”O holy town of Assisi, you are known to the whole world for the one fact of having given birth to the Little Poor One, your Saint, so seraphic in his love. May you understand this privilege, and offer to all people the spectacle of such a faithfulness to Christian tradition that it will be to your real and everlasting honor…. Here with St. Francis, here we are truly at the gates of Paradise.”

Pope John XXIII Assisi, Oct. 4, 1962

MY FIRST GLIMPSE of Assisi, after a long absence, was on a mild winter afternoon as I alit from the train at the foot of this medieval village built on layered terraces atop imposing Mount Subasio. Just moments away from sunset, Assisi was awash in a magical glow, as if God himself had slowly ladled molten gold over its rooftops.

Of all the places I had visited while studying abroad in college, two have remained indelibly etched on my mind, stone for stone, building for building, miracle for miracle: Assisi, home to my favorite saint, and Lourdes. This weekend would be a homecoming.

I stayed in a convent in a serene country location with a spectacular view of the Umbrian plain, yet just a brief walk from the center of the city. I wanted to be a true pilgrim and retrace, on foot, the steps of St. Francis and St. Clare, who became his follower and who founded the Order of Poor Clares.

The pilgrimage began early Sunday morning with a walk through the wonderfully quiet, narrow cobblestone streets of Assisi, past buildings, churches, chapels and roadside shrines to the Virgin, many of which date to the time of Francis. My destination was the double basilica dedicated to him where I would attend Mass and visit his tomb. I didn't meet a living soul until I reached the lower basilica, allowing me time and peace to mentally relive Francis'life.

Born in Assisi in 1182 to a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro di Bernardone, and his French wife, Madonna Pica, Francis was an affable, extroverted young man, gifted with intelligence and a poetic soul, and generous to a fault. Popular with the youth of his day and excelling in all he undertook, Francis first prepared for a life of adventure as a knight.

Following a serious illness, Francis returned to his ordinary life, but found no pleasure in his previous activities. Later, on a trip to Spoleto, he fell ill again and, in a moment of fever, heard the Lord call him: “Go back to your city, there you will be told what to do.”

Returning to Assisi, Francis found himself drawn to prayer and meditation. In 1206, in the crumbling old church of St. Damien, in prayer before the crucifix, he again heard the Lord's voice: “Go, Francis, restore my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.” In his youthful exuberance, he took the Lord's words literally and began to look for funds to restore the church!

Soon afterwards, however, he realized that God was calling him to be a builder of souls, and announced this to his family. Disinherited by his father, who had great dreams for him, Francis set forth in 1206 with just a small band of followers, to do as he had been ordered: to restore the Church, to preach the Gospel, to put Christ back in Christians. As his followers grew in number, Francis sensed the need for a rule for their way of life and so, in 1210, went to Rome where Pope Innocent III approved the Franciscan Order.

From 1210 until his death in 1226, Francis and his brothers traveled, preached and converted, living in utter poverty and trusting entirely in Divine Providence. For had it not been God himself who told Francis what to do?

In 1219 Francis went to Egypt where he preached peace and goodness and tried to convert the Moslems. Pax et Bonum- Peace and Goodness. These were the words Francis always spoke in greeting.

On Christmas day 1223 Francis created the world's first living nativity scene in Greccio, a reenactment which takes place there to this day at Christmas time. In 1224 he received the stigmata on Mount LaVerna. He died in abject poverty on Oct. 4, 1226, and was canonized in 1228 by Pope Gregory XIV, the same year that the building of the lower basilica started. With frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto, it was finished in 1230 and houses the crypt where Francis is buried. The double basilica, Romanesque bell tower and adjacent convento are property of the Vatican and are administered by a pontifical delegate.

The frescoes by Giotto, which decorate the entire upper basilica of St. Francis, sing the praises of this beloved son of Assisi better than any words ever could. They tell the story of the Poor One as recounted in the Great Legend by St. Bonaventure (1221–1274). Giotto depicts the short life of Francis with moving intensity, capturing his physical frailty, but spiritual vitality, the poetry in his soul, his unbounded love for the Creator and for all his creatures. Francis wrote the famed Canticle of the Creatures-but Giotto's frescoes are a canticle to Francis. As I retraced the steps of this simple and singular man, this obedient servant of God, I was most touched by Francis'joy, his happy willingness to accept the seemingly impossible and make it possible by his ability to exclude all that was irrelevant to eternal life. His vocation was simplicity itself: God called. Francis answered. A humbling lesson!

One cannot visit Assisi and its environs without visiting those places associated with St. Clare. Clare, born in Assisi in 1194 to wealth and an easy life, heard Francis preach a Lenten sermon in 1212 and, moved by his teachings, renounced her privileged existence to follow the poverello, the poor one. She took her vows on Palm Sunday 1212, and soon afterwards founded the Poor Clares.

The Italian Gothic basilica dedicated to her, and where she is buried, is now home to the Crucifix which spoke to St. Francis in the Church of St. Damien.

To truly savor Francis' great love and faith, you have to visit all the places in and near Assisi which are linked to his life: the Church of St. Damien, an oasis of peace and almost mystical recollection, where the Franciscan Order was founded and where, later, Clare and her sisters lived and prayed; the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, built around the Chapel of the Porziuncola, where Francis spent the first three years with his followers; Rivotorto where he transferred his growing order and built what he simply called “a place,” as the word convento suggested property, ownership and stability, which the Franciscans had renounced.

Pope John XXIII once put it thus: “We ask ourselves: why did God give Assisi this enchantment of nature, this aura of sanctity, almost suspended in the air, which the pilgrim almost tangibly feels? The answer is so simple. So that men, through a common and universal language, will learn to recognize the Creator, and to recognize each others as brothers.”

Assisi is easily reachable in several hours by car or train from Rome. There are numerous hotels as well as conventos for those wishing to spend some time here, especially on retreat. Tourist offices have information in numerous languages and can be contacted by phone: (075) 813599 or 816566; fax 812315 or e-mail: aptas@krenet.it

Joan Lewis is based in Rome.