“What are the sacred places in your life?”

When asked that question, our group was on the first night of a seven-day pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy. Our purpose was to visit the sacred places in the life of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi and to learn more about the God stories of these first Franciscans. For me this journey of faith was also a time of personal retreat.

Many know about St. Francis (1181-1226). He came from a merchant family, experienced the San Damiano crucifix speaking “repair my Church,” encountered a leper and met with Sultan Malik al Kamil in Egypt. His friendliness with the birds and animals, his peacemaking and his receiving the stigmata at Mount LaVerna are commonly known.

Recently, with the help of psychology, some say that Francis of Assisi suffered from what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder. Francis was in at least three wars as a young man. He was a war prisoner in Perugia for a year and later was imprisoned by his father. War and killing were common in the culture.

The younger Francis (Francesco) had a profound compunction of guilt, questioned the economic system and authority figures, was psychologically disoriented and appeared unable to emotionally return home.

It appears that Francis hit bottom and acknowledged who he was before God, similar to an addictive person’s connection to a higher power. He embraced his weakness and giftedness before God. This didn’t happen overnight. His conversion process took about six years.

Francis broke with his family (1205), renounced his inheritance, left his clothes behind at the bishop’s house, went to Rome as a pilgrim, began to live with the lepers (1208) and started a new journey with God. Living with the lepers was critical. He saw Jesus in them. Within months three men followed him, then three more, then many more.

St. Clare (1163-1253), 12 years younger than St. Francis, came from a noble class family. Her mother traced her roots to Charlemagne. Her mother was also a women of prayer. Her dad died early. Clare (Chiara) of Assisi wore beautiful clothes, had lots of money, was generous and well educated and could have married a knight or into a royal family.

She listened to this itinerant preacher and was moved by his teaching. Clare and Francis met secretly for two years. One night at age 19 she ran away from home (doing that was much different in 1212 than it would be today) and joined Francis at what is now the St. Mary of the Angels at the Porziuncola Church.

What moved her? From Francis she saw Christ in a new way. She learned about humility and service. She wanted to live the values that Francis lived. She never took her eyes off of Jesus. By 1238, 50 other women had joined her.

Both Francis and Clare rejected many of the cultural values of the time. They focused on poverty and simplicity. Francis and Clare became completely dependent on God and trusted greatly in God’s providence. They would not own property to sustain what became the Franciscans and the Poor Clares. They were insistent that they survive on begging and manual labor. Francis’ rule was approved in 1223 and Clare’s in 1253.

Franciscans spread throughout Europe and grew quickly. Results we often don’t think of are the significance of the Incarnation, the rediscovery of the goodness of the human body, a major impact on what would be the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, scientific exploration, plus liberation from superstition and fear. Artists, such as Giotto and Cimabue, flocked to his tomb. The Franciscan friars focused on preaching, plus concern for people, creation and health care. There is so much more to the narrative!

Special quotes from the presenters remain with me. They are, “Francis took the great leap into the mystery of God’s love, “ “God wanted to make love to the universe,” “Francis was touched by the humanity of God,” Clare was a real trailblazer.”

What are the sacred places and people in our lives?

The Rev. John Schultz is a senior priest of the Diocese of La Crosse and lives in the Eau Claire area.