Sunday, July 15, 2007

"Grazie Ricevute" -- Assisi with Andreas

Photos: Ex-voto with G.R. (Grazie Ricevute) and the Porziuncola within the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi.
Yesterday, Saturday July 14, I went to Assisi with Andreas. I have been there many times before, however this time we went to the few places I have either not yet or seldom visited. (We didn't go up to the Basilica of San Francesco which is the place I have most visited.)

We went to Assisi because Andreas wanted to go to confession and since all the priests in his monastery are gone camping he needed to go to a church. He said that Assisi is a beautiful and practical place to confess because there are many confessionals staffed throughout the morning.

Before entering the church Santa Maria degli Angeli (Holy Mary of the Angels) we had a talk on a bench in the garden. Andreas talked to me about somethings that had been on his mind as he prayed for Angela and the family. Most of what he said I have already written and synthesized in earlier blogs, he did say some other things to me about my personal situation that were right on. We prayed together and then went into the church.

The history of Santa Maria degli Angeli is very interesting. Basically, it is a church built around a church! Around the year 1000 a small chapel is recorded to exist in that area, which was at the time a cow pasture. Some 200 years later St. Francis came on the chapel which was in ruin and little by little he fixed it up by 1226 when he died. In fact, it is recorded that in 1216 St. Francis had a vision of Jesus who said that he would grant St. Francis anything he wanted. St. Francis asked that anyone who confessed, took communion and entered the chapel be absolved from all sin. Furthermore, Pope Honorius III granted the indulgence. Some 400 years after that, Pope Pius V built the Baroque church that encases the holy chapel within, the "Porziuncola."

We found that the confessionals all had lines of faithful waiting and praying. We picked the confessional with space available to sit and pray on the adjacent pew. Once it was my turn I entered and began to make my confession in Italian, feeling the awkwardness of a language that wasn't mine and a sacrament that I had only participated in once before. The young priest looked at me with mercy and said that he was American and invited us to speak in English! That was a wonderful grace, because it enabled me to talk much more freely about all that was on my heart and also understand perfectly his feedback. He knew of the GTU in Berkeley and seemed exceptionally caring and genuine.

Once I exited the confessional I saw that Andreas had also finished his confession and he was excited that mass was just beginning in the Porziuncola, a somewhat rare phenomenon. (Mass is usually held in the enveloping church and its altar, rather than in that gem and somewhat a relic of a chapel.) As we approached I heard singing that was very familiar, and then it dawned on me, it was some of the same songs that we sing at St. Mary Magdalene! The group celebrating Mass in the Porziuncola were Americans! Andreas and I looked at each other with big eyes, because I had mentioned to him in the car on the way to Assisi that I missed my church in Berkeley, especially the singing!

Mass was absolutely beautiful -- almost too overwhelming -- from the modesty of the stone interior while simultaneously being encased in an ostentatious Baroque shell, reminding one of the disparity between St. Francis' ideals and those of the world, to the strange sensation of being in an unfamiliar place of such exceptional origins, yet feeling completely as if I had come home.

When I told Andreas of the American priest in the confessional he couldn't believe it. "God has really given us some incredible graces today!" I thought about the many ex-votos (paintings or other objects left as an offering in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude) that I had seen in Italian churches, chapels and even unexpected places, like roadside shrines. One of the most common ex-votos is a silver heart with "G.R." engraved into it, a sign of thanksgiving for graces received, Grazie Ricevute. I perfectly understood the ex-voto phenomenon in that moment, as I was filled with a kind of holy pampering, one that i wanted to memorialize.

I left a part of my own heart there in the Porziuncola, ever thankful for the graces received.

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