Week One in Spello, Umbria



May 24 Last Saturday Amy and I trained from Rome to Spello, our new home for four weeks. Since the second class train car was full Amy and I stood for most of the time. After a few stops passengers emptied from the train car, so I took a seat in a four seat section, and Amy took a seat in another. Next to me and facing each other were two African men, occasionally speaking English. One was dressed casually with a sweater, the other with a clerical collar, and both looked to be in their 30s They were from Uganda. Uganda? They are students, friends from childhood in Uganda, but studying in different masters programs in Italy. They live in the east, which is mostly Christian, and to the north is mostly Muslim. I told them I was a Presbyterian pastor on sabbatical, and they explained that in Uganda there is the Christian Association of Uganda that unites all Christians together—Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox. Ferdinand got off at the next stop with us, helped us figure out which track we needed to be on for our connection, then carried Amy's bag down and up the stairs to the first track. He asked for my courtesy (business) card, and we continued our conversation on the next train. Ferdinand had a wonderful smile and laugh. He hopes to return to Uganda to teach at the seminary and continue in the ministry. Ferdinand is a Catholic priest in Uganda, finishing up his first year of his masters in Moral Theology, then in another year will pursue his doctorate in the same subject, and eventually go back to Uganda to pastor and teach in the seminary.


We arrived at the very small (no attendant) station in Spello around 3pm. We walked up (literally up the hill) to the town, asking direction along the way. We found the enoteca and greeted Roberto, and his workers Camella, Loreta and Domenica. We sat down immediately to a feast lunch of assorted bruscetta topped with white or black truffle, arugula spread, sundried tomato spread and plain bruscetta drizzled with organic, local, fruity olive oil; zuppa de fragiole, a typical bean soup and some local wine, a perfect beginning to an afternoon nap! Domenica and Camella showed us to our place—a beautifully restored medieval building with pavers, dark wood cabinets, new appliances and a bedroom/loft upstairs with a view and cool breeze. Later that afternoon we discovered Geoff Haskell had died, so we contacted Kendra and began to make plans to return to SFO for his service, June 5.

On Sunday we went to worship at the San Lorenzo Church. We didn't understand most of the Italian, except that it was Pentecoste and I recognized the readings from John 14 (Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit), Romans 8 (living by the spirit and not by the flesh), and Acts 2 (the Holy Spirit's coming at Pentecost). I loved the silence between the readings and the prayers. After the service we lit four candles for Kendra and the kids, praying for God's grace, comfort, peace and love to cover and surround them.
We walked 14km to Assisi after church along the old Via degli Ulivi road. We left too late (11:00) and we missed the right road twice, so we got an even later start. We walked along the contours of Mount Subasio, through terraced olive orchards, poppies, oaks and pines, a duck farm, a donkey guarding a large house, small villages and eventually arrived at Assisi. We were so tired we only made it to the tourist bus stop and ate the worst lunch yet in Italy: frozen pizza and pasta noodles with meat (really?) sauce. We took a taxi, then the train back to Spello. We cleaned up, watched a beautiful purple and orange sunset, and had dinner at the enoteca. Meals are typically three hours long, full of conversation with travelers from Australia or London or North Carolina or New York; professors, lawyers, school teachers. We keep learning more Italian from Carlo, Roberto's brother who retired a few years ago the thirty year philosophy professor and speaks Italian "piano e piano" (slowly). We laughed because we couldn't think how to say apple in Italian. El fruto rosso o verdi… I motioned like I was picking it from the tree and sound effects for crunch. It wasn't until I mentioned Adan e Eva, that he said "O, mela!" We laughed.
Slept all night, and woke up to birds chirping instead of mopeds and cars, and a strong espresso. Painted a poppy we saw on yesterday's journey and made our first visit to the Santa Maria Maggiore Church to see the paintings. We had our prayer time in the Chapel of Confession. Both Pinturiccio and Perugino have paintings in this collegiate church. Very impressive and well preserved.

