( drawings in this post by my brother, John Ligda. See more of his drawings here: http://john.ligda.net)
I left the rest of the tour group early on Tuesday. It was nice to break off on my own. This was the first time I ever traveled alone in a foreign country where the language was different. I’ve traveled many times alone in was in countries like England but never have I traveled where I couldn’t easily communicate with the natives … or read the signs.
I elected to take the train even though our tour director thought the bus would be quicker. A train is just a little more romantic. The woman at the ticket counter understood me easy enough, “to Assisi.” I said. “11:31,” I noticed on the ticket. “What track?” I questioned. She shook her head, “I don’t know,” in a matter-of-fact manner ready to get on with the next customer as if she thought the next customer might provide her with a little more happiness, or perhaps hoping it would make the end of her day come sooner. I walked on.
From the ticket and the signs above the many tracks I could not find any clues as to which track I should walk to in order to catch my train. Many of the tracks had train waiting. Many were vacant. I looked at the multitude of people moving this way and that. I knew the majority of them would be willing to help if I asked … Yes, if I asked. I’m a little on the shy side and would not ask. I thought of my brother whom I’d been traveling with for the past few days, whom I’d just left at the hotel about an hour before. “Wish me luck,” I said as I walked out the door. Later, when I rejoined him he admitted that left him with a little concern about leaving me alone after hearing me say that. The luck I was hoping for was in getting to my destination. I thought I really needed it at that point.
My brother and I are opposites in many ways. I’m shy an introverted and he is very out going and friendly with strangers. He has no problem walking up to a stranger, even though they may not speak the same language, and asking for help. He is particularly willing to do this if the other person is a, as they say in Italy a “Bella Dona.” We’ve met up with many beautiful women on our journey through my brother’s confidence. He’s a married man and is not really looking for romance in these encounters. He just enjoys the flirtatious adventures. And, I enjoy it because, in my shyness, I would never meet these women on my own. After my brother warming them up a bit I can engage in conversation, providing of course that the language barrier can be broken.
I longed for his company wandering about that train station wondering where I should be. I looked at my watch, “11:10” it said. I had 20 minutes to find a solution to this problem. I noticed a huge sign, “Information” or it’s Italian equivalent. There was a rather large line under it of other lost souls. I figured that would be the best place for me, and I joined the queue. “Track 15,” the man said in a heartbeat and moved on to the next lost passenger. His efficiency made the line move fast. I had 7 minutes left. While I was thirsty, I elected to ignore my body’s needs so I’d be sure to make the train. Within a few minutes I was on the train and in my seat. Within a few more, the train started to move. I was on my way to this magical place of Assisi.
It had never heard of Assisi before, nor did I know very much about Saint Francis whose life made Assisi such a special place even today, eight centuries after he left this Earth. It was a few days before I left for my vacation to Italy that I was getting a haircut. I get my hair cut from a man who is involved in the same spiritual path as I, Siddha Yoga. It is through the Siddha Yoga meditation ashram that I know him. I told him of my trip to Italy and he started talking about Saint Francis and Assisi. He visited Assisi just a few years before and only had a few hours o spend. “It wasn’t enough time.” He told me. He talked of the spiritual energy Assisi and the devotion of Saint Francis with such reverence that it filled me with a longing to go. I wanted my trip to Italy to be more than just a vacation, a pilgrimage to Assisi would make that so. I knew our tour was not scheduled to visit Assisi so I would have to make a special effort to get there, the effort that I was now putting forward in catching the train and struggling with the language barrier.
I had with me a magazine; “Darshan” is the name, published by the SYDA Foundation, the foundation that administers our spiritual path, Siddha Yoga. A few hours before I was to depart for Italy I was at the ashram talking to a friend. I told her of my plan to journey to Assisi and she remembered this Darshan magazine that had a story of our spiritual master’s journey to Assisi. “In fact,” she said, “I think I know where one is,” and she lead me up the stairs to the study room. Sure enough there it was. “The magazine is all about pilgrimage,” she said picking it up handing it to me. Because of the grace of the whole incident, I felt our spiritual master wanted to take the magazine with me so I took it home and packed it in my bags.
As the train moved through the countryside I began to read. First I read an article about pilgrimage. The article explained three types of pilgrims; those that go on a journey to find liberation, those that go to pay respects to a great being, and those that go on a journey to bring something sacred back. I kind of fell into all three of theses categories. While I was not really seeking liberation on my journey, I was seeking a fresh inspiration and I thought that would qualify me for the first category. The place where I worship at home, the Siddha Yoga ashram, is a place for seekers to come for such a fresh inspiration, but what is it about me that I need to go away from it to find that inspiration? The ashram has become my home rather than a retreat. I live within a five-minute walk of it and I visit often to offer my services to my spiritual master, Gurumayi. Liberation to me means a freedom from the limits of the ego, personality and identity until one is totally identified with God. At my home, the ashram, relationships develop and with relationships, at least in my experience, ego, personality and identity are fortified. While the ashram has become my home, the devotees there have become my family, and I experience a great deal of joy and happiness there, I find it hard to feel detached enough to listen to God inside. Liberation itself, I know from experience, just takes the right set of circumstances and a choice and it can happen in a moment. No, I was not seeking liberation, but rather a fresh perspective on my relationship with God.
The second type of pilgrim pays respect for a great being. From the inspirational story my hair stylist told me I felt a pull to honor Saint Francis for his life of devotion. I felt a deep devotion at one point in my life. It was such a strong pull I wanted to give up everything and live a life devoted to God. I did not though. I stayed close to my family (of origin). I admire and honor people like Saint Francis that took that path of total devotion. I’m filled with such awe and respect for them. I wanted to walk where this great man walked.
The third type of pilgrim is wants to bring something sacred back, perhaps sutras or something for their community. I had a mission to bring something back for a friend that I will share more about later.
Next I read the story of Gurumayi’s visit to Assisi. The story was a compilation of many of her devotee’s experiences there. I read about a monastery on a hill and I read about tiny chambers that Saint Francis used for meditation. I read about a chapel that he’d built by hand and I read about a prayer ritual of tying two sticks together in the shape of a cross and placing them on an altar. But mostly what I remember reading was how happy everyone felt there and I too was feeling happy. Saint Francis was gone, in body, but had left his wonderful energy to saturate the place and to grace visitors for many centuries after his departure and for many future centuries to come.
I was interrupted from reading any further by a man who came down the isle of the train with a drink cart. He asked if I’d like a drink. I was still as thirsty as I was before catching the train and was grateful for this opportunity. I asked for a soda. As he rummaged around to find I soda I felt bad about ordering it. Here I was on this sacred pilgrimage and I was going to taint my body with something toxic like a soda. I looked down at what he was doing. He was wading through cans of this or that looking for the soda he promised me. It didn’t seem to be there. He kept knocking around a can of orange juice look behind and around it. That was what I wanted and pointed to the can of orange juice. That felt better. I gave him lira and he was on his way.
Most of the food that is available these days is not healthy. I’m not talking about Italy, as I really don’t know much about the food in Italy. I’m talking about what’s available in the States. I don’t imagine it is much different in Italy. Once food is cooked it loses the vital enzymes that are needed for digestion causing the body to have to work harder to digest it. Then on top of that, there are so many preservatives and chemicals added to the food that I never really know what I’m putting into my body. The food certainly tastes good though, and it is so difficult to find food that is healthy that I have set aside treating my body with respect for the convenience of the food that is available, at least for now. My landlord and good friend had recently been diagnosed with a cancer and has chosen to treat it through a natural health program. He spent three weeks in a cleansing retreat where he learned all about preparing and eating raw foods, enzymes still in tact. This program has had remarkable successes in curing, “terminal” cases of cancer. Anyway, to get to my point, I may have to wait for some motivational cancer later in my life to start treating my body with greater respect. On this sacred pilgrimage, however, I would not have anything to do with treating my body that way so I decided that I would fast. I’d fasted before for a day or so, so I knew it would not be a problem. Plus, it would give me more time to spend with Saint Francis if I weren’t in restaurants feeding.
