In the footsteps of St Francis: a walk from la Verna to Assisi
Friday, August 13, 2010
I dedicated this walk to my beloved mother who never cease to love me and have trust on me. To whom I am immensely grateful. Last August '09 at the age 72 she walked the last 190 km of the "Camino de Santiago de Compostela".
And to my dear father who can't walk much in these days.
It all started by talking with my sweet friend Loredana who few years ago walked the "Peace walk" from Gubbio to Assisi with a group of 40 adolescents. She gave me the guide book from Angela Seracchioli and I knew when I read it that I wanted to walk the footsteps of my beloved St. Francis. The actual complete "Cammino" is 14 days from La Verna to Rieti- Poggio Bustone.
Our goal was to reach Assisi, half of the journey. From La Verna to Assisi 190 km. We drove from my valley ( Val di Non in Trentino) to La Verna ( near Arezzo south of Tuscany) the day after Holland became second. Our car was dressed in orange and we were happy nevertheless.
Me and Driek decided to wait till the 2010 world cup final, Oranje against Spain, because I didn't want to be bothered by football during this holy walk. That caused us to pick the hottest weather in the whole summer, which had many positive aspects like no rain whatsoever, but also some pretty demanding side effects, like carrying more drinking water and still being dehydrated at the end of the day.
But it is all relative in the bigger scheme of a pilgrimage.
In La Verna sister Priscilla and her helpers welcomed us with a loving smile, a nourishing meal and a bed to sleep. When I entered the Foresteria -guest house for pilgrims- of the monastery, I could not hold my tears. St. Francis already started to beat in my heart and never left me since then. What a wonderful holy place is the mount of La Verna. You can breathe in all of Francesco wonderful, to say the least, life. He is in the air, in the loving smiles of the friars and nuns, in one of his robes you can see in the sanctuary but most of all in the wild rocks below, where he made his bed.
We left from La Verna on Tuesday morning 13 of July and very optimistically started walking towards the hermitage of Cerbaiolo. 27 km according to Angela's book "Di qui' passo' Francesco", our bible in these days.
Soon the backpack started weighing on our shoulders and the hot scorching weather caused us to stop many times for a drink of water. I was careful to load our backpack and took with us only what was necessary. Each of them was not more then ca. 6-7 kg, but we didn't calculate the weight of extra water for the long day. We prepared ourselves walking long excursion on the Dolomiti of Brenta and the Maddalene chain.
"Laudato si' mi" Signore, per sor'acqua, la quale e' molto utile et umile e preziosa e casta"
"Be praised, Thou my Lord for sister water who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste".
Walking is already a prayer.
So many memories and thoughts came to my mind as I was walking the first day to Cerbaiolo. The body was after few hours already aching tremendously. All the scars in my legs were screaming for a break, the hips having to carry also the weight of the back pack started to talk to me. They were reminding me of a long time ago post surgery time, lying on an hospital bed in a foreigner country wondering what my life will be after the traumatic experience of being hit by a car and almost killed.
In those silent and painful memories St. Francis started to sing to me and for few moments my pain became numbed out and I could continue the hard trek to Cerbaiolo. Angela in her guide book she warns the pilgrim of the two possibilities from Pieve Santo Stefano to the hermitage of Cerbaiolo. She writes: in case of rain is preferably to take the dirt road, otherwise the treks that run along the mountain is more wild and picturesque. Being an adventurous soul I thought to go along the most wild path, not fully considering the heat, and consequently the need for more rest. The water started to run out and we still were not close to our destination.
Yes, honestly to my bone, the first day was the most difficult and I truly regretted not having taken the dirt road. But if I had, my experience would not have been the same.
When finally the signpost appeared that the Ostello Francescano was "only" 20 minutes away, I literally couldn't walk anymore. Suddenly tears were flowing down my chicks with each step I took. The tremendous pain all over my body together with the total exhaustion started to melt with a sense of euphoria, that allowed me to take a flight in the depth of my heart, into a love of serene acceptance. My friend St. Francis must have felt much more then this on his last journey from La Verna to Assisi. He knew he was not going to return to that wonderful mountain where he had such a deep communion with the Beloved of the Beloveds, Almighty God. As the story goes he left La Verna carrying the signs, the Stigmata of his fervent ecstasy with the Lord, an example of pure "Imitatio Christi" to the core of his being.
