In the Crypt of St. Francis

Italian sun glowed through stained glass windows in the upper Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, but we headed for the crypt beneath the cathedral. The Poverty and Simplicity of Saint Francis had been covered by grandeur and gold within a few years of his death nearly a thousand years ago, but I hoped for a whiff of the saint’s holiness.

Francis taught a gentle loving side of spirituality. He focused on compassion for the suffering, care for the sick and downtrodden, and reverence for women. He expressed love for all beings, especially the wild ones like wolves and birds. For a short time, many Italian Catholics followed him and took vows of poverty, but within two years of his death, the Order of St. Francis opted for power based on gold, not simplicity and piety.

St. Francis Crypt

In 1973, my husband Vic and I traveled to Assisi with our 2 ½ year old son. We walked to the lower basilica and descended worn stone steps into the crypt, the basement holding the tombs of the Franciscan saints. The stone walls felt cool and rough under my fingers, and the dimly lit crypt was a respite from fierce sun. Vic babysat while I wandered, searching for the tombs of St. Francis and his companion Brother Leo. My heart ached as though Saint Francis had died recently instead of in 1226.

I sat on a stone step near the tombs and meditated while Vic tended David. Quiet tears flowing down my cheeks turned into sobs. Loud and insistent.

“Is she all right?” an Italian man asked Vic in accented English. I took in the man’s concern, but his question felt far away. I was somewhere else, lost in mystical grief.

“She’s fine. I’m with her,” Vic told him. “She loves St. Francis.”

Francis Preaching to the Birds by Giotto

This crypt held the quiet of a thousand years of reverence for this monk and his compassionate teachings. My grief felt raw and fresh as though I were learning for the first time that the Saint had died. Grief infused these underground stones as devotees descended the stairs to pray and honor the Saint. Sunlight, tourists, and the clamor of shops selling votive candles, postcards, and crucifixes filled the main cathedral above the tombs.

“I’ll be back soon,” Vic whispered when he took our restless child outside. My tears had stopped by then. Mystery surrounded and held me in the Sacred Presence of St. Francis.

Basillica built over the original church & crypt

I sat another hour in the deep silence of the Underworld, this womb and tomb of the Holy. When I left the dark interior space and walked into piercing sunlight, I heard my child shriek with delight as he chased pigeons across the courtyard.

As I watched our curly-haired boy run across the courtyard with unrestrained joy, my heart expanded to hold both wild love and quiet grief.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

***

I expected to be moved in Assisi after reading stories about St. Francis’s life and his love for animals, but the depth of mystical feeling was overwhelming. I wasn’t brought up Roman Catholic and only loosely Protestant. I read about St. Francis in the 1960s, drawn to the St. Francis prayer which was written 700 years after his death. Was the St. Francis Prayer important in your life?

For other posts about spiritual seeking, see When the Dalai Lama Blessed the Children. After visiting Assisi, we went to Switzerland to meet Paul Brunton. Paul Brunton helped me understand the importance of nature in my spiritual practice. I wrote about this in Gardening Is a Spiritual Practice.

18 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, it was lovely, soothing I want to write, to read about your trip to Italy with Vic and your eldest son. Thank you for sharing your sacred memories and wonderful photos. Until I read the St. Francis prayer just now, I realise I don’t know this at all. However, Psalm 23, the Lord is my Shepherd, is one I could recite an early age. I can’t tell you why, except that as a child I loved imagining myself walking through that valley with God. Later, I realised it was a prayer of protection and wish to move from darkness into light.

    Cathedrals are immensely beautiful places, I love them! When travelling, we take detours to visit one if we’re close by. I’ve never been to Chartres or Notre Dame and would love to visit them, especially as they’re only a few hundred miles across the sea. Lin who’s travelled much further than me, who’s never been out of Europe, loved her visit to St Basils Cathedral, in Moscow. Life, death, rebirth, cathedrals offer us all a place to meet and worship the Divine. The architecture alone moves me deeply, let alone the art. Love and light, Deborah.

    • We went to Europe in 1973s to visit our teacher’s teacher Paul Brunton who lived in Switzerland, plus Vic gave an astronomy talk at a conference at the Vatican in Rome. Between the two, we took trains and a few rental cars to travel from southern Italy to Switzerland. It was challenging with a 2 1/2 year old child, but his first memories are sitting on the sage’s lap and playing with legos with the wise man. You can’t beat that!

      I also go to Psalm 23 when I need support, remembered from childhood and never forgotten. I loved St. Francis when I was a young woman. I didn’t know then that the St. Francs Prayer was written long after his death, but I was more drawn to a book called ‘Little Flowers of St. Francis’ written by Ugolino Brunforte in the 14th Century AD. We were also moved by the Shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico City and the many cathedrals in Southern France. Vic visited cathedrals in Spain and Portugal, but I wasn’t with him on that trip. Such buildings are permeated with reverence and prayer–and also, all to often, places where “heretics” were tortured. It may be a long time before any of us get to Moscow. I want to visit the Cathedral to St. Sophia in Kiev, but it’s unlikely that will happen. The forest will be my sacred temple. Love to you across the sea.

      • I understand your reaction. Standing before the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington D. C. I burst into tears as I approached the stone figure.

        • I understand your reaction. The Lincoln Memorial was a big deal in my childhood and visits there were deeply moving. My mother liked to tell the story of how Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Marion Anderson to sing at the Memorial when the DAR refused to let a woman of color sing in their hall.

  2. What a beautiful piece, Elaine. I’m still learning more about you, dear friend.

    • I’m glad I still have a few stories you haven’t heard, Harriet. This happened in 1973 just before Vic and I saw PB for the first time. It was a challenging trip with our wild child and I noticed how disciplined the Italian children were compared to my kid. Waiters loved watching David eat pasta with his bare hands–pasta and tomato sauce everywhere. That was another part of the Assisi adventure.

