Strip naked in the center of town in broad daylight. Declare that from now on you will own nothing and will trust in everything holy that it will all work out. When your dad—rich, influential, mortified—finally unlocks the basement a few weeks later and lets you out, start again, giving away all your swanky stuff in the name of love. Neighbors, family, friends, strangers—think you’re nuts. But you are happy—gleeful, even. Stripped down to feeling a dying man’s hot, dry breath and the mountains’ cool, moist breath, hungry unless the merciful feed you, and how many of those do you meet?
You were on to something. We might still have a chance.
It took just a few years for six thousand people to join you, longing to give up everything to live as you did, your call spreading at the maximum thirteenth century land speed of a guy on a horse on a rutted road. Salvation was an understandably sharp hook back then, but even those numbed by luxury or power had to have wondered who all these people were, these penitents, flooding in to see you. Their unruly tide surged against the rising islands of finely appointed villas and the brocaded brokers inside. Soon tens of thousands of believers swore peace, refused to bear arms, refused to take oaths of fealty. How could the nobles of Assisi raise an army against the bellicose nobles of Perugia, or Perugia against the insulting nobles of Siena, if their grunts and foot soldiers balked in order to favor their souls? Who could force them once the pope protected these legions of simplicity seekers with a papal bull? Who could have imagined that the steep stone stairway of feudalism would erode under the shuffle of dusty, sandaled feet?
Eight hundred years later, here we are. Many of us believe in your god and some of us don’t. It doesn’t matter. It is common knowledge that you are loved by Catholics, Protestants, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, Muslims. Yes, you are more popular than Jesus. Just an average October Tuesday, and we can still taste the morning’s first espresso, but tour buses, cars, and motorbikes pack the parking lot. Taxis and city buses unload arrivals from the train station at Santa Maria degli Angeli and thread back through the city walls. We are mustering. Cameras, bags, maps at the ready. Tour guides hoist their colored pennants, gather their troops, brief them in English, Italian, German, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Chinese. We begin our march up the hill.
Eleven thousand of us will come today, and eleven thousand tomorrow, and five million every year. We will swarm your cathedral; we will all circuit your steep, narrow streets; we will occupy that piazza in the center of town. You could ask us. Better yet, you could insist, in this same square where you made such a show of relinquishing. We would put down our gelati and panini and cappuccini and listen, quiet as the birds. You could begin by telling us why we’re really here.
We might think we’ve come to view Giotto’s honeyed frescoes; to imbibe some “mystical” experience hawked in a tourist brochure; to say the prescribed prayers of the Assisi Pardon and be granted a free pass from purgatory (Jesus and Mary appeared, offered you a favor, and that’s what you chose on our behalf. Could you ask again?). Or we’re here to put a face on faith (we have nothing verifiable of Jesus’, but these are your shabby sandals, your letters, the rags you held to your oozing hands). Or we are here to pay homage to a man who would not sit at the holy table unless he could set places for birds, wind, water, wolves, and herbs; or to spend an afternoon in this town built from pink stones and then check it off our lists. Five million of us a year, even though there are more Giottos in Florence and Bologna, we can be pardoned in Rome, and Umbria holds other hill towns that will blush and serve us truffles.
You were a warrior once—surely your fellow soldiers joined up for different reasons. Weren’t some adventurers, runaways, lovers of hot blood and battle, idealists, avengers, careerists of the heaved sword, all forged into something new and invincible once someone with conviction pointed to the target and gave the spur?
Five million of us, and here is the extent of our instruction: you must all stay together, you must wait until four to shop, you must be back at the hotel at seven, announce the tour guides. You have to pick up some of those cute Francis refrigerator magnets for the grandkids, insists the American matron to another. You must stop a moment and let the Franciscan spirit surround you, says the tony British voice on the digital basilica tour, as each of us is surrounded by others instructed to stop a moment and let the Franciscan spirit surround them.
We are wandering, and there is no sign of where to go. You know you could take us there.
Which is why I have shoved you head-first into this coffee mug of pebbles (the four-inch plastic you, available everywhere in town). To get your attention—your intercession, if we need to be formal about it. Nothing personal, just the formula. If I were selling a house, I’d bury St. Joseph the carpenter on his head; if I were looking for a husband, St. Anthony of Padua, the finder, would be my upended hostage. You are the patron saint of ecology, the last pope said. I can’t pray anymore, but this people’s witchcraft of the religion I once shared with you makes as much sense. So as long as I’m here, with your bones just up the street, your sweat no doubt baked into the pores of some brick nearby, you and your non-biodegradable congregation of tiny plastic birds will remain upside-down on the sink of this disturbingly deluxe tiled bath of my monastery guest room.
Not that I think you’re uncomfortable. Italy is full of rocks where you lay your head and slept. Days and weeks on end you prayed in stony clefts and fissures. Your medieval geology, or was it your personal one, told you those rocks split open during the biblical earthquake that marked the crucifixion. To you they rang with a saving sound.
An earthquake is always the death of something and the birth of something else. Ten years ago here, the force that birthed these hills pushed again, hard. Roofs, roads, collapsed. In the basilica, birds hearing your frozen sermon crumbled and alighted on the ground, an oak beam returning to earth brought with him a soft brown monk. We know now that earthquakes come from a power below and not one above, and that their echoes ring through a chasm of deep time you thought reserved for heaven or hell. What you heard reverberating in your stony hermitages was a holy sound, yes, but not of some unnecessary redemption. You heard our creation. It was the labor that delivered us into the holy family of Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Water, Brother Fire, the marrow-deep bonds you sang about. It was the love song of the trilobite as she gave herself up for the limestone that cradled the aquifer that fed the Umbrian chestnuts that surrendered their fruit to the grinding stone to feed your blood.
What are the stones chanting now, down there in your mug? Can you hear the sigh of Sister Water passing through? She is still useful, and humble, and precious, but she is far from pure. Ask the stones to sing to you of glaciers they have ridden, of icecaps you couldn’t have known in your time, of continents and creatures unfathomable to you, and of the measurements and thresholds we’ve devised to mark how we silence them forever.
Reach back and remember your rage—written in the old sources, not available in gift shops—how you ripped into your monks when they succumbed to comfort. How you threw sick brothers out of a too-posh house; how you ordered a library in Bologna burned—monks can’t own anything, not even books, you ranted. How you cursed the monk who loved the books, refused his brother monks’ pleas for mercy, and sent a burning drop of sulfur to bore through his skull.
If you can work miracles—and some here believe ruined crucifixes talked to you, and I’ll believe anything if it works—come out from under your stifling cloak of mildness and try again. Preach to us of poverty, because if we were poor we wouldn’t be here. Stare down your failure and ours—that insistence on heaven at the expense of earth. You’re the only one who can, at least here. You went alone out into the winter woods and embraced the feared she-wolf of Gubbio because you knew she killed from hunger. So do we. Dare us to strip off our wrinkle-resistant travel separates in this same piazza, cast us to our knees, not to pray but to feel our flesh and bones hard against the terrifying stone and wet, saving dirt. “All which you used to avoid will bring you great sweetness and joy,” you said. We will chant it. Then send us home to keep stripping away, to reveal our naked, joyful animal bodies.
Now that our vision must adjust to the frescoes’ seismic cracks, it could well be the birds were preaching back.
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Originally published in Dark Mountain Journal, Vol 1, Summer 2010.