In the little town of Assisi, Italy, high in the hills of Umbria, there is the most incredible views, adorable artisan shops, and an overwhelming sense of peace and beauty. This is one of the most special cities in Italy, and worth visiting for people from all backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures. It is also very friendly and safe for visitors, with many of the main sites right off the main streets that run through the city.
The City of Peace is where St. Francis (founder of the Franciscan religious order) and St. Clare (founder of the Poor Sisters) were born, and where they now lay to rest. I believe their presence and lives spent in service are what make this such a sacred place to visit.
St. Francis was inspired by the words of Jesus Christ to devote himself to a life of poverty, during a time in which materialism and greed was ever present in the Church. He clad himself in a rough garment (Franciscan habit), walked barefoot, and would expose himself to extreme weather and often partake in fasting. Through his example of self-control, he showed that the joy and love of God could be present all ways, and without condition despite outward circumstances. He preferred to sleep in caves, pray within nature, and to live simply and humbly with what he was given day by day by God, as Jesus Christ had lived.
Saint Clare was a devout Christian and follower of the order of poverty that St. Francis inspired in Assisi. St. Francis received her vows of poverty and bestowed upon her the Franciscan habit in 1212. He placed her in a convent at St. Damian’s, where she helped to spread the order of the Franciscan nuns. St. Clare was a close friend of Brother Leo and other companions of St. Francis, and St. Francis and she were said to have a beautiful friendship founded in their love for Christ. St. Clare understood the inner most ray of light that St. Francis expressed.
St. Francis is known for many of his miracles and beautiful sermons, but many people know the story of his special sermon to the birds. St. Francis gave this sermon in the town of Savurniano, when the people there would not hear him. St. Francis began to preach to the swallows in the trees, bidding them to be silent as he spoke and blessed them. He told them to be grateful and joyful, and to give thanks to God for all the gifts they had received. Upon hearing of this miracle, and seeing the incredible devotion with which St. Francis spoke, people from the town too began to come and to hear him and be spiritually healed.
The San Damiano Cross is another of the miracles exemplified in the life and service of St. Francis. As he knelt in a chapel to pray before this cross, it spoke to him saying, “Go, Francis, and repair My house which is falling into ruin.” At first, Francis misunderstood and began to repair the San Damiano Chapel that housed the cross. He began this repair work completely alone (stone by stone), but through his devotional acts of selfless service, he magnetized more and more people to help him. Many in turn then joined the Franciscan order and its new expression of Christ discipleship. He fulfilled the original duty given to him, in the true way it was meant, by shedding a new light on Christianity and the essential teachings of love, humility, service, and joy; in the end helping to rebuild the Catholic Church.
The chapel which he rebuilt is called the Porziuncola, and is known to be the place in which the Franciscan movement began. Today, the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli houses the little chapel. You can easily find and enter the Porziuncola within the Basilica, and pray or meditate at one of the many benches. Then you can be still and feel the incredible spirit of St. Francis’s devotion and love present to this day within the confines of the walls. It is extremely worthwhile to stop here before or after a day in the city of Assisi, as it is about 2.5 miles (4 km) below the town itself.
Once you enter the town of Assisi, the most powerful places to visit are the two main basilicas, one dedicated to St. Francis and the other to St. Clare. Both saints are present in their tombs at their basilica, and have remained in a perfect state of preservation (without visible decay), since their death hundreds of years ago.
The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi is a World Heritage Site, built after St. Francis’s death. There are several levels to the Basilica, but the most powerful is the lowest level where you can sit and pray or meditate in the presence of his tomb. The energy there is very powerful, joyful, and uplifting, one of the most powerful spaces that I experienced during my spiritual travels in Italy.
The Basilica of Santa Chiara is dedicated to Saint Clare. Upon entering the basilica, there is the original San Damiano Cross cross hanging from the ceiling. In addition, below there is a wonderful museum with artifacts depicting the friendship, dedication, and service that St. Clare and St. Francis shared together. This includes the Francescan habit with the wounds of stigmata St. Francis received, as St. Clare would often take care to clean and dress them. As you enter the lowest level with her tomb, there are many beautiful paintings on the walls that depict their original teachings, so take the time to read them and allow their true meaning to enter your heart.
The following is the Prayer of Saint Francis:
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;
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.
Blessings on your journey.
Suggested Book: The Little Flowers of Saint Francis