The grand, spacious Upper walls of the Basilica of St Francis, Assisi, contain intricate frescoes that narrate the entire history of Christianity. In the Lower Basilica, a large rose window illuminates the interior’s numerous side chapels and vestibules. But it’s the third level — simple, dark and underdone — that holds the most valuable treasure.
The crypt underneath the Lower Basilica, while not ornate, is tremendously impressive. As travellers gather on the cobblestone streets that line the basilica square, the pilgrim group celebrates a private Mass in the early morning before the doors are opened to the public, metres away from the tomb of St Francis. For 76-year-old Marlies Smitfoort, the town is one of many in Italy that stand testimony to incredible faith and dedication.
“These are churches that were built centuries ago by believing people, by people who were not going to be alive to see that building finished because some would take maybe 200 years to finish. That is incredible,” she says. “I find that very inspirational that there were people putting in the foundations … and would know they would never, ever see the finished product. “
And then as you enter these places you get the sense of all the millions of people that have been there who’ve brought their sorrows, their joys, everything.
In the forest about 4km outside of Assisi, the Eremo delle Caceri or ‘Hermitage’, where St Francis was known to spend his time in prayer and contemplation, is enclosed by tall trees, dense shrubbery, the uninterrupted birdsong. It provides unique tranquility after spending three leisurely afternoons soaking in the rich, medieval character of Assisi. “You feel sort of an atmosphere of prayerfulness almost exuding from the walls, from everything, because of the age of it, I suppose, and almost numberless people that have been drawn to it and have believed,” Marlies says.
Another standout destination was San Giovanni Rotondo, where she visited the shrine of St Padre Pio. “The man must have suffered a lot,” Marlies says, recalling the sites where he experienced the stigmata. “But he was offering all that up to God. He’d be saying prayers of surrender, ‘You take care of it, God,’ that sort of thing. And I’ve adopted that approach. I say a prayer of surrender every time there is something where I can’t see how to resolve it… I leave it with God, I leave it with Christ.”
Marlies, who has watched family members and loved ones leave this life for the next, has endured her own physical and emotional suffering. Now, she turns to the power of pilgrimage for strength, saving up every dollar possible in hope of attending one each year.
“My spiritual life has been enhanced in a way I could not have foreseen,” she explains. “I was never like this. I was what you’d call a ‘rank and file’ Catholic. I’d just go to Mass on Sundays. But now I go to Mass every day if I can – because I want to, I just want to. There’s been a remarkable, blessed increase in my desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ’s life. I still can’t believe the difference that [pilgrimage] has made in my life. I get up in the morning with joy. It doesn’t matter what it’s like out there.”
It can be raining, cold, sunny, it doesn’t really matter. My heart is now overflowing with joy.