Editor’s note: Pat Maloney is the Principal Director for Joint Operational Programs for Aerospace at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and one of FMS’ Board members. As a guest blogger for FMS’ Advent blog series, Pat reflects on her recent trip to Rome and Assisi and shares the opportunities she had to live out her faith.
Patience is a virtue, but it has never been one I am particularly good at. During this Advent Season of awaiting the Christ Child, of awaiting Love born into the world, I am reflecting upon my recent trip to Rome and Assisi and how I was not only given the opportunity (again!) to learn patience, but to live out the words and acts of St. Francis.
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I was in Rome for a conference, the European Meteorological Satellite Conference. The conference ended at noon on a Friday, so I boarded a train to Assisi right afterwards. I had made the train reservation on my mobile, and I got to the train immediately after the gate was announced. I was feeling very lucky, and people passed by and did not sit “in my space.” (I was in a four-person seating arrangement, two by two facing each other.) Then, along came a young woman who sat next to me. Still, we had the space across from us free. Then, a middle-aged couple, with a father, entered the space, with the two men sitting across from us. They carried a lot of luggage: one crate was about 18” long, 12” wide, and 8” high and was labeled “Mozzarella di Bufala.”
I was a little peeved that “my space” had been invaded, so I turned my attention to the books I had brought along from the Franciscan Missions: one on Francis, one on Clare, and one on Anthony. It was a beautiful ride from Rome to Assisi, especially as we got closer to Assisi and saw rolling hills, few buildings, and horses and cattle grazing in the green-turning-to-brown fields.
At one point, I lifted my head and noticed that the elderly gentleman was wearing a Tau, the symbol of the Third Order Franciscans, TOR. I immediately wanted to engage with him, but I know very, very little Italian, and he knew no English. So I held up three fingers, and said, “Francisco?” He immediately gave me a large smile and wanted to communicate. With the help of the young woman next to me and an English/Italian translation app on my mobile, I found out that he, his son, and his daughter-in-law were going to a festival in Assisi, this being the Friday after Francis’ feast day on Wednesday, October 4. They were amazed to know I was going by myself to Assisi. I told them that if I could go to Jakarta, Indonesia by myself from the States, I could certainly take a train from Rome to Assisi by myself. So we parted, wishing each other well, and I was left, no longer peeved, reminding myself that we encounter Christ everywhere. We just need to lift our heads from our books (or electronics) and reach out.
The next morning, I walked the little over a mile up to St. Francis’ Basilica along a road paved with red bricks has about a 25 degree incline. So, the mile+ was about 35 minutes, and those of us walking it were encouraging one another. Reaching the top, I wound my way through the town to the Basilica, getting more and more agitated as the number of people increased. Then, we had to pass through a military checkpoint (there were soldiers everywhere), and I saw that the numbers were huge in the courtyard and in the lower church. I kept asking myself, “Where was the peace of St. Francis that I had been expecting?”
I did not stay long in the lower church—did not even go to the crypt where St. Francis was buried—as the lines were SO long. I did stop at the entrance, and had a mass said for Fr Justin Biase, OFM Conventual, a dear friend who had just unexpectedly passed away. So, wanting to get away from the crowds, I wandered upstairs to a small museum that, thankfully, had very few visitors. On the way out, I noticed a book in English on the Tau and purchased it. After realizing the museum worker spoke English, I shared that I had been downstairs and requested that a mass be said for a dear friend, a Conventual, who had just passed. “Justin?,” he inquired. It turns out that he was an American TOR and knew a lot of American Conventuals! We talked of Justin and the peace I was looking for started to imbue my spirit. I definitely was receiving grace!
After leaving the lower church and the Basilica (I did not even attempt to go in the Upper Church) and then climbing to the Fortress on the top of the hill (again, good physical exercise), I came down on the other side of town. I was looking for San Damiano, the church where Christ told Francis to “go and repair my church,” and where Clare and her sisters were first housed. There, one reflects on the simplicity and humility that exemplify Franciscans and the Poor Clares to this day. This was also the place that Francis, very ill and bearing the stigmata, went out to an olive tree field and wrote the “Canticle of the Creatures.” There is a beautiful statue of him among the olive trees, and upon seeing it, the feeling of peace and grace came over me again. This lasted for the rest of the day. Truly, we cannot know when or where Christ will enter our lives. We must be patient, and as the first Sunday of Advent readings say, we must be on watch for we know neither the day nor the hour.
The next day was Sunday, and though I had meant to rise for the early English Mass at Francis’ Basilica in the Upper Church, I slept in. So I decided instead to go to Clare’s Basilica, which is at the other end of town from Francis’. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day, as they all had been, and many families were out, either going to or coming from Mass. Unfortunately, I missed the last Mass at St Clare’s, and so I wandered around the town.
Assisi is quite small end to end, maybe less than 1.5 miles, and filled with beautiful old buildings, churches large and small, many convents, and many places to eat. But this was Sunday afternoon, and many families had come for their Sunday dinners, so all three places that had been recommended to me were full. I wandered down a side street and came across a Brasserie where. I decided to have my big meal then and feasted on a veal steak, complete, of course, with the house wine.
After, down I went again to my B&B, only to go back up the hill once more for the 6:30 pm mass in the lower Church. I reached it in very good time, and the line to the crypt was non-existent, so I spent some time in prayer before Francis’ tomb. Mass was beautiful in Italian—why does it seem more mystical in a foreign language?—and I was able to enjoy the mosaics on the wall of the church with no tourists around.
When I exited the Basilica, it was 7:30 pm and quite dark. The building was lit beautifully outside, with one tank in the courtyard the only sign of security…I recall feeling a bit nervous, as the shops were closed and the path was looking a little dark. But the brick-covered path was well-lit, and I said a rosary to assuage my fears as I walked alone. Passing the Franciscan Seminary, and I said a pray of thanks, thinking, “I have found my peace by being open; I have found my peace by being patient and waiting, I have found my peace in Assisi, and look forward to finding it renewed wherever the journey takes me.”
Reflection question: Where do you find your peace during this season of Advent?