So as of this afternoon I've been here in Assisi for a week. Tomorrow it will be two weeks since I left the states. I'm starting to miss certain things: the brothers at home, CVS, the American concept of what constitutes laundry facilities.
Nevertheless, it's a delightful life I've been given for a few months in Assisi. The classes are interesting, and I have enjoyed the beginnings of my progress in Italian. Even so, after a week of school I have been grateful for the quiet of the weekend. Today I got up and prayed Morning Prayer with just a few of the friars--many were out at Masses and other Sunday work--and then, since it was just the two of us, the visiting American priest and I offered Mass in English with the help of his Magnificat. After that I took the short walk down to the Basilica of St. Francis and went down to the tomb. There I prayed my Office of Readings and then just sat with the saint for a while. I stayed until it started to get crowded, around the middle of the morning.
I don't deserve such a delightful life! Of all the Franciscans in the world--apart from the friars who live in the Sacro Convento--in these days I am probably sleeping closest to the tomb of Francis. As I think of this at night, I'm reminded of one my favorite stories I once heard about John of the Cross: how when he was superior, the only privilege he would accept for himself was the cell closest to the Blessed Sacrament.
But here's the thing, in a funny way I don't feel much. Sure, the place and its pilgrims confront me many times a day with the mystery of my own Franciscanism and all the twists and turns of my journey that first brought me to this place nineteen years ago and have deposited me here again now. But a consciousness of grace, of God's presence, of what he might be doing or inviting me to in my heart, of the sweetness of which Francis always speaks, these I don't have.
It reminds me of a workshop we went to in preparation for our summer in Honduras. The presenter advised us that it was normal to feel very disoriented going into a new culture and language environment. She recommended that we imagine that we had tattoos on our arms that said, 'normal.' When we felt out of joint physically, emotionally, or spiritually, seeing the word would remind us that these experiences were normal. This sort of thing is all very easy to name on the practical level; things that are taken for granted at home may be very hard to figure out in a foreign place. For example, this past week I wanted to buy a padded envelope so I could send some religious articles to the one of the friars at home. In the states I know the sort of place that has that sort of thing, and so this is an easy task. Here, I had no idea even what sort of place to look for. The same sort of pattern goes for social customs and everything else.
I think that prayer and the conversation of the soul with God are no different. As created persons we exist as a mysterious--often very blessed but also sometimes uneasy--marriage of flesh and spirit, of personal history and eternal destiny. And I think to myself that it's normal and to be expected that I don't feel much of God, just as I don't always know how life works in an Italian friary. Even in the midst of all this blessedness, the pathways of prayer in my praying heart and the consciousness of the Mystery we clumsily call 'God' have been upset and await the pain and joy of being reconfigured to the incarnate Word as he suffers and teaches and reconciles in the particular journey that is me.
On the one hand, as I get older on the way, it becomes easier to trust God when I'm in the midst of a 'night' of his apparent absence. Many times his grace has brought me through such moments in order to bring deeper faith and understanding to birth. I even think of how largely unaware of his grace working on me I was during the twenty and a half years I lived on this earth before my baptism. On the other hand, the subtlety of God's grace is a function of his sublime humility. And as one goes deeper into the humility of the heart of God, the more subtle the graces become, sweeter for sure, but also harder to perceive.
holy father Francis, pray for us.