Beautiful Catholic pilgrimage: Assisi

St. Francis Basilica

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks on a beautiful Catholic pilgrimage in Assisi. It’s always been our dream to visit Rome and Assisi. Everything aligned, and Bill, Claire and I went for ten days with Fr. Cory Stanley and the good people of Prince of Peace Parish in Altus and St. Helen in Frederick, Oklahoma. Fr. Stanley lived in Rome for several years, and he was a great spiritual guide, who could also speak Italian. Fr. Joseph Schwarz was our other wonderful spiritual guide. Our main tour guide was Alessandro Pietro Gaj. He and Luciano, our fantastic, amazing bus driver, made our trip the best it could be. The tour company is 206 Tours, and they specialize in pilgrimages. I can’t say enough nice things about this company.

Bill and Bear on the plane to Assisi and Rome. We were very excited even if they don't look like it.
Bill and Claire on the plane to Assisi and Rome. We were very excited even if they don’t look like it.

Our tour was customized by Fr. Stanley. We flew to Rome and then traveled for 2.5 hours to Assisi where St. Francis and St. Clare lived, walked and prayed. I thought I’d share a few photos with you of our trip. We stayed for three days in Assisi at St. Anthony’s Guesthouse. The Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement were wonderful and so helpful during our stay. The guesthouse is centrally located near the Basilica of St. Clare and inside the oldest city walls.

We had mass at the tomb of St. Francis and St. Clare, which are in separate basilicas at the ends of the town.

Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in which the Portiuncula is located.
Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in which the Portiuncula is located.

If I’m remembering correctly, the first day we visited the Portiuncula, a small chapel within the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, located about a mile below Assisi in the valley. Portiuncula, which means “a small portion” of land also refers to the town built around the church. This part of Italy is full of small towns built mostly on hillsides because of historic warring factions, but the Portiuncula is in a small valley.

We weren’t allowed to take a photo of the Portiuncula from inside the church, but we were allowed to take one outside. (Click on the photos in the galleries to make them larger.) The monks and sisters are very strict in the churches of Assisi which makes sense. Otherwise, as we saw in Rome, people do foolish things in holy places. On this trip, I also didn’t lug around my good cameras. I only brought my iPhone so all the photos are taken with it. I just wanted to experience everything without having my neck ache.

The amazing thing about Assisi is how it hasn’t changed. No one felt the need to come in and tear down buildings. Instead, it feels very much like it did when St. Francis and St. Clare and their contemporaries lived there in the 13th Century. It also smelled wonderful, and the only sounds I heard most days were the bells ringing from the churches along with conversation on the streets.

I stood at the window of our room and took many photos and just breathed in the peace that surrounds this ancient city.

Except for the traffic.

Tiny cars whizzing down tiny streets don’t leave much room for pilgrims on the road. Constantly, someone in our group was shouting “Car, car!” just in time for us to flatten ourselves against a 13th Century building. You think I jest, but I do not. It was frankly a bit scary. Italian drivers are completely different from American ones. Not worse, just different. Wait until I share about Rome.

Beautiful Italian countryside from the walls of Assisi.
Bella Italian countryside from the walls of Assisi.

We had a wonderful time and spent a lot of our days in Assisi in the Basilica of Saint Francis and the Basilica of Saint Clare. As I wrote above, we had mass at both of their tombs. While we were in St. Francis’ Basilica, I had the strangest feeling that my former pastor, Rev. John A. Petuskey, was with us. When Bill and I were a young married couple, he always told us stories about Assisi and said he would take us with him to travel there one day. We were young and broke and had four kids. We never thought we’d ever get the chance, but he kept telling us we would. I remember also he was heartbroken when Assisi was hit by an earthquake and parts of the churches were destroyed, but he said we still had to go. When he died, I remember thinking that he wouldn’t get to share his favorite place on Earth with us. So, imagine my surprise when I was on the upper level of the basilica gazing up at the frescoes of Giotto on the life of St. Francis, I felt Fr. Petuskey with me. It was as if he were standing right next to me. Later, I mentioned this to Bill, and he said he felt exactly the same thing at the same time. Maybe God let the veil down long enough for us to have Father with us. I like to think so. He meant so much to our young family. I think Father would be so happy we finally got to Assisi at least with our youngest daughter, Claire. She was named after St. Clare, and Father Petuskey always loved that. He gave our Claire an image of St. Clare when she was baptized along with a San Damiano cross.

We also ate amazing food every single day chased with caffè (espresso.) I forgot to take a single picture of my food, or my tiny cups of coffee while we were in Assisi. I did get a photo of this beautiful bowl I bought for my daughter, Megan, for her wedding present.

Bowl from I Due Soli - Italian Ceramics in Assisi.
Bowl from I Due Soli – Italian Ceramics in Assisi. It’s funny that Kitchen Aid is in the bottom of the photo. Couldn’t see that on my phone. It’s our dishwasher label.

I bought her bowl from I Due Soli, which was on one of the three main streets in the old town of Assisi. What a wonderful shop it was! As an aside, Italians are mad for Trip Advisor and use it all the time. It was easy to track down the shop on Trip Advisor’s website. If you go there, ask for Ricardo. He speaks beautiful English and is very helpful. I think this ceramics company is in its third generation.

