Anna’s Camino: Day 7 – Puente la Reina

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

The walk from Pamplona to Puente la Reina was one of the most exhausting I’d yet to experience, but the road offered its own rewards that day. I’ve already mentioned my brightest memories from leaving Pamplona in my last Camino blog entry, but there’s one more I’d like to recount, just to keep it fresh. The night before we left, the three of us girls went upstairs to the albergue’s communal kitchen and pooled our resources to have wine and snacks. While we ate and chatted, I filled out 30 postcards to mail back home, and since Claire also had some things to mail, we decided to try to find the post office on the way out of town in the morning. In the morning, we wandered around a little bit as we tried to find the post office, and one of our wrong turns led us to a little square with a statue of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. I took it as a sign, and as it turned out, it was to be the first of many that day.

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After visiting the post office successfully, we followed the yellow arrows back to the Camino. On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at the Church of San Cernin (click to learn more), a lovely 13th-century church possibly built over an old Roman temple. I was particularly taken with the church’s wooden floors, but still haven’t done the research to find out the reasoning behind the numbers. At the time, I assumed that the numbers coincided with tombs, but perhaps an expert can enlighten me in the comments!

As I recounted in the last entry, we stopped for coffee and a quick trip to the farmicia, then finally headed out of town a little later than planned. From Pamplona, the Camino takes pilgrims through a number of small towns, including Cizur Menur, where Natalie had memories from her earlier Camino of a wonderful hospitalera who was a foot expert. We had tentative plans to try to find the lady, just to say hi, but it didn’t work out. Instead, we kept walking, following the road uphill to the famous Alto de Perdon, “The Mount of Forgiveness.”

As we neared Alto de Perdon, even though we were walking up into the hills again, the landscape sort of stretched out all around us. The city had fallen away, and again it was easy to get lost in the greens and grays of the surrounding landscape. There were windmills everywhere! There had been a little rain to begin with in the morning, but as we climbed uphill, the wind began to whip, and the day started to get a little more gray than before.

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Gorgeous flowers – including my favorites, poppies.

I pulled the hood of my rain jacket tighter around my ears, and kept a close eye on my footing as we climbed up toward the famous metal statue that crowned the highest elevation of the day’s walk. Natalie walked ahead, and Claire was quite some way behind, and for some reason, I decided to just stop and look around. Ever since seeing Francis that morning, I’d had this feeling that I was missing something, but I couldn’t quite figure out what. Then I saw something I’d been looking for for days – my first poppies of the Camino. Ever since starting out, I’d kept an eye out for my favorite flowers, hoping to catch at least a couple of them in bloom, even though it was late in the season. Up until this point, I’d seen tons of crocuses, but not a single gorgeous red bloom. They’ve been important to me ever since visiting Assisi, Francis’ birthplace, and seeing them here, on this day, seemed particularly important.

Ever since seeing Alto de Perdon in the movie The Way, I’d expected it to be a very special and inspiring place, but in reality, the popular site wasn’t everything that I’d expected. Even at the time, it took a distant backseat to the poppies I’d seen just a few minutes earlier, and the rest of my walk that day was so beautiful and weird that afterwards, the hilltop sculpture was just a blip on my mental screen.

Walking downhill was a huge challenge for me that day. The ground was a little slick, but even worse, this portion of the Camino was just loose rocks. My knees were protesting the downhill climb, and I slipped often enough to start to be very nervous about the rocks. Natalie was much faster at this than I, so there ended up being at least a half-mile between us, maybe more. Claire and I passed each other throughout the afternoon, but for a good portion of the rest of the walk, I felt pretty isolated by the landscape. There were other pilgrims, but I don’t remember them. Mostly, I remember relishing the freedom, and singing at the top of my lungs for much of the afternoon.

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I particularly loved this welcoming roadside Madonna.

In Uterga, I caught up with Natalie at a great little albergue called the Albergue Camino del Perdon, where we had a seat, took off our shoes, and shared some food. We had a beautiful bowl of soup, and I ate one of my favorite slices of tortilla along the entire Camino. A sweet, well-loved neighbor dog came over to see if we needed any help clearing our plates.

Eventually, Claire ambled up, and we enjoyed sitting a little while longer. It was getting late, though, and we still had a ways to walk to get to Puente la Reina. The rest of the afternoon passed in a bit of a blur; my legs and feet were really starting to feel the strain of the day, and I got slower and slower as we walked through Muruzabal, then Obanos. At one point, I was right behind the girls, walking a suburban neighborhood. As we walked by house after house, they chatted ahead of me, and I just walked with my thoughts about 10 feet behind.

