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Umbrian Pilgrimage

For a would-be holiday pilgrim who is unable or, in troubled times, unwilling to travel to the Holy Land (and for anyone not too sure about going to Rome) Umbria makes a very good alternative. Assisi is the obvious goal. It is deeply satisfying just to walk around the locality, absorbing the atmosphere of sites associated with the life of that extraordinary and wonderful ‘poor man’, Francis, who imitated Christ more closely than anybody else ever.

It is impossible not to be deeply impressed by the Portiuncula — a tiny 12th century chapel encased within the massive 19th century basilica dedicated to Francis’s beloved Madonna of the Angels. The message over the chapel entrance declares "This is the Door to Eternal Life". This recalls the occasion when Francis (who, we must remember, was never priested) begged the Pope to grant an Indulgence remitting completely the sins of anybody who ever makes their confession at this church. — Truly, the Saints, whose example of personal holiness can often feel quite intimidating, long to drag all of us into Heaven!

But Umbria also offers another rewarding goal — Norcia, birthplace of St Benedict (and of his twin sister St Scholastica). If the time gap between ourselves and St Francis seems very long (c.800 years; he died in 1228), it is startling to realise that St Benedict lived over 600 years earlier (he died in 560).

Fifty miles south-east of Assisi, Norcia is situated higher up in the Apennines. And nowadays it is more easily accessible thanks to a couple of spectacular tunnels. But whereas everything in Assisi revolves around the lives of Saints Francis and Clare, Norcia is different because Saints Benedict & Scholastica were only born there. The townsfolk are indeed proud of the association – Benedict's statue presides over the central square – but they also stress the region’s culinary heritage which provides their living today: truffles, ricotta cheeses, dwarf lentils, olive oils, prosciutto, honey.

Food for thought: when Clare fled her family to join Francis, he placed her initially in a Benedictine monastery. Clare, though, had no intention of living the life of a Benedictine: she was determined to match Francis’s life of evangelical poverty. — Well ... that ideal of poverty may make good sense for souls who have the strength for it, but for the rest of us (whether professed or layfolk) St Benedict’s rule of Simplicity is easier both to understand and to live by. Praise be!

June 2002