North of Rome , in the quiet Umbria countryside, is the charming hill-top town of Assisi. Although its early founding remains questionable, there seems to be evidence that the town was inhabited by the Etruscans in prehistoric times. The Romans occupied the hill next, leaving behind the still-intact Roman temple of Minerva. Although other parts of Assisi have great historical value, most of us today would associate Assisi as being the birthplace of a legendary saint.
Like the young Buddha, who left his princely confines in Nepal to seek enlightenment, a fellow seeker named Francesco Bernardone suffered a similar change of heart. One day, while dressed in his finest clothes, he met a poor man whose needs seemed greater than his own. Francis (his English name) gave the poor man his cloak and that night dreamt that he should rebuild the Celestial City of God. In the coming months, he gave away his earthly possessions so liberally that his father, a rich cloth merchant in Assisi, disowned him. This inspired Francis to then give away absolutely everything he owned while making a vow to possess nothing in life. The next three years he spent in abject poverty, looking after lepers, feeding the poor, and rebuilding old churches with his own hands. Disowned by the community as the “Fool of Assisi,” Francis left the city to walk the hillside of Mount Subaso as “God’s Beggar.” He believed that wealth corrupts and that being in the company of anyone poorer than himself was discourteous.
While living an ascetic life in the woods near Assisi, Francis assembled his first 12 ragged disciples. This rag-tag group decided to pay a visit to the Pope in Rome. Against all odds, they not only gained access, but left with Pope Innocent III’s permission to found an order. This was an astonishing feat, considering that the soon-to-be religious founder was a layman with no theological training.
By founding the Franciscan order, Saint Francis strove to return to Christ’s own principles by rejecting opulence and wealth. He instructed his friars to live in poverty with ordinary people, preaching the gospel barefoot and sparsely clothed. His creed of living close to nature, befriending and even speaking to wild beasts, led Francis to become regarded as the patron saint of animals. Indeed, Francis considered himself one with all of nature. When his followers were hungry he told them: “when we must eat, God will provide as he does for our brothers and sisters the birds. So go and ask for food in the name of God. And if they offer you wine, tell them you’re already intoxicated with the light of Jesus.” The new way of living together, that Francis proposed, was to create a fraternity that was like a family, not monastic, and based on individual and communal poverty.
Despite widespread popularity in Europe, it is surprising that Saint Francis’ cult of poverty did not survive in fact, it did not even last his lifetime. It was officially rejected by the Church, mainly because the Church had already become part of the international banking system that originated in 13th century Italy. This connection, for seven hundred years, fueled Western capitalism into its present proportions. Those of his disciples who clung to his doctrine of poverty were denounced as heretics and many were tortured or killed. Yet it is clear that Buddha and Francis held the same convictions. In order to free the spirit, seekers must first shed all earthly belongings. By enacting this truth, with such simplicity and grace, Saint Francis could sincerely feel a kinship with all created things not only living entities, but with “brother fire and sister wind,” as he referred to the forces of nature.
He died in 1226 at the age of 43, utterly worn out by a lifetime of vigorous work. On his deathbed, he asked for forgiveness of “poor brother donkey, my body” for the hardships he made it suffer. He also received the stigmata before his passing. Six years earlier, he wisely relinquished control of the order that had grown into a great institution with hundreds of followers. In his humility, Francis chose never to be ordained a priest, and desired that his community of hundreds of followers live as “lesser brothers.”
In the decade following Saint Francis’ death, an enormous Gothic basilica and monastery were built in his honor within the city walls of Assisi. Emphasizing Saint Francis’ desire for peace and tolerance of all beings, along with its fantastic architecture, Assisi and associated Franciscan locations in Italy are included as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Getting to Assisi
The old town of Assisi, located on the slope of a hill, is accessed by city buses and taxis from the train station 3 miles 5 km to the east. The four traditional pilgrimage routes to Assisi are from the central Italian cities of Gubbio, Nocera Umbra, Spoleto, and Cortona. In times past, pilgrims traveled on foot and received food and lodging from other Christians along the way. The goal for all visitors is the multi-leveled Basilica of Francis and the Sacro Covento, dating from the 13th century. The bi-level basilicas are lavishly decorated in frescoes, while the lowest level contains the tomb of Saint Francis.