Suddenly, I heard an insistent whinny come from over a fence, and a beautiful white horse stuck her head out in my path. My companions kept walking on, immersed in their conversation. This gorgeous horse and I spent a good ten minutes communing over the fence, putting our foreheads together, me giving her ear scratches, her giving me little snuffles along my forehead. It was a beautiful little stretch of time, and if I could have visited for longer, I surely would have. But I didn’t know where I was supposed to meet up with the girls, so it was important to hurry on after awhile. It felt like a magical moment, though, and just another sign that Francis was walking beside me that day. Later, I asked the girls why they hadn’t stopped to say hi to the horse. “What horse?” they asked. Weird.

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My sweet horse companion.

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Sidewalk Camino marker. In cities and heavily-populated towns, there would normally be something a little more permanent than a spray-painted yellow arrow, though the arrows were often there, too.

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Political graffiti, though sometimes crass, can play an important role for getting newbies up-to-speed.

By the time we made it to Puente la Reina, it was already late afternoon. Luckily, we were just ahead of the last wave of pilgrims for the day, so there were still some open beds at the municipal albergue. I was so worn out! I barely had the energy to shuffle in the front door, then let Natalie and Claire talk with the hospitalero to see if there was any more room. I didn’t want to sit, in case I couldn’t manage to stand back up again, so I leaned against my pack, against the wall, and half-heartedly struggled to untie my shoes until it was my turn to show my ID and pay the guy. I believe it was five euros for a bed.

The albergue was pretty bare bones, with the same crappy metal bunk beds that they’d had at Zubiri, except that this time, it seemed like the bunk beds had been made for little kids, since there was barely enough room to sit up when you were on the bottom bunk. I didn’t really care, though. I was excited to have a bottom bunk, and once the late pilgrims came in, I was even more excited to just have gotten a bed. A few people were given sleeping mats to crash on the floor. One of the funny things that I remember from that particular albergue is that there was a group of pilgrims from Israel, all old men who played in an orchestra together, and spent the night bantering and telling jokes. They ended up irritating Claire the next day with their insistence that she stop walking and take their picture, but for the time being, they were an entertaining bunch.

After we’d showered, washed clothes, and had everything hanging out to dry (with not much hope in that department, since it had been a humid day, and promised to drizzle overnight), we decided to explore the town a little, and find something to eat. I don’t remember if we found a decent pilgrim meal or not, but I do remember how family-oriented the town was. It was the first of many towns that would impress me with how beloved, well-dressed, and well-behaved the children were, and how the family units all came out to eat and socialize together, mother, father and kids, or grandparents and kids. I didn’t take any pictures of the little ones, since that would be creepy, but I did take a couple of shots of the girls and myself on our way into town.

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Natalie and Claire (of the gorgeous hair), walking through Puente la Reina.

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Sunset in Puente la Reina. This picture marks the day that I first realized that my depression and anxiety were beginning to wane.

Click here to read about Day 8.

Every Encounter

Camino de Santiago Donkey

Just one of the many animal friends I met along the Camino de Santiago. He was so soft!

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us to share a quote that we return to again and again. Mine is “Every encounter is an encounter with yourself.” To me, that means that every creature you meet in life is a reflection of you. How you see them is a direct result of how you see yourself, and how you treat them says a lot about you.

I left to walk the Camino last October right after I’d been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I’d known for some time that things weren’t “right” with me, but I’d had trouble expressing it to others. I was locked inside myself in a way that I’d never been before. Walking in Spain was not a luxury – it was a necessity. I needed those long days in nature to help untangle my thoughts, and to start finding a way to love myself again. I needed the exercise to learn how strong I could be, and had always been. I needed the people that I met to learn how small the world really is, and how much love is available if we just open our hearts and minds to it.

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I met this sweet dog after a particularly sad encounter earlier that morning with a litter of sick kittens. We hung out for about a half an hour, and he kissed me the entire time. Definitely made my day better.

But I didn’t figure this out while I was walking. In fact, my mind was strangely blank for most of 30+ days I spent hoofing it through Spain. At times I despaired, in fear that I wasn’t “figuring IT out” – whatever IT was supposed to be. No matter what, though, every day on the trail I met at least one animal (sometimes more), and every time that happened I felt compelled to slow down, take a break, and shower that cat, dog, horse, etc. with love. I was lucky to be walking with people who understood that I needed this, and that they shouldn’t try to hurry me along when my animal encounter of the day happened along. It was moments like this that I most felt in tune with my favorite saint, St. Francis of Assisi. It started to dawn on me that his deep love for all creatures wasn’t just a symbol of his faith, but of mental health, and an understanding of our interconnectedness with all beings.