I was praying with each step to let me forget the injuries and unkindness of some of my friends, to help me find a real forgiveness for who betrayed my trust and the deepest sacred bond of friendship.
This is such a painful area in my life, however despite the bitterness and disappointment I am at times experiencing I will not stop putting my trust on the good side of human kind and learn the art of compassion.
Walking was healing those wounds of the soul, reminding me that after one step there is another to come, like after you breathe in you have to breathe out as well. I will not cease to put my trust in Him and to hope when despair clouds my mind.
Walking with the awareness that eight hundreds years before me Francesco was dancing in the same place, was enough to dissipate any doubts or any darkness. Each time I came back to this awareness, my soul jumped in gratitude and total happiness.
Being enveloped by St. Francis words, by his blessings, I was able to let go fast inside and to rejoice in each of my steps into his footprints.
I could almost see him, admiring God's creation, forgetting the world and his preoccupations of money, richness, career, the weakness of mankind, rather being lost singing out loud his mad love for God. Francesco was inviting me to be a fool for God and not to pose so much thoughts on things, people, situations who didn't lift my soul to Him, to turn to nature, to silence, to poetry, to my heart, to God.
To appreciate every single flower, bird's song, to praise the sun and the moon for never stopping giving us strength and lightening our path whether in the day or through the darkest night. To undressed myself of what is not necessary instead bringing with me only the consciousness of what is truly important.
Laudato si' mi' Signore, con tucte le tue creature,
specialmente messer lo frate Sole,
lo quale jorna e illumini noi per lui;
et elli e' bello e radiante con grande splendore:
da te, Altissimo, porta significazione.
Be praised, Thous, my Lord with all Thy creature,
and most especially by Sir Brother Sun:
He gives us the day and he is beautiful and shines with great splendor,
Of Thee, Most High he is the sign.
Laudato si' mi' Signore,
per sora Luna e le stelle:
in cielo le hai formate,
clarite e preziose e belle
Be praised, Thou, my Lord,
For sister Moon and the stars:
In the sky Thou hast created them,
clear, precious and beautiful.
Arriving in Cerbaiolo.
At the end of our first day, exhausted and dehydrated, we arrived at the Ostello Francescano near the Hermitage of Cerbaiolo. No one is actually running the hostel. A man, whom I informed by phone we would be late, was waiting for us. He forgot to even greet us and to offer us just some plain water, instead busy as he was to return to his home down in the village, he wanted to see our passport to quickly register us requesting the night fee. I had to swallow not to be unkind to him, but certainly after such strenuous day I was expecting a bit more of empathy and a true Franciscan welcome.
How mistaken I was. The hostel was very neglected, dirt and many cats were at home there. However I was glad to have a bed to sleep even though I could only rest my body but was not able to sleep because my joints and muscle were all aching. At the thought that Francis made a smooth stone as his bed, I could not bear the thought of me complaining. So I tried not to and kept breathing in and out as I was lying on my back, any other position was indeed not possible, on a worn out mattress where my body sank in deep prayer to go through the night. Memories took me back to many sleepless night, in the hospital bed, hurt in the body and in the soul, crying for a way out, begging to see some light at a young age of 22 y.old.
Thinking of what Francesco said about "The perfect joy" - "La perfetta letizia" - I could doze off in gratitude for the miracle of being still here, able to walk, and able to feel happy despite the pain.
The sun is always rising
Despite the sore muscles, our legs and our heart was looking forward to new adventures. We were ready to continue our journey and we were not going to suffer unnecessary today, so we kept the option open to break our journey in La Montagna, a group of houses on the way to the Montecasale hermitage.
There is something grand and yet very humble in putting each foot in front of the other and move gently at a human pace through forest, open meadow, the crest of a hill, in the dry bed of a river. One step at a time, slow, no need to rush anywhere, plenty of time, our home is on our shoulder, the heart is beating silently and the sweat runs down your whole body.