I drank my orange juice and put the Darshan magazine away. I watched the countryside. Like California during the rainy season, Italy is green and lush. Like California, Italy has rolling hills. And, like California, Italy is beautiful as we pass vineyards, farms and orchards. However, the thing that strikes me as most unique about the Italian countryside is the ancient buildings. Unlike California, Italy has been around for centuries. Buildings that were build hundreds; maybe even thousands of years ago still decorate the countryside. Most of the buildings are made of stone with tile roofs. They are beautiful and give the Italian landscape such a unique charm that I do not see in California.
Our tour director recommended that I take the bus because it’s direct while the train makes many stops and would take more time. It was an hour before the first stop. It then it stopped about every ten minutes or so thereafter. I had no idea how long I was going to be on the train or when my stop would arrive. I had to keep a sharp eye out at each station for the name on the big blue station sign. I assumed Assisi would be a popular stop and many people would depart the train when we arrived. I over heard on woman talking on a cell phone (in English) to explain to the party on the other side that she would be staying in Assisi tonight. I could just keep an eye on her and exit when she did. I dosed off often only to wake up in a slight panic as the train would slow to its next stop not knowing if it was mine or not. On one occasion I could not see the station sign and took it on faith that it was not my stop. The lady with the phone was sitting content.
Finally, as we approached a certain town I notice what looked like a monastery on the top of a hill. “That’s it,” I told myself and grew happy inside. I gathered up my bags and got ready to depart. Sure enough, as we approached the station, the word “Assisi” marked the familiar big blue station sign. I, along with the woman that would stay in Assisi for the night, and the other predicted crowd of people got up to exit the train.
So I arrived in Assisi … or so I thought. I looked at my watch. It was 2:00 PM. I was to hook up with the tour bus, which as it turned out was scheduled to stop in Assisi on its way to Rome at 12:00 PM the next day. They would stay for 2 1/3 hours and depart at 2:30. I had 24 hours in Assisi. I had no idea where I was and my shy nature would prevent me from asking. I did notice a large cathedral towering over the local buildings. “That must be something of significance,” I said to myself and I headed that way. I had my red backpack carrying a change of clothes, the Darshan magazine, my toiletries, a jacket, an umbrella, and a few other items. I had an empty orange juice can in my hand that I could not find a trash receptacle for on the train. I carried it with me.
My thoughts turned quickly to finding a place to stay for the night. I have a friend on the trip that is also involved with Siddha Yoga. She would stay in Italy with her family for another week after the tour completes and we all go home. She had researched monasteries to stay, and enthusiastically told me of one in Assisi where I could stay during my pilgrimage. Alas, she did not remember to bring the address. Being as Internet savvy as I am, I did a little research on the Internet in Florence the day before I left for Assisi with intention of finding the monastery in question. What I found was a “religious guest house” that provided rooms for pilgrims to Assisi. I stopped at a stone wall of about three and a half feet high and dug through my backpack looking for the address of the religious guesthouse. I could not find it. I did not bring it. It was sitting on the nightstand next to my bed in Florence. I thought I would have to research it again later that day. I was disappointed.
I decided to carry on to the church and be concerned with where I would stay later. I still had the empty soda can that I could not find a home for. I crushed in on the stone wall with my hand and made a home for it there on top of the wall. I did not want to carry it in my pack and it would surely drip all over my clothes and leave them sticky. I felt a little guilty about leaving it behind on the wall and I marched on to the church.
It was a large church. I figured this must be the Saint Francis’s Cathedral I heard about and I went inside. In Italy one can get burned out quick on visiting cathedrals. They are beautifully adorned with some of the most exquisite artwork the world has ever known. It is mind boggling to think the vast amounts of work and wealth that went into building these places of worship. Upon entering this cathedral was no different than the rest lavishly decorated with marble and paintings, cross-shaped with a dome in the center. But there in the middle of this cathedral there was something that set it apart from the rest. There in the midst of all this fancy glory was a tiny little chapel made of stone. The modest little chapel was built in the midst of all this glory or, more likely this great cathedral was built around this tiny little chapel.
No doubt this tiny chapel was very special and I felt that when I entered it. The chapel was just wide enough for one pew on each side of the isle in about six rows. In the front of the chapel there was an altar with a beautiful painting above. The rest of the chapel was modest and you could see the stonework that it was built with. There was a man in one of the pew praying and tourists coming in and out. I was a little put off by the tourists. I bowed my head at the altar and left a small donation and exited the chapel.
I followed an exit sign to a rose garden past a statue of Saint Francis carrying a basket with a live dove feeding off it. I walked through the rose garden into another little chapel that had a small chamber underneath it. I knew this must be the meditation chamber I read about in the Darshan magazine. It was about 4 feet high and about the size of a king sized bed. Saint Francis used to spend all night there praying and meditating. I learned that Saint Francis really like small modest places. I sat down next to the chamber and pulled out the Darshan and read the parts of it again that referred the chamber. I liked it there but overall I was feeling uninspired.
Something was amiss on my journey and I wasn’t sure what. I had no idea where I was or where any of the significant building would be. I left the chamber and entered a bookstore. I needed some sort of guide and I found it in the bookstore. It was a small book, about the size of a postcard. It had a map with all the significant sights marked and an explanation of each. It was in English. I purchased it and left the cathedral.
I had been a little concerned about not having a place to stay and that may have been contributing to my lack of enthusiasm. I decided that rather than letting this problem consume any more of my energy that I would just book myself in the nearest hotel and not be bothered by not staying in a place of religious significance like a religious guest house or a monastery. The nearest hotel was across the street. After searching a bit for it’s entrance, which I found around the side, I went inside.
The man at the desk was rather friendly although seemingly unimpressed with the sacred nature of his surroundings. He spoke a little English, enough to let me know they had a room, it would cost 95,000 Lira (about $47) and that it wouldn’t be ready for another ½ hour. The hotel was fancy and I wasn’t “in to” fancy, but I was glad to have a room. I thought I’d come back later once it the room was ready, but instead I decided to sit and wait. I was hungry and a bit tired. The hunger I would have to deal with and resting a bit would help the fatigue. I sat in the lobby and began to read my guidebook:
“Brother/Sister, I am making a few suggestions before you begin to turn your mind to the many, many fascinating and beautiful things that are waiting to be seen,” the guide started. “I want you to be prepared against possible hindrances to your appreciation,” I was really engaged at this point. It went on to explain the “picturesque beauty of Assisi and then went on to say, “… but that same beauty could be a distraction from an awareness of the mysterious secret lying beneath so much splendor of color and golden sunlight.” It talked about people coming to Assisi with a list of shrines to see and artwork to view and never stop being just tourists, “It is not likely they will listen to the voice of Assisi speaking to them. Assisi is charged with the spirit of St. Francis, which pervades the very air, and becomes almost tangible in the shrines … It is likely that St. Francis is awaiting you in some quiet corner where he was blessed with one of his wonderful encounters with Christ. You must be willing to recognize it, and to listen to it’s voice … you must know how to look for him, and to open your heart so as to accept the love overflowing from his own heart, which poured out with unbounded generosity upon his companions.”
I was astonished that I had just that in a touristy guidebook. I felt like there was Grace there guiding my journey. I was definitely feeling inspired again and was anxious to get on my way. “Your room is ready sir,” the hotel clerk said. He gave me my key and I followed him up to the room. I was very happy with the room. While it was as fancy as the rest of the hotel, it was also very small like a monk’s chamber. “I will be happy here,” I thought. I remove a few items from my bag and headed on out to explore Assisi.
I couldn’t quite pin down where I was from looking at the guidebook so I thought I’d ask the clerk. “Where am I on this?” I said pointing to the map in the book. “Here,” he said pointing to one of the locations outside of Assisi. I wasn’t in Assisi! There were about four locations in the book that were external to Assisi and the cathedral I was drawn to when I got off the train was one of them. “How far is it?” I asked. “Two or three kilometers,” he said pointing off in one direction. “You could visit the church across the street,” he said, as if wishing more people would be interested in his neighboring cathedral rather than the ones in Assisi. He expressed in his broken English that there was a bus. “Twenty and twenty-two,” he said explaining the bus. I gather those were the bus numbers and repeated them with an “OK.” “No,” he said, “twenty and twenty too … every hour, same time.” I get it! Those are the times.. I thanked him. I looked at my watch. I had about twenty minutes. I decided to walk.