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There were so many starving and abused animals on the Camino, and it broke my heart. I saw this sweet lady looking in the window of a cafe, so my friend Jakob and I stopped to feed her our lunch rations. She was scared of Jakob, so we surmised she’d not been treated kindly by men. However, she let me pet her after a bit, and I made sure she ate until she was full. I worry about her still.

It was only after I’d gotten to Santiago de Compostela that I read the quote “Every encounter is an encounter with yourself” and it suddenly hit me that I’d been showering animals with the love I needed to feel. I needed that kind of unconditional caring, and I’d shown myself that I was capable of giving it to to my fellow creatures – so what was stopping me from doing the same for myself? It was a huge moment in my life, for many reasons. I suddenly felt such deep respect and love for my walking buddies who had intuitively known that I was in deep need of these love lessons, and helping me nurture that time each day. I felt an even greater love for the animals that I met along The Way, and for the lessons in acceptance that they’d taught me. Most of all, I could finally connect my ability to love others with what it should feel like to love myself. It’s a really big life lesson, and I’ll be working on it for the rest of my time here on the planet, but I’m so happy that it finally got through.

My current endeavor, The Hobbit Walk, is an extension of the lessons I learned on the Camino. Click through to find out how you can help.

Camino Cat

Pablo was one of the last Camino cats I met. He ran right up to us on the trail, so I sat down and cuddled him for awhile.

The Canticle of the Creatures

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I was still thinking about St. Francis this morning as I walked through my neighborhood on the way to my local brunch place. It’s a cool, crisp day out, with plenty of sunlight and not a cloud in the sky. I love days like this, but we have so few of them in New Orleans. When they’re happening, you have to get out and enjoy them while you can!

Most people who remember a prayer or two will associate Francis with his Peace Prayer, but just before he died, he composed a beautiful prayer called The Canticle of the Creatures. It is also sometimes called The Canticle of Brother Sun. It’s really no wonder why Francis is the patron saint of ecologists and environmentalists. I hope this inspires you to spend some time appreciating the bounty of nature, and reflecting on how we can better work to preserve and protect our beautiful world.

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing,
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no human is worthy to mention Your name.
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

My New St. Francis Statue – Plus, Vote On A Color!!!!

By now, most of you know that I really love St. Francis. Ever since visiting Assisi a few years ago, largely on a whim, I’ve been coming to terms with an ever-growing affinity for the 12th/13th century friar. He’s grown to be something of a hero to me. As a non-Catholic (indeed, I’m not even Christian), I don’t admire him for religious reasons, or seek him out as a conduit for communicating with the divine. However, I’m fascinated with his life, with his commitment to simplicity and minimalism, and with his deep and overpowering adoration of nature as an extension of God.

I love that his followers loved him for his honesty. I love that he didn’t bullshit – he called it like he saw it, even when it was a tough pill for others to swallow. I also love him as a historical figure. We tend to think of saints in mythical terms; in many ways they are Catholicism’s answer to the problem of the pagan gods and demigods that the Church wanted to clean up and package into the new religion. Francis is kind of unique as a saint, in that he has a rich history, with lots of exciting, almost magical stories that accompany him on his rise to sainthood, but he was recent enough that we know a lot about him as a man. The thing that sealed the deal for me, I think, was seeing his belongings in the Basilica at Assisi, including the paperwork that was signed to create the Franciscan Order. With the creation of the order (whose members embraced poverty) Francis began the movement that essentially saved the 13th century Church from the ruin of excess.

But enough of my waxing poetic. I really like the guy. He was complicated, and flawed, but so are we all. Having him in my life helps me stop and take stock of what I really need, and appreciate that almost everything is already waiting in my heart.

This being the case, when I happened upon a statue of Francis in someone’s trash pile last week, I was so excited to take him home. It was a pretty weird find, because my boyfriend and I had set out that afternoon to find something (I wasn’t sure what) to go beside my front door for decoration. I’d had this idea that it would be a statue, but all day while we were shopping, nothing was catching my eye. We’d given up and were actually heading back home when we passed the trash pile and I spied Francis sitting there, waiting to be rescued.

