At the heart of the world lies Italy. At the heart of Italy lies Assisi. At the heart of Assisi lies a large basilica dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels. And when you, hopefully in your lifetime, walk into this cathedral, you will see in the distance…in the heart…a tiny church. Immediately you will fall in love. Those of us who have had the grace to be there will swear it. This little church was the only place which the “homeless” Francis of Assisi allowed himself to call “home,” he loved it so, its restoration the product of his labors of love. You will feel like you have reached here the “heart of the world” – and of the little tiny man who conquered it. He called this place “Portiuncola” or his “little portion,” his legacy to those whom he loved. If Italy is the heart of the world, this truly was the world’s greatest lover.
My dear, lifelong friend, Anthony Luongo, shares with me that when he went there, he felt PARALYZED and stood in the back corner with his head against the wall for two hours, feeling so unworthy to be there. i told him that such was my very own experience, but that eventually one feels the LOVE of God that filled and sifted through Francis SPRINKLING all over you like the powdered sugar on Italy’s dolci (all their pastries…) There you MEET the HEART of LOVE itself. (St. Francis had gone totally blind from years of weeping, and when asked why, he simply answered, “Because Such Love goes unloved!” Francis sometimes used that LOVE to turn hardened criminals into creampuffs!(photo just received from a little town in Italy, from my lucky pal, Stevie Siro!)
The followers and friends of St. Francis celebrate him each year with a two day event. October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis. Tomorrow the Holy Father, who on 3/13/13 let the world know that he was about to be a very very different Pope – simply by announcing his NAME – will officially close his month-plus dedicated to the Care for Creation, as he celebrates the Saint so famous for that care. But those who carry that NAME on their sleeves or in their souls, “Franciscans” will assemble today, October 3rd, to recall and to reenact in many places the Saint’s CRESCENDO!That is what he thought of DEATH. It all took place at that tiny “home,” where i heard for myself his trumpets blaring.
i don’t think there was ever a man who understood St. Francis better than Mahatma Gandhi, who put it this way: “Death should be welcomed, even as a best friend is welcomed. Death is an event to be celebrated, even more than birth. We are born to die, and we die only to be born again.” This man, who loved Francis so deeply, had learned from “the little poor man” the secret. He said, “the secret is to stop thinking of your body as your own. It is God’s, and He gave it to you for a while to use it for His service. Owners can misuse their property as they wish, but a trustee has to make the best use of it and know that God will take it back whenever He wishes.” Now this is a mighty big pill to swallow, but this is “the Francis Way.” He is definitely not all pretty flowers and jumping in the autumn leaves. To join his path is heavy stuff, but it promises genuine freedom-from-within and peace, true peace of mind. The Church, in setting up this two-day-event, is saying, “If you mean to really CELEBRATE St. Francis of Assisi tomorrow, well, here is the door, folks!”
When i was a little kid, my friends around the neighborhood and i just never got tired of playing “Army,” soldiers, whatever you called it. We played it day and night, into the darkness where one could hide better. The game was constantly ruined by the kid who could never fall right, or the one who just refused to face the fact that he had to go sometime. i mean, you would get him in the corner of some house and point weapons at every major organ, and blast away. And he’d just sorta stand there, all stupid. “Come on, man! We got you! You gotta go down!” “No, I don’t have to, if I don’t want to!!” “Oh, man! Go home, kid. Go home to mommy!” We’d be so bummed out for a few minutes…But once that kid rounded the bend, “Let’s go, boys!” back to our MAJESTIC DEATHS!!! Who could have thunk it that that little game would tell the story of our lives, that to a great extent our lives would be all about dying, and the greatest ones, the ones who would make the world so interesting and inspiring, would be those who knew well how to die. i can still see little kids making spectacular flies into thornbushes or falls off a roof or a tree. They knew there was no way of getting around it, so instead they really got into it.
i don’t just mean here the very act of dying. It’s far far more than that. It is the very understanding that life is a dying-to-self and a learning how very fragile and fleeting everything is. Gratefulness, joy, laughter, it is all so connected. i’m talking about our mothers and our fathers here…and all of the Magnificent Ones, who accepted that old message that Francis and Gandhi just said so simply: “Living is in the dying, and dying is in the living. And if you take Creation, you take THE WHOLE PACKAGE or nothin! Sister Death is just another member of the Family of Creation!” St. Francis considered her his special beauty, since she was the only one who could carry him home. The annual celebration of October 3rd is called the “Transitus,” which means “the Carrying from one life to the next, the Best!”