I knew from the days when I used to run in cross-country in high school that five kilometers is about three miles so two or three kilometers was two miles maximum and headed down the road. I passed the place where I left my soda can. It was no longer on top of the wall where I left it but was rather laying in the gutter flattened by a car tire. Once again I left it there and once again I felt a little guilty about it.
I could see Assisi up ahead. It was halfway up a hillside and quite a beautiful site as I drew closer. I could see the building at the top of the hill that I thought was the monastery from the train (which, at this point, I still thought was the monastery). I could also see many cathedrals. The city was charming and ancient with its stone buildings. I could see from one side to the other stretched across the mountainside. Assisi is a small town. Amongst the city skyline were many cranes working on restoring or repairing many of the buildings. I knew there was a major earthquake three or four years ago that devastated some of the buildings. Those cranes may have still been repairing some of that damage.
After about 20 minutes of walking the bus passed me by. I looked at my watch, right on time. I was happy to be walking. I could reflect while I walked and absorb the scenery. I passed the ancient buildings, some of them falling apart, most of them standing strong. I passed many types of flowers I’d never seen before. One tree had a purple flower that appears to be growing off the branches rather that the twigs that extended from those branches. It was beautiful and it looked like a tree with purple sleeves around its branches. I passed ancient stone fences that are absent from the scenery in America. These stone fences were skillfully built by craftsmen hundreds of years ago. “Each stone must be resting on three points,” I was once told by a landscaper I had helped build a stone fence. It was true. If I could just get each stone to rest on three points the wall would be solid. If one stone were only resting on two, it would compromise the integrity of the entire wall. It was not easy.
I also appreciated the walk as a kind of austerity, which made the journey a little more meaningful. After all, Saint Francis himself walked many times from that little chapel below to the city of Assisi. I’m sure he rarely took the bus. While I’m sure the path he took was slightly different, but I was following his footsteps none-the-less.
I was getting close to the town when the road started to climb and wind to meet with Assisi on the mountainside. The walking got a little harder and I started thinking of that bus. “I would take it home,” I thought. “I will take it tomorrow.” I could feel the perspiration begin to absorb into my shirt. I thought of the spare shirt I had brought and left at the hotel. “I will be happy to have that to change into tomorrow,” I thought. I continued to trek up the hill for about a half a mile. I was hungry.
The hike up the hill really was a minor journey compared to what I was in store for, but at this point I did not know about what I was in store for so the minor trek up this hill seemed to be a big deal to me. I finally reached the parking lot where busses were unloading tourists and people were scurrying about. I walked on through the asphalt parking lot up to a cobble stone street. I was now in Assisi.
I had no idea where the street was taking me. At one point it winded on up in a sharp hairpin around a small shop on the corner. The cobblestone street was lined with stones of a different shape and color and then the area which was to be a sidewalk was in yet a different stone. It was very steep near the center of the turn and shallower as the radius expanded from the center. I took it near the steep end and slipped a little on the slick stone, then move out along the radius a bit. After the turn the road widened into a great avenue lined with a ornamented wall on each side. The street was paved with much larger stones. This avenue took me right up to a large cathedral. This time I was at the cathedral of Saint Francis. The main cathedral was up above and would require a walk up a flight of stairs. I was tired and I elected to take that journey up those steps later and opted for the double doors that I saw people walking in and out of down below.
“Silenso,” was what the sign said. In English there was another that said, “No guided tours allowed.” They wanted it quite in this place and that was clear. Upon entry with a barrage of tourist, I could hear someone speaking in a different language over a microphone. “How rude,” I thought with a sign that clearly requested silence, someone was giving a tour. Then I noticed the pews were full and there was a minister at the altar. It was he who was speaking over the microphone. I’d walked in on mass. It was Good Friday, I remembered. The chamber of the cathedral that I was in was beautiful. It was dark and the ceilings were low compared to most cathedrals. The ceiling was ornamented no differently than most cathedrals with lavish carvings and there were a few stained glass windows. However, the walls were of plain stone. The over all darkness of it made it feel different and auspicious.
In spite of the mass that was going on there were a multitude of tourists looking at this and that. The one thing that really struck me about Assisi was the contrast between tourism and worship that were going on in all these sacred buildings. There was one group of people that were using these places for serious worship and others that were coming to see the sights. They both co-mingled in the same buildings. Lining one side of the cathedral were confession booths with people lined up eager to get in. In this particular space, around the room, were displays with people with cameras and bags looking in. And, in the middle of it all, there was a mass for Good Friday. I sat down in one of the pews, there was a crinkly little nun sitting next to me. I was not as interested in the mass as I was in resting. The mass was in another language, Latin no doubt. I enjoyed the sound of the voice and the beauty of the syllables as they came out of the minister’s mouth but I was doing the tourist bit and I got out my guidebook to read about where I was.
I was in the lower chamber of the “Basilica of St. Francis.” This cathedral was essentially two churches, one church built on top of the other. And, what did the guidebook say next? Beneath the two churches was a crypt where the body of Saint Francis was placed. I looked up and no more than ten feet from where I sat was the staircase to Saint Francis’s tomb. Chills overcame me and I coolly looked back at my book and continued to read as if not to disturb the nun sitting next to me with my excitement. The guidebook also explained that the relics of Saint Francis were near by. I remember my hair stylist explaining the relics, the tiny sandals that he wore on his feet. After I finished reading, still containing my enthusiasm, I got up to go down the stairs to the tomb. There were quite a few tourists migrating down those stairs.
The stairs wound down to a long stone corridor where I could see the tomb at the end. The tourists were marching in progression down the corridor circling the tomb and then marching back up the corridor to a similar set of staircases just opposite the ones I came down. On either side of the corridor there were wooden pews for people to sit and pray. I joined the progression to circle the tomb. I was a little disappointed by the number of tourist. I really wanted to be able to sit and meditate but I thought that the tourist walking past me, if I were to sit in the pews, would distract me. I remember reading in the Darshan magazine that we could light a candle at the tomb. As I reached the pews there was candles for us to take for a small offering. They were long candles, about one and a half feet in length, white in color. The sign above said “do not light the candles in the tomb.” I was a bit disappointed. I grabbed one. I had plans for this candle, which I will explain in detail later.
I started to circle the tomb. I could feel the energy of this place and really wanted to spend some time there sitting. If I continued in this progression of tourist, within a couple of minutes I would be heading up the steps again. Off to the right of the tomb there was a circular chamber filled with pews for people to sit and pray. It was more secluded that the ones lining the progression aisle. I entered the chamber escaping the line of tourists. Chairs lined the walls of this chamber. The chair at the edge was hidden behind a column, out of view from anyone except the people sitting in the pews directly in front. That was my spot, and I sat to prepare for meditation. I set down the candle, which had a sacredness to it to me (I will explain in a bit); I got out a picture of my Gurumayi, tuck my bags away and closed my eyes.
My mind raced to loved ones back home and the thoughts of sharing stories with them. I remembered my hair stylist and his stories. I remembered a special friend that I talked to just before my departure for Italy. I told her I would be going to Assisi. With interest she explained that she always wanted to go to Assisi and that she felt a special connection to Saint Francis. I told her that I would bring her with me in my heart. This which would be easy for me to do, as she is always close to me heart since I met her a few months ago. I wondered if she could feel the power of the Saint Francis’s tomb from back home with me sitting there. The candle was for her. I wanted to bring her something special from the tomb. I wanted to bring her a candle that was burned at the tomb, hence my disappointment about not being allowed to burn a candle. After five or ten minutes of this thinking I realized that I was not meditating and I cleared my mind and went into the familiar depths of my inner space. I did not stay there long as I never do. I’m not a practiced meditator and I do not do it often. When I do, I just touch the peace I feel inside and then come out quickly feeling refreshed. I enjoy that peace, but I long to be working and experiencing phenomenology of the external world. After about five minutes I started to come out again and began to think of the progression of tourist, whom I was hidden from, and I began to think of the other places to visit in Assisi. I was particularly interested in the monastery on the hill. I opened my eyes, looked at the picture of my Gurumayi and promised her that I would return and meditate there in my spot a little longer, later. I figured I could return later that day and that I could spend a few hours there the next day before the tour bus arrived. I picked up my bag, packed up my picture, picked up my new treasure, the candle, and rejoined the progression around the back of the tomb, back up the corridor, past the pews of people praying and up the stairs to the exit.
