San Damiano: More Learnings from Assisi

I am home again, and still in the process of metabolizing and assimilating our sojourn to Europe. Again I am brought back to Assisi… During our stay there (Pam and me), I took a walk to visit the ancient church San Damiano (a church so old it was falling down in Francis’ time) that Francis/Francesco had rebuilt with his own hands.

San Damiano’s Chapel where I meditated

The story goes that Francesco was praying before the altar of the then-falling-down San Damiano. As Francesco looked at the crucifix before the altar, it seemed to speak to him and said something to the effect of, “Francesco, my Church is falling down. It needs to be rebuilt.” Francesco, at first taking this message literally, immediately set out with great passion to rebuild San Damiano. (Later, BTW, Francis realized that that the voice was not speaking about physical church buildings, but the sorry state of the body of believers.) This led to his selling some of his father’s very expensive cloth, and the famous confrontation in front of the town and the Bishop of Assisi in which Francesco stripped naked and handed his clothing back to his father, telling him he was returning everything his father had given him, as now he had only “his Father in Heaven.” Thus Francesco renounced his large inheritance and embarked on his career as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. For a beautiful portrayal of this incident, I recommend Zeferrelli’s moving film on the early career of Francis, “Brother Sun Sister Moon.”

Anyway, I found myself walking to San Damiano by myself. Pam was elsewhere that day. The church is located about a kilometer out of the southern gate of Assisi, but seems much farther. This being mid-December I saw very few people on my journey. The church and the cobblestone path that leads there are still surrounded by groves of olive trees. When I reached San Damiano, I found the simple unadorned chapel and meditated for an hour. Even in Francis’ life time the San Damiano had been converted into a cloister for Francis’ first female followers, St. Claire and her sisters. Claire lived here until her death in 1253. After my meditation I walked through the cloister where Claire (Italian Chiara) and her fellow nuns had lived, and where they had cared for Francis in his final illness. Here he had composed his famous “Canticle to the Sun.”

San Damiano from in Front

During the meditation and subsequently, a great pain began to form in my heart center, and continued to intensify throughout my visit to San Damiano. As I have learned, I did not resist the pain but allowed it to be there. I was, however, puzzled. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but pain wasn’t it. As I was leaving the church I asked myself, “Why the pain?” The answer came in the words of Jesus, “He who would follow me must take up His cross.” What I took this to mean is that the path of spirituality, or contemplation, is not just about hanging out in the Light, but in a very real sense it means to open yourself up to your own personal pain, and also to the pain of the whole world. I was profoundly rocked by this insight and breathed deeply into my suffering heart. I felt new respect for and identification with Francis, Claire, and their brothers and sisters. Their heroic efforts to follow a path of love and humility, one that entailed tremendous suffering but also brought forth a radical joy, is said to be the mark of the true Franciscan spirit: radiant joy burning through the tears in an absolute loving embrace of all that is.

For the contemplative and for those of us on the path of spiritual transformation and awakening, pain is a gift and a teacher. Through our repetitive opening to all that is and all that arises in our daily interior practice, we learn to stay with and be with all that arises: the joy, pain, thoughts, boredom, impatience, feelings of emptiness and disconnection, and all that which arises in the infinite space that is our true Self. The feelings, emotions, and thoughts all arise, transform, and pass into the brilliant clarity of the Seer, the Witness, our “true face.” Paradoxically, perhaps, this opening to the relative world of form and change does not leave us in the Light while leaving the suffering and transitory nature of the relative world behind. Quite the contrary, it begins the union of Heaven and Earth, the transcendent and the eminent. The Dead world comes to life as we realize that within ourselves and without, there is no place where God isn’t. This is not just a thought, but a whole body awareness, one that causes a complete reordering of our relationship to reality. This reordering may take years, but therein lies the adventure, the fun, and the infinitely creative process of making our finite, small self the channel and vehicle of our Big Self. The Eros of the search for God transforms and leads into the Agape of the “great give back” to life, as we realize what and who we really are, and give back the utter joy of this realization in our service, relations, and creativity.

Francis Meditating Near San Damiano

As I climbed the hill back to Assisi, the pain I was experiencing grounded me and humbled me in the realization of the great work that had transpired in this beautiful place. Francis and his followers had risen to the spiritual challenge of their time and gifted us all. You can still feel it there strongly. I know that God is everywhere, but there are places where goodness and love seem to linger in a special way, like a beautiful scent or a song heard through the trees. As I ascended to Assisi, I asked myself, can I, can we, meet the challenge of our times with similar heroic intention, love, and creativity so that I/we might bless the world with my/our life, love, work and play? All in the endless creative flow and flux of evolution and creation held in the awareness of who and what we really are? It could happen.

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