter, watching me write, and spent three nights watching over my fragmented thoughts.
I’ve loved St. Francis for his unmediated kinship with animals, as well as his modernity. He could well have been a sixties’ radical, casting off convention and everything money can buy. His action had something to teach: he was radical without bitterness, vital yet gentle, dramatic—even outrageous at times—without narcissism.
Isn’t it always a sense that something is wrong, even though we don’t know quite what, that leads us out of our usual habits and haunts? By the time Francesco was seventeen he had been to war and survived a year in the dungeons of the nearby town of Perugia. When he came home, he was frail with tuberculosis and walked with a cane. He tried to resume his libertine’s life, but his nights were pierced by voices shouting orders.
Every time Francesco started off on a trip something happened to obstruct his journey. When he rode to the Fourth Crusade in the glorious suit of armor his father had made, he turned back after the first night in Spoleto, too sick to go on. A voice—apocryphal or not— had asked, “Who can give you more, Master or Servant? He replied, “Master.” The voice said, “Then go home.” Was it divine intervention or reality’s reality imposing itself? Redemption and enlightenment was the only road he could take.
After Francesco gave his armor to a down-at-the-heels knight and returned to Assisi, his father was outraged: all that expense gone to waste. But generosity is the other side of hedonism’s coin. The gesture was typical of him.
After failing as a knight, Francesco tried to resume the high life, adopting the chivalric code as his own. Strolling through town after a banquet he had hosted, he became separated from the others and had a vision of a beautiful woman, a princess who lived in a palace full of armor and riches. He was going to find her, he told his friends when they caught up with him. L’amour fou. That’s what it would have been called by the French troubadours he so emulated. But he did not seek her out. Wandering alone, Francis became God’s Fool that night. Was he crazy? Perhaps. He had fallen in love, not with a flesh-and-blood princess, but with Lady Poverty, whom he would soon wed.
Behind Assisi is a mountain, Mt. Subasio, that rises almost straight up and is pocked with limestone caves, called the Eremo Carceri (the prisons). In his confusion Francesco sought refuge there and prayed in a frigid grotto, righting the demons of lust, pride, and vanity. So much of medieval life was dark and vengeful, secretive and violent, fixated on the Christian tragedy of Man’s Fall. Only confession could propel a proper Catholic to eternity. But Francesco had no interest in joining the church as a monk or parish priest. After months of anguished meditation he began walking again: meditation in action was his ideal.
By the time Francis walked back down the mountain he was no longer Assisi’s man-about-town, but a footsore Dharma-bum who had traded in his dandy’s silk-and-velvet breeches and capes for a sackcloth tunic emblazoned with the sign of the cross, held in place by a three-knot cord representing his vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience—words easy enough to say, but a formidable task to put into practice. Walking and giving, walking and singing, walking and praying: the Sentiero—wherever it led—the proving ground for sainthood. Walking was an ambulation of mind.
Driven toward the center of his faith, he walked to Rome. This was the first of many “Peregrinari pro Dei amore”—pilgrimages for the love of God. He stopped at monasteries to pray and hear the Gospels; to live the life of Jesus was his aim. He especially liked St. John, who wrote: “The wind blows where it pleases . . . even so is every man who is born of the Spirit.” (3:8) Francesco might as well have been singing the songs of Dylan.
This time there were no obstructions on his path: walking itself stood for the opening of the heart: wind peeled his skin away. He was totally exposed, stripped of ego; animals began following him. His earliest biographer, Thomas Celano, reported that along the Via Flamina, birds flocked to St. Francis, crowding his shoulders and arms for a place to perch. Instead of scolding them away as a nuisance, he welcomed them. Bird, human, river, mountain—they were all God.
At Saint Peter’s in Rome he emptied his purse and threw handfuls of silver into the coffers, then sat on the steps to rest and beg for food. He was dumbfounded and bewildered by all that had happened to him. How had he ended up living in caves and begging on the streets when he was meant to be singing love songs to a princess? How had the son of a silk merchant, who was meant to wear armor, ended up wearing rags?
