For the last time I wandered the streets of Assisi. Small streets, winding and sunlit and warm stone. I took any new path that caught my eye, enjoying the adventure of not quite knowing where I was going. (Because isn’t that what life is like?)
Eventually – having been surprised by a larger-than-life half-naked statue of Francis of Assisi – I found myself back at the Piazza Santa Chiara, where we’d first stopped for icecream. I leant my elbows on the wall and my face on my hands and I gazed out over the valley. The fields grew bright in the sunshine and the sky blazed azure, unending.
From behind me I could hear singing. I turned slowly to see a group of people about my age, sitting in a large misshapen circle at the edge of the fountain. My ear caught their words, and they were beautiful:
We are one body, one body in Christ, and we do not stand alone
Like lightning to the core of me I felt the joy of knowing that I too was a part of this body, a body that sings of grace in sunny Italian piazzas on a Saturday afternoon. A smile spread wide and I took steps closer, enjoying the moment.
The song ended and I went to sit on the other side of the fountain. I was there only for half a minute before I heard more song:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but…
…now I see. My voice bravely, quietly, joined at these words and I again moved closer, joining the song of these people who were strangers to me but who were nonetheless hidden in Christ, like me.
As we finished singing I went to talk to the person leading the group, who, it turns out, was a Catholic minister from Vancouver, Canada. He was taking this group of young people on a pilgrimage from Rome to Poland, to join thousands of other young Catholics for a worship and prayer event called World Youth Day.
As we spoke I said to him that it was a joy to be able to make myself known to other Christians I’d never seen before and would probably never see again. I said that Assisi was full of both tourists and Christians, and wouldn’t it be amazing if all the Christians here introduced themselves to each other?
What he replied was incredible. He simply said, ‘all the tourists are seeking too, you know?’
All the tourists are seeking too. All the people walking the face of this earth are seeking, too – seeking security, certainty, satisfaction, fulfilment, belonging, healing, love.
They’re all seeking what can be found in God, God who gives of himself for our good and his glory, securing the hope and making certain the faith of those who believe. He brings satisfaction and fulfilment; he is the water welling up, the Giver of abundant and full life, the One who is enough for all of our needs. He gives us a place to belong – his church, the body of Christ. He heals our hurts and heartaches because he longs to see us made whole, restored.
This is all because he loves us unconditionally, so unconditionally that while we were still turning from him he sent Jesus to take our punishment, to drink the bitter cup that was meant for our lips. In its place he gave us a cup overflowing with joy – the joy I’d experienced throughout my time in Assisi as I’d worshipped, prayed, discovered new places, seen new sights, met and enjoyed the company of new people.
The joy I’d felt as I’d serendipitously sung Amazing Grace with some Canadians in Italy last Saturday afternoon.
Now I’m stepping into a week of leading on a children’s camp in Dorset, a totally different setting to that of a week in a quiet Assisi monastery. It’ll be busy, full-on, incredibly fun. And it’ll still be as grace-filled and held up by God, as I both remember what he whispered to me in Assisi and listen in to what he’ll say to me whilst in Dorset.
Thus I conclude this week of reflections on my time in Italy. Thank you for walking it with me – it has been more than good to record and celebrate in words some of the stunning moments of last week.