How wonderful is to have the time to look around, breathe in uncontaminated air, admiring the flight of a butterfly kissing a flower, even a viper crossing the road makes you smile. The multitude of color of those flowers were cheering me up more then once in the arduous moments of our walk. True joy pervaded my heart and serotonin was kicking in my brain giving me a state of euphoria, a natural happiness, without any drug.
per sora nostra Matre Terra
la quale ne sustenta et governa,
et produce diversi fructi con coloriti flori et herba.
Praised be Thou my Lord,
for our sister and mother, the Earth,
who sustains us and keep us:
she brings forth the various fruits
with colored flowers and leaves.
By 6 pm, after eight hours of walking and some much needed breaks, we arrived in Montagna. Too late to continue to the Monastery of Montecasale and down to San Sepolcro.
Ofelia and her husband were the most exquisite hosts. After the rather primitive camping situation in Cerbaiolo I felt like a princess when Ofeila showed us the accommodation in the apartment facing the wonderful valley, for the modest pilgrim fee of 20 euro each. She also cooked a delicious meal with the veggies of her garden that we ate all together in such a warm, loving atmosphere.
A moment of kindness can heal thousand memories of past hurt. The sharing at the dinner table was that of pilgrims on the walk of life: deep, adventurous, sacred and funny.
We were so happy. Ofelia too.
"A friend is the one who is there for you when you need, even when a moment before he was a perfect stranger."
The Hermitage of Montecasale.
Rested, refreshed and very happy we walked towards the Monastery of Montecasale. Everything seemed smiling at us, even our backpack felt lighter. The path to get there is caressing the side of the hills and the view all around makes you feel grateful in admiration of God's creation.
Once again at the feet of my master S. Francesco, for these days, brought loving tears and serene moments of prayer when we recited the Angelus in the little chapel together with the friars at noon time.
It is not so important how many words you say with your mouth, true prayer comes straight from your heart and I prefer to sit silently in divine communion with the Lord then having to speak out loud. However there is something very soothing in singing the Psalm and the Vespers in the melodic tone together with nuns or friars who devoted their lives to prayers. My soul, like an instrument that found the right tune, simply and innocently resonate with theirs.
Oh how divine food is prayer for the soul.
for the joy
that you bring to my heart.
He asked for charity
God came to my house and asked for charity.
And I fell to my knees and cried,
"Beloved, what may I give?
"Just love." He said
St. Francis poem
Of course the people we met on the bus could not understand why we would walk under such a hot weather with a backpack on our shoulder, when the rest of Italy that was not already in holiday, was dreaming of just lying on its beaches. I discovered that many of the locals in all the villages and town we passed through to Assisi hardly walked even one stage of the "Cammino Francescano". So naturally they were more then happy to welcome us on the bus and find out what is that brings us walking such a long way. I could never really answer that question.
Full of the beauty of this town and having said goodbye to our friend Mirella we took a bus to Gubbio.
In Gubbio we realized quickly how the Umbrian touristic office was in competition with the Tuscan touristic office and with Angela Seracchioli. We decided to stay out of any "political" argument choosing to keep her book as our guide. After all we were walking on the foot step of Francesco, why on earth people has to fight over the rights of the "correct trek" he walked 800 years ago.
From Gubbio we followed the "Sentiero Francescano della Pace' - the Franciscan trail of peace - created in 2000 for the Jubilee year. Actually, the walk starts from Assisi towards Gubbio, tracing the steps that St. Francis walked when he left his life as he knew it and adventured through the wild nature, in search for more of God all the way to Gubbio. Over the years he walked the same trek in both directions.
However, we decided to start our walk from the Abbey of Vallingegno, avoiding therefore the long annoying state road where my feet would fry on the asphalt. I rather go up and down hills and mountains where no car passes, than walk along a busy state road. Early in the morning a bus took us close to the Abbey, just a few km outside Gubbio. The old Abbey is now an "Agriturismo", a country hotel, but we could peak through the cracks in the door of the wonderful little church. The story goes that Francis was not a very welcome guest here when he escaped Assisi.
From here we needed to cross through the valley to reconnect with the main path. Hardly nobody walks this way, so in the style of Francis we literally had to made our way through thick bushes with thorns, which left my arms and legs bleeding. I felt so much like a "Rambo Franciscan Milena" walking for peace in the middle of vipers, high grass, nettles, invisible paths and stinging mosquitoes. But I simply loved it although it took us three hours before we connected to the dirt road leading us to Biscina.