Starting for home, he gave to those with less. Once, having nothing else to give away, he tore off the sleeve of his tunic for a beggar who needed clothes, reducing himself to near-nakedness. He stopped to help lepers clean their wounds, fighting the disgust he felt on seeing their rotting bodies. He was teetering, as he went, between the sacred and secular, the raw and the cooked, between the life of the knight and the life of the monk. He couldn’t know yet how close the two really were. Either way, he was a radical man with a wild heart and he stayed that way.
St. Francis was beginning to understand that renunciation meant giving up nostalgia for habitual thought: it was a fight to keep from being lured back to his libertine’s den. On those cold Umbrian nights, praying and sleeping on the ground with no food, no clothes, no home, the practice of renunciation must have tasted bitter. His conversion was literally “a turning around,” from gallant knight into spiritual warrior. Conversion also implied an ongoing conversation with God. He had already torn away so much, but there was more to come.
On returning to Assisi, St. Francis now sought refuge at San Damiano, a quiet hermitage just below Assisi’s walls. During vespers one day, the crucifix lit up and a voice spoke: “Francis, do you not see how my house is falling into ruin? Go and repair it for me!”
Francis took the words literally, thinking he was to repair the walls of the church, no doubt rattled by frequent earthquakes. Frustrated by the challenge, he stole a horse and bolts of precious silk from his father, trotted down the road to Foligno and sold them, then offered the money to the priest at San Damiano to help with reconstruction. The priest refused the donation. When Francis’ father discovered the theft, he came after his son, who hid in the cave on Mt. Subasio.
Finally regaining his courage, Francis walked down the mountain into Assisi. The bon vivant, once the most popular man in town, was treated as a madman. “Pazzo, pazzo,” his friends yelled. Stones were thrown. His father seized him, dragged him to the house, tied him in chains, and beat him. When no one was looking, Francis’ mother, Pica, a devout Catholic who believed her son was on the path to sainthood, set him free.
It was not long before Francis’ father caught up with his son and brought him before the Bishop of Assisi in the Piazza del Comune to be tried as a thief. There, father renounced son and Francis, in turn, renounced his father. “I am the son of God, not of man,” he declared, and stripped off all his clothes. Standing naked in the middle of the piazza, he handed over his clothes and the purse full of money, then walked out of town.
The road to Gubbio is cobblestone, pavement and gravel that gives on to a path through what were once forests and are now open fields. The 1371 C.E. statutes of the Comune Eugubine, now called Gubbio, states that the road which St. Francis took “qua itur Valfabrica”, followed the river Tescia downstream to the village of Campolongo, then on to a nearby Benedictine monastery, where he stayed the night. In the morning, finding a waterfall, he washed his body clean of worldly concerns. Refreshed, he left the river and walked cross-country over snowy mountain tops. Each step he took represented an inward peregrination. The journey was life. The path was time, the medium in which he marched toward sainthood.
Just after the village of Pioppo and before reaching Valfabrica, bandits jumped St. Francis, but he had nothing to give—only his poverty. Disgusted, the robbers threw St. Francis into a ditch full of snow and ran off. Francis emerged singing.
Penniless, sick, frail, he had no address. He was just walking. He had never been ordained. His self-styled vocation, shaky as it seemed at first, was for redemption, spiritual growth, and liberation, not the medieval alchemy of secrecy and poison, and his natural radiance magnetized those who came near to him. Men stepped away from arduous and busy lives and became disciples. Others listened when he spoke: farmers, townspeople, housewives, children, birds, insects, and animals.