Now why had someone thrown him away? Kind of easy – he looked like this:

St. Francis Statue

Sure, he’s missing a head, but he’s still pretty darn cool!

I love him just the way he is – missing head and all. I’ve decided I’m going to sand him down and repaint him in a really pretty, glossy, bright color. Pretty sure that even though Francis would have thought adding tchotchkes to your life is a terrible waste of time and money, he still would have seen the humor in making someone’s castoffs beautiful again.

What color do you guys think I should paint him? I’m a fan of magenta or teal, but what do you think? Hot pink? Yellow? Grass green? Multi-colored with sparkles? Leave a comment below.

One Foot In Front Of The Other

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless our walking is our preaching.” – St. Francis of Assisi

When I first started seriously considering going on pilgrimage, I made this silent agreement with myself that I would only approach the concept of the journey from a place of positivity. I guess that might sound strange – after all, what’s there to be negative about when you’re considering a soul-shaking adventure that promises to completely change the way you encounter the world from that point forward? Positivity wasn’t part of my grand plan; it wasn’t something that I carefully decided on and then tried hard to fulfill – being positive was just something that happened, then continued to happen. And now that I’m writing this blog post, I’m finding that indeed, I’ve been used to thinking about this trip in such glowing terms that it’s hard for me to put words to any underlying worries.

(Side note: Yay for positive thinking! It actually works! This is especially important since I’m generally kind of a realist in the day-to-day, definitely not anything near to being a Pollyanna.)

There comes a time, however, when you must confront potential issues, if just to work through them and visualize what your solutions might be should problems arise. For me, my greatest concerns about this trip have been focused on either side of the Atlantic: my cats’ wellbeing while I’m gone, and my physical stamina on The Camino. 

If you’ve ever read my other blog, Compass & Quill, you’ve probably seen me mention my two cats, Izzy and Munky, at least a few times. Though I wouldn’t go as far as some cat ladies and say that they’re “my life,” they are definitely my fur babies, and I love them. When you decide to share your home with another living creature that depends on you, there are always going to be some sacrifices made for their wellbeing. For instance, though I don’t always have the money to go to the doctor, they always get a yearly vet visit, stay current on their shots, and get the healthiest food I can afford. They make a mockery of my upholstered furniture, despite constant claw clipping, double-sided tape, pheromone spray to keep them from being stressed, and a dozen other tries at possible deterrence, but that doesn’t mean that I’d ever consider declawing them. And now they’re going to cost me a pretty penny for a pet sitter while I’m gone.

But even though I’ll most likely have at least a couple of people looking in on them on a regular basis during my absence, I still worry. Izzy is high strung and only likes one human – me. The last time I left for a couple of weeks, even though she had constant care and companionship, she still meowed herself hoarse at the door, waiting for my return. What’s she going to do when I’m gone for a month and a half? Luckily, Munky loves everyone. I doubt he’ll even notice that I’m gone as long as he’s still getting back rubs on a daily basis. But I’m afraid to think of the stress I’ll be putting poor Isabel under by being gone for an extended period. There’s no real solution, so I guess it’s really not something I should think about too much more. I’ll shower her with love for as long as I’m here, and I’ll make sure that their cat sitter is the best possible choice for a loving surrogate while I’m out of town. After that, it’s out of my hands.

The other thing that worries me is the physical toll of walking 500 miles. Unlike the cat situation, this is something for which I can prepare myself. However, much like the cat situation, no matter how much preparation I undergo, it is inevitable that there will be a considerable amount of pain involved. If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading so many Camino autobiographies, it’s that I will think that I’ve thought of every eventuality, but I’ll miss something. But the best I can do is try to go with the flow. Put in as much work as I’m capable of, then take my chances.

Right now, I’m walking about seven miles a day on average, with a 15 lb. backpack. I’m going to try to keep upping that number (pack and distance), until I’m closer to walking 10 miles a day with a 25 lb. pack. Hopefully that will negate some of the shock to my system when I kick things off in St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I’m also going to need to start doing some thorough stretching on a daily basis to try to get my hip and back pain under control prior to leaving. If anything has a real chance of sidelining me, it’s going to be hip/back/knee pain or a major blister. Unfortunately, I’m really prone to blisters, so I’m not sure if there’s much I can do to avoid them, other than properly breaking in my hiking boots, wearing good socks, applying some sort of non-chafing cream/lotion my feet every day, and bringing along plenty of bandaids and moleskin patches for hot spots. One thing I should be much more worried about, but am not letting bother me just yet, is the fact that there are no hills or mountains anywhere near my home in New Orleans, yet much of the terrain I’ll be covering in Spain is hilly or mountainous. The best I’ll be able to do is start walking at steep inclines on the treadmill, and hope that helps a little bit. Other than that, all I can do is put my boots on and just put one foot in front of the other, and trust that they’ll get me where I want to go in the end!