The mass was still taking place in the lower church. I remembered being able to hear the singing of hymns from above while I was meditating. I took a quick stroll around the church looking for the relics of Saint Francis but could not find them. I departed, beyond the signs that I passed on the way in, “Silenso.”
I wasn’t too interested in the upper church but I tucked myself in just for a quick look. It was much brighter and was lined with paintings that did not appeal to me. I left. My goal was to reach the monastery. As I recalled it was just up the hill and I began walking in a direction that I thought would bring me to it. I noticed a small cobble stone stairway and felt compelled to take it. After all it was going up and that was the direction that I wanted. At the top of the stairs there was a dirt pathway that continued up. I can’t go wrong with going up, so I continued.
I passed a pen of barking dogs. Their angry barking did not disturb the peace I was feeling. I wound on up as the path circled around the pen. They continued to bark and a few tourists passed me coming down the other way. The tourists gave me a sense of relief that I was heading in the right direction. At least there was something up there worth looking at. As I drew out of range of the barking dogs, they continued their barking. It was me that they were barking at now, it was the tourist that I just passed. They must bark like that all day as people walk past all day long. I wondered if they ever tire of it. I wondered if it would ever occur to them that they were accomplishing nothing with their barking at the passers by. I thought of all the things in my life that I do over and over, which accomplish no results, and yet that I continue to do anyway. There are lessons everywhere. Even in a pen of barking dogs.
I stopped along the path and started collecting twigs. I was enthusiastic about the prayer ritual I read about in the Darshan magazine. I was to make a cross out of twigs and tie it together with grass or twine. Here I’ll read it to you:
“At the end of the path, there was a little open chapel with an altar in the middle. Gurumayi told us each to make a wish since that was tradition here. Some of us closed our eyes, and she said, ‘No, no. You should write down your wishes.’ She explained that the custom was to make a little cross from two twigs tied with grass or a piece of string, and to place this cross on the altar with your wish and perhaps a coin or two.”
I wanted to perform this ritual, not only for myself but also for my friend back home. She really is special to me. While I’ve only known her for a few months I felt an instantaneous bond with her when we met. I’ve never felt so much love from another person that I also felt so much love for in return. While our relationship is limited to a friendship, it is a very special friendship for me indeed. When she told me that she felt a connection to Saint Francis and wanted to visit Assisi it reinforced my desire to visit and to bring her here in heart and spirit. I was happy to be thinking of her in Assisi.
I gathered up the twigs and put them in my hand with the candle and continued on the path. I figured I’d be at the monastery soon. I kept passing tourist on their way down. Their passing humored me. We would look at each other and there was a feeling of insecurity about how to greet these people. Do I talk in English or Italian? Would they understand either language, or perhaps German? “Hallo,” one of them said to me. This I recognized as an Italian who recognized that I was American and who was talking to me in English. “Hallo,” is how they tend to say hello. I returned his greeting with my Americanized, “Bon gerno.” Many times I run into Italians that recognize I’m American and who speak to me in English right away. Sometimes I run into other Americans who think I’m Italian and who try to practice their Italian on me. I can’t understand it any more than I can understand Italians speaking Italian. Sometimes, even within my own tour group I would mutter Italian phrases to the other Americans just out of the habit I developed wandering around Italy. The whole language barrier was very interesting and very much related to spirituality. I will go into detail about that at a later time.
I reached the top where the monastery was, or at least I thought it was. This building looked more like a fort. I reached its gates. There were groups of people just sitting around. The gates were locked. This was definitely not a monastery. I got out my tour book and looked more closely. “Rocca Maggiore,” was where I was. The Rocca is a fortress that used to protect the city from warring neighbors. At one time an oppressing government occupied it. The book explained that the people of Assisi, at one point, stormed the fortress and took it over from the oppressing government. At the time Saint Francis was sixteen. When Saint Francis was young, the book explained, he wanted to be a war hero. He was probably amongst the men that stormed the Rocca. It was after a year of imprisonment and an illness that he turned his life towards God. I reflected on my life and the longing for God that I feel. I reflected on the choices I have made that have not seemed to help me fulfill that longing. Saint Francis at one point wanted to be a war hero and his longing and his fate eventually brought him around to become a great being that stirred pilgrims to come visit him even eight centuries after his passing. Perhaps there was still hope for me.
While this was very interesting, I was not where I wanted to be. According the guide, which I could have studied more carefully, the monastery was outside of Assisi and still quite a ways away. I gathered up my stuff and continued on my way.
I had to walk back through the city to reach the city gates on the other side. I was happy to walk again through the beautiful city again. The streets were lined with tempting pizza shops and gelato venders. I was quite hungry, but determined to maintain my fast. Tomorrow I would indulge in these fine tastes again. Most of the shops lining the streets were touristy shops selling religious trinkets and little statues of Saint Francis. These little trinkets revolted me. How could the power of Saint Francis be contained in one of the gaudy little trinkets? There were for tourists for memories of the places they had been and the things they had seen. I remembered the wisdom that I read about in my spiritual tour guidebook. I would not be shopping in Assisi.
I reached the city gates and headed up a street that looked like it would take me to the monastery. The tour guide said that the monastery was, “in the vast solitude of Mount Subasio, at a height of 800 meters.” The road had a sign pointing to Mount Subasio. It seemed like a safe bet. I did a little calculation; 800 meters, that’s about 2,500 feet. I remembered when I was younger I used to ride my bicycle up a local mountain that was 2,000 feet. It was a seven-mile ride. I had no idea what my current elevation was but I had a feeling that I had quite a hike ahead of me. I knew there were busses or taxies that would gladly take me there, but something appealed to me about walking. Again it’s the austerity of a pilgrimage, and this was even more special because of the uncertainty. Not only would I walk the distance, I had no idea how far it would be or even if I was on the correct road. I would not need the twigs I was carrying until I reached the top and it was a pretty good bet I’d find more there, so I set them down and headed on my way. I was still carrying the long white candle.
As the road climbed the scenery got more beautiful. I could see across the valley and over to the next mountain range. I could see the city with the towering cathedral in the middle that was next to my hotel. I had walked from there. I could see the distance I had traveled and would have to travel to get home. Surrounding the city, the valley was green and peppered with stone buildings a cross hatched fields in a unique beauty that could only be Italy.
My climb continued. An occasional tourist coming down the hill on the other side of the road gave me comfort. “At least there is something worth looking at up there,” I would think to myself. Interspersed with the occasional tourist were small groups a school kids in their uniforms. It looked like they were coming or going to school.
Amongst one group was a barefoot monk wrapped in his monks robes. Before I got to Assisi I had never seen a monk dressed in such a way before with his brown robe and rope belt with a carefully tied knot. This particular monk was around my age and I remember a time when I longed for that lifestyle. It was shortly after I reached a certain realization in my spiritual discovery. It was more than an intellectual discovery, but rather an experience of the Self and the universe as a whole. The experience was triggered by a weekend of partying. Various events throughout the weekend lead to my shedding the lies that I had lived by and opening to the truth. I’m sure the marijuana I smoked that weekend aided in the mental transformations that I experienced. It certainly inhibited the fears that normally prevented me from admitting certain truths I kept locked inside. The experience itself, however, lasted a lot longer that any drug high would have (months). I truly opened my mind and could not go back. I was opening up to every truth I used to deny, even the very truth of God itself. I fell into a realization of a pure state and feeling an oneness with God. I’m not recommending any mind-altering drugs for the aid of spiritual gain. The months to follow were not easy. Because of my lack of guidance after this experience I could have easily wound up in a mental institution. It was my good karma that my mother was involved with Siddha Yoga and eventually brought me to the ashram where I was able to make some sense of the experiences I was having. If it weren’t for that, I’m afraid, the institution I would have ended up in would have been a mental facility on some sort of psychotropic drug to get me back to “reality.” I never left that ashram and I still live nearby today.