“Oh Signore, fa di me un istrumeto della tua Pace,” he cried out as he walked. (O Father, make me the instrument of your peace.) Instead of taking on the monastic rule of the church, he abandoned himself to God and the road and all that came with it: bad weather, bandits, sickness, wild animals, and spiritual confusion. He was God’s vagabond and “geography’s ant.” He forsook the safe haven of a monastery or parish and learned to inhabit change. Action was devotion; he felt jubilation instead of shame. His chivalric, libertine’s behavior was a reverse mirror of a sage’s crazy wisdom. Soon enough, his prowess, courage, pride, loyalty, and courtesy were transformed into tenacity, zeal, compassion, contemplation, grace, joy, and love. With unimaginable self-discipline he kept adjusting to the difficulty of the path, learning to live each moment in total combustion.
Winter snows lay draped in lazy drifts across the Sentiero della Francesco. I took off my shoes and plunged into the snow. The arches of my feet ached with the cold. After a few moments I put my socks and shoes back on and, with tingling feet, kept walking. Behind me, to the south, Mt. Subasio showed its back. It was a black wall crowned with sun-glinting silver.
To walk is to unbalance oneself. Between one step and the next we become lost. Balance is regained as the foot touches earth, then it goes as the foot lifts. A path is made of dirt and rock; it is also a swath of light cut through all that appears to be solid and unchanging. It is a flesh wound that opens deep in the foot of the walker, so that what we are, and where we are going, and the way we’ve chosen to get there, remains directionless; the traveler is forever wounded and lost. Pain, discomfort, and groundlessness are the seeker’s friends. Being lost turns into a state of awakeness; it is the same as being found.
Walking, I tried to feel his path: how the Sentiero had opened him; how the Umbrian landscape became the font of inspiration into which he dipped. As we trekked out of a deep valley between patches of snow, the path was lined with blackberry bushes; ginestra (Scotch broom), and wild iris lined the way. The hayfields were thick with bunchgrass, clover, and filaree, interspersed with wheat, corn, and sunflower fields, grapes, figs, apples, prunes, and walnuts. I tried to imagine the animals darting out from forest cover to amble at his side or flutter around his head, but there were no animals anywhere. So much that was part of this landscape had been changed and. desecrated since St. Francis walked here: mountains were denuded of trees and the almost all the animals and birds had been shot.
Up on a hill near a ruin, a stone wall broke open. A Fiat roared by. Punta or Panda? Tony asked. In the distance we saw cranes—what Tony referred to as “Italy’s national bird.” Not the avian kind, but the mechanical cranes with which tumbled farmhouses are now being restored. Bereft of life and diversity, the Umbrian beauty seemed surprisingly shabby.
In the thirteenth-century, solemn Benedictine monks held sway on every one of these Umbrian mountaintops. No doubt, St. Francis was seen as a kook. He was everything the Benedictines weren’t: rapturous, anti-intellectual, childlike in his evangelical zeal. He was a pleine air guru, an itinerant preacher, a poor hermit, a beggar who would not beg, too outrageous to be of the church, too smitten with God to be against it. In fits and starts, he forged his own way.
We passed neat-as-a-pin subsistence farms whose vineyards were so old as to look like groves of thick-trunked trees. We walked uphill through Piano di Pieve, then down again toward a waterfall. A loudspeaker mounted on a Fiat truck broke the silence: “Oggi. Today, Father _____ (I didn’t catch his name) will be coming around to bless your house.”
The whole valley was in a state of excitement. Doors and windows were thrown wide open. Bedding was aired, floors cleaned. The family restaurant we stopped at for lunch had suddenly closed. These were mountains where blessings were still more important than commerce: the priest was on his way.
Somewhere between San Presto and Collemincio, a farmer invited us in for coffee. Renato was small and wiry with huge dirt-stained hands. The gap where his four lower teeth were missing was bridged by silver rods haphazardly cobbled into place. He had been born in the house and his wife, Theresa, came from a farm just up the road. She had recently suffered bouts of angina and had cut down on the number of cows she milked every day. Her wide, coarse face opened in a beatific smile as she offered us “pane di San Francesco”—bread with nuts and fruit—and assured us that St. Francis had once passed this way.
