Today in the Basilica when Brother Stephan was showing us the ancient texts I was most thrilled when I understood what he said and managed to ask a question. As impressed as I was with the texts- the gold plating, their age and history- I could not help but wonder what made Brother Stephan chose to pursue a religious life. He was just as interesting to me because he represented the idea of continuing history. Those books so full of facts and clues about the past somehow brought him along on a present day journey that crossed our own prospective paths.
The same thing happened when led up to the Hall of Prayer by Brother Silvestro. He led us up a flight of staris and out onto a long balcony that wrapped around the basilica. It was surrounded by a low wall that provided us with an expansive view of Assisi, the surrounding hillside and valley below.
I was initially struck by the beauty but was that much more conscious of it when Brother Silvestro told us to turn off our cameras and take it in. He seemed concerned by our almost instantaneous picture-taking. I wondered if our eagerness to take pictures appeared to be a lack of reverence. He smiled and was gentle. He wasn’t pious in the way that one stereotypically might associate with the obviously religious.
What is important about places like the Hall of Prayer is not something that can be captured in a photo such as its architecture and structure but rather the purpose and intent behind it. The arches are meant to symbolize hands in the shape one makes while praying. As one prays they are also covered in prayer. This was the place Brother Silvestro chose to show us. It is not open to the public. Because of this I had to assume that this unique place meant something to him.
He also led us to the oldest part of the Basilica where the monks of St. Francis’s order lived. He answered my questions and seemed to appreciate my attempts to use Italian and didn’t mind deciphering my Spanish- my first actual conversation with an Italian on this trip!
I wonder what sparked his desire to commit himself as a friar. I loved the way his face expressed so much of what he must have been saying in the Italian I didn’t understand. And even so, he was saying something by choosing to show us what he did, by his generosity and obvious delight in our awe. I can’t help but wonder if living a life of devoted connection to God, he was enabled to connect with us.
This is what impresses me about Assisi- not its stoic walls or ornate cathedrals nor its ability to attract tourists to snap away at them but the fact that people like Saint Francis and Saint Clare established it as a community, an order, of those who wish to live a life like Christ. It remains a remarkable testament to something not found in well-worn paths but in halls of prayer.