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Posts Tagged ‘St. Francis’

Ahh, Assisi

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What do you get when you mix one part religious icon/saint, two parts tourist kitsch, and three parts Italian zest?

Did you guess “a biscuit?” I didn’t think so. But it would have been a correct answer. I’ll start with the end of the story first…

As I was waiting to catch my afternoon train from Assisi, home of the incredible St. Francis Basilica, back to my “home town” of Spello, I noticed the station gelateria was selling biscuits and cookies wrapped up with a simple ribbon with a St. Francis bakery label to anyone who may have some how missed the hundreds of opportunities to purchase St. Francis – inspired souvenirs. I was drawn to the fact that they looked oddly like Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies which was quite appealing at that moment considering good chocolate chip cookies don’t exist in this country. A trade off I’m learning to accept. I’m not sure those were actual chocolate chips as I was a bit delirious from hiking the town on its notoriously stunning perch in the center of the Umbrian hills (Italy’s version of the stairmaster) and I chose the hottest day this week to do it.

But back to the marketing ploy…I had been to Lourdes, France some years ago and seen how a whole tourist industry is built around millions of people making a pilgrimage to a place etched by miracles and sacred powers. It’s inevitable that these holy places end up becoming commercialized. The spirit of St. Francis, the fact that this place is the crossroads of art history and spirituality of the highest power and boasts endless views helps me to overlook the kitsch. Granted, modern man certainly reminds us with the key chains, the rosaries, the books, postcards and bakeries lining the three main streets leading to the monumental church built in his honor that St. Francis was a special soul. If buying a key chain makes you feel more closely connected to him, why not? The alternative is to give up all worldly goods and take a vow of poverty. So ironically, the majority of us support a commercial system that honors a man who did just that by screaming buy, buy, buy!

A friend recently posed the question, what might he have thought of all this? Maybe he would have been fine with it. He knew humans were humans. He, along with St. Clare made the sacrifices that the rest of us could never muster or begin to contemplate. And regardless of faith, you can’t overlook the appeal and lastingness of the Franciscan message – be nice, to each other and the environment, live simply, treat all God’s creatures with equal respect.

And so on a splendid day in August, I arrived in Assisi at 9:30 a.m. and had a pilgrimage of my own. I hiked to the top of the town, to the old castle ruins of Rocco Maggiore, visited the Church of St. Rufino (oddly the patron saint of Assisi), the Church of St. Clare, soaked up the Umbrian views, working my way down to the grand basilica on the west end of the hill. This monument and school not only honors the saint, it honors the dawn of art-making like the world had never seen before. This is an artists’s place of worship, too, so I spent the remainder of my time, a few hours, sitting, listening, sketching, and meditating on all those who came before me. I highly recommend a visit, Assisi is not easily forgotten.

And so what of the cookies? Apparently Francis had a weakness for a special almond cookie, called Moastaccioli, the one and only earthly food he loved. The story goes that a young widow named Jacoba, became a follower of Francis and upon hearing he was dying, brought him his favored cookie to his deathbed. To this day, many bakeries in this region make and sell almond pastries in his honor.

From now on I will always think of the almond as Italy’s chocolate chip!

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