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Window on Italy - An Unexpected Message From St. Francis

Colleen Simpson

Setting out one beautiful sunny day in September for a tour of Assisi with my six guests from the Seattle area, little did I know that my whole world would change in the time it takes to say "St. Francis."

I love to show guests the places where the revered saint actually spent time in contemplation, so we always start by visiting San Damiano Chapel and convent just outside the walls of Assisi. It was here that Francis first had his vision of the cross and Christ's orders for him to "rebuild my church."  In despair and seeking his vocation, Francis took the words literally and started rebuilding the little tumbled-down chapel that had once housed the outcasts of Assisi, the lepers.  Today it is just as St. Francis left it and one can feel the saint's presence in the chapel.  Francis also built a convent for St. Clair after she came to join his little group of converts to embrace "Lady Poverty."  Climbing the stone steps worn smooth by centuries of use to Claire's quarters, I am always in awe of the cloistered life that these nuns lived within these walls.  A small garden and a few rooms encompassed their entire life for over 30 years as cloistered sisters.

San Damiano Courtyard

The Courtyard of San Damiano

From San Damiano we wind our way up the mountain to the natural sanctuary of Eremo della Carcieri, an ancient monastery where Francis often spent months on his bed of stone in a grotto within the living rock of the mountain. The monastery clings to the side of the mountain atop of a steep ravine.

Eremo della Carcieri

We are enchanted by the tranquility of this sacred place, wandering along paths within the woods of Mt.Subasio.  Natural amphitheaters are carved out of living rock and one can stay in silent contemplation with just the sounds of the birds and the forest creatures, what Francis and his fellow friars once experienced.  This is one of favorite venues to slow down and savor the sacredness of place.

On this blissful sunny day, our group climbed the stairs to one of the amphitheaterswhen we followed the siren call of a clarinet.  A group of Germans were playing sacred music so we lingered a while, listening.  Normally I like to return via the stairs, but on occasion I continue past the amphitheater and down a dirt path that winds back to the main path.  We were just a short way down this path when suddenly I slid on the dirt and pebbles and felt my ankle give way.  It was the strangest feeling and I knew I had done a bad thing!  Unable to move because of the intense pain, I stayed as I fell.  Instinctively, I knew it was not a sprain and there was no question that I could walk out on my own.

While two guests went for help, my dear brave friend, Matt Lutton, cradled my ankle with his cupped hand.  After the shock wore off, I decided to lighten things up as I knew we were in for a wait for medics to arrive from Assisi and then negotiate the forest path, through the monastery, up to the amphitheater and along the path to where we were.  So I started telling some favorite stories and soon everyone had a joke to contribute.  An hour and a half, and a handful of  Ibuprofens later, medical help finally arrived with a sling to cart me out of the forest.  As I was a dead weight, it took four strong men, two of my party included, to carry me.  I had a fantastic view of the canopy of trees above.

I expected to be carried up the stairs around the monastery but was startled to see a secret door open and suddenly I was inside the private refectory of the monastery. Dating to the time Francis would have stayed at Eremo,the nun told me that visits are reserved for special guests and injured souls such as me.  They placed me on the narrow aisle floor between the ancient dining tables and benches built into the rock wall and took a well-deserved break for water and rest. 

Finally, we reached the larger path where a gurney was waiting to take me to the ambulance.  Bump, bump, bump we went along the gravel path and every bump felt like knives stabbing me in the ankle.  The ride to Assisi hospital was intense too.  Long story short, X-rays were taken at Assisi and yep  ... all concurred that it was a big, bad break.

Then what felt like the longest ambulance ride from Assisi to Perugia Silvestrini Hospital, without any pain killers, and I felt every pothole along the way!

I stayed in the hospital for five days, and I have to say, if you break a bone, you would be well served to do it in Italy!  I had the best of care with nurses and since Silvestrini is a teaching hospital, the attention of many residents and interns and the chief of orthopedics. 

I soon learned that one's family stays with you around the clock, but I was an orphan and everyone took pity on me.  I was adopted by the family of my elderly roommate and they fetched me cappuccino each morning.  When my first meal was served, I discovered there was no silverware.  When I rang for the nurse to ask for a fork, she asked where my family was.  The family brings place setting, including coffee cup and glassware and table cloth with linen napkins.  My dear friend, Lisa, soon brought me my own "hospital kit" and I felt like a real Italian. When I asked if I could have wine with my meal, a small box of white wine appeared on my tray each day.  Lisa brought chocolates and a sachet of fresh lavender she made so my pillow was perfumed with a calming scent. 


That was forty-five days ago, and I have been negotiating a medieval village in a wheelchair ever since.  When I visited the local doctor and was waiting, the village priest, Don Augusto, told me I had received a message from St. Francis at Eremo della Carcieri.  No longer was I the fast Colleen striding briskly through town on my many errands and visits to the stores, I am now the slow and tranquil Colleen!  Piano, piano, piano.Un grand cambia per la vita di Colleen.  This is big change to the life of Colleen. Thanks so much St. Francis!

Colleen Simpson

Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests.

© Colleen Simpson, 2012

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