Wednesday, May 26 This is our fourth day in Spello and getting used to the rhythm of this slow hill town. Nothing like fast paced Rome where you can get a metro/bus pass at the tabbachi shop and jump on any bus coming down the Vittorio Emmanuele Corso. No. Here there are buses every now and then, and tickets for said bus are sold at the giornale stand, but not the tabacchi store, which has the train ticket business. So, we walk between both stands, the bus stop and the train station (with no attendant) and try to figure out how to travel most efficiently to Assisi. Fortunately, we have books to read, a sketch book to draw and paint and nothing but time on our hands. We enjoy our prayer times in the medieval churches or on the train, or in a park.

The views from Spello are remarkable from every angle: north across the valley to Perugia, or south toward Spoleto, or back toward the hills, it's all beautiful. We can see Assisi perched on the same hillside 14 kilometers away. A few windows sparkle when the sun goes down. Sunset a few nights ago with the German pilgrims, nuns and non-nuns "from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same may the name of the Lord be praised" was very moving.

We made arrangements to fly back for Geoff's service in Pleasanton, Saturday June 5. Our theme is pilgrimage, and I can see how this interruption or surprise is also a kind of pilgrimage in itself. How ironic that we will go from visiting all things San Francesco, to flying to San Francisco. There should be hundreds, if not a few thousand people at Geoff's service, many students and families from our years together in Moraga, but many more from the churches he's served, the community and schools. God is going to show up, showing himself to be a good God and will be glorified in Geoff's life and death.

We are reading a few books in preparation for our classes in Orvieto which begin June 20: One volume containing Saint Bonaventure's The Soul's Journey of the Soul into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of Saint Francis, all written in the second half of the 13th century, and has some imaginative ways of contemplating Jesus' life death and resurrection; Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality, which reflects on our obsession as a western world with all things medieval; for fun we are reading Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth, a story of church building in the middle ages. Reading these books in a medieval town in medieval churches is very special.


Thursday, May 27 We arrived at Assisi, this time in the late morning by a short train from Spello, then a bus from the station. We climbed the streets toward the Chiesa San Francesco and joined a mass with a pilgrimage group from the US. We went with others through the side chapels, the frescoes, and the humble chapel that holds Francis' remains, as well as the remains of his four friends on walls surrounding his tomb.


There are a few memorable stories of Saint Francis (1182-1226) that demonstrate his values of humility, obedience, simplicity and charity. He was worshipping below the crucifix at the church of San Damiano when he had a vision of Jesus saying, "Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin." Francis took "rebuild my house" literally by selling his father's cloth to pay for the renovation of San Damiano, which was crumbling. Francis also accomplished the rebuilding of the Church by being a humble example of the life of Jesus. Amy and I prayed under the same cross, which is now hanging in the Chapel of the Crucifix in the church of Saint Clare. His prayer is one of submission to God's will:

Most high, glorious God, cast your light into the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, right faith, firm hope, perfect charity, and profound humility, with wisdom and perception, so that I may carry out what is truly your holy will. Amen.

Francis renounced all earthly possessions in public before the Bishop of Assisi and his father, by taking off his clothes and giving them to his father. His father was incensed by the act of ingratitude, and the Bishop admired Francis' simple, humble faith. There is a room below the chancel of the lower church that contains interesting relics of Francis' life, including his tunic. It was made of simple, inexpensive material and is patched with sack cloth. The irony is Francis came from a wealthy cloth vendor, who could have supplied Francis and all the minor brothers with beautiful tunics and vestments. But Francis denied all his father could provide for him, and instead, looked up to his heavenly father to provide all he needed.
Francis is known for preaching to the birds, not because he didn't like people, but he had a great sense that all creatures were made by God to show God's wonder, power and glory. Francis prayed for peace—personally praying that he would be peace in relationships where God called him. Francis made a pilgrimage to the court of the Sultan Melek-El-Kamel, where he engaged the Muslim (Saracen) leader in debate around faith. El-Kamel was not converted, but he was impressed with Francis. Because of this relationship, the Franciscans were given custody of the Holy Land for all of Christianity during Islamic Rule beginning in the thirteenth century. Francis was a deacon of the church, but was never ordained as a priest. Pope Innocent III was moved by his humility and approved the order of the Friars Minor, after Francis believed a rule was important to govern his growing community.