Have you had any worries about walking The Camino, or about leaving your life behind to go on pilgrimage? How did you address them?

Return To The Road

Hello there, readers. It’s been awhile – sorry to keep you waiting so long for an update. In late March, I decided to take a little break from blogging here while I sorted out my life and considered whether walking The Camino was still in my cards. It actually didn’t take me too long to figure out that it was still what I wanted, but somewhere in the midst of my breakup, move, and life reshaping I ended up forgetting my WP password. Once I got that figured out, I started having technical difficulties with my Google Authenticator. From there, I just bumbled around, forgetting other passwords left and right and leaving a swath of abandoned social media accounts in my wake. Luckily, WP has these amazing Happiness Engineers that spend their days helping forgetful folks like yours truly, and the amazing David W. not only came to my rescue, but managed to not make me feel like an idiot while he went about getting me back into my WP account. Thanks again, David!!!

So now that I’m back in, what do I do? There’s so much to say to you all. Since my other blog, Compass & Quill, isn’t on the WP.com platform, I just kept writing over there. You can catch up with a selection of topics regarding my private life over there, if you’d like. I’ve been saving all talk of Santiago de Compostela for this page, though. Especially one specific thought that came to me at some point over the past couple of months, then was (strangely) reiterated by a friend the other day:

The Camino comes to you.

It makes sense, obviously, given that all pilgrimage routes are meant to be physical representations of journeys of the heart and mind towards some kind of spiritual Truth. When we walk, we’re looking to become part of something. We’re not just looking for the thing that will make us whole, that will complete us and give our lives meaning. We’re also looking to become part of the whole, to have our lives be meaningful to others.

When I first set upon the idea of walking to Santiago de Compostela, I looked at it from an academic standpoint. I was a wayward soul back then (and still today, but the film of time somehow makes me feel a little more tethered than I did at 22). I wasn’t looking at walking across the Pyrenees as a spiritual undertaking, but rather more as an adventure where I’d have the chance to visit and catalog a host of medieval religious sites over the course of a long period of exercising. After awhile, once it sunk in that I’d never be a medieval historian, I gave up on the idea of using the trip for research…which meant that I basically gave up on the idea.

The Camino had other intentions for me; it stuck around in my psyche, popping up every few years to remind me that it was waiting, to see if I was ready to take the plunge. Over the years, it also somehow boiled itself down into something more pure. The Camino would be a chance to walk, meet new friends, see things I’d never seen before, and most importantly, to start listening more closely to what the Universe was trying to tell me. It was going to be my time to find myself and become what I’d always been meant to be…whatever that was.

Over the last year or so, The Camino started meaning something else to me, something that I never realized clearly enough to be able to put it into words: escape. The act of becoming truer to myself and the Universe meant leaving behind what I knew and didn’t like about myself. Mostly, that was my relationship, and who I was within its confines. But I couldn’t say this out loud. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. Instead, I’d think of going on the road, and how happy I’d be out there, alone. How maybe I’d meet people who’d get me, people with whom I’d be able to talk about religion, drink some wine, share some stories about traveling in Europe. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized all of these things were things I wasn’t getting in my relationship. My spirit was burdened by the now, and I was attempting to hide that from myself by daydreaming about a journey far in the future.

So the breakup came, after years of dawdling about on my part, but still not without a serious push from the Universe. Against my better judgment, I started to find feelings for someone else. Over the sound of a beloved band, conversation on the essence of St. Francis and how he will forever be part of my heart, musings on the meaning of The Camino…and a thousand other ideas and dreams that have passed their way between us in the last few months, my heart began to open back up in a way that had only been happening when I talked about my future plans to walk through Spain. I started to understand what it meant to feel genuine romantic love and concern for another human being, in a way I had only imagined I’d known anything about. And with that came this renewed sense of self-reliance, and a trust that I am actually walking in the right direction, after all.

All this time, I didn’t have faith. I lost it somewhere, years ago. But it’s back now. Yes, there’s so much farther to go. I’m just a child, blind to the wonders that are stretched out before me. But in the end, The Camino came to me…and now I know that I’m strong enough to go to it.

The only question now is where to find the funding.

Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 3)

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

First off, you should know that the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is pretty large. The basilica consists of two main levels – upper and lower – plus crypts underneath the main structure, as well as the requisite bell tower and related private rooms above the upper level. I spent about three hours exploring the spaces open to tourists, and could have spent many more, if not for the repeated message on the loudspeaker: “No photos, please. No photos, please. No photos, please…” in about five different languages. As you might gather from this, I didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the church. I doubt anyone would have kicked me out or confiscated my camera, but after the run-in with the Alabama church group, I was feeling like I should attempt to be a better person, you know?

The upper level of the basilica is awash with frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis, frequently attributed to artist and architect Giotto, who is known as the first great artist of the Italian Renaissance. I’d count him as a late medieval artist, but that’s an ongoing academic argument that will most likely see no solution in my lifetime. We have little proof that the frescoes were indeed created by Giotto, but they are striking and historically important nonetheless. In the lower level of the basilica, a fresco painted by Giotto’s teacher, Cimabue, still exists. It, too, is argued to be by another painter, due to its contradiction to commonly known elements of Giotto’s style. I’d studied all of these works in undergrad, but had conveniently managed to forget their location. As a result, when I walked into the space, my heart skipped a beat. As my dad would say, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

The only other time I’ve felt that extreme rush of familiarity and longing – a soul call, if you will – for a piece of art was when I unexpectedly stumbled across Rogier van der Weyden’s “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2004. That was a moment for the ages. My heart breaks just thinking about it. Some folks get misty-eyed over lost loves; I get misty-eyed over beloved paintings. What can I say?

"St. Luke Drawing the Virgin" by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons. (Also, please don’t judge this painting by the image on your screen. Go to Boston and see it in person. It’s superb.)

Anyway, so I walked into this enormous, softly lit space, my eyes landed on priceless art previously only seen in a text book, and I felt like someone had just cut off my air supply. I got a little loopy. I went from being a tourist on a day trip to being my primal self, standing in a small Italian town, searching for something I didn’t know I’d lost. I was smaller than ever, but suddenly feeling intimately connected to everything.

This feeling only intensified as I entered the small museum dedicated to St. Francis, on the lower level of the building. At first, I didn’t intend to go in. It was a tiny room, and people didn’t seem to be staying that long. What could it possibly have? Knowing the day was short and there was a lot ahead of me still, I walked in, intending to just glance around and walk back out. But there, in a simple case by the door, was a brown hair shirt, conserved under glass. I looked at it, then looked again. Not just a piece of clothing. HIS piece of clothing. Until that moment, I’d never realized one of the coolest things that sets Francis apart from other saints of the time period: he was acknowledged to be on the road to sainthood whilst still alive. People were already planning his veneration before he died, which gives credence to the fact that the items preserved are actually his, versus items from other saints that were sometimes collected decades or even hundreds of years after the saint’s passing.

Though the room was small, it held clothing that Francis wore during his lifetime, the cloths used to bandage the wounds of his stigmata later in life, and most impressive, the original document used to found the Ordo Fratro Minorum (Francis called his followers the “Little Brothers”). The beginning of the Franciscan Order, the words that can be argued to have saved the medieval Church from a ruinous path of greed and gluttony, it’s there for all to see in that little museum. For a person of little religious faith but an overwhelming desire to find some smidgen of truth, seeing Francis’ words written out in ink on vellum can make – did make – a world of difference.

After seeing his belongings/relics, I mistakenly thought I’d reached the pinnacle of my experience at the basilica. But as I started to walk back through the building, I noticed a sign for the crypt. I love crypts. Crypts and bell towers are the best parts of churches, in my opinion, and I visit as many of both as I can. So of course I decided to take the stairs and see what kinds of creepy stuff was down there. As I got closer to the bottom, I realized that whoever was buried downstairs must be important – lots of people crowded the stairs with me. We reached a small chapel where a service was being conducted. Beyond the chapel, I could see a wide stone column, surrounded by a round room with niches. The people next to me began to whisper, “Oh, this is Jacoba!” and I turned to see that I was standing next to a protected niche, containing a burial container. Inside were the remains of Jacoba dei Settesoli, a dear friend and devoted follower of St. Francis. She was the one who dressed the wounds of his stigmata, and she was present at his death, despite the impropriety of a woman being at his bedside in the friary. Suddenly, I realized why everyone was standing around. I realized who was in the crypt. I’d come here to feel close to St. Francis, this man I didn’t know or understand, but still loved, and here he was, waiting for me.

