I’ve been wandering around the beautiful town of Assisi, Italy for several days. It’s an ancient Umbrian village filled with historic and religious sites, especially those that commemorate the places where Saint Francis once lived, and worked, and prayed. Tourists arrive in droves daily to catch a glimpse of the original San Damiano crucifix, or to pray in the spots where St. Francis and St. Claire once prayed, or to stand near the tombs of these two great saints. And everywhere we turn we read stories about how Francis and Claire lived their lives with a zealous love for God — a love that was so great it still inspires people nearly eight hundred years later.
As I watch the people come and go through the churches, past the tombs, the statues, and the many historic locations, I can sense that they desperately want a fragment of the holiness these saints possessed. They want to take home the holy water, the small San Damiano crucifixes, the prayers cards, and anything else that might exude even a small fraction of the grace that Francis and Claire possessed. I can sense the longing in the air. I can feel the desperation. I can see the fervent petitioning as people touch the statues, the walls, and drop to their knees in adoration.
I realize as I watch the passersby that we all want the easy way out. We want a guideline for holiness and a clearcut way to God. We want Francis and Claire to touch us with their spirits here in this place — to transform us in some way by sharing even just a molecule of the grace they received from God. We think holiness is there for the taking if we could just reach out and touch it, or if we get close enough to the spirit of those who attained it. We are looking outward for a sign, a recipe, or a relic, but so few are looking inward. If only all I had to do was to come to a place such as this and inhale the sweet aroma of grace — to be transformed by the faith journeys of those who have gone before me.
And as I look more closely at my fellow pilgrims, I realize that in my midst are living stones, and we are here trying to draw spirit from lifeless rocks. I can almost hear Saints Francis and Claire shouting, Look within! Look to your left! Look to your right! You are the living stones!” (1 Peter 2:5). God is already in your midst (Luke 17:21), and He was long before you got to this beautiful place. Don’t look away from the eyes of your neighbors to gaze into the statues before you. Be inspired by our lives, and then love one another (John 13:34).
Not to worry, we’re in good company. Saint Francis began diligently rebuilding a dilapidated physical church when he heard God’s voice beckoning him to, “Rebuild my church.” It wasn’t until many years later that he realized God was actually calling him to build up the community that is the Church. Certainly, rebuilding the stone structure would have been simpler than transforming the hearts of the community. But pilgrims would not come to Assisi if all St. Francis did was repair a building. They come, pray, and marvel because a simple man transformed an entire town and so many around the world throughout the ages, with a simple message of love, peace, and all good. It’s a message that soars above the buildings, the stones, and the statues. It is carried far beyond the holy town, as on the wings of eagles by the same Spirit that dwells with and in you and me (John 14: 17).
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