Not long ago people like Renato and Theresa worked for a padrone as serfs, for no pay. Now the farm was theirs. The house was a series of small rooms connected by a hallway. Only the kitchen and eating room were heated. Near the fireplace two large hams hung from rafters. “We season them with salt and herbs and let them dry by the fire. That is how prosciutto is made,” Renato said. Every once in a while there was a thud and the wall shook. Terremotto? I asked. They shook their heads, no. “It is the cows. They live on the first floor.”
To embrace poverty meant more than going without. It demanded a way of living that was all-accommodating. St. Francis disproved the apparent contradiction that you could spend your life giving when you possessed nothing. Poverty meant materializing riches from emptiness. St. Francis’ sick body humbled him whenever prayer failed, enabling him to welcome the disinherited and the sick, and to share their lives with a pure heart because it was his life too. Between walkabouts he helped care for the lepers, the poor, the homeless. From emptiness comes compassion.
We continued up the road. Farmers pruned grapevines and olive trees. Stacks of firewood gave way to stacks of roof tiles drying. A blue tent, distributed during the earthquakes, was still pitched in one of the yards—just in case. Not far from there, a whole town had collapsed during the October earthquake. The yearly custom of baking a certain kind of bread as an offering against natural disaster was overlooked in 1997. Now the villagers, all living in tents and containers, attributed their tragedy to that single lapse.
We walked a ridgeline, dipped into a valley, then trudged uphill again. The air was cold but we were sweating. Farm implements, a hay rake and a horse-drawn ditcher, were nineteenth-century—no sign of millennial modernity here. Instead, we heard whispers about the third secret of Fatima, which involved “a terrible cataclysm at the end of the century” as a result of people failing to repent.
The week before we had visited the Basilica di San Francesco, which was built after St. Francis’ death and severely shaken by the earthquakes. Two priests and two engineers were killed when portions of the vaulted ceiling fell on them. “A few minutes more and the whole thing would have come down,” an injured bystander said.
The four-storey complex sits like a sore thumb at the west end of Assisi, once a place of execution called the Hill of Hell. Now it is referred to as the Hill of Paradise. An odd location for a sacred place of pilgrimage. Deep inside, St. Francis’ bones are locked away in a sepulcher, the immense weight of the Basilica—a place he would have hated—weighing down on top of him.
Brother Daniel, a Franciscan monk from Buffalo, New York, thinks that the earthquake was “a call for us to return to rebuilding our church, as St. Francis did, a spiritual rebuilding in a time of greed and battling.” Bombers flew over on their way to Kosovo. As we walked under what remains of the Giotto and Cimabue frescoes, Brother Daniel reminded us that the root word for obedience means “to listen.”
To St. Francis, obedience suggested surrender, not dominance and war; self-discipline, rather than bowing down to authority. Every day, every mile traveled, brought a new understanding of just how much discipline it took to live with nothing. Everything in the culture countermanded such a notion. The walled cities of medieval Italy were fixed universes, bastions of defense, outlets for commerce, which had been built out of fear. By turning his back on the religious status quo, St. Francis began to take the roof off thirteenth-century superstition, stasis and violence by sticking to the open road and welcoming whatever came his way. His was not a human-centric theism, but one which encompassed all things—animate and inanimate—under what he must have visualized as the expanding umbrella of God. His previous enthusiasms for war, wine, women and song transmigrated into a divine intoxication with the natural world.
Hunted animals sought refuge at his side. A pheasant and a rabbit followed him like dogs, as well as a goat and a hawk. During cold snaps he set out honey for bees to eat. He talked to flowers when they came into bloom. Sparrows rode his body like a moving tree, catching rides up and down mountains. Animals swam to him when he retreated to a tiny island in Lago Trasimeno. In the Rieti Valley south of Assisi, a fisherman offered St. Francis his catch and the fish came alive, wiggling in St. Francis’ hands, refusing to die.