I hope I haven’t bored you with my pilgrimage/travelogue so far. We loved Assisi and look forward to visiting again. When I get a moment, I’ll also share about Orvieto and Rome, among other places. As for gardening, we received two inches of rain last night. The weeds are quite happy and growing.


Advent, a quiet season of change

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, but I’ve been deep in thought this Advent. Many changes are coming to our family. Over the last nine years, you’ve watched as our children grew from tots and teens to adulthood. In May, Megan is marrying Robert. Brennan will graduate from college the same month, and Claire will graduate from high school. Our oldest daughter, Ashley, is working hard, but she doesn’t have any life changes to spring on me in May.–at least, I hope not.

The whole family at Thanksgiving!
The whole family at Thanksgiving! Sorry we cut off part of Bill’s head.

The whole family, including my mother and sister, were together for Thanksgiving, and I hope for a repeat Christmas Eve.

I know. It’s hard for me to believe too. With so many changes comes reflection, and I’ll be honest, I’m having a bit of a tough time. I’ve called my mother twice and cried.

Thank God for mothers everywhere.

scattered seeds, hoping they fell on good soil, but I was still surprised when my young saplings grew into mature flowers and trees. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but still….

A cold wind blows outside my window, where I watch Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, and their friends, along with Mr. Squirrel, hog the bird feeder. In the center of my window next to the French doors is our Christmas tree. To stave off the winter blues, I also have a veritable garden in every window. Amaryllis and non-stinky paperwhites take top honors while the prettiest little white poinsettia also lights my way.

Today, I’ll get out the hyacinth vases, wash them and place the bulbs inside. I’ve had the hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator since last August. I still have tulips to plant outside, but I’m not feeling any enthusiasm for my task. Fall temperatures just wouldn’t come, and I got behind. Friday is supposed to be a beautiful day so I’ll plant them then. I intend to run up to church and plunk several more into the beds there. It will be a nice surprise come Easter. However, I also have plenty to do here at home to prepare for Christmas.

A mother’s work is never done.

If I remember to step outside the mad rush to get it all done, I feel such a sense of anticipation in the quiet season of Advent. As I wrap each gift and place it lovingly beneath the tree, I say a little prayer for each recipient. I hope they find peace and joy not overshadowed by the mad rush to get everything done.

In my faith, we don’t really celebrate Christmas until the big day, on the 25th of December. Then, our Christmas season goes on until the Baptism of the Lord mid-January. Some of my friends from church don’t even put up their trees until Christmas Eve. While I love that tradition, it isn’t practical for our family so I take a partial approach. We usually put up the tree around December 8. This year, I put up the tree and hung the stockings by the fire, but I was more restrained than ever in my decorating. Partly because my children are mostly grown. Since I only have to please Bill and me, I did what I thought was beautiful, but not overwhelming. A lot of Christmas decorations stayed in the bedroom closet, and that’s okay.

My heart is also full of a quiet anticipation created by Advent’s gentle feasts. On December 8, we celebrated one of the most important, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding this holy day. People often think it’s about Jesus’ conception–the moment when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary–actually called the Annunciation–but December 8, is truly about Mary being conceived without sin. Our former pastor, Fr. Robert Wood, explained it in a way I, as a convert finally understood. He said–and I’m paraphrasing–that Mary, being the tabernacle for Christ, had to be without sin, or she couldn’t hold the glory of God within her womb. As a mother, I get chills every time I think about it. When he put it that way, I felt an indescribable joy in my heart, maybe a joy similar to what Elizabeth felt when John leaped in her womb at Mary’s visit. The entire season of Advent is all about journeys, fear and trepidation and finally, joy.

It’s a story that never gets old.

Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the Advent Wreath at St. Mary's Church in Guthrie, OK.
Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the Advent Wreath at St. Mary’s Church in Guthrie, OK.

As I journey through this quiet season, I keep thinking of Luke 2:19, “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

I carry this thought with me as I shop, decorate, wrap, cook and bake. When I had young children, I raced through Advent trying to keep up with my schedule and theirs. Now, I have more time to reflect, and I’m focusing upon wonder, joy and gratitude. I need the season to be about more than gifts, parties and good cheer, although all of these are nice. I’m trying in the rush to take time to especially thank people working in the stores where I shop and in the restaurants where I eat.  Preparation for Christmas is a marathon for them that doesn’t end on the big day. When I wish others a Merry Christmas, it’s not a political statement. Instead, it’s a heartfelt expression of the happiness I feel even if tinged with a bit of melancholy too. Christmas and Advent foster big conflicting emotions for almost everyone I know.

Whatever your faith or worldview, I wish you the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of new years. If you’re celebrating a different holiday during this season, I wish you joy in that too.

Now, I’m off to help my mother decorate her home. Then, I’m going to sit back, have a cup of tea and ponder miracles great and small, like how four children became women and men in the span of a mother’s heartbeat.

I bet Jesus’ childhood went fast for Mary too.