You can find Francis everywhere in Assisi. He was born in 1181 and was the founder of a brotherhood that became the Franciscan order. Born into a middle class family, he worked with his father until aged twenty. He chose to take part in a crusade in view of perhaps becoming a knight. He became ill, not very far from Assisi and returned home dejected and without purpose. Some time later he received a vision from God that led him to ultimately shed himself of worldly goods. He was confident that God would take care of him as God takes care of the birds. Francis, according to tradition, created the first nativity scenes so Assisi is famous for their olive wood nativity sets. The symbol of the Tau cross, named for the Greek letter it represents can be found in every souvenir shop. This is a simple cross, made of wood that reflects the restrained and unadorned attribute of the Franciscan order.
A diversion from Francis is the annual May festival that occurs for four days on the first weekend in May. The streets are filled with people dressed in medieval costumes preparing for their performance in the main town square. No one knows the origins of the event but the first recorded instance is in about 1389. The Calendimaggiodiassisi has citizens from the surrounding communities competing for the best drummers, musicians, parades, costumes, etc. A noisy, colourful happening with all ages participating.
Today the pilgrims time-travelled from the 6th C. CE to the 12th C in the town of Assisi. Assisi is famous for the mystic, Francis and we have come here to discover the man and the myths that contribute to his renown as an example of living simply. The town is high on a hill with a ruined castle, Rocco Maggiore on the highest point.
Lynne had some words to say about mystics. She quoted Dorothea Soelle, “A Mystic is someone who has a “longing for God”, a sense of union with God or seeking union with God. No navel-gazers but world-changers.
Tomorrow we will learning more about Francis and Clare, who knew Francis and created an order, herself.
Our accommodations on this pilgrimage have spanned from a pleasant tourist hotel in Rome, to a former palace in Ravenna. Now we are residing in a convent, plain but homey with spectacular views of the Umbrian plain below.
This morning we encountered the Emperor Justinian in the great Ravenna church, San Vitale. The church was named for the martyr, San Vitale, who had died two centuries before at the hand of Domition. For me, there are two main attributes in this church. The marble floor and the amazing mosaic murals that depict the Emperor Justinian on one side of the apse and his wife, Theodora and her retinue on the other side of the apse. These two are god-like in their appearance, as was common for the depiction of Emperors in Rome.
We also met Gallida Placida, a very powerful woman who eventually was entitled to create a mausoleum for herself, which we visited. Gallida Placida’s remains are not there but the jewel box of a small chapel is left for us to admire. There are sumptuous mosaics showing doves at a birdbath, which is one of the symbols seen throughout the city of Ravenna.
Today was the day to go to the Lido, the beach area of Ravenna. The weather was on the cool side with sprinkles of rain, hardly a deterrent for us. Most of us waded in the Adriatic Sea and one of us even swam. A refreshing change of pace.
Returning from the beach we settled into creating our own mosaics.
Lynne reminded us of a quote from theologian, Richard Niebuhr, which resonatedparticularly with me. “Pilgrims are persons in motion – passing though territories not their own, – seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps clarity.”
Another day in Ravenna to visit the extraordinary mosaics that are being preserved through the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Following a lecture by Gerald and Lynne, we visited the Arian Baptistry and the Basilica S. Apollinare Nuovo. These structures were built in the 6th C. CE by the Goths, the people who ransacked the Romans and gradually took over as the power of Rome.
Entering the sanctuary of the Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, we could see the brilliant mosaics, dating from Theodoric, the Gothic ruler, early 6th C.E. The mosaics line both sides of the nave. Woman saints lined the left side and the male saints were on the right. Each saint carried a crown, indicating that they were martyred. Surprisingly, each saint was named. Above the register with the saints were panels depicting bible stories. The top register had paintings that showed the life of Christ. On the left side are stories of Jesus encountering people and on the right side there are scenes that depict the stories of the Passion. One of my favourite scenes is of the Magi approaching Mary and the baby. They look like a bit like three pixies but they are wearing the royal garb of the day. They are named and this is the first instance in art that we learn the names of the three wise men.
We then moved over to the Arian Baptisry, which, again, had breathtaking artistry on the ceiling. Our pilgrims were determined to see the ceiling at the best vantage point, which was to lie on the floor. The Baptistry was an eight-sided building, which contained a full immersion baptismal font during the time of use. The Baptistry was a separate building from the church. After several years of instruction a prospective Christian would be fully immersed in the baptismal pool and emerge as a Christian who was then permitted to worship in the sanctuary.
The ceiling of the Baptistry is totally covered in mosaic tile, made from precious stone – rhodite, lapis lazuli and other colourful stones. The figure of Christ is totally nude, with the image of his naked body showing through the shimmering water. There are two other figures, one being John the Baptist, the other is believed to be Neptune. Some scholars believe the Neptune figure to be a personification of the Jordan River. As Lynne said in her lecture, “Beauty is a way to see something about God.” Through these stunning mosaic murals, we have a glimpse into the ancient Christians’ perception of God and Jesus.
After a four hour drive from Rome we arrived at The Basilica of S. Apollinare in Classe, our goal for the day. The basilica was built in the 6th C. CE and the relics of the first bishop of Ravenna, Apollinare are interred in the high altar. The apse of the church has the magnificent mosaic that we came to see. It is huge and the detail in the tile work is exquisite.