Followers said they saw light wherever he went, that sometimes his body was lifted up in a silver cloud. By seeing into the essential nature of things, St. Francis opened the door for things and animals to see into him. No skin, no feather, no bloodbarriers existed. He used mountains and rivers for words, and owl-songs and bear-grunts for prayers. His rapturous prayer, “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” was a celebration of that commingling.
It would be a mistake to think that St. Francis lived a life of solitude. Quite the opposite. Bernard, Giles, Sylvester, Bonaparte, Leo and Elias—all joined St. Francis and together they formed a brotherhood, walking two by two around Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland, preaching and praying, or else meditating in the carceri on Mt. Subasio or living together in the little shacks beside the chapel at the Portiuncula in the Spoleto Valley. Francis hated the hypocritical moroseness of formal church life with its tomb-like cathedrals and its common assignment of sin and guilt, and forbade sadness in his presence, urging laughter and singing, along with a hefty dose of discipline and a stricture to keep their vows. Walking tirelessly, they kicked discursive thought aside (books were forbidden) and lived the wide awake.
We walked higher and higher. The Apennine Mountains glistened in the northeast. Under melting snow, green grass showed through and sun came as bright darts stabbing clouds. On a north-facing slope, waist-high snowbanks stretched across the road; our footsteps through them left black holes, like eyes, looking for the next season.
If St. Francis was hard on himself, he was kind to others. He refused to shake off the icicles that hung from his robes cutting his legs. Yet, when one young follower cried of hunger in the middle of the night, instead of reprimanding the young monk for his lack of discipline, St. Francis woke the others and prepared a feast which they spent the rest of the night eating.
Walking through the mountains we stumbled on a restaurant with no name. There were cracks in the stone wall and the fireplace smoked. When we asked the old woman who cooked there what she thought the earthquakes meant, she waved her hand nonchalantly and said, “They came because the earth had to move.” Later, when she heard Tony’s infectious laughter, she came running from the kitchen. Clasping his face between her hands, she said, “Happy people are helping God do his work.”
Rain came in heavy curtains and undulated across stippled peaks. A darkness had escaped from the dripping grottos of the Eremo Carceri and had lumbered into the middle of the sky. Unable to bear its own weight, it had fallen again, tamping my shoulders. The pencil-point cypress were stirred by gusts of wind that bent their tips and straightened them again. If they could write something, what would they say? Two cars whizzed by, then the woodcutter’s truck passed, ladden with dried branches for cooking fires. The sky brightened and the sun was suddenly hot. Four gray and black birds the size of ravens took turns flying across a hayfield then returning. Rainwater washed back and forth between gathering clouds, then dropped as snow. A chill ran down my back. I pulled my hood up, clasped my hands together, and kept going.
We crossed the rolling Chiascio River on a high bridge and walked north. When St. Francis reached this point, he had to knock on the doors of the Benedictine monastery at St. Maria di Valfabrica where the monks were known to be aggressive and rude, because the river had overflowed its bank and was impassable. The monks grudgingly let him stay. He was lucky that his rapture was not seen as dangerous or delusional; the time had not yet come when the Inquisitors were burning heretics at the stake. A few days later, St. Francis walked north to La Bracaccia where he crossed the river by pole barge, then continued on toward Gubbio.
Pine-wind roared. We were on pavement now. As we followed a steep mountain road, sheep parted, letting us pass. At Casa Castalda, we turned left and took the gravel road northwest through Carbonesca to Colpalombo. The hayfields were steep. They looked like green cloths pinned to a blackboard. What was left of the oak forest was still brown-leafed, dormant, hiding patches of snow that had not yet seen the sun. A wild pig trotted by, bristling. Under my feet the flinty soil shattered into a thousand arrows pointing a hundred different ways.
St. Francis’ feet must have been calloused and torn. The thousands of miles he walked came to stand for the unending inward journey he was making. He believed that physical suffering would bring redemption. His tireless exertion propelled him toward the truth of the human condition which is suffering, and each footstep and heartbeat enlarged his capacity to understand.