Anyway, as a part of these experiences that I had, I had visions of the whole universe, from the beginning of time to the timelessness of God. I saw the shape of the universe in its multidimensional glory. I saw the evolution of consciousness from the lifeless particles that make up the background fabric of the universe, to complex living and language speaking creatures such as the human being. I saw how language creates our systems of “reality” in which we live and operate. Careless words can cause great suffering for one’s self, for others, and for an entire culture. It was then that I longed to become a monk. I longed for silence, for it was the words with others, I thought, would eventually take me out of this pure state that I was blessed with. I knew the moment I started talking to people that the state would begin to vanish. The humble life of a monk in a monastery with a vow of silence would be one way, I thought, that I could maintain this state God granted me and to remain close to its side. I chose another path, however. (By the way, it was in trying to explain these visions and realizations to others that they believed I was crazy and kept bringing me to see psychiatrists.)
I chose another path because I was afraid. I was afraid what others would think of me if I deserted my life for a monastic one. I didn’t think people respected me. I was often teased. I always the last one picked or the first left behind. Others would view a retreat to a monastic life as a coward running from a world he was scared of. Because this seemed to matter to me, I would have to stay and feel the pain of losing my connection with God and find my path back through a worldly path of work and family. Like Adam and Eve falling from the paradise of Eden I to would fall from my vision of realization. I realize today that that vision I was granted was just a view. It was just a peek God had giving me so I would have a goal and be motivated to do the work I needed to do to regain my union.
I spoke earlier about the language barrier and it’s spiritual connection. Here I am in a country where I can’t speak the language. Communication is limited to a few simple words, hand gestures and pictures. In a sense, at least for the time being, I have gained the world of silence that I once longed for.
My shirt was completely soaked with the perspiration generated from the climb. I became aware that I still had my sweater on. If I’d realized that before I would have taken it off long before I reached Assisi. So, I took it off and then felt the coolness of the breeze absorbing the wetness of my shirt. That was nice. I continued on. I was walking up the hill for well over an hour. I could look across the valley at the mountain range on the other side. It looked as if I were at least as high as the ridge on the other side. I looked up at the top of the mountain I was climbing. It still looked far away. I still did not know how close or how far the monastery was from the top. The road began to switchback to make the steeper grade. Cutting across the switchbacks were shortcuts, paths cut through the brush by many impatient travelers. I would follow their footsteps and shorten my path that little bit.
At the top of one of the switchbacks I crossed paths with another traveler walking up the mountain. Something seemed unusual about him. He was walking rather slowly (I passed him with ease), and he did not seem weary from the hike up the hill. There was no sign whatsoever that he’d been walking a long time. About 100 yards later I passed a family coming back the other way. The woman was a little over weight and they had a small child walking beside them. “How could have they walked all this way?” I thought. I turned and looked behind me and noticed a small parking lot down below. Then I took a closer look ahead and I could see another cluster of parked cars. “I must be near,” I thought. As I rounded the crest of the hill I could see lots of people, a small souvenir stand, and a gate! I had made it!
I bought myself a drink at the souvenir stand and went on through the gates with an enthusiastic anticipation. I felt so good that I had walked the entire way and I felt that set me apart from the tourists that were wandering about. I look on the ground and saw a small piece of natural twine that must have come off of one of the native plants. It would be perfect for fastening the twigs together into crosses. I picked in up and headed towards the monastery.
“Sanctuary,” or it’s Italian equivalent, one of the signs said. That was where I wanted to go and I followed it into a small hallway. On one side of the hall way were two small meditation chambers carved into the wall. They were barely big enough for a person to sit. I thought I’d try to sit and meditate in one. They must have been much shorter then as my head touched the top and caused me to have to scrunch my neck to fit in. “This would not do,” I thought, and I got up. At the end of the hallway was a small staircase that descended. The staircase was very small and very windy as it descended through small doorways that I had to squeeze through and down into a lower chamber. “This must be the sanctuary,” It thought. There was a little altar and no place to sit. The ceiling of the room was about six feet high. It was about six feet wide and maybe eight feet long. It was all stone. There was a small window that peeked out over the valley and a small door no more than a foot and a half wide and four feet tall to exit the sanctuary. I didn’t feel compelled to stay inside so I squeezed by body through the doorway into a courtyard where a couple of students were writing in their journals.
At the end of the courtyard was a small chapel. I remembered reading in the guidebook that this was called the smallest chapel in the world. It was maybe five feet wide and six feet long. Just big enough for a couple of pews and an altar. It was immaculately clean inside and not the right place to leave my offerings. I left and headed down a small dirt path across a little bridge. On the other side of the bridge there was a monk giving a talk to a group of people telling them about something nearby. I would have liked to listen on but could not understand the language. I passed my way through the crowd to continue on the path. As I passed the group laughed. I did not know if the monk made a joke or if it were something I did that made them laugh. If it was something I did I was glad to have assisted their humor if it may have been at my own expense.
I did not go far on the path before I turned around. For some reason I thought I was in a hurry and did not want to travel too far away from the monastery. When I passed through the gates into the monastery, I noticed the closing time was, or last least appeared to be, 6:00 PM. At that time it was 5:10 PM and it was now gaining on 5:25 when I turned around on the dirt path. I walked again passed the group. There was no laughter this time. The group was gathered around two bronze statues, I’m sure of Saint Francis. In the dirt below one of the statues were several gold colored spikes driven into the path. I was curious about these and had no idea what they were. The monk probably explained them well although of no use to me in my foreign awareness. I continued on a path around the building that I came through earlier, the building that housed the sanctuary. The path looked like it lead back out to the front. “I’ll go up front and start again,” I thought. I was looking for the place to leave my twig crosses, my offering and my wish.
Three white doves flew across the path ahead of me to a small watering hole. It was unusual to see such a beautiful birds out in the wild like that. They were a pure white like I’d only seen in a cage back home. I remembered the ones I saw at the first cathedral in that I visited in the valley that were sitting on the statue of Saint Francis. I remembered stories of Saint Francis preaching to the birds. As I drew nearer to the doves, they got nervous and flew away to a safer distance on a rooftop near the other side of the path. Saint Francis was said to commune with the animals. These birds were afraid of me and I felt my limitations as a spiritual being in the light of Saint Francis. I felt these three white doves were of some significance to me as if some sort of sign, but I could not understand what. I continued on past them.
I stopped a little further to pick up a few twigs to add to my hand that now carried the white candle and the piece of twine I found on the way in. I reached the front of the monastery again and looked at what I may have missed in my haste to go to the sanctuary. I noticed a small hallway the headed in the opposite direction. The hallway was lined with small rooms on either side. I thought this must have been where the monks lived. They were small rooms, smaller than the room I had just rented for the night in the valley. They had tile floors and stone walls. There were a few pieces of furniture, a desk and a small bed. The rooms on the left side had a window that looked off into the valley. The rooms on the right were built up against the hillside. At the end of the corridor was a chapel. “That must be the one,” I thought. I was a larger chapel, although still small. It looked more used. There was a man sitting in the pews praying and in the back there was a nun kneeling also praying. I took a seat about midway up next to the stone wall. Prayer was not on my mind. I had paraphernalia in my hand and needed to get busy constructing my crosses. I watched the man go up the altar pay his respects and leave. I began the construction of the crosses. I had to break small pieces of the twigs and the twine. The twine rustled a little as I tied the two twigs together. I was making a little noise for a quite chapel. The nun got up and passed by me as she headed towards the altar. She looked to see what I was doing. I concealed my work and gave her a smile feeling a little shame like I may be doing something wrong. I stopped and watched her as she went to the altar. The altar had about seven candles burning. There were arranged in a “V” shape. In the front of the altar was a statue a Christ on the crucifix. The nun adjusted the position of the candles, kissed the statue of Christ and turned to head back. I closed my eyes so she would not see me as she walked passed. After a few moments I heard a door shut behind me at he back of the chapel with the rattle of a glass pain. I was alone.
