By Roselinde Bon
I wander through the cobbled streets of Assisi, full of balconies with vibrant little flowers. On every corner, I notice the overwhelming historic ambiance of central Italy; ancient and medieval traces from centuries and centuries of human activity. While slowly approaching the Basilica di Santa Chiara, I realize the summer crowds that surround me aren’t the usual selfie-snapping tourists.
There are small groups of nuns everywhere, wearing white, blue, or black habits and veils. The colors of their clothing vary, and so do the colors of their skin. Assisi seems to draw believers and pilgrims from every corner of the globe.
A few seconds later, a group of what sounds like American monks walk by. Their flowy, light grey habits make soft rustling sounds. I hear them laughing and chatting about the town’s history, looking around with large eyes and big smiles on their faces. They seem to be heading to the Basilica of Saint Francis, making their way on their brown leather sandals.
Others had chosen to not wear any shoes at all, like the woman dressed in white, resting near the church while reading her book. She was clearly walking solo, but she was not alone. I spotted many more modern-day pilgrims, equipped with backpacks, walking sticks, and the occasional dog. They’re walking the Camino di Francesco, which follows the footsteps of Saint Francis.
I wondered: how exactly did Assisi become a place of pilgrimage? And after so many centuries, what makes so many people retrace the paths of the medieval pilgrims?
In order to answer these questions, we will have to travel back to the 12th century. It all started with Saint Francis of Assisi, who was born around 1181. Of course, Francis wasn’t born with that title. The saint started his life as the son of a wealthy Italian silk merchant and a noblewoman from France.
Francis grew up to be a rich young man, wearing fine robes and spending money without giving it much thought. As he became an adult, however, and began to see more of the world, Francis grew disillusioned. He went through many experiences that made him doubt his lifestyle.
In the following years, Francis started to completely change his life. He stopped wearing shoes, went on a pilgrimage to Rome as a beggar and continuously asked God for spiritual enlightenment. The relationship with his father became so hostile that Francis eventually had to renounce his inheritance and broke things off.
Francis completely changed his life around and rejected his wealth. He stopped wearing shoes and went on a pilgrimage to Rome as a beggar.
Later on, Francis also began to preach (illegally) in the streets of Assisi. He wanted to convince the people to devote themselves to a life of poverty and walk in the footsteps of Christ. That’s what Francis found as a spiritual answer: living a life of peacefulness and great modesty, or even poverty.
Francis quickly gained more and more followers, and this eventually became the Franciscan Order. One of his first and most loyal followers was Saint Clare of Assisi, who founded the Order of the Poor Clares for women. She was the first woman to write a set of monastic guidelines. The order continued to grow in members, and when Francis eventually died in 1226, he was pronounced a saint by the Pope.
The very next day, the Pope (who had become friends with Francis), laid the first stone of what would become the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. The tomb of Saint Francis was hidden in the Lower Basilica, so nobody with ill intent could ever find it.
The tomb was finally rediscovered in 1818, and anyone can still visit the crypt of Saint Francis today. Likewise, Saint Clare’s crypt is located in another church that was constructed after her death: the Basilica of Saint Clare, which is also open to the public.
Francis evidently left a legacy within the Catholic faith, but he is remembered by many more around the globe. Francis wasn’t only known for his teachings, but was also respected for his love for animals. This is why he is still considered the patron saint of animals: World Animal Day is on October 4, which is the feast say of Saint Francis.
Once, the story goes, a brother rescued a rabbit from a trap and brought it to Francis. The rabbit refused to leave his side, even when Francis took it back to the forest. Other stories describe how birds would never fly away when Francis approached them, and they quietly listened to his voice when he preached. The most famous tale is one that describes how Francis tamed a dangerous wolf, who had been pestering the people in the town of Gubbio.
Some of you might be wondering what it means to visit Assisi when you’re not religious yourself. Do you have to believe in the values that Saint Francis used to preach? The truth is: I don’t follow any religion either. I don’t believe in anything in particular, but I can sense the weight of everything we will never know for sure. One thing is certain: the story of Saint Francis is a fascinating one.
Assisi is a place that shows how powerful thoughts can become physical, and how a philosophy that started with a few can shape an entire town for many centuries.
Roselinde Bon, a Netherlands-based travel writer and photographer, blogs at www.globonaut.eu.Follow us on social media