As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped and the smell of snow stood in the air like an olfactory mountain. We took a shortcut through hayfields and trees, then came into a clearing: shoals of clouds shifted among reefs of light; the sky was an ocean and the storms came in waves. I thought of the blind man’s eyes, then of the terremotos of 1997: of the Basilica’s roof sections that fell, killing two priests, the frescoes of Giotto and Cimabue shaken into colored dust, and how this high spine of central Italy kept wiggling its back as if trying to shake something off—a blindness perhaps—to make room for a renewed Franciscan simplicity. I looked up. My mouth must have gone slack: a snowflake alighted on my tongue. TAKE. EAT. THIS IS MY BLOOD. . .
When St. Francis tromped across these hills, he called his own body “Ass,” and the donkey that sometimes accompanied him, “Brother.”
We stayed the night in a castle that had once given St. Francis sanctuary. He knew the owners; we did not. The old peasant who greeted us was corpulent and at nine a.m., red-faced with wine. He was splitting wood with a dull ax. The interior was frigid. We were taken up three flights of stairs by a young woman who spoke a bit of English. The room’s two immense arched windows faced north toward Gubbio. Had St. Francis been in this room? Had he plotted his trail from this aerie? The castle stood on the point of a hill and sloping down on all sides were verdant hayfields, olive groves, vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, and vineyards through which we strolled.
In the middle of the night a wheel of thunder threw hail at the window. Lightning showed the peaks of the Apennines one by one. Far to the north was La Verna, the mountain where the wounds that Jesus suffered on the cross—the stigmata—appeared on St. Francis’ body. Was his experience an agony or did the wounds simply appear? And how are we to think of them? Were they real or the result of a collective hallucination?
Three brothers had gone to La Verna with St. Francis, where they lived in caves and said their matins on a rocky ledge overlooking the valley. They spent a month meditating on the sufferings of Christ. On September 14, Brother Leo reported that a ball of light fell down on St. Francis’ head, and after, the marks of the crucifying nails in the hands and feet and the lance that pierced Christ’s side, showed on St. Francis’ body. At that moment, all of La Verna was enveloped with light. St. Francis had been hit by lightning.
The next day I walked in blackness. Storms lifted like hats, then slammed down again. Later, the mountains shone with a strange radiance. We walked into a valley and crossed a frothing stream whose hoarse voice cried out, “This way, he went this way.” We tumbled down, down. Sometimes the river shimmered on our right and our left—a brown god—churning chocolate, white, and red. Gubbio was just ahead. In the valley a chemical factory stood on the bank. Pavement began. The way to the walled city took us past more factories, then into suburbs.
Somewhere on this road St. Francis encountered the legendary wolf that had been killing people in Gubbio. Where does fiction end and truth begin? Does it make a difference? The townspeople begged St. Francis to help them with the malicious beast. When the wolf appeared somewhere on this once-forested road, St. Francis called to him. The wolf sat at the saint’s feet, lowered his head and wagged his tail. Francis implored the wolf to stop eating people. The wolf cocked his head, listening, then dociley trotted through the Porto Romano into town with his new friend. The townspeople were astonished. They made the wolf their pet. Everyone fed him and the wolf never ate a human again.
Approaching Gubbio, we lost our way. A man with a wolfish face gave us directions. We stayed in a thirteenth-century hotel near the top of town, from which everything flowed downhill like lava. Some days I thought of St. Francis as a living ember plucked from one of Italy’s volcanoes. These mountains were places of retreat for him: above Gubbio, and across several valleys to Le Celle near Cortona, where he had a pet hawk. Wandering from mountain to mountain, I began to feel his presence everywhere—bringing alive the dormant forests and stone cities that seemed so dead.
Sleep didn’t come easily that night. I was perched on the head of a pin at century’s end and didn’t know how to proceed. The medieval European mind was fixated on eternity and driven by notions of sin and mystery. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, we had traded in linear time for the ever-present Einsteinian time. Our weak link is not a Christian tragedy we are powerless to escape, but the nihilism of living in the ever-present Present. To find the path through a continuum takes another kind of imagination and tenacity.