I continued the manufacturing of the crosses. I need to write my wish though. I had a pen in my back and a small bag that I could tear a piece from to use as paper. The ripping of the bag was too loud even in my solitude so I exited the chapel to continue to tear a piece from the bag. I then returned to my seat. The pen I had was a gaudy little souvenir pen that I found when I was at the Internet café where I did my research on places to stay in Assisi. It was yellow plastic with plastic boats in a chamber of water. The boats would race from one end of the pen to the other when I tilted it up or down. I a way it seemed so inappropriate for the work I was doing. In a non-attached way it was perfect. It was available to me and that made it just the right pen no matter how tacky I thought it was. I wrote the words, “purity of relationship,” on the paper. This would be my wish, purity of relationship.
Now the relationship that I’m talking about is specifically a partnership with a woman, although I’m not limiting the wish to just that. As long as it’s a wish, I’ll include all relationships. My spiritual tour guide book said, “Perhaps there is a problem you are encountering in your life that you need an answer to. It is likely that St. Francis is awaiting you in some quiet corner where he was blessed with one of his wonderful encounters with Christ.” It is my relationships with women that seem to be giving me all the problems in my life right now and that seems to be taking all my mental and emotional energy. I can’t tell what is right or wrong, good or bad, or healthy or unhealthy in relationship. By writing “purity of relationship,” as a wish I hoped to just hand that all over to a higher power. Now there is more to this story to share with you but first let me get back to the vision that I once had, and let me explain why this is such an important issue to me.
I mentioned the vision I once had and seeing the universe in its entirety and the evolution of consciousness, etc. What I have not yet shared was the sacred dance that I saw between man and woman, or more accurately, the energy of yin and the yang. It is through this dance that reality emerges. The yang energy is highly focused and action oriented while the yin energy is more sensitive and nurturing and tends to have broader perspective. Without the yang energy nothing would get done and without the yin energy, the yang will run rampant and destroy things. Our current situation with the environmental crisis that humanity now faces is a result of an imbalance between the yin and the yang.
So the yin and the yang dance and play, and give rise to reality. The yin, with its broad vision, guides the yang and the yang, with its focus, builds and creates. It is also inevitable through this dance, in a man and a woman that children will be born. If this play between man and woman, yin and yang, is done unconsciously then children will be brought into the world without the safety of a community, and without guidance. These children will grow to be children. They will not understand the balance of energies mentioned above and their work in the world will not support humanity. Either they will do nothing and become a drain on the resources of others or they will have a too narrow of a focus and become destructive. At that point, in my understanding, the pair bond between a man and a woman became the single most sacred thing in the universe and the family that this pair bond will spawn I’ve come to understand as God’s natural organization for human community. Not the nuclear family that we saw in the 50’s but a family nestle in a greater community that is dedicated to support that family.
Now a celibate monk or nun can ultimately learn to balance the two energies within. That was not the path I had chosen to take in life. It was clear to me, that relationship and family were the focus of my life in this incarnation. I was born into a broken home so I could understand the suffering a child of a dysfunctional family. I was born into this broken family so I learn the path from an unhealthy family to a healthy one and then help to guide others in that way. Without this my life would be a waste. All the work I do or am to do is to support family. This was so clear to me in my vision. At the time, if I would let the vision slip from my mind, I would become depressed to the point that I could feel my life energy being sucked out from other me. I knew I would just fade away and parish. The feelings were that strong!
I once mentioned my longing to be a silent monk? The reason I was not able to take that path was because I was incomplete in the area of relationship and family. My projections of what I thought others would think about me were, in reality, what I was thinking of myself. My family left a wound that I needed to heal before I could enter into the liberation that I longed for and it was that wound that I led me to lose the state of liberation that I was given a glimpse of during this period of my life. It was this wound that I would bring with me when I went into the world and began to interact with others. It was this wound that reshaped my identity in relationship to the people I knew. The same identity I had before, the one that we were all used to.
So the first 26 years of my life were spent alone, growing up wounded. I was unhappy, insecure and I had low self-esteem. During that time I’d never had a relationship with a girl/woman. It was my greatest fear. This first 26 years of my life I spent looking for God. I did not know that was what I was looking for, however, when I had these visions, there I was standing right in front of it with it’s metaphorical finger pointing at me saying, “You need to be with a woman or I will take your life.” I had my fears to face this fear.
So I began another journey from my vision of God and into the world. I thought it would be easy, with God on my side. However, other people just did not seem to cooperate. Their visions were just not the same. No matter how strong I felt a certain relationship was meant to be, she would always wind up going some other way. So here I am, eight years later and not knowing if I’m any closer. A serious relationship requires a strong foundation it seems. The past eight years, while failing in so many painful ways, I’ve been building a foundation, a foundation of work and community. I’ve built a strong business and I’ve rooted myself strongly in community. Both of these foundations will support me someday, when the time is right, in relationship and family.
As far as women go, there are plenty of beautiful ones in my life. My attractions will jump from one interest to another, mainly depending on which one has given me the sweetest smile the latest. Sometimes my attractions become more serious and I do this thing I’ve come to call, “falling in love.” It is shortly after I do that that I usually find myself with the pain of broken heart.
There are the women that I dance with every weekend. These short little three-minute relationships (the length of a song) can be quite intense, intimate and sometimes a little raunchy. Then they are over. She and I both are onto another short three-minute relationship leaving the other behind. At one point, many years ago, I became concerned about these relationships called a dance. I became concerned that the energy that is exchanged could lead to a desire that would in turn lead me into an unhealthy relationship, however I did not want to give up my dancing. In meditation I shared my concern with my Gurumayi. She just laughed at me, “don’t worry,” she said, “Your patterns are there to protect you.” She knew of my fears around women and she knew that I would never build up the courage to ask one of them out no matter how strong my desires may be. My patterns are such that I may build a strong desire or attraction and think of her all week until I see her again. Then I will make up every excuse that I shouldn’t even attempt to ask her out. And so I go through the days and weeks tormenting myself in my mind. When I do get up the courage to pursue someone or share my feelings, the answer I receive has inevitably been, “no.” Either I become attracted to the wrong women or the way I go about pursuing them is wrong.
Those are the patterns she was referring to, I’m sure. So, where does that leave me? With patterns that are there to protect me from unhealthy relationships and yet that do not seem to lead me to any relationship at all. I must somehow trust that this is OK. Then,last August she came to me in a dream and said, “within a year you will be married to her and there is nothing else you need to do. Just keep watching her.” “Well thanks a lot, Gurumayi,” I thought upon waking. It was all very nice to know that but she did not tell me who this “her” is that she was referring to. My friend put it nicely, “I guess if there is nothing you need to do it doesn’t really matter.” True, true. So somehow, if this message in my dream were to be taken literally, even with these frustrating patterns of mine, I would wind up married in a year. I figured if this were to happen, the grace would have to be so strong that in spite of my patterns of avoidance and escape I would not be able to resist. Then this happened earlier this year, much to my surprise. It was with a woman I met long after the dream. But she couldn’t be the one if my instructions in the dream were to “keep” watching her and I’d just met her? I made up all kinds of excuses in my mind, “maybe the ‘her’ she was referring to was in some way all women and by watching the ones that I watch, I was watching them all.” Then I fell in love, harder and faster than I had ever done before, and shortly there after I was experiencing the familiar broken heart. Friendship was all she wanted. I gained something from all of that. I learned to let go of something and love somewhat selflessly, and I seem to be able to still share a love with her that I know I’ve never shared with another. This is the relationship that has begun to build into the friendship that I have written about a few times in this story already.
Then there is another, also from the same ashram, that I’ve been interested in for years. For sure she must have been the one the dream was referring to. She is a strikingly beautiful woman, and she is the one I’ve always liked to watch. About a year earlier I gave her a note confessing that I had feelings for her and I was turned away. Earlier this year her behavior towards me changed. She began treating me very sweetly and I mistakenly thought her interest in me had changed. Defying the message in my dream I began to “do something” and started to pursue her once again. By the time of my trip to Italy it seemed certain she would turn me away again. If she was the one in the message from the dream, I may have ruined it by “doing.” I do not know how to interpret that message I received. I do not know what, “doing nothing” means. As breathing and eating are a part of my natural tendencies, so is the pursuit of a woman. Is breathing and eating a part of “doing nothing?” I was just following my natural tendencies? That was what my pursuit of her was all about.