We passed in front of the 'Eremo di san Pietro in Vigneto". We knew that the hermit, a monk who is taking care of the place, doesn't want to be disturbed. Across the huge gate full of signs: no entrance, no touristic visit, no pilgrims. Opposite the gate was a meadow with drinking water and two wooden benches with a table. So indeed we stopped a bit to recuperate and say a prayer for this hermit who doesn't allow anyone to visit the Hermitage. How sad. There was something so righteous almost arrogant of the writing on the gate, that I felt sorry for him. The preaching that God is found inside ourselves are unquestionable to me, however all the writing on that gate were not respectful to those who are walking in prayer to pay a tribute to a man who didn't put up bars, or gates. He rather walked in joy despite the rejection and hardship.
Pax et Bonum was S. Francis salute.
From there on to Biscina, I thought I couldn't make it. The sun was scorching and the heat was taking our breath away. I started to feel dizzy and on the verge of fainting, my head aching and pulsating, my eyes burning. The thought that kept me from giving up was imagining how it would have been for Francesco to run away from everything familiar to him, in a cold winter, towards a friend who he didn't see for a long time and still singing and rejoicing for his choice.
When we reached the Agritur in Biscina next to the old castle I only wanted to crash on a bed and die.
I didn't die; both of us literally woke up two hours later from a state of profound "coma". Thanks to heaven the headache and nausea were gone. The swimming pool and the evening meal did the rest to bring us back into shape.
The morning after we were fit to continue.
The castle of Biscina, ruined in the earthquake of '84, still has its charm. Walking around the courtyard, I was thrown back at another age where lords, knights, priests and peasants lived together. Sitting on top of the hill it dominates the valley of Chiascio, its grandiose structure still speaks of old glory. Legend wants that St. Francis in his wondering through the Umbrian valleys would passed by here.
We set forth to Valfabbrica, to break our journey to Assisi one more time. I love to walk but apart from my bad knees and a paralyzed foot I was not quite prepared to have those long days of eight to 10 hours in such hot weather. The heatwave really "hit" my system, requesting me to cut the last stage of the journey in two days.
The magic of walking had its effects though. The mind was more at peace and even though the breath was moving fast in and out of the body under the zealous pace, I could let go inside of anyone who still was bothering me.
Oh divine master grant that I seek not so much to be understood then to understand.
Whenever I stumbled inside trying to find a reason for the nasty behavior of some friends whom I helped in their difficult time, I went on my knees inside and asked to understand. The sour taste in my mouth would simply dissipate in the fervent moment of prayer. With each step, life goes on!
If I may have done something wrong I can forgive myself and those who hurt me.
Walking alone, waking with others
During the first part of our walk we hardly met pilgrims on our journey. Me and Driek can be still for a long time, sometimes it feels like walking totally alone. I love it, and he knows it. Since we left Gubbio we were meeting more people and I had to be careful to keep maintaining the space and silence I wanted to experience.
On this day towards Valfabbrica we met a group of 15 Austrian walkers. We were sitting in the only shadow there was, away from the State road, trying to catch a breath and change shoes, when one of the woman in broken English asked me if there was a bar nearby. "I have no idea if there is one" I answered in German. We met again later and they told us they did find a bar, had beer and wine. Later in the day they were sitting in the only bar open in the village of Valfabbrica and they invite us to join them. In front of them on the table many big glasses of beer. I said to them, "thank you but I need a coffee, if I drink any alcohol I die."
There are so many ways to be with God. Some chooses beer some chooses cappuccino. What really matters is not to judge. On the other end if the company of some people is not for me I learned to walk away and let the other live.
Approaching Valfabbrica we were catapulted in an hallucinogen land by the vision of immense field of sunflowers. What a delight to our eyes. The effect the bright colors of this tall flowers had on us was like a glass of beer. We burst into mad laughter. I can't avoid feeling joy at the sight of this special God's creation.
Arriving in Assisi
Finally the last day has arrived. In a few hours we will pray at S. Francis tomb rendering homage to this special friend that has lived so very intimately in my soul during these days and nights.
Suddenly as we stand on the crest of the hill we see at the far distance the big tower of the Basilica Superiore in Assisi.
I want to stretch my arm to touch it. But the way is still deceitfully long. Driek is, amongst many other things, a great map reader and he keeps warning me of how many times we still have to walk up and down, crossing few valleys.
It doesn't matter any more, I thought. We are getting there.
Many times in these days I turned around and saw in the far distance the monastery or hermitage or village we left early that morning. I felt proud of myself, that I moved so much only with my two feet. A sort of pleasure a sense of accomplishment to realize that even without cars or any other form of transportation I can still reach destination. I had the time to value life in its simplicity, with only the essentials on my shoulder, and a friend by my side with whom words are not needed. The example of S. Francis in its imitation of Jesus was an inspiration all the way. His holy marriage with Lady Poverty and the complete devotion to the cross suggested a new dimension to my soul and purified me of polluting thoughts.
Walking is also a zen meditation. One step at the time inviting you in the present moment.
We blessed the earth with each step we take, said Francis. How true!
Blessed is that mortal soul who doesn't waste a moment wallowing in the past. Walking helps your mind to slow down and in some fleeting instants gives you a glimpse of the eternal. The greatest ideas and intuition come to me when I walk. And I become ethereal, despite the gravity pulling me down in the hard matter of my body, I feel like soaring high and free in a dimension of infinite space, liquid and light knowing no boundaries and no restrains. A true sense of boundless freedom!
The last effort to get into Assisi is a very long uphill walk on a paved road, where thanks God hardly anyone drives. We entered the town through the gate (porta) of San Giacomo and there the world suddenly appeared to us in its full chaos. The vision of the Basilica with the meadow in front was the only thing I wanted to see, but the voices, colors, noise of tourism hit me like a cultural shock. From the silence of these days and slow walking we landed in an Assisi literally assaulted by American, Japanese and tourists of other nationalities. I was not going to let this spoil my reunion with Francesco.
Living in Amsterdam, I am used to tourists all year long. However in Assisi it was hard to take it.
We had to cross the town and made way through a mass of people in order to say high to S. Chiara tomb, in the sober church dedicate to her. There we took the road down the hill of Assisi towards Santa Maria of the Angels. "La perfetta Letizia" the Franciscan hostel run by Angela where we were staying that night, is attached to the walls of the famous Basilica.
Finally I met Angela and although we didn't have much time, we immediately connected as if we knew each other for a very long time.
I pray Angela and her entourage of volunteers will find another house to host the pilgrims of this "Cammino francescano Tau", as at the end of Oktober 2010 she has to return the place to the Franciscan friars.
Angela deserves more then a "thank you" for her endeavor, first in paving the way literally through the woods of Tuscany and Umbria, then in creating the book that describes the route from La Verna to Rieti. And finally in setting up the hostel "La Perfetta letizia" providing thus a true Franciscan place to stay for the pilgrims on the road.
She deserves an Hallelujah and all the help she can get to find another suitable place, a true pilgrims refugee where we all can rest in Assisi.
After a quick shower I was looking forward to actually kneel in the small Porziuncola, the humble place where Francesco started his work. At the end of the evening vespers a friar allowed us to stay alone in the sacred Porziuncola and gave us the pilgrims' blessing. I felt showered by God grace.
Now I could return to the mountain and on to Amsterdam. Next year if I am still capable I will walk the second part of this pilgrimage. From Assisi to Rieti.
Outside the church of "Santa Maria degli Angeli" which envelopes and almost swallows the little Porziuncola I received a call from my mother telling me that my father was brought urgently to the hospital few hours before. After the first moment of fear for his life a calm descended over me, and an acceptance of life as it comes. My dad is now, that I write this chronicle, back home and still kicking and smiling.
This walk was for me an experience of the divine.
I walked on my own, with no one telling me how to be myself, and my inner compass tuned into the holy presence of Francis. I walked with a true companion by my side who knows me and respect my needs for solitude, silence and wild nature. We both love our solitary treks in the mountains where we hardly meet people and shrink from noisy crowd. That may be enough of a reason why we most probably won't walk the famous Camino of Santiago of Compostela as it has become very fashionable, and truly you can find herds of pilgrims on the road.
So we walked alone the two of us and it was indeed the most powerful walk I ever did.