All I knew was that the path moved. It was not a solid place but a continuous unfolding. It could be described as a place where everything changes, and is made of dirt, stone, space, light, twigs broken by hard winds, indentations where hailstones hit earth, hoofprints, bird tracks, and litter from humans passing.
If the path represents the intrinsic poverty and humbleness of all things, it is also a richness, functioning as a lens through which we can see things as they really are, without the embellishment of our ideas about them.
By the end of the week the temperature soared and a blue haze rose up from the valley where the farmers were burning pruned branches from vineyards and olive trees. A friend came for us and drove us back to Assisi. We entered through Porto Perlici and took Via Ruffino to the center of town. A woman in dark glasses, high heels and a mink coat walked her whippet. Two men, both tipsy, their car doors opened wide, stood listening to a CD of Frank Sinatra (his real name, of course, was Francis). In the Piazza del Comune, the Irish setter that always lay in front of the confectionery store was gone. Teenagers lounged on the steps of the Temple of Minerva. A waning moon tucked itself behind the Basilica di San Francesco like a bent knee.
By the time St. Francis reached his mid-forties, his pace had slowed. For the last two years of his life the stigmata were oozing sores, compounding a frailty already complicated with malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis, rheumatism and what was probably glaucoma, which made it impossible for him to tolerate light. Brother Elias predicted that he would soon die. He rode his donkey down from the summit of La Verna and followed what is now the A1, the Autostrada, south toward Assisi. His final ride through Porto Giovani was on a palanquin because he was too weak to walk or ride. They brought him to San Stefano, a small church near the Piazza del Comune, but he begged to be taken down into the valley to his beloved Portiuncula.
There, his friends came and said goodbye. Ignoring his own ban on being in the presence of women, his last visitor was a woman. Her name was Giacoma dei Settesoli, and she had brought his favorite food: an almond cream frangipani which he ate with pleasure. After, his final request was honored: he was laid naked on the cold floor of the Portiuncula to die.
Assisi had originally been called Asceti, which means, “a place of rising.” St. Francis died on October 3rd, 1226. At the moment of death, light shone from his body and the bells at San Stefano began ringing spontaneously. The oak forests in the mountains where he loved to walk were dormant then, as now. I stared up at the endless series of peaks. The white eyelash on Mt. Subasio—all that was left of the previous week’s snow—had almost melted. Down in the valleys the fruit trees stood white with blossoms.
Spring weather is capricious, not unlike the way death comes. I thought of the pleasure St. Francis must have felt each time he hit the open road. He himself became the gate that changed and healed whoever passed through. Like Jesus and Gautama Buddha, the poet Matsuo Basho, and the great Ch’an masters of China and Japan, all teachings were given on the move, under an open sky. “We are not so much traveling as just stopping here and there,” Matsuo Basho said. They preferred the wabi-sabi of lean-to’s, large trees, bamboo, and rock huts. The divinity of a place rose up through the soles of their feet and went everywhere with them.
Poverty. Chastity. Obedience. Or else, simplicity, generosity, accommodation, love, and goodness within. That’s what St. Francis dedicated his life to and what we can still learn from him. Walking back to our rooms on a narrow street, Tony and I heard a roar. For a moment we thought it might be an earthquake—the day before there had been a tremor in the nearby town of Gualdo—but it was only distant thunder, another spring storm passing by.
I paused at the bottom of the stairs. Two parakeets were feeding each other water. Pots of primroses had been set out. The qualities I most cherished about St. Francis were these: Inexhaustible tenderness. Unconditional living.
A raindrop came out of the dark and hit my forehead—just one. An opening in the clouds revealed stars. I climbed the stairs to my room, cracked the window wide, and went to bed.
Gretel Ehrlich is an world renowned nature writer. After being struck by lightning, Ehrlich wrote “A Match to the Heart” about the experience. It was published in 1994.