Here's a little story about spiritual pilgrimage for those of you who are traveling to my city of angels this weekend for the Mother's Plunge – and those of you who aren't. The extraordinary response to the first splash has me planning a countrywide tour of backward steps. Where should I bring the retreat next? Minnesota? Arizona? Kansas? Tell me.
Even the man at Marshall Field’s who had sold me the yellow travel umbrella had said it: “You must go to Assisi.”
Everyone, it seemed, had said it – You must go to Assisi! – and so the fifth day of a solo trip to Italy became the day for me to go the distance. It would require a car, which I obtained from a rental agency a few blocks from my hotel in Florence. It would require getting out of town, which I accomplished with an angel on the dashboard. And it would require a couple hours' drive south on the Autostrada, which I high-tailed in the slipstream of the surging traffic.
“You will see it on the hill," another advisor had told me rapturously. And I did, in a purple haze of trees and tile and imagination. I steered my little vehicle onward in the soldierly direction, ascending the hill and circling the top, passing the marked parking lots with all the beached buses, inching slowly alongside the streams of tourists who had come for the St. Francis experience, motoring up the wrong streets and down again until I mustered my purpose and pulled over on a narrow hillside shoulder. I angled in among the other likeminded pilgrims who were committing, I hoped, the pardonable sin of illegal parking.
I strode upward to the Basilica de San Francisco. It was big, too big, outsized for its namesake, and oddly uninspiring, I thought. Inside to more frescoes, more pews, more people, and decidedly more organization than in the other sacred spots I’d stopped. This, I could see, was a system.
I headed down into the crypts containing St. Francis’ tomb and there uncovered the day’s only treasure. “Scusa, scusa,” the ushers whispered to those, like me, who had barged in to bystand at the wedding ceremony underway in the underground chapel. I lingered in the shadows at the rear, charmed by the elaborate smallness of it. A local couple surrounded by local people, wearing uncomfortable new clothes for the biggest event of their lives.
Leaving, I wandered the winding medieval village. The heat had turned the streets into baking stones.
“You will feel it in the air," another friend had confided. I felt stifling languor and epidemic disinterest. Wandering into an antique shop, my idle browsing did not disturb the mistress at the back watching American TV soap operas dubbed in Italian.
Then the divine message arrived.
Every place is holy.
It was my departing thought, a conclusion and a comfort, and I headed home, satisfied.