I sat in the chapel for the remainder of service, then walked around Francis’ grave, taking note that the niches around the room were the graves of his four best friends and fellow monks. I was suddenly happy for Jacoba. Though she wasn’t in the chamber, itself, she was close. I pictured them enjoying nature together, sharing a simple mindful moment. As I left the crypt, I purchased two candles, leaving them to be burned at one of the chapel’s daily services.

For the rest of my time in the basilica, I felt my spirit begin to drift higher and higher; I was feeling positively effervescent. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off of my face. It’s free to enter the building, but there are donation boxes dotting the corridors. I put a euro or two in every donation box that I passed. There were brochures explaining the various artwork; I took one and dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. I wanted to light a candle and pray at a small side altar; I dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. A photography exhibit shared the Franciscan Order’s works of service with the poor; I dropped a few euros in the donation box. By the time I’d walked around the building and stopped in at the gift shop to buy a few keepsakes for friends and family, I had about 15 euros left in my pocket. I’d have to find an ATM before heading back to Perugia.

After leaving the church, my next stop was another small museum. To be honest, my first intention was to find a free bathroom, but I was quickly drawn in by MUMA (Museo Missionario Indios Frati Cappuccini Dell’Umbria In Amazzonia). For a pretty tiny museum, it had some of the most impressive interactive technology of any museum I’ve ever visited, and the subject matter – the Capuchin Order (a subset of the Franciscans) and their mission in the Amazon from the 19th century to today. It’s easy to assume that the story told would be about a bunch of Christians coming in and “bettering” lives by converting native peoples, but that’s not really what the museum is about. It turns out that though the idea is to spread the gospel, the method is to go, be of service, help make changes that native peoples are comfortable with, and respect existing traditions. The museum is a celebration of cultural diversity, overcoming adversity, and protecting ecological treasures. I was pleasantly surprised, though now I understand that these are all things that Francis, himself, supported. If you have a chance, please check out MUMA’s website.

Hunger was calling, so I opted for a sandwich and some wine at a local cafe with the last of my money. Afterwards, while trying to withdraw money at an ATM, I realized that both my bank card and credit card had been shut off. I’d forgotten to tell the bank that I was traveling internationally, and they placed a hold on my accounts. No problem; I’d find a telephone, call the number on the back of the card, and have my problem solved within the hour. Just one problem – the international numbers on my cards weren’t working from the pay phone. After several failed attempts, I gave up and decided to enjoy the hour I had left before it was time to catch the bus back to Perugia. Thankfully, my return ticket had already been purchased.

The cell in which St. Francis' father imprisoned him.

The cell in which St. Francis’ father imprisoned him.

Not far from the ATM, I passed a smaller, interesting looking church and decided to go in. It turned out that I had entered Chiesa Nuova, built on the remains of St. Francis’ family home. I stood in the storeroom where the former Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone’s father had stored fine silks to be sold at market. I saw what remained of the family home’s imposing front door, and the small cell in which Giovanni’s father locked him when he declared his intention to give up the family business and become a man of God.

My last stop before heading out to wait for the bus was the simplest, but strangely also the most striking. Santa Maria Maggiore is austere in comparison to its fellow holy sites within the walls of Assisi, but after a day of passionate impressions, followed by a building sense of worry about my finances, the late afternoon light streaming through her rose window was everything I needed.

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I left town, and went to stand by the bus. There were pay phones, so I tried all of the numbers I had once more. No luck. I just couldn’t manage to dial out. Deciding it was user error and recognizing that I was quickly destroying every ounce of personal peace I’d just found within Assisi, I gave up for the time being. Still, I was seething. I’d lost it. A whole day of beautiful things and suddenly all I could think about was how I was going to pay my hotel bill when it was time to leave Perugia in the morning. Standing there on that June afternoon, I was halfway between heaven and hell. I was so angry, and angry again at myself for letting something this stupid get the better of me. And even angrier that I couldn’t just hold on to this goodness I was just reveling in, not a couple of hours before. What was wrong with me? Who does this to themselves?

A friendly voice piped up from beside me, stirring me out of my slump. “It’s much warmer here than back at home.” I looked down to see a lovely little Japanese lady, impeccably dressed, and staring back at me with the kindest smile. My ruffled feathers began to smooth over instantly. Ikuko was from Japan, but lived in San Francisco with her husband much of the year. She spent a great deal of time in Italy with friends, and like me, had traveled to Assisi for the day out of curiosity about the saint. She had ridden the same bus in with me that morning, and was also heading back to Perugia on the last bus out for the day. We chatted for a bit there at the bus stop, then sat together on the way back, too.

