It is 1943, the German forces are occupying the land of Italy, and Jews and intellectuals are being persecuted by the fascists. Many seek safety and asylum in the city of Assisi, known as the city of peace. The Catholic Bishop, Alberto Nicolini, surreptitiously took in all those seeking refuge, hiding their Jewish identity papers on his own person under his cassock and illegally printing new papers, giving them identities as citizens of Assisi. Many of the families were housed in convents where the nuns provided food and shelter and even assisted them in celebrating their Jewish rituals. The citizens of Assisi accepted these “new citizens” readily, collaborating in their “open hiding.”
The German commandant of Assisi was Colonel Valentin Muller, a Catholic who would attend Mass every morning celebrated by Bishop Nicolini. There was an unspoken knowledge between the two men. Colonel Muller knew exactly what the Bishop and his assistant, Father Brunacci were doing in helping the Jewish people, yet he made no effort to expose the false documents or their activities. When the Germans left in 1945 Colonel Muller gave all the German medical supplies to the city of Assisi, and more importantly, he disobeyed a direct order to burn the city to the ground. Years later when Colonel Muller died, a delegation of citizens from Assisi, carrying olive branches, went to his home to show their respect for the German officer. His children and grandchildren still return regularly to Assisi, passing along a street named Via.Col.Muller.
One of the Jewish refugees was Professor Emilio Viturbi, a mystic, a Professor at the University of Padua, and a follower of St. Francis. He came with his wife and children believing in the peace that St. Francis preached, and knowing that it was genuinely lived in Assisi. His daughter Graziella, recalls how she used to walk around the streets with ease during the occupation, being lovingly welcomed and protected by all. She still lives in Assisi today and her son is a Rabbi in Rome. Bishop Nicolini has a tree planted in his honor in Israel, and he is portrayed on a bronze relief tablet in the cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi with his outspread arms sheltering a group of refugee children.
The actions taken by these men, and all the citizens of Assisi, demonstrates the legacy of peace that St. Clare and St. Francis have left us. Francis traveled to Muslim countries and engaged in dialogue with those of the Islamic faith. It is said that both he and those he conversed with came to understand they were preaching the same message of unity and brotherhood. Clare’s reputation as a peace-maker spread rapidly as community after community formed worldwide, following her example of living in peace with her sisters and brothers. Over seven hundred years later, in 1943, their message was being lived in very practical ways in Assisi, through crossing all religious and cultural boundaries and valuing each brother and sister’s life. What is the legacy that we will leave? What message and prayer of peace are we practically living today? Are we able to erase boundaries in our lives that keep others separate, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan or those who belong to no tradition at all? And what of the political boundaries of Republican or Democrat? Very often today there is much judgment aimed at the religious traditions and our politicians. Valid or not, our judgment causes separation, even though we may be preaching unity. Can we include all in our prayers of peace?
David Whyte in The Heart Aroused, tells of his experience with a modern day Poor Clare nun (the order founded by St.Clare). He was conducting a retreat, working with a group of nuns who had just returned from India, where they had been living and working for two years amongst the poor, tending to their largely untreated medical conditions. The nuns were burned out and frazzled from their time there, and from the seemingly endless and sometimes, hopeless tasks they were undertaking. There was however, one nun who was working in the dining hall, serving the food and taking care of their eating arrangements. She was young (he thought around mid-twenties), and she had a calmness and serenity to her being that was palpable. He cherished the moments he could be around her as she had a calming effect on him and all she came into contact with. There were only good wishes coming from her words, and no judgments placed on anybody. He discovered firstly, that she was in her mid-forties and that she had been a Poor Clare nun for twenty years, living a life of silence and contemplation, and what Whyte describes as “a Zen-like approach to spirituality.” From within the silence this nun heard the inner voice telling her to go out into the world and to work for others. She unhesitatingly followed this call and joined this medical order of nuns who do just that.
Whyte comments on the medical order as a group who he perceived as trying to “right” a wrong world, whereas he felt the Poor Clare nun was simply sharing the rightness of who she was and how she understood the world to be, that is, one big reverberating Yes to life. A yes that was born in the silence, and born through being able to say no to everything except that most precious to her – a spirituality of stillness and listening – a spirituality of peace. He understood that she had been taken to the farthest end of aloneness and then led back into an active human community, without fuss, without complaint, one step, and one silence at a time. Not like his own complaining journey he adds (p.139). How does our complaining about the journey hinder us from being in the depth of our sacred aloneness? How does it stop the silence, the ability to hear and follow, and the ability to abide and live in peace? We are creators of our destiny. We are also the ones who hinder it, and yet we complain as if it is some other force that is wreaking havoc in our lives. Can we be like this Poor Clare nun and live one silence at a time in stillness and peace?
Clare of Assisi (1193-1253), has long been overshadowed by her spiritual companion, Francis of Assisi, and yet she is described as “a new leader of women,” and a “light unto the world.” It was her inner perception that Francis trusted above all. Receiving divine revelations, he would first take them to Clare and only upon her confirmation would he act upon them. Similarly, it was to Clare that he would go when he was confronted with the dark times in his life. She knew how to soothe him in peacefulness and how to restore calm to his soul. Her prayers of peace came in many forms. She often withdrew on her own to sit in silence in the presence of the Sacred One. It was said that when she returned she was glowing with an aura of light and her words were divinely inspired, filling each person she spoke to with divine sweetness. She sang her prayers daily with the other sisters, and often meditated upon the loving heart of Christ, letting the water of life flow between their two hearts. Her prayers also turned to action when the monastery was under attack by a marauding army of Muslim men. The nuns were terrified and ran to Clare. She prostrated herself in prayer and then rose and strode out to meet the invaders. They saw a “gleaming woman” and fled in terror. Similarly, when the city of Assisi was under attack the officials came and begged Clare to pray for them. Clare and the sisters prayed incessantly and the city was saved. This act of faith is still celebrated in Assisi today.
What does Clare have to say to us today? Continue my legacy. Do not let your heart become rigid. Have compassion for your brothers and sisters and their human frailties. Do not love them any less. Pray for peace. Live for peace. And, “Always, be lovers of your souls.” And Francis? Listen to one another, and even if you do not agree remain with each other in love. You do not have to agree to love one another. No one is the enemy. No one is wrong. No one is right. Honor Sister Earth and all Her creatures. Honor your body and soul. Know you are a loved child of God. Pace!
Megan Don is the Award-winning author of Falling Into the Arms of God and Sacred Companions Sacred Community: Reflections with Clare of Assisi. Megan’s work blends the Christian and Sufi mystical practices, with special emphasis on rebalancing the feminine spirituality and consciousness. She leads pilgrimages to Assisi, Italy, is a spiritual counselor and leads retreats throughout the United States. www.mysticpeace.com.
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