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Assisi, Birds, Mountains, Flowers
Notes from Assisi and Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi, May 2009 by artist Kate Walters.
Walking down the hill from Assisi through olive groves to San Damiano the songs of birds completely fill the air around me. The songs are stronger and more beautiful than any birdsong-sound I have ever experienced. The sunshine is golden, I feel I am blessed, everything here is blessed.
Inside, upon the altar, enormous waxy arum lilies, some white, some extraordinarily red. A sense of glory and tragedy as brother and sister.
I find a prayer book on the floor, inscribed ‘San Damiano’. Someone has left it behind from prayers this morning. It is cool, and hushed, and the traces of centuries of footsteps are here, and stillness, and whispers, and damp shadows out of the heat, and of sleeping on a wooden floor in the room where the Cross spoke to Francis.
I have a dream the morning before we walk to Carceri (the Hermitage). I am speaking to birds, they are not afraid of me; I am rescuing them from some danger; there is one on my shoulder.
It is a long walk uphill from Assisi; the views are stupendous. The Hermitage nestles in a valley in the side of the hill. There are many monks in brown habits. We enter the gates. There is a statue of St. Francis, he has birds on his shoulder, I am reminded with a jolt of my dream, and how I was already aware at some level of what I would experience.
Excerpt from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi: ( 1909, Red Letter Library, trans William Collinge):
“And as he was going on his way with that fervour, he lifted his eyes, and saw some trees nigh unto the roadside on which were an almost infinite multitude of birds; so that St. Francis marvelled and said unto his companions: ‘Wait for me here in the road, and I will go and preach unto my sisters, the birds.’ And he entered the field and began to preach unto the birds that were on the ground; and suddenly those which were on the trees came thence to him, and they all of them remained quiet till St. Francis had finished his preaching, and even afterwards they departed not until he had given them his blessing.”
“St. Francis went among them touching them with his robe, and yet none of them moved. The substance of St. Francis’s sermon was this: ‘My sisters the birds, ye are much beholden to God your Creator, and always and in everyplace it is your duty to praise Him, since He hath given you the liberty to fly everywhere... Besides this ye sow not nor do ye reap, and God feedeth you and giveth you the rivers and the fountains for your drink, the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the high trees for your nests...’ all those birds...began to open their beaks and stretch their necks and spread their wings, and reverently bend their heads to the ground, and with acts and song to demonstrate that the holy father gave them the greatest delight...
..the sermon ended, St. Francis made over them the sign of the Cross and gave them leave to depart. Then all those birds rose in the air with wondrous singing, and in the likeness of the cross which St. Francis had made over them, they divided into four parts; and one part flew towards the east, and the other towards the west, and the other towards the south, and the fourth towards the north; and each covey flew away singing wondrous songs... into the four parts of the world...”
Festivo. Another dream of something like a bed or an altar, and laid on it were many little coloured numbered bottles, as soon as one was taken it was replaced, replenished; a sense of there being abundance, always more to come. I wondered afterwards if they were souls.
Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi
Badia Prataglia – Camaldoli
Reached here on little train from Arezzo, high up in the mountains now, it is quiet, between seasons, the hotel is empty, enormous. The furniture is chunky, Germanic, wooden. For breakfast we are given huge bowls of milky coffee, fresh warm rolls like opening hands . There is birdsong, fainter now, the leaves on the trees are still closed, tiny puckered-up things; the air cool, water bustling below. Lovely walk, long climb for two hours. Foot OK (I had sprained my ankle in Assisi). Forest wonderful.
In the Foreste Camoldinese, above Sacra Eremo. Still, tall trees cast cathedral light. Thoughts of nakedness extending to what and how we surround ourselves. Two birds of the same species are throwing their songs across the heights. I wonder, is that how it could be? Exultation, joy, sense of recognition, distance no object to expressions of elevation?
Warm, birdsong, lunch in little meadow, sunshine. Many wolves here, also wildcat, boar and deer. Hermitage lovely, peaceful, ancient, polished, loved, still. Child-angels. Lost ear-ring of mum’s on walk to monastery. Hunted for it without success. A good place to leave it. Saw crosses erected in the forest by the monks, simple, companionable.
Camaldoli Monastero – Campigna
Very difficult initial haul from the Eremo di Camaldoli to the ridge. I really struggled, especially with my heavy rucksack. Felt exhausted. But going along the ridge was very good, very high, fantastic views, saw probably millions of trees. The pollen from the trees rained gold, the air was flushed with golden rain. Found a lovely place for lunch by a stream where I bathed my feet, saw snow under leaves, dense and very cold. Crocus flowers, Daphne perfume welcomed us to clearings. Very difficult climb down to Campigna. Dark, damp, slippery, long, thirsty, felt endless, crying with tiredness when we arrived. Wonderful local boar stew for dinner.
Campigna – Passo della Muraglione.
Had lift to the pass then steep climb to meadow and woods. Nine thirty in the morning: high up approaching Monte Falco, through the forest came a strong sweet air. We came upon a clearing full of scent and song, and a view across tops of mountains. A cuckoo calls. Bees hum with pointy noses.
Wild flowers from the last Ice Age, intense blue skies, untouched leaves flat from snow melt, and nature-knitted together, you could hear them crackling in the growing warmth of the sun. Snow on descent; later became difficult with pain in my knees and the steepness and distance to Passo della Muraglione – which was like a place from High Plains Drifter – weird! But breath-taking views – then managed to get a lift down the hill, fast, all hairpin bends, to San Godenzo, where we had dinner beneath an enormous television set, all the locals ate there too and stared at us. I slept badly, very tired, hot, worrying about the dogs at home.
Spent morning next day in 10th century San Godenzo church. Fine paintings. Lit candles. Thought about home.
Thought about entering the church of the Heart, the church within oneself. You must inhabit that church first. Remembered what I read about the undressing of the heart (‘In the Footsteps of Francis and Clare’ by Roch Niemer) and about the energy which is released for good when this occurs.
Aquacheta Falls (which are said to have inspired Dante). Long walk, a few climbs, I have no reserves left. Sat beside clear pool on return, very peaceful, saw freshwater crayfish, thought of Dad, frogs were croaking, an enormous toad lumbered across the bottom. Dinner of rolls and cheese after another climb back to the Abbey. Last day. Florence and Rome tomorrow.
Kate Walters' exhibition 'The Body Pours Out Prayers' is at Truro Cathedral 24/9/10 to 25/10/10