When we reached Assisi and our pension, Casa Papa Giovanni, I walked to my room and opened the shutters. Beyond the edge of town, the sun shone over fields of sunflowers in the valley. The bells of St. Mary of the Angels tolled as swallows danced in patterns above the roof tops. My shoulders relaxed, my breathing slowed, and I briefly forgot about losing luggage and defining literary pilgrimage. I sensed that the landscape beyond the window frame held deep connections to the spirit of Francis’ story. An hour later, everyone gathered in a small room where we each received a written pilgrimage guide and then shared the Eucharist. Afterwards we ate a home-cooked Italian meal. A community was forming.
I can still remember that moment when I opened the shutters and saw Assisi below me over a decade ago – in late June 2003. The following week was a marvel of pilgrimage – of time to reflect, opportunities to talk, challenges to take, and stories to hear. I went to observe this practice of pilgrimage and became a pilgrim myself – following St. Francis of whom I had previously known only a little. Spurred on by the words of our guides and fellow pilgrims, I moved into a rhythm of pilgrimage allowing the stories, place, and my own experiences to stir up my previous ideas of such a journey – and even the life of Christian faith.
God called Francis to rebuild the church – not merely the single building of San Damiano where he heard this call and whose stone walls were literally crumbling – but Christ’s Church, His body. This human representative of Jesus Christ on earth was falling apart as an institution and a group of faithful believers. In response to his call, Francis dedicated himself to living as Jesus – not pontificating on what the Bible means, but living Jesus’ teachings as radical as they may appear. Among many things, he left his dream of becoming a victorious knight, turned away from his father who did not support his new life, started a new religious order, served the poor and outcast (including lepers), and preached a gospel that included experiencing God in real and dramatic ways.
Ian Morgan Cron in the novel Chasing Francis takes readers on a pilgrimage to Assisi as he follows the journey of a successful evangelical pastor who can no longer abide the structure and politics of the church he founded. The exterior programs and preaching does not mesh with the interior rumblings of his soul and what he is discovering in scripture. Several months in Assisi visiting sites of Francis and engaging with Franciscans re-centers his view of the church. Through the stories and places associated with Francis he learns the freedom of living a radical gospel through this man who lived an impoverished life, questioned the worlds’ values, and ecstatically praised God.
What does this new church look like? A church of life – creating art, caring for the poor, living Jesus’ teachings, sharing community, stewarding the environment, and seeking out true meaning. Such a church is not centered on programs, but on Christ and his people. At the end of the novel Cron paints an idealistic picture as the protagonist starts a new church with 40 people packed into his condo.
When I put down this novel, I started to remember my time in Assisi and the new eyes I had developed. I had an eagerness to re-engage with a living faith – incarnating Christ, experiencing God, accepting my poverty, and even holding the leper. My heart still skips a beat when I recall that time that opened up my understanding of God, of Christ, and of the church. But, how can I bring that decade-old experience into my life today?
Whether its remembering my pilgrimage to Assisi or treading this novel of another’s pilgrimage there, I am drawn to new ways of seeing the church. Yet, not long after these leadings, I’m often drawn right back into the safety of the institution. Maybe it’s time to open another window, this time not to view the buildings of Assisi below, but the hope of a new church right in front of me. This is a gathering of people in mission – maybe to the campus, to the city – that goes out and lives the mission beyond the crumbling walls of the church. Not re-creating culture within a Christian safety net, but bringing this living faith into the world. What a beautiful view! Now to step into it.