In the year and a half since meeting Ikuko, I’ve tried to explain the feeling of that bus ride many times. The closest I’ve ever gotten is by using something that popped into my head that day, while we were talking. I seriously began to wonder if she was my angel. Sometimes I think that even if that couldn’t possibly be true, it’s the thing that makes the most sense. We talked about life in Italy, about the little things, like coffee and finding great gelato, and about big things, like finding God. She asked me why I’d gone to Assisi, and I explained sheepishly that I didn’t know, exactly. I told her that I had trouble with some parts of Christianity, but no trouble at all with the big picture items, like being good, spreading light and love, and living a life of service. We talked about doing our best each day, and hoping that it would be good enough in the end. She told me of her (literal) epiphany during a sermon in Ravenna, the moment she’d gone from agnostic to enthusiastic Catholic. She spoke of suddenly feeling an emptiness inside her fill up with light. I was so happy for her, because the light she spoke of shone out of her.

Have you ever watched a baby laugh and smile over something simple that absolutely filled them with delight? It’s like they’re overflowing with simple goodness – there’s nothing dark or troubling that could encroach on how they’re reacting to that moment. That’s what it felt like to be with Ikuko on that bus ride home. She helped me focus the passion that I’d experienced that day, and turned it on in me, like a faucet in my heart. I feel like I’ve been filling up with goodness, ever since. True, I’m a little leaky now and then, but I’m a work in progress.

She left me with a poem. It’s one of the first things I posted on this blog, actually. You can read it here. We’ve kept up through emails ever since. I wish I would have walked her home that night, but we were going to two different parts of the city. And besides, I still had the credit card issue to figure out.

It took me a few more hours to crack the case. Many, many tears and failed phone calls later, after I’d enlisted the help of an American in my global cell phone’s company call center, plus two separate concierges, the lady at my soon-to-be favorite gelateria, plus a number of concerned but utterly unhelpful tourists in the public square, I got everything figured out. In the end, no one could help me dial the numbers on the back of my credit cards (or any international numbers for Chase Bank on any of their websites) from Italy – not even the Italians. My concierge darkly blamed the trouble on it being an “American number”. I bit my tongue to avoid the unpleasant remark I felt bubbling up inside…and to think that only a few hours earlier, I might have agreed with his assessment.

Luckily, I had an iPad and Skype, and it turns out that you can dial anyone from Skype – including Chase Bank. Ten minutes later, I celebrated my newly-reinstated bank accounts with two scoops of gelato – pistachio and sweet cream is the best combination, hands down.

During the ordeal of trying to call my credit card company, I was sitting on some steps near the public square and sobbing. Luckily, extreme displays of emotion don’t make Italians run in the opposite direction, and an older gentleman came up and interrupted me mid-sob. He asked me if I was holding an iPad, and if I’d be so kind as to let him check his stocks. He asked me why I was so upset, brushed it off as an issue I’d soon solve, then asked me to wine later if I was free. I declined, much to my later disappointment when I saw the man and an extended group of friends having a lovely conversation at an open-air trattoria.

Watching the group of Italians laugh at their table, it struck me that it had all been a test – a big, messy lesson from St. Francis. I’d just had a small taste of what it was like to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers, to not know where my next meal was coming from, to have no clue how I’d be leaving town. All I had was my ability to make friends, to prove my goodness, and to have faith that something would come through. It was a tough lesson to learn, and I don’t think I did too well on the first round; I was a spoiled brat and an emotional wreck, placing too much faith on my gadgetry and not enough on human connection. Maybe that’s where I’ll step up my game on The Camino.

Overall, my trip to Assisi was a pivotal moment in my life thus far. In one way, the day was quite simple: I took a bus to see a couple of churches, and ran out of money. It’s all of the details that make the day so huge in my memory. Every time I run back through the events of the day, my mind untangles some new moment, makes a previously unnoticed connection, draws me closer in my relationship with St. Francis. The wild man who preached to birds, who believed that laughter and song were the perfect way to spread the radical concept of not being a jerk, who gladly stripped naked in the public square to renounce his father’s fat pocketbook in exchange for a life of austerity…I’m behind that. I might not be able to accept everything yet. Maybe ever. But I’ll take what I can – and I’ll pass it right back out. My best is all I’ve got, and I’m going to give it.

Shrubbery from the basilica's lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.

Shrubbery from the basilica’s lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.