McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

January 17, 2013

Joy - Assisi, Italy

By Joy Gawf-Crutchfield
Special Correspondent

McALESTER — How many of you had a nativity scene on display in your home over the Christmas holiday? Do you know nativity scenes were created back in the 1200’s by a monk devoted to nature, a life of poverty and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Saint Francis of Assisi began life as the rich son of a rich merchant in Assisi, Italy. He led an exuberant lifestyle typical of the upper class in Italy until going off to war in 1201 to fight against the Perugians. The battle went badly, and Francis was taken as a prisoner of war.

Francis was held as prisoner of war for a year and was then allowed to return to Assisi, where he resumed his former lifestyle. He subsequently became seriously ill, and the combination of the imprisonment and the illness seems to have caused a spiritual crisis. He tried to head off into battle again in 1205, but experienced an unsettling vision, and returned to Assisi instead.

Upon his return to Assisi he felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to Rome and begged along with the poor in St. Peter’s Basilica. After this pilgrimage, Francis made drastic changes in his life.

Francis devoted himself to a life of poverty and simplicity, which utterly infuriated his father. The story sounds like a modern saga at this point, doesn’t it? His father tried everything to dissuade Francis from his chosen path, even resorting to beatings.

Francis finally met publicly before the town leaders of Assisi, stripped bare, threw his fine garments at the feet of his father, and forever turned his back on a life of comfort. Francis was going to survive on his love of God, alone.

Other idealistic young men joined with Francis and they became a band of troubadours, wandering around Italy and spreading the joy of the gospel to rich and poor alike. Huge crowds began following them. Sermons were preached in the example of Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount. Francis preached outside, in the local language rather than in Latin. Francis made God accessible to all.

Francis was never ordained as a priest; however he did not want to be accused of heresy. In 1209 he took his first 11 followers to Rome and asked permission from Pope Innocent III for the right to begin a new religious order.

On April 16, 1210, the Franciscan Order was born. The message of the order was simple — follow the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus Christ. Taking vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, Franciscans have had a profound influence on our world. Treating animal, peasant and pope with equal respect, living in harmony with God, Man and Nature, Franciscans promote peace and order.

In 1220, Francis used live animals to create a scene that would allow ordinary people to have a personal experience with the birth of Christ. The Nativity Scene was born.

Francis died in 1226 at age 45, leaving a legacy of the love of nature that grew by leaps and bounds and saw full expression during the Renaissance. He was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX on July 16, 1228, and the founding stone of the Basilica of St. Francis was laid by the pope the very next day.

The Basilica of St. Francis is the main attraction of the town of Assisi. It is comprised of three parts — the Upper Basilica, the Lower Basilica and the Saint’s Tomb. Yes, the actual remains of St. Francis are found here.

The Basilica of St. Francis is adorned with works of art by some of Italy’s most renowned artists — Giotto, Cimabue, Martini and Lorenzetti to name a few. Take the time to investigate every area of the Basilica, where artistic and architectural treasures lurk around every corner.

Clare of Assisi had a background similar to Francis. One night, at the age of 18, she escaped from her affluent home, walked down the hill to a waiting band of “Lesser Brothers” along with Francis. She was given a religious habit and taken to live with an order of Benedictine Nuns.

The Order of Poor Ladies, or Poor Clare’s, was founded and Clare spent the next 40 years of her life as a vegetarian, living silently within the confines of the convent. The Basilica of Santa Clara was built after her death in 1265, to house ladies willing to follow the Franciscan lifestyle. Its simple Gothic style is a visible representation of the simplicity of life led by those of the Franciscan order.

While touring the Basilica of St. Clare, you won’t want to miss the Chapel of the Crucifix where the original cross is housed before which the naked Francis had knelt and asked for guidance.

Joy Gawf-Crutchfield is the owner of The Joy of Travel travel agency. For more information visit www.thejoyoftravel.us or contact her at joy@joyoftravel.us or 918-339-4805. See her pictures at www.thejoyoftravel.us.