One gorgeous Sunday in Italy, Andrew and I decided to go to Assisi. We were drawn there because of our guidebook’s glowing remarks about it, but also because of its sacredness. St. Peter’s and the Vatican are of course known for their outward pronouncements of institutional faith, but Assisi, made famous by St. Francis and his Friars’ gentle, faithful reverence, exuded – so we had heard and read – a different, more personal brand of spirituality.
After spending the morning in Perugia, eating chocolate, we drove thirty kilometers to Assisi. From the Autostrade, we could see the town in the distance, and it looked like it had been blessed. The old buildings, sitting high on a hill, gleamed white in the sunlight. Mount Subasio, behind the town, was shrouded in a God-like cloud, the shadow of which lent Assisi even greater gravity and promise.
After taking the exit for St. Francis’ homestead, we found a free parking spot at what we thought was the edge of town, and hopped out of the car, eager for enlightenment. As we approached what we thought was a former Temple to Minerva (converted to a Temple to Mary), we noticed a throng of young people carrying large flags and rucksacks. There must have been at least two thousand of them, hanging out around the “temple,” and many of them looked as though they’d just woken up. It was about 2 pm.
Upon closer inspection, Andrew and I realized that this was not the Temple to Minerva/Mary, but a regular cathedral, so we began walking past the throng of shabby, rowdy youngsters and toward Assisi, still far in the distance. As we walked along, we began to notice that the throng was not limited to the piazza/cathedral, but that it was traveling with us – or we with it.
I began to feel a very bad mood creeping in. The teenagers, all of whom were Italian, smoking cigarettes, and talking loudly, were ruining my deeply spiritual experience.
Andrew, as is typical of him, had a much better attitude. “We’re part of a pilgrimage, Towles!” he said. “I’ve never been part of a pilgrimage!” An image of the cook — with the oozing sore on his leg — from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales sprung to mind. I grimaced. “I’m not into pilgrimages,” I said. We kept walking, passing vendors selling t-shirts (one said “Enjoy Cocaine” in Coca-Cola script) and massive flags emblazoned with Fidel Castro’s face. A boy who looked to be about fifteen marched alongside us, kicking a soccer ball up the street. As the road narrowed, the crowd with whom we were walking began to close in; the flags, many of which were rainbow-colored and displayed the word “PACE” (peace, in Italian) in block letters closed in on us, too.
This was no pilgrimage; it was a peace march, and we were the only Americans in the throng. I felt like a yuppie at Woodstock. The HippieItalianKids (HIK) were all wearing t-shirts denouncing weapons of mass destruction or protesting “Dal Molin,” a proposed American military base on Italian soil, and carrying the rainbow Pace/Cuban Castro flags.
After walking about eight kilometers with the throng, the road began to grow higher and more narrow. The marchers slowed, and then stopped completely. At this point, we were about two kilometers from Assisi’s gates; on the steep banks around us had been planted beautiful, dainty, pink roses. Andrew (no longer as chipper about our Great Pilgrimage) and I (almost in tears) were hemmed in at all sides; the crowd had grown to what must have been fifty thousand smoking, flag-carrying, loudly-chattering people. A young woman in front of us fainted. Around us wafted the distinctive smell of pot. In a moment of panic, I imagined us getting trampled at Assisi, the sweet Franciscan friars charged with finding our next-of-kin.
Around us, in an effort to get around the bottleneck, rowdy (high) teenagers began to climb the lovely rose-covered banks, trampling both the flowers (ripping some at the roots) and the Franciscan’s irrigation system. A few girls slid down the banks on their backsides, taking foliage with them, laughing mercilessly.
Once we finally (FINALLY) reached Assisi, I thought we could salvage our spiritual journey and break free of the crowd, but there were fifty thousand more “pilgrims” in St. Francis’ square, jabbering loudly in his cathedral (despite the Friars’ repeated requests for silence), playing hackey-sack in front of the church and laughing loudly in the crypt holding St. Francis’ tomb. Worst of all, outside the lower chapel, someone had organized a Bike-a-thon for PACE, and there were at least two hundred stationery bikes set up there; on the bikes were Italians decked out in spandex, participating in what looked like an American spin class, complete with thumping bass and a militant, barking instructor.
You know, I’m sure this all sounds very judgmental. And believe me, as I sat in St. Francis’ crypt praying that I would get out of Assisi without screaming at the top of my lungs at one (or all) of the HIKs, I also prayed I could find a way to appreciate them, and to believe they actually had a cause.
But that was the problem. The Italian kids, now wearing the PACE flags like Superman capes, weren’t serious. They were marching up to the gates of Assisi and trampling the Franciscan’s flowers and smoking pot outside St. Francis’ tomb because a friend of a friend said the peace march would be fun. They didn’t chant in protest of Dal Molin, or burn American flags, or sit, prayerfully, holding candles, for a peaceful solution to all the world’s heartache. They milled through the cathedral with passive, glazed expressions. They kicked around a hackey-sack and sang Italian love songs to some kid’s poorly played guitar.
I don’t think I have ever been so outraged – and not outraged for myself anymore, but for St. Francis and his Friars, and for all of the people who take, with dead seriousness, a place’s sacredness and the business of war protests.
After seeing all we could see in the midst of the PACE people, Andrew and I fled Assisi. On the way, to avoid the throng, we took an alternate road that cut through tilled fields now growing hazy in the setting sun. At last, it was quiet (except for the distant sound of pumping, spin-class-bass), and we could walk freely without stepping on any PACE flags.
In silence, I handed Andrew the last of our Perugina chocolate – the only thing that had saved me and Baby K. from expiring on the 10 mile trek – and sighed. When we reached our car, teenagers were piling into big, blue chartered buses covered in PACE flags, looking almost as tired and beleaguered as the two of us; acknowledging my own sore feet and back, I almost felt sorry for them.
Upon our return to the States, we would find that the march, as a whole, was composed of almost 200,000.