Thursday, 25 February 2016

Death and New Life on the Way of Saint Francis

Trevi - Spoleto 19 kms
Spoleto - Ceselli 15 kms (not walked)
Ceselli - Arrone 15 kms
Arrone - Piediluco 14.5 kms
Piediluco - Poggio Bostone 22 kms
Poggio Bostone - Rieti 18 kms

These last five days have everything this route offers in abundance. There has been an increased sense of Francis, a realisation that he walked these hills and forest paths. The views have been inspiring and the villages quaint and beautiful. Many communities seem to be built right out of the mountain rock.  They sit atop hills looking out at priceless vistas. It feels as everything is old from 12th century chapels to frescos and fine art.

Yet in many places there are signs of decay. Many buildings remain half constructed, abandoned many years before. In places modern homes and apartment buildings stand unfinished with the builders tools and equipment lying rusting. In village bars the men congregate to play cards. Just like in Spain the economic crisis has hit hard and these picturesque hamlets house high levels of unemployment and are being abandoned by young people heading to the cities for work. Yet people remain cheerful and very welcoming to pilgrims.  Dinner in the lovely town of Spoleto was very funny.  When the pasta course came it was clear that the Big Man had a much larger portion than me.  I hailed the passing waitress who couldn't hide her amusement and demonstrated her English by signs which clearly said, " look at the size of him and the size of you." That particular lady it turned out was a maestra at napkin folding and each course and the presentation of the very reasonable bill was punctuated by a different demonstration.
We had established that the accommodation in Cesseli was not open this early in the season and given our restricted time we decided to go forward. It turned out to be an easy day and by late afternoon we were in the little town of Arrone.
Like many similar towns the church dominates the small main square. The door was open and before we sought out our accommodation we decided to pay a visit.  There were several people at the front of the church standing around an open coffin. We left quietly. 
Within a few minutes we met Rita who led us into our splendid accommodation.  Italian by birth she had spent many years in South Africa before returning to live and let out really good self catering apartments at reasonable prices.  We had a long chat because she spoke English perfectly.  We said that we had been in the church and we assumed there would be Mass later because of the funeral. Clearly moved Rita explained that there would be no Mass because it was their priest who had died very suddenly the afternoon before just before the parish bus outing. "He just died after lunch. The parish were on the bus.  They had to go. After all they had already paid for it." I smiled at this ultra realistic view of death which Catholics have. It seems to border on the callous.  What followed was anything but callous.
Rita explained that there were few priests in the surrounding area and the funeral could not take place for two days because the only other priest around was away "blessing the houses". Not really understanding what she meant we let it pass.  Rita went on, "between us won't leave father alone in the church.  We will be with him until he is buried." And so they did.  We sat in the square as people streamed in to pay their respects, to take their turn of watching. All through the night.  Next morning as we were setting off others were leaving and arriving often greeting each other by name.  "It is what we do." Rita had explained.
As we walked up to the place where in season there are spectacular waterfalls when there is a release of water to power hydroelectricity we pondered the sense of unity in these small communities despite their problems. 
The rest of the day could not have been more peaceful.  The sun came out and we walked along a long tree lined path beside a canal.  Water then became the theme as we could see the beautiful Lake Piediluco ahead.  We visited the 13 th century church of Saint Francis and made our way to our hotel on the edge of the town. The Hotel Miralago is an aptly named 40 room modern hotel right on the lake.  "Every room has a lake view" said the website.  So they did but as we soon discovered the hotel had no staff,  bar or restaurant at this time of the year. When we arrived the front door was open so in we went. There was a sign on reception: phone this number.  So we did. "The receptionist won't be there until later,  make yourself at home."  Eventually when the receptionist arrived everything became normal for about 5 minutes.  We checked in and paid and chatted.  We established there was one restaurant in the small town open.  Then the girl handed us the key of our room and the keys of the hotel. "Just leave them at reception when you leave in the morning and leave the front door open." 
We did as we were told the next morning and had breakfast in a local cafe before beginning the lovely walk to Poggio Bostone. Up and up we went the path snaking up the mountain only to go up further.  The sun was high and the temperature rose.  As we looked out over the vast valley we saw hang gliders floating down. I could have done with one there and then.  We were welcomed to Poggio Bostone by the effervescent Feliciano who runs the local restaurant and hostel. His mother prepared a splendid dinner for us.  On the wall I spotted a small wooden plaque recording the Lenten Blessing of the House. We spoke with more local people who explained that before Easter every year the priest visits every house,  street by street to offer prayers and a blessing. Everyone participates and there is a number to phone if you are not in when he is in your street.  A man explained in very broken English that this was tradition to get ready for the "new year,  no sorry,  new life at Easter." 
The next morning we made our way down from the town passing a large group of neighbours presiding over the butchering of a huge pig which had been suspended from the balcony of a house.  Next year's bacon, sausage and salami. They laughed when we wished them Bon Appetito.
We reflected that these were the same little communities through which Francis had passed.  Still preserving their identities and traditions.

A day of up and down followed through forest path and the Santuario where Saint Francis lived for some time when he was ill. I got a great sense that it is in these quiet places on these journeys we pilgrims make that we become open to the voice of the Spirit. More of this another time.  The ups and downs have caught up with me.  Tomorrow only 5 days to Roma!

1 comment: