This, more than any other before, is the year of Leonardo da Vinci, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of his death, which took place in Amboise (...
Rome is thought of as the imperial city as well as the great center of the Roman Catholic Church at the Vatican. It is certainly that in the minds of many. Yet, Rome is the city of Saint Francis of Assisi as evidenced by his lovely church of San Francesco a Ripa. Few people know much about this important church. Besides possessing a stunningly beautiful marble statue of the Ecstasy of Beata Ludvica Albertoni by Bernini (1674), it is the place where Saint Francis lived and prayed.
However, Rome today has become the city of St. Francis and this is his time, as Dr. Robert Sardello, noted writer, psychologist, and writer has stated. He says that it is no coincidence that the new pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina has taken the name of Francis of Assisi. The age of St. Francis is now dawning in the world.
I love Francis’ little church. One strolls across the Ponte Sublicio and crosses into Trastevere, and just a short walk away on the right of Via G. Induno is San Francesco a Ripa. It is fitting in my mind that Francis’ church is on the banks of the powerfully flowing Tiber that always evokes feelings of comfort and eternity in me when I see it.
My interest in Francis began over fifty years ago when a mentor gave me The Penguin Book of Italian Verse which inspired my study and appreciation of the Italian language and its poetry. It was certainly serendipitous that the first poet quoted in this little book was St. Francis (1186-1226). His “Cantico delle creature” is the first lyric poem in the vulgate, what is termed today Italian. Prior to Francis, poetry was written in Latin and read only by the elite, as they are called. I must quote the opening lines here;
“Altissumu, onnipotente, bon Signore
tue so le laude la gloria e l’honore
et onne benedictione”
As you see, Francis’ twelfth cent. Italian is different from ours of today. But, it is Italian.
Francis spent time in Rome, in Trastevere, in 1219. We know this because his tiny room where he lived and prayed is still in his church. He lived in the room upstairs which was then a hospice. The kind sagrestano led us up the narrow and dark stairs to Francis’ room which is now his chapel. The altar and the rest of the room have been changed. Over on the right wall at head level is an iron grated niche. It contains the pillow of St. Francis which the sagrestano reverently pointed out as made of stone. The tiny room was infused with a moving, sacred spirit or presence as we stood there viewing the altar and pillow.
But why stone? I do not believe that the pillow is a relic to vindicate mortification. It has to be remembered that Francis has love and compassion for every plant, animal, human being and particle of the world; thus his “laudato sie, mi Signore, con tutte le tue creature”. He loved God’s Cosmos intensely, so much so that stories have it that it pained him deeply to quench with water the flames of fires; “Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate focu/ per quale ennallumini la nocte”. He was a mystic of great Soul and feeling.
So, I perceive Francis resting his head on that stone pillow as symbolic of his wish to be intimately close to God’s creation, even His stone! He was and is the patron saint of humble (low) human beings and the beauty of the spiritual Earth.
I can imagine Francis traveling from very far away with his “little brothers”, I fiori, crossing the Tevere, and living at the hospice for a while in 1219. What must Trastevere have been like then? It was probably rural, natural, with trees and birds, and very quiet, and he felt at peace there.
That he lived at the hospice is of great significance. He wandered the lonely roads to arrive at Trastevere, looking with compassion into the faces of the poor, the sick (remember the lepers), and the mentally deranged; as he walked he looked into their faces with truth and honesty—this was the gold of his life. Those moments for the recipients must have been what William Wordsworth called “spots of time” that change a person’s life.
After meditating on Francis’ cell, my wife and I descended the narrow stairs down into the main church and walked out into the warm Italian sunlight of the little piazza. We had lunch at the restaurant where the affabile, elderly waiter worked.
Two final thoughts. Please notice that Francis uses the familiar “tu” not “lei” in addressing his “bon Signore”. It is not as though he is addressing some judge—he is not fearful and has the confidence of his own heart and its words.
I must not forget to praise all of George Kay’s masterful and accurate English prose translations to each and every poem in the Penguin anthology that he so intelligently edited.