  3. Elaine, I can absolutely espouse the mission of St. Francis. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” is a prayer I can pray daily. I like the other lines too: It is in giving me receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned (a big one!) and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Your description made me think of the many ways St. Francis’ words have been set to music. Here is one featuring the Italian landscape and architecture you describe:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI1Gst7pEqc

    By the way, I love Vic’s reply to the Italian man concerned about your crying: “She’s fine. I’m with her,” Vic told him. “She loves St. Francis.” Lovely post! 😀

    • I loved the St. Francis stories written in the 14th Century and didn’t know the St. Francis Prayer then or that it was written 700 years after Francis’s death. It doesn’t matter who wrote it. The poem is enduring and goes right to the heart and the big spiritual tasks of life. I wish I could hear the music, and I did hear it in the 1970s plus we had a record of St. Francis stories which we played over and over. I loved St. Francis, but didn’t know it would be so powerful to visit the crypt. I also loved the stories of his companion Brother Leo. On that trip in a hotel room in Trevi, Italy with two bedrooms (one for David and the other for Vic and me), I got pregnant with our second son Anthony. It was a powerful time in our family.

  4. Yes! The St. Francis prayer has been very important in my life. And synchronistically, it just resurfaced recently as I meditated. Make me an instrument of your peace. I was raised Catholic and for my confirmation at age 12, my sister wrote the prayer out using beautiful calligraphy on a large poster sized piece of paper. It hung in my small bedroom for years. I love Saint Francis also and after reading your account Elaine, I would like to visit his crypt. Blessings and thank you for this and all your posts. I have been a reader for several years since Lori Yelensky posted a link to your blog and introduced me to your writings.

    • Thank you for introducing yourself, Catherine. I’m glad you had the St. Francis Prayer for inspiration and guidance. “Make me an instrument of your peace.” Such powerful words. My husband Vic was raised Catholic and was devout as a kid. I was raised loosely Presbyterian and didn’t have much religious guidance, but spiritual music and prayers were natural to me. I hope you can go to Italy (Assisi is so beautiful) and visit the St. Francis crypt some day. Lori Yelensky has been a friend for many years and we’ve been through similar losses. I’m glad she inroduced you to my writing. Blessings to you.

  5. The prayer has always been an important one for me, and the singing of it always greatly moves me. Thank you Elaine so much for this lovely post.

    • Thanks for responding, Susan. I’m reading a little about what’s happening in South Africa and it sounds very difficult. There are so many crises in this world and we all need peace prayers. I’ll check in with you on FB and see if there’s more info there. Love and hope.

  6. It’s the last but hopefully not least one to write a comment for your hearty article. I am not religious, as you know, though your story touched my heart. I appreciate any good thought and deed by everyone in our history. Honestly, I have to say there are many similarities between Catholics and Shiite Muslims. They both have lots of saints and imams covered with gold, even though so many poor people live worldwide!
    Nevertheless, one must look carefully and more intensively to find the righteous. Just like you do, my dear Elaine. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of your memory.

    • Aladin, I never think of myself as religious, but I do seek the sacred. They’re not the same to me. The sacred can be found in a book or a forest or the crypt of an old church. I understand your comment about Catholics and Shiite Muslims–and saw the same dynamic in India. I heard resentment toward the temple from rickshaw drivers and others struggling to survive, but Sankaracharya was still a saint in my eyes and kept to his life of poverty and spent his days giving blessings to anyone who came. He didn’t ask if that person was a Hindu. People brought gifts and he passed them on to another visitor which is how Vic and I received the cloth for our cremation. I didn’t think a religion made Sankaracharya a saint, but it came from his heart and deep study of wisdom texts and something more I don’t understand. I learn a lot from what others write and share, but I doubt I’ll ever have a guide or teacher in that same way again. My first teacher Anthony stressed that we needed to become our own teachers and find our own sacred path. He was a student of Jungian Psychology and astrology and found wisdom in many religions, but belonged to none. Meeting him as my first teacher was good fortune. Thanks for taking a moment to comment.

  7. That you could stop to feel the presence so deeply says much about you. Our flitting minds often keep us from those precious inner moments.
    I’m mad at the church so I have a hard time appreciating anything having to do with it.
    Although St. Francis is one who seem to embody the calling for peace and love. I suspect he would have been like that even without the church!

    • Those were unforgettable hours, Lauren, and I’m glad we made the effort to go to Assisi. Vic and I shared the stories of St. Francis for many years in the 1960s–reading and a recording. I’m mad at the actions of the church in most cases, but not all. There are wonderful Christians doing wonderful service for others which doesn’t focus on heaven and hell and human power. If you read the life of St. Francis, it’s clear he had a strong destiny apart from his rich father and the church. I think the same is true of Sankara. It wasn’t the specific religion that made his presence so powerful. It was something deep within him. Sending you love.

  8. So moving, Elaine. I absolutely love Vic’s answer to the question of whether you were alright. And I could just picture David running after the pigeons with delight. Yes, our hearts expand by holding it all.

    Sending soon-to-be solstice blessings your way, Anne

    • Thank you, Anne. I loved Vic’s response, too, and always remembered it. I miss having someone watch over me the way he did. Today is Winter Solstice and my oldest son arrives from North Carolina tonight. My other son lives near me, so we’ll celebrate Solstice tomorrow. Unfortunately, weather will be wildly cold and windy for Christmas week, making it hard to enjoy being outside. I can handle the cold, but 50 mph wind gusts are a bit much. The house is cozy warm, a few lights and ornaments are hung, and our feasts will be delicious but easy cooking. Blessed Solstice to you and yours.

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