Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dropping in on St. Francis

Day broke cloudy and mild over Florence as Robin and I sat down at our hotel to our last alfresco breakfast. We drew in the final views of the Duomo then headed to our room and shortly thereafter we were weaving in and out of the morning rush as we made our way to the bus station and our ride to Bibbiena our first port of call on the way to La Verna. We had contemplated hiring a taxi but the cost was off the charts so an 8 euro bus ticket worked just fine. It was remarkable how quickly our view changed as we cleared the city limits and found the beauty of the nearby hill towns. We rumbled along, snaking around hill tops and down into valleys, but the trend was definitely upwards. A few more zigs and zags brought us to the village of Bibienna. It was here that we were supposed to change buses to connect onward to La Verna. As the next bus wasn't due for over an hour we decided to see if we could find a taxi to go from here to the Santurario. As it worked out we found a nearby cafe, and in that cafe was a counter girl whose sister had just walked in. We explained our need to the counter girl who handed us off to her sister, who said sure she would drive us to the Santuario for the same price as the taxi.  So off we went. The girl driving turned out to be a professional cyclist who rode for a couple of Italien teams. She has been competing all around the world since she was 18. She is now 27. She is a local and knew just where we wanted to go. Before we knew it we were dropped off at our hotel and 15 minutes later we were climbing a leafy cobblestone path to the Santuario della Verna. I must comment on the degree of change from Florence to the quiet path we found ourselves on. It was an extraordinary transformation. Florence presented a surging crowd always seeking some advantage, La Verna provided beautiful scenery and welcoming bird song as St. Francis would have appreciated. The climb up was only 800 meters, but the physical distance was not an accurate correlation as to where are spirits were lifted. The Santuario is all steep angles in the approach leading to a level plaza with stunning down valley views. We had a general look around and then found our way to the porter's desk in the pilgrim accommodation area. There we got another stamp for our credential. It was then back to visit the Chapel of the Stigmata, the cave where St. Francis prayed and meditated, and of course the Basilica. Our timing was such that upon return to the Basilica we we're able to join the monks in their twice daily prayers and procession to the Chapel off the Stigmata. The quiet of this monastery, the rhythmic chants being intoned, and the realization that this hill top has been sacred ground for centuries for the pilgrim faithful, all combined to make this a much cherished experience. As we headed back down the steep path to our hotel Robin and I were reminded of how much we hungered to be in this very place. St. Francis was very much a man of peace and his legacy continues not just here on this sacred ground but around the world as people realize that peace in our hearts is what transforms us. It was here in this late afternoon amongst the gathering mists swirled by the valley winds that Robin and I felt truly connected to that sacred lineage, and felt blessed to be here. What a remarkable day and what a beautiful way for us to begin to walk our Way of St. Francis. Peace is with us. Thanks be to God.  
The path to the sanctuary
Entrance to the Sanctuary
Chapel of the Stigmata
Main altar in the Basilica
Entrance to the cave where St. Francis slept
Interior of cave
Monks processing     
The path is steep

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