When approaching the site, the bell tower is immediately apparent. The 37.5 meter high tower looms over a statue of the Emperor Augusta. The interior of the church is a standard basilica style with a nave and two side aisles, separated by parellel rows of colums. It took a few minutes of staring at the apse to gain the full impact of the art. There is a cross, with a very tiny Jesus in the centre. Overhead there is a hand of God reaching down from heaven. Moses is on one side, Elijah is on the other. There is a large medallion of Jesus at the top of the piece and another showing the cross with ninety stars in the sky. Every detail is there to assist our understanding of Christ and his relationship with us and the world.
The Montecassino Monastery was founded by St. Benedict about 529 CE on the remnants of a temple to Apollo. The monastery became famous for the life of Benedict. He developed a set of rules, often cited as The Rule of St. Benedict. These were really guidelines for living in community. Following these rules gave a structure and balance between work and prayer. Time for worship was important, with seven offices a day, beginning at 4:40 am. I learned today that after the early morning office, one could return to bed for more sleep. It was essential that everyone did some manual labor, living out the premise that work and worship are one. It was important to study. Periods of fasting and feasting were part of living in the Benedictine community. One would give one’s possessions to the community in order to live a simple life. Extending hospitality was part of a monastery life. Perhaps one of the most important rules is one about authority, an obedience to the community. In essence, the life as a Benedictine was a balance between worship and work. Ora and Labor.
The site of the Montecassino monastery is at the top of a mountain. It has been destroyed and reconstructed several times, the most recent was after WW2 when the monastery was almost completely destroyed by the Allies. So what we see today is mostly a 60 year old structure that has incorporated bits and pieces from its previous existence.
Worshipping in a place where Christians have been worshipping continuously for over 1900 years is an awesome experience! Today we were privileged to be in the Basilica of St. Clemente in Rome for a few hours to appreciate the centuries old church that has ongoing archaeological exploration. After a warm welcome from Fr. Thomas McCarthy, OP, the prior of the Irish Dominican order who are the custodians of the church, Gerald and Lynne led a service in the Choir. This unusual Choir is a rectangular square in the center of the nave, surrounded by marble slabs, a gift from Constantine in the 4th Century AD.
In St. Clemente, it is possible to descend to the 1st. Century streets of Rome, visiting a Mithraic temple and the site of a house church. Between the bottom level and the existing church there is another church, in between. This church was from the 4th C. It is one of the few places in Rome where these layers of history are so very accessible.
To continue the history, we walked down the hill to the Roman Forum, an expanse of archaeological park where ruins of temples, palaces and basilicas are strewn over a vast site. It is difficult to pick out the forum and other elements of a Roman city from antiquity because so much has been added to it over time. In the 7th C. AD churches began to build their chapels so temples to Minerva and Juno became Christian churches. Today, the new underground transport Line C is being built right through the middle.
So when one of our pilgrims asked, “Where is the Forum”, I thought it was a good question.
The words of Psalm 27 end with the verse, “Wait for the Lord, be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”We read these words in a chapel, deep in the San Callisto Catacombs in Rome. We were finishing a tour with the guide explaining to us that we were in the place where the early Christians buried their dead. It had been the Roman practice to cremate the deceased but the Christians preferred to bury their dead in niches underground, where they could carry out their rituals in relative safety. The hope was that the body would resurrect at the time of the Second Coming. Frescoes in the tombs depict bread and fish, the raising of Lazarus, the Last Supper and other symbols of the faith of the Christians. Eternal symbols that we see today. Our guide had reminded us that the underground cemetery belongs to the Vatican. I was impressed that he said the underground chapels were for all people, no matter which denomination. We are all one!
Our last stop was to a space that had been, and still is a sacred place of worship. In fact, a number of popes had been buried in the area. We proceeded with our worship in this most ancient of places, 30 feet underground that had been used by Christians since the second century, AD. I experienced a strong connection to the communion of saints who have gone before us and a sense of the hope that was held by those early people of faith who had been so terribly persecuted. Singing John Bell’s hymn, Praise God forThis Holy Ground and the singing of the Sanctus gelled the experience of worshiping with the saints in their sacred space.
Of course, we visited the Colosseum, the site of cruel entertainment and vicious murders of Christians and pagans, alike. Architecturally, the structure is a wonder and has been restored over time after being left to crumble after the Empire collapsed in the fifth Century. At this point, only about 30% of the building remains from antiquity. It has an aura of gloom, despite the glorious weather. So many Christians were martyred on that site for just being a Christian.
On the twentieth annivesary of Peregrinatio Studies, leaders Gerald Hobbs and Lynne McNaughton are leading 38 pilgrims from Catacombs to Christendom: A Spiritual Journey in Central Italy.
In the opening session, Lynne pointed out that we are people on a journey. So why a pilgrimage and why this one? Perhaps we can find answers while on our travels to discover the ancient stories of our Christian past? During the next couple of days we will explore what it was like before Christ in the Roman Empire.
On pilgrimage, we are in transition. Lynne gave an image of being in transition having an end, then a time of uncertainty leading to a new beginning. That time of uncertainty is the place where God is in action.
Today we visited the Pantheon in the centre of Rome. This huge rotunda began as a temple to many gods, built by Agrippa during the time of Augustus 44 BCE- 14AD. The temple was destroyed and later rebuilt by Hadrian in about 120. It wasn’t until the 7th century that it was finally declared a Christian site. Although I have visited the Pantheon a number of times, entering the rotunda still causes me to catch my breath in awe of the architecture of beauty and grace of the immense dome, that is the model for all domes built since those early centuries.
Later we stopped at the Santa Croche Gerusalemme church, which holds a relic of the true cross. Given to Rome by St. Helena, Constantine”s mother in the 4th C., pilgrims have been visiting these relics for 1600 years, in faith.
Again, we ask ourselves, why pilgrimage and why this one?