Albert Chevallier Tayler, "St. Francis" (1898)
I Once Had an Odd Experience at the Tomb of St. Francis
If there’s an important figure of our faith beloved by Christians and non-believers alike, it is St. Francis of Assisi. Just the number of garden statues proves the point. He loved animals and the poor and it’s the rare and undesirable individual who doesn’t love anyone who loves animals right? Francis even loved animals that were unlovely. Take the surly wolf of Gubbio. Routinely killing inhabitants of that little Umbrian village just north of Assisi, Francis set out to put an end to the mayhem. One day, he rolled up his sleeves and marched out to the meadows to give this wolf the what for. The wolf immediately repents of his evil doing. Flannery O’ Connor summed up the event nicely:
I don’t know whether he actually converted the wolf or whether the wolf’s character didn’t just greatly improve after he met St. Francis. Anyway, he calmed down a good deal.
Such was the power of St. Francis’ faith. A few years ago I was able to visit Francis’ lovely town of Assisi while on pilgrimage with our bishop. It was a wonderful day and I had a unique and special experience there.
We visited the St. Damiano chapel where the crucifix above the altar spoke to our young Francis, instructing him to repair our Father’s Church that was falling into disarray. Of course Francis took God literally and started repairing this church. God had something bigger in mind, which Francis later realized. The actual cross was taken however – we trust with St. Francis’ posthumous blessing – by the Poor Clares when they moved very close by to their own Basilica built for St. Clare after her death. It hangs there today in the Chapel of the Crucifix. It is mystifying to kneel before this very cross, realizing what who knelt before it centuries ago. In contrast to this wonderful experience, I absentmindedly left my well-marked copy of Eusebius’ History of the Church behind that day in the chapel. (I’m one of those nerds who typically has a book under their arm wherever they go. What if you came upon some free reading time and didn’t have a book with you?) However, if one is going to have their attention drawn elsewhere to the point of forgetfulness, you could do worse than this place.
But the best experience was yet to come in the crypt of St. Francis which sits down below the majestic Basilica of St. Francis. The bones of St. Francis are situated in a grated ledge right above and behind the crucifix in this photograph. His friars were intent on making sure his bones did not get piecemealed off by ferocious relic hunters, and they succeeded. They rest right there in full under the nameplate declaring “S. Francesco 1182-1226”.
Now I am not a mystic, nor have I ever made it a habit to pray at anyone’s gravesite. I hadn’t done so when I visited the burial places of Sts. Peter and Paul. I didn’t at the burial place of St. Monica in Rome, St. Augustine’s tirelessly faithful mom. I haven’t done so at my mother and father’s graves. But somehow, I did this day, on this visit. I can’t explain why, but I did. I knelt at the left side of the altar and talked to God.
Even as I was praying, I was wondering what the benefit of doing so at a place of burial might actually be and why I was doing so here. Couldn’t my Father meet me at home, in my car or at the Burger King just as well as here? But in my spirit, I heard “Well Glenn, you’re not at home, in your car or at Burger King right now are you? You’re here, where St. Francis’s mortal remains are. And I would like to visit with you now, here.”
So I continued and as I did, I sensed a physical presence over my right shoulder, that unmistakable feeling we get when someone has entered our personal space. I opened my eyes and turned my head because I fully expected to find some spatially obtuse tourist nose to nose. But no one was there. Returning to prayer, I trusted the sense would leave me. It didn’t. As real and as sure as anything, I understood it was St. Francis right there behind me at my shoulder. Still, I told myself not to be silly. What was at work here was surely the very strong power of suggestion.
But I felt again in my spirit two questions, as real as if they were asked to me aloud. “Glenn, are you inclined toward feeling such things?” and “Can you honestly deny that presence is not there?” These were rhetorical questions because the answers where obvious. And I continued to feel this presence at my shoulder through my whole time in prayer so I accepted it for what it was. This was a curious experience, beyond the obvious, because I haven’t been particularly drawn to St. Francis spiritually although like most Christians, I’ve always found his story and impact on the Church fascinating. If I were to have such an experience recommend itself to me, it would be at the crypt of John Paul II, Augustine or Dante, life-of-the-mind people like me.
I don’t know what that experience was about. I just know that it was, and maybe that is exactly what it was about. Christians takes the communion of the saints – this great cloud of witnesses – very seriously. The Body of Christ is a body, all parts connected to one another and death does nothing to thwart this reality. Sometimes we can apparently experience the presence of those who have gone before us and that experience can be quite moving, a very special grace. Just ask Peter.