The peace of Assisi is unsurpassed, beauty speaks here like no other place on earth. —Peggy, Assisi pilgrim, 2017
When we gather with our pilgrimage groups in Assisi, inevitably the friars, guides, shop owners, and servers ask us, “How long are you here?” Their response is fabulous when we say 10 days. They repeat: “10 days, 10 days? No one stays 10 days. They usually come for an afternoon or at most one or two nights and say they have been here. They haven’t. You will truly experience St. Francis, St. Clare, and the blessing of Assisi in 10 days.” And we do!
Assisi first called to me in 2012, the year before I started the Living School. My husband, Ken, our two youngest sons, and I were heading to Italy for the first time. At Mass before our trip, I felt an internal invitation to stay in Assisi overnight, so we did.
When in Assisi we were unexpectedly asked by our personal tour guide if a young priest Adam and his parents could join us. After the tour Adam invited us to a private mass that he was celebrating later in the day. We went on to explore Eremo delle Carceri, a hermitage located in a steep forest gorge upon Monte Subasio above Assisi. St. Francis and the other brothers would often go to this sacred place to pray. While we were there, I asked my 18-year-old son, Zac, if he was bored. He replied, “No, I wish I could stay here forever away from all the pressures of the world.” I was speechless.
When we were driving to Mass our sons asked me, “Who do you think he is going to ask to do the reading?” I said, “I don’t know.” Their response was, “He’s going to ask you.” I laughed and denied their intuition.
When we walked into the church, Father Adam approached me. “Will you please do the first reading for mass?” My sons were right. Their wisdom had prepared me. It was an emotional experience for me to proclaim in Assisi. Upon reflection, I was left with this question for God, “Why did you want my voice heard in Assisi?”
In 2013, Pope Francis announced he was going to Assisi for the first time to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis. When I found out, I talked with Ken about the possibility of going to photograph this event. Ken had a work conflict and wouldn’t be able to go, but the desire kept surfacing within me for months. Two weeks before Pope Francis was to arrive in Assisi, I brought it up again. Ken said, “Go! You obviously need to go.” I asked him to pray about whom I could go with.
The next morning he encouraged me to call my close cousin Margo. When I called her to ask about her plans for the next few weeks she listed off all the things she had going on. Then she said, “Why did you ask that?” I invited her to come with me to photograph and experience the feast of St. Francis in Assisi. As we talked, things started dropping off her list and we started planning the pilgrimage.
I found a driver to take us to many of the significant Franciscan sites. We drove 800 miles with him. One of the places I photographed has a magnificent room built into a massive rock face. Upon entering this room I envisioned people in there creating. The experience stayed with me and kept calling me back.
When the time came to develop our final project for the Living School, I wondered if I was being invited to create a Contemplative Pilgrimage in Assisi. The project was to include our gifts and the teaching we had learned and somehow be of service to the world. I have offered Contemplative retreats since 2006, but I knew nothing of taking groups abroad. And who would join me? It frightened me much more than it excited me but I had nothing to lose in exploring the possibility.
As I started to plan the pilgrimage, I realized that my obsession with photography had laid out the places to visit. It was all there waiting.
One of my last challenges in the final project was the legality of bringing a group to Italy. I needed to talk to the Italian Consulate in Vancouver. Ken, who hasn’t traveled to Vancouver for business in over 15 years, came home during my exploring and planning stages and said, “I need to go to Vancouver and I would like you to join me.” We went. The hotel that his company booked for us was two blocks from the Consulate. The Consulate confirmed that I could bring a group to Assisi!
When Mark invited me to write about our pilgrimages he asked me to answer the question, “Why Assisi?” My short response is, “It called us.”
While on pilgrimage we include the contemplative practices of Meditation, Journaling, Simple Art Expressions, and Contemplative Photography. Any camera or smart phone does the job because it’s about slowing down and seeing. We also visit meaningful Franciscan sites in Assisi, Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria.
Assisi is a place of deep peace, astounding beauty, meaning and symbolism. The message applies today as much as it did when St. Francis and St. Clare walked the paths that we explore. God is everywhere, in everything and in everyone. Assisi helps us to slow down and connect with the earth and the saints. It heals, transforms, and enchants us.
Brother Eunan, a Franciscan friar, says it best. “Be careful, the first time you come here you are typically a tourist, the second and third a pilgrim. The next time you may end up like me.” He was a high-profile lawyer who is now a Franciscan Friar living in Assisi.
Is Assisi calling you?
Delores Montpetit is a Spiritual Director, Photographer, Artist, and Retreat Coach. To learn more about her work, visit www.contemplativepilgrimages.com.