My attraction to her is very much family oriented. I see her around children and I can see her being a wonderful mother to some man’s children. The part of me drawn to family wants that man to be me. Now I don’t feel a strong foundation of love for her like I do for the other. However, I’m very drawn to her and I’m sure love would develop if given a chance. Then there is a part of me that wonders if love has anything to do with a marriage or relationship at all. “What’s love got to do with it,” Tina Turner once sang. Love can be fleeting and feelings for others that were there at one time can disappear or change. I’ve learned that love is an internal state. Two partners in a marriage both being in touch with their internal love and being in love with God won’t they always also be in love with each other? It then becomes a question of compatibility. Can these two people live together and support each other and still maintain their internal state of love? Seems like a tall order to me. Anyway, I don’t know the answers to my questions. By writing, “purity of relationship,” on that little piece of paper torn from a bag, I once again put all of this in God’s capable hands, because I clearly do not know what I’m doing.
Purity of relationship also goes beyond the romantic interests. It extends to business relationships as well and relationships with those that make up my community and my circle of influence. Each of these relationships needs to be conducted with a certain “purity.” After all, it is these relationships that provide a foundation that will support a family some day and are therefore as sacred as I hold the relationship with a woman to be.
There is one more relationship with a woman that I could share. However, think I’ve done enough sharing for now. I should let her go anyway, so by not sharing this story maybe I am that much closer to letting go of her. Or, perhaps I’m just fooling myself. I always find myself thinking of her when something with another does not work out. She’s been my safety net in that way. It will be another story for another time if I ever decide to share it again. I’ve never received positive feedback from the story I’m reluctant to tell it.
I took the finished crosses up to the altar. It was an altar that was well kept by the nun that departed into the back room. I almost felt guilty about leaving the crosses there on such a well-kept altar. I did. I left two crosses, one for me and one for my friend. I left a torn piece of bag with the words “purity of relationship” written on it by a gaudy touristy pen and I left a 10,000 lira note there as an offering. I would tell my friend as soon as I could that this cross was left for her and that she could make her wish from home.
I exited the chapel, climbed through the narrow chambers of the sanctuary once more, out into the courtyard where I stopped and looked at my book one last time. I read about a tree that the birds used to sit in while Saint Francis would preach to them. I looked up. That tree was just in front of me. It was right were the monk was earlier sharing with those people. I looked at my watch. It was time to go back to the hotel.
The journey back to the hotel took 2 ½ hours. At this point I was anxious to complete my journey and get back to the hotel. The leaving of the crosses at the altar was the peek of the day. I felt it was over and it was time to get some sleep. There was an incidence worth mentioning on the way home. As I took the shortcuts across the switchbacks on the way up, I also took them on the way down. At one point I stepped suddenly and it caused the candle that I was carrying to break. I was quite disappointed that I wanted to take such care of this to bring it to my friend and it was now broken. While I knew I could go get another one the next day, I’d felt I had my chance. Getting a new one would be cheating. I decided not to bring the candle home. I would leave it behind in the hotel room.
The sun set on my way back. The view of the valley changed from a hazy low light with sunlight streaming through the valley air to a darker dusk and then crept into night. I took a quick stop at a church that Saint Francis helped to rebuild. He heard a command from a cross to do so and so there it was … closed to the public. I wanted to get back to the hotel. It must have closed at 6:00 also. I moved on. I took some of the side streets back and got a little lost as I reached the valley. I could see the towering cathedral that was across the street from my destination so I just kept heading towards it, like a guiding beacon. Once in the valley I could see the glowing city of Assisi. All the sacred buildings were lit up with powerful lamps, the reflective light bouncing back to my eyes. This combined with the direct light of the many street lamps and the old stone buildings made the glowing Assisi twice as beautiful by night as it did in the day.
I felt inspired to write my adventure and I spent a lot of time on the way home thinking about details that I could write about. I planned on stopping by a store on the way home and getting a notepad to start taking notes that I would not forget. As I got closer to the hotel, being inside appealed to me more. Perhaps I would just go inside and shed my pack and then go out to find the notepad. I went inside and I was soon asleep.
I woke up at 9:00 AM, twelve hours after I went to sleep. Half my time in Assisi was spent sleeping. I took a quick shower, got dressed in that fresh new t-shirt and packed my bag. I left the broken candle on the small desk in the room as I planned. I paid my hotel bill and left. It was rainy and cold outside. I was glad I brought my umbrella. I would definitely let the bus take me back to Assisi. The wind was really blowing and it made my umbrella hard to manage. And so, so cold … unbelievably cold. I thought it must be snowing up at the monastery it was that cold. The weather seemed so strange after such a lovely day the day before. I went to a small café and had some orange juice for breakfast. I was not too hungry after a day of fasting the day before. However, I could feel the affects on my energy. I was feeling a little light headed and I thought it would help me in meditation. My plan was to spend as much time in Saint Francis’s tomb meditating off and on for the rest of the day until the tour bus arrived at noon. I was a little tempted to find a bus to the monastery to see if it was snowing there. I thought it would be lovely if it were. However, I had a promise to keep to return to the tomb and meditate.
After my orange juice I went back to the church across the street. I remembered what the hotel clerk had said the day before and thought I’d honor him by going to see his church one more time. However, the honoring was brief as I passed through too quick. Through the mini chapel and out the door to the rose garden I went. I passed the statue of Saint Francis holding the basket with a live white dove still feeding out of it, took a peek in his little meditation chamber and exited into the rainy, windy cold.
I looked at the bus schedule. Every half and hour at 10 after and 20 ‘til, the bus would leave from that location. The hotel clerk was close yesterday and I’m sure the language barrier threw him off a bit, “twenty and twenty too.” I did appreciate his kindness. I waited huddle next to the massive walls of the cathedral, sheltered from the wind and the rain with a few others and waited the 15 minutes, until my watched reached the time the bus should arrive. It was there, right on time.
The bus zipped past all the sights that I was able to take in more deeply the day before. We passed the spot that I’d left my can. “Is it there?” I asked myself looking carefully. I couldn’t see. I wondered if Italy had any people like my father. Every morning my father would go jogging. He would carry with him a sack and collect all the aluminum cans that he would pass. Then he would take those cans and store them in a big garbage can on the side of the house until that garbage can got full. Then he would take that garbage can down to the recycling center and cash in the cans for money, 10 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents, one dollar a pound, I remembered the prices getting higher as I grew older. He would take that money and put it in a special account call, “kids college fund.” I’m sure I spent most of that money during my first year of college. I wondered if and Italian man might have run by the can that I had left there the day before and picked it up for his kids college fund. Perhaps something good came of that can. I would never know. The bus zipped past.
It passed the flowering trees and the old stone buildings. It zipped on passed the rock walls and the cracks in the street that I had passed the day before and it started winding up the road to Assisi where I’d remembered feeling my self start to sweat. As it climbed and drew nearer to the parking lot in Assisi I notice something beautiful outside … it was snow! Snow was falling from the sky where just a few moments before, at a lower elevation was rain. Yes, it was snowing at the monastery as I had thought, but it was snowing here in Assisi as well.
I got off the bus and felt tickled inside. I felt as if I was being given a great gift. We don’t get much snow in the area of California where I live and when I go to it, it is usually to ski, and, when I ski I don’t want it to be snowing. I walked up the road past the twisty hairpin turn (careful not to slip) and on up to the cathedral where Saint Francis lay. I would not go in. I looked at my watch. It was 10:00. I had two hours before the bus would arrive. I had a promise to keep to return to the tomb to meditate, but it was snowing! I would walk around in the snow and return to keep my promise later.
There’s something deceptive about snow. It falls so gently and lightly it doesn’t seem like it would get me so wet. After noticing my hair was getting uncomfortably cold I put up my umbrella. My umbrella hand would start to get very cold and I would have to switch it with the other hand that I was keeping in my coat pocket. Besides my soggy t-shirt from the day before I had taken all the clothes out of my bag and put them on my back. I was still cold and dropped in a shop to purchase another layer.
So I walked for an hour through the stone streets of Assisi, past all the ancient buildings with snow falling. I felt like I was walking around in a Dickens Christmas novel. Soon I’d had enough and returned to the tomb. I found my favorite chair from the day before, stripped of layers of clothes and sat down to be quiet.
I lasted a little longer in meditation this time. It didn’t take me long to loose my thoughts and drift in deep. I’m sure the fasting and the walking from the day before assisted. I sat in a peaceful meditation for about 20 minutes. I don’t usually meditate. It’s not a practice that I’ve chosen to keep. I remember many years ago when I received my spiritual awakening, going into meditation was easy … perhaps too easy. I would go in deep and stay for a short while. Then I would think, “OK, so what? I want to work,” and I would come out and go get something done. It was always refreshing and often, even in a short one or two minute meditation, a profound change would occur. It was just a short one or two minute meditations that would often give me guidance when things did not seem to be going well in my life. I would drop into meditation, feeling stressed, stay for a minute and come out feeling centered and at peace. Then I would notice some part of my world view was changed. A person or thing that was causing me hardship would be gone and in its place would be a message, “Don’t see this person again until such and such has happened,” or, “Your karma with this group of people is up.” Then I would stop seeing that person or I would no longer go to see that group of people. I never really learned to meditate for very long. The twenty minutes I spend in the tomb was quite a long haul for me. Then I started to fall asleep.
Well I knew if I stayed there and continued to try to meditate that I would continue to fall asleep. It wasn’t even worth trying. I knew myself well enough. My time in the tomb was over. I got up and pulled together my stuff and joined to progression of tourists around the tomb. I got around to the front and felt something strange. No one was bowing in front of the tomb. At the ashram I go to it is common practice to bow at the chair of the master. I could not leave this tomb with out bowing in front of it. Feeling a little self-concouis I offered myself in a precious bow in front of the tomb and headed on out.
I had about ½ and hour before the bus was due to arrive. I poked around looking for the room with the relics. As I walked over the area where the tomb was (on the level above) I could feel a powerful burst of energy that almost toppled me over. I found the relics. I really wasn’t interested in seeing them but I thought I would. I was still in a state of meditation and I joined the line of people that were waiting to pass by the glass cases that housed Saint Francis’s robe, sandals, manuscripts, and cups. There were not that many relics and I’m willing to wager that they were almost everything in the world he had. I, like all the tourists there, passed by them looking on and then went on out the door. It was noon. Time to go greet the bus.
It was no longer snowing. That was a gift just for me that I would have to share with my friends on the bus by way of story. As I walked on down the street I noticed I was in a very peaceful state. It was a peaceful state that I would like to maintain but I knew, as I’ve known before, that once I joined the rest of the group and started to talk and share, that the peaceful state would slowly fade.
It was not much later that I noticed some familiar faces walking passed. This was my group and I let them walk on passed until I saw the familiar faces that I wanted to see. These were the faces brother and my good friend who shares my same spiritual path, Siddha Yoga. This is the friend that I mentioned before that had researched the monasteries for her family in Italy after the rest of the tour departs. It was she that I really wanted to see the most. Spiritually we can connect and I wanted to share my experiences with her and get a first hand account of her experiences in this magical place. She and my brother were together and I hugged them both a hello. While my brother said that he missed spending the time with me while I was away, I turned away from his greetings and turned towards my friend. I would catch up with my brother later and I walked with my friend.
Her eyes were wide and almost in tears. They had just visited the tiny chapel in that great cathedral across from where I stayed. She explained it to my as if it were the heart of Italy that she felt she had found. “The heart is the center of all that is sacred. Go there and roam.” Is a saying from our spiritual master. This very same tiny chapel that I’d just walked through so quickly hours before my friend was explaining to me as a sacred center of all that is sacred. I walked on with her into the cathedral and down to the tomb. I stood on the top of the steps as I watched her join the progression of tourists around the tomb. I was sorry she wouldn’t get to spend much time in there to sit and meditate. As the progression led her back out up the steps passed me she did not look. My time of sharing with her was over. I went to find my brother.
The tour director was leading us up to the upper cathedral. I found my brother there with the husband of my friend that I was just with. Her husband is an art teacher and my brother also a student of art (it is he that did the quick sketches that ornament this paper). Their eyes went wide as we walked in the upper cathedral. The paintings, they were trying to confirm with each other, they were all Giatto. I don’t know much about art, but this artist, Giatto, was the first to portray art in a certain manner that triggered of the renaissance. As I listened to them talk about it I started to notice the artwork of the place for the first time. I was transforming from a pilgrim into a tourist. I would let that happen with out attachment or struggle. I was happy to see my brother again and share is amazement of seeing these painting. “Last time I was in Europe I looked all over for these painting,” he said, “No, they kept saying they are in some other place.” And there they were in this cathedral that he had just followed his tour group into having no idea that he was going to see what he’d wanted to see for such a long time. It was a spiritual experience for him in such a way. I felt honored to be there with him during that moment. Many of these paintings were destroyed in the earthquake a few years ago. With computer technology they cataloged all the pieces and rebuilt the painting that were destroyed he explained to me.
My friend, the art teacher went on to explain to me that they built these cathedrals so elaborate, massive and with such fine art supposedly to give a greater experience of God, however, he said, what they were really trying to do was to compete for pilgrims to come visit and buy things. I explained to him that he just described a tourist to which he seemed to think there was not much of a difference. Pilgrims and tourist come and buy things. “True,” I thought. While I did not buy any of the touristy trinkets (yet) and I didn’t buy any food (yet), I did pay for a hotel room for the night. However, his comment really bothered me. I’ve been a tourist before and my trip to Assisi was not the same. It wasn’t until later that I put words to my feelings. A tourist comes to see things new and will also buys things. A pilgrim comes to worship, or one of the three reasons mentioned before, and may buy things as well. However, their principle reason for going somewhere is completely different. Assisi is a wonderful place to see the contrast.
At this point in my journey, my pilgrimage was coming to and end. I was back with my tour group, talking and interacting with the people that did not all share my spiritual interests. I would be talking about things that did not relate and would soon leave my state behind. I would do this willingly and without attachment. I was happy to be with my brother again.
Did I get what I came for? A fresh inspiration? I would say so. I cannot explain it directly, nor do I want to attempt to. I will say that my connection with God “directly” feels strengthened. By God “directly,” I mean my connection with God without the distractions of spiritual paths, gurus, or sacred texts. While I think all of that is helpful and important in understanding and finding one’s relationship with God, I think it can also, eventually, become a distraction as well. I’m grateful for my spiritual path and my guru. I’m grateful for my ashram and my community of seekers. However, I realize that all of it will someday have to be shed. I still feel a great devotion to family as God’s natural means of organizing human beings. I’m saddened that the family has suffered so much in our society to the point that I think it has taken a back seat to things like career, money and individual goals. All of that I think are important as a means to an end but not an end itself. With my wish at the altar, I once again put the confusing question about relationship back into God’s hands. I know it will be a matter of time before I try to take the reins on this again and cause myself more suffering. I could just be a matter of weeks. Perhaps God will be kind and hold on to them a little tighter so I can’t grab them up so easily as I’ve seem to in the past.
While I failed in bringing back the gifts I wanted to for my friend, I had left her something there instead and that was far more important. I would bring her back a story. It was sharing that story with her that inspired this writing.
I left the cathedral with my brother and began walking the streets of Assisi one last time. My desires turned towards the trinket shops and I longed to have something to bring home. I have a shelf that I put the treasures that I’ve gathered over the years. I have treasures that date back to my childhood. I would get a treasure from one of the trinket shops to remember Assisi. There was an unusually shaped “T” that I saw hanging from bracelets and necklaces. I did not know what it was but knew it was something significant so I thought I’d buy one. Later I learned this unusually shaped “T” was the symbol that Saint Francis adopted for his ministry. I bought about five different ones on bracelets and necklaces. I thought one would be enough, but the next one was uniquely beautiful and so was the third. The fourth and the fifth were made of beautiful stone. I couldn’t decide between the two so I bought them both. I’ll scatter then across my shelf of treasures and like most of these treasures I will give them all away some day when an appropriate person and occasion demands it.
I walked on with my brother up the street where we met with the rest of the group at the restartuant our tour director reserved for lunch. The idea of eating again enthused me. We sat at the table with a couple of ladies from the group and we shared stories, my brother and I of our day apart. I had one of the best lasagnas I ever remember eating.