The angel of Assisi

June 16th, 2009

Here’s a little story about spiritual pilgrimage for those of you who are traveling to my city of angels this weekend for the Mother’s Plunge – and those of you who aren’t. The extraordinary response to the first splash has me planning a countrywide tour of backward steps. Where should I bring the retreat next? Minnesota? Arizona? Kansas? Tell me.

Even the man at Marshall Field’s who had sold me the yellow travel umbrella had said it: “You must go to Assisi.”

Everyone, it seemed, had said it – You must go to Assisi! – and so the fifth day of a solo trip to Italy became the day for me to go the distance. It would require a car, which I obtained from a rental agency a few blocks from my hotel in Florence. It would require getting out of town, which I accomplished with an angel on the dashboard. And it would require a couple hours’ drive south on the Autostrada, which I high-tailed in the slipstream of the surging traffic.

“You will see it on the hill,” another advisor had told me rapturously. And I did, in a purple haze of trees and tile and imagination. I steered my little vehicle onward in the soldierly direction, ascending the hill and circling the top, passing the marked parking lots with all the beached buses, inching slowly alongside the streams of tourists who had come for the St. Francis experience, motoring up the wrong streets and down again until I mustered my purpose and pulled over on a narrow hillside shoulder. I angled in among the other likeminded pilgrims who were committing, I hoped, the pardonable sin of illegal parking.

I strode upward to the Basilica de San Francisco. It was big, too big, outsized for its namesake, and oddly uninspiring, I thought. Inside to more frescoes, more pews, more people, and decidedly more organization than in the other sacred spots I’d stopped. This, I could see, was a system.

I headed down into the crypts containing St. Francis’ tomb and there uncovered the day’s only treasure. “Scusa, scusa,” the ushers whispered to those, like me, who had barged in to bystand at the wedding ceremony underway in the underground chapel. I lingered in the shadows at the rear, charmed by the elaborate smallness of it. A local couple surrounded by local people, wearing uncomfortable new clothes for the biggest event of their lives.

Leaving, I wandered the winding medieval village. The heat had turned the streets into baking stones.

“You will feel it in the air,” another friend had confided. I felt stifling languor and epidemic disinterest. Wandering into an antique shop, my idle browsing did not disturb the mistress at the back watching American TV soap operas dubbed in Italian.

Then the divine message arrived.

Every place is holy.

It was my departing thought, a conclusion and a comfort, and I headed home, satisfied.


  1. Karen,
    Having been in Assisi I can relate to your sharing. We loved it and it will forever remain a special place in our hearts. One of the items which impressed us was his garment which is on display as you first came in….. Rosemarie

    Comment by Anonymous — June 16, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  2. I love this post, Karen! I can totally relate! xo

    Comment by Gypsy Alex — June 16, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

  3. Bring it home to Texas – somewhere close to Dallas preferably.

    Comment by Renae C. — June 16, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

  4. Funny you mention that Renae. Couldn't I coax you farther south? I'll put my best effort into it.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — June 16, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

  5. this feels written for me…
    "me" being everyone.
    but still me.
    and you know my vote…
    Arizona, please!

    Comment by jessamyn — June 16, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

  6. DENVER!!!!

    Comment by Meg — June 16, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

  7. Bend, Oregon.

    Comment by Shalet — June 16, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

  8. How far south? – and yeah – probably if I could make the timing work. I'd love to come to something – but with CA is pretty hard to do.

    Comment by Renae C — June 17, 2009 @ 12:32 am

  9. that was supposed to say "with two kids to wrangle" and then they came in and interrupted me…..

    Comment by Renae C. — June 17, 2009 @ 12:33 am

  10. Come to Wisconsin! Our recently born parents/children's group at Deer Park (Tibetan tradition,outside Madison, with many other traditions converging for this opportunity to share…) would love to have you!

    Thanks for the Assisi story 🙂

    Comment by Alyssa — June 17, 2009 @ 1:06 am

  11. A no-brainer. Minnesota, of course!! xo

    Comment by Elissa — June 17, 2009 @ 1:33 am

  12. I leave on Thursday to make my pilgrimage to California to allow myself some time and a really good laugh with a friend I have wanted to see for 4 years. I can't wait!

    Comment by beautiful birth — June 17, 2009 @ 2:35 am

  13. a-r-i-z-o-n-a

    Comment by latisha — June 17, 2009 @ 4:50 am

  14. Exactly what I needed to read today, here on Laundry Mountain.

    BRing the retreat to Texas in the fall, OF COURSE!

    Comment by Kelly Hudgins — June 17, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

  15. Phuket, Thailand. Bit of a trek but well worth it, promise! It's the most holy/unholy place I've ever been in my life.


    Comment by Lana — June 18, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  16. That would be 2 votes for Bend, Oregon. Who's counting (that is not a koan, I don't think?)

    So, St. Francis is a role model for me of humility, honesty and joy. Where better to pilgrimage to find that whereever we are is sacred ground?

    So glad to have found you via Jena Strong's blog. And boy am I jealous. Maybe I can come next year and bring some Grandmother's Plunge energy?

    Comment by Beth P. — June 18, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  17. You must come to Arizona. We could use some inspiration here!

    Comment by Jeannie — June 18, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  18. Closer to Georgia, please! If not, somewhere I can take a good road trip to after I buy my VW bus this fall!


    Comment by Wildly Cam — June 19, 2009 @ 12:02 am

  19. Beth, I don't think you'll have to wait a whole year. And yes, definitely grandmother is the same deep water.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — June 19, 2009 @ 3:03 am

  20. Thanks for passing along the message.

    Comment by Mary Ann — June 19, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  21. I think Maryland would be a lovely spot. Or somewhere close to Maryland. Thinking of your holy day and holy place and holy sister travelers. You are in my heart

    Comment by Meg Casey — June 20, 2009 @ 4:32 am

  22. I love the message of this post. I'm with Elissa on Minnesota! I hope the weekend was wonderful for all of you. kelly g.

    Comment by kelly g. — June 20, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

  23. I'll be there Kelly!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — June 20, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

  24. Next retreat – NEW HAMPSHIRE! It may not be dramatic, but it is lovely (and v relaxing).

    Comment by Allison — June 23, 2009 @ 4:03 am

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