Francis was committed to Christ and to becoming more like him. His character of humility made him attractive even to non-believers and to Bishops and Popes. His Simple Prayer is maybe his most famous and one that could be prayed every day in preparation for being Christ to the world. Francis was known to be the person who most exemplified Christ.


A Simple Prayer: O Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace; Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is resentment, let me bring forgiveness. Where this is discord, let me bring unity. Where there is doubt, let me bring faith. Where there is error, let me bring truth. Where there is despair, let me bring happiness. Where there is sadness let me bring joy. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. O Master grant that I may desire rather: To console than to be consoled; to understand rather than to be understood; to love rather than to be loved. Because it is in giving that we receive; In forgiving that we obtain forgiveness; In dying that we rise to eternal life.
Saint Clare (1194-1253) followed Francis' example by dedicating her life to prayer and renouncing her worldly possessions. Francis consecrated her at age 18 to a life of penitence, cut her hair and dressed her in the Franciscan habit. She formed a small community and preached a life of poverty and charity in the church of San Damiano called the Poor Ladies, which later was known as the Poor Clares. She lived there for 42 years, outliving Francis by 27 years. Her order was approved by the Pope Innocent IV just two years before her death—the first woman to receive a papal bull for an order. A few of the quotes I found inspiring,



Totally love Him who gave Himself over totally for love of you.
Ever since I have know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ no suffering has been bothersome, no penance too severe, no infirmity has been hard.
And the blessing of Saint Clare, taken from Numbers 6:24-27: Our Lord bless thee and keep thee. May He show his face to thee and have mercy on thee. May He turn His countenance to thee and give thee peace. Our Lord be with thee at all times, and grant that thou be in Him always!
Assisi is full of tributes to Francis and to Clare. Their stories and their influence live on almost eight centuries later. Assisi is known to be the place where different religions find peace and common ground. I don't think it is fair to make Francis a universalist in order to understand his ability to engage with those of other faiths. His humility and desire for all people to know God and to see God in all creation inspired him to live like Jesus, which was the attraction that made the dialogue possible.
What do we make of the relics, the bones, the paintings? The middle ages were known for pilgrimage sites that inspired the faithful. Stories of miracles, healings, visions that came from bones and stones pointed to the power of God at work through the saints. The danger is honoring the saint without believing the same power of God to make us "saints." Do we put the saint on a pedestal so high we cannot be like Christ ourselves? Do we come to pay homage to the saint, or do we come to be inspired to live for God? The miracle many are looking for might be the miracle of following after God with the same devotion and being Christ to the world. O Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace…
Painters, architects and sculptors of wood and marble used their god-given talent to design great art, break through barriers of perspective and realism, to capture more and more clearly the stories of scripture and the saints and to bring glory to God. Bishops, popes, kings built churches, cathedrals, houses of prayer in order to honor God and the saints who honored God. These tangible signs have helped pilgrims for eight centuries worship God and remember the stories of God through Francis and Clare. How are we using our gifts and creativity to tell stories to generations to come? How do we help today's pilgrims follow after God with all their hearts? Totally love Him who gave Himself over totally for love of me
This morning we worshipped with the nuns in a convent a few doors down with a woman from North Carolina who is staying in the convent. Out of respect for Catholic theology we are participating in worship by we aren't taking communion. We are finding ways to engage with them in their worship, see how God is present. We know how to pass the peace (pace) and how to say the Lord's prayer when they say it in Italian. They worship the Lord every morning with mass at 7:45. There's something there about loving God totally.
Lots to think about and process right now. Glad we're here.

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