Wednesday, November 27, 2013

And I will die here

We met Giuseppi today.  He was born and raised in Assisi.

Like the patron saint of nature, Giuseppi loves animals--he keeps dozens of cats, doves, a donkey, a goat, and other animals. In some cases, he finds a home for the animals after going to great pains to ensure that the family will take good care of the animal. Otherwise, he rescues and helps everyone that crosses his path.

As he led us up the long, stone road that zigzags upward into the 10th-century town, a grey cat scampered by us. He said, "Hello, Ivan!" with affection glowing in his cheery red cheeks.

Inside the Basilica of St. Francis, Giuseppi treated us to a moving lesson. As he shared the particular facts about the basilica--stone, frescos, stained glass--he gave us time to visit the bones of St. Francis. Solemn-eyed nuns knelt and prayed by the tomb. A lone man sat in a dimly-lit corner with an open book--he seemed to reflect on the book and the place all at once.

Giuseppi led us from the basilica and into the church. Damaged from an earthquake in 1997,  many frescos were gone or had partially crumbled into dust.

Two remained unscathed. Giuseppi taught us about them.

One of the paintings was a favorite of Pope John Paul II. St. Francis, already a saint, appears in the clouds and reaches down to a group of Muslims. Each religion is shown as respecting and acknowledging the other. Giuseppi said the Pope often reflected--if people could come together in the 12th century, then why not today?

Giuseppi asked, "Where did the idea for such a painting come from?"

In the other painting, St. Francis, alive and well, travelled to Egypt to meet with the Sultan Malik ai-Kamil. Each man intent on converting the other to his religion.

Neither converted.

And here is the lesson imparted to us by Giuseppi: each man, each religion, came to understand and respect the other.

Not tolerate

We have it wrong in many spaces today where we say we teach "tolerance"--we might tolerate a rash or a stone in our shoe, but we should not anchor ourselves to "tolerating" religion or people.

Giuseppi said that every four years, the leaders of all of the world's religions gather in Assisi to pray for peace...through respect and understanding.

At the last gathering, three-hundred and fifty religions were represented.

Three-hundred and fifty!

When I think about that number, I think of how many good people are in the world. And it redefines for me just what religion is: peace, joy, and generosity. Being good to one another.

My experience in Assisi was moving and humbling. As Guiseppi shared, "respect, and understanding, and peace cannot come from any one person--we all must play our part."

I felt happy about that space and the bones of the man we visited and the voice of the man we listened to. Religion, like skin color or gender or age or language, didn't matter as much as goodness.

Giuseppi asked, "What makes one man good and another not so?"

And then, with that question in my heart, our tour was over, and we exited the church beneath a fresco of St. Francis loving and talking to the animals. Giuseppi said goodbye to our group on the wide, stone patio--wet from a mild snowfall--and posed for some photos.

After the group thinned out and broke away for lunch, we remained with Giuseppi for a long time. This clearly peaceful, happy man talked with us about his animals and listened to us talk about ours. He and my wife shared pictures of pets and he asked questions and made a fuss over each.

As they bonded, I asked him if he was born and raised in Assisi. He said yes, but then added one thing--"and I will die here."

He was so happy to say it. He had no fear in those words. If anything, he spoke with satisfaction and pride.

We traveled to Assisi to become acquainted with a saint but met a living man today who reflects everything one could want from another human being: respect, understanding, and peace.

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