It is early April, early morning and the curling mist fills the valley below Assisi. The only things I hear are the birds and the bells which chirrup and chime in turn. Otherwise a silence embraces the dawn lit city. A silence that has existed, I am sure, in Assisi during the time of Francis and Clare.
As I gaze outside my room there are two tall pine trees totally occupied with Francis' chattering sisters, to whom he once said: "little sisters, if you have now had your say, it is time that I should also be heard.' It is said after these words they became silent and listened to him. However at the moment the birds are still chattering away obviously happy to feel the sun's topaz light aureole their tiny heads and glow,like golden hosts, onto their open melodious tongues. For a moment it looks like a new painting by the great master Giotto, who is well known in this city.
Beyond our sisters' voices there is a vast calm, an infinite feeling of quietness. Just to be here, away from the mind's rampart scurrying and scampering is heaven. The mind has been trained to be relentless for facts, believing that intellectual acrobatics and a plethora of facts define truth. In fact I find the opposite. Too much thinking, too much talking, takes us very far from the truth of things but even more so, from our inner peace. Prove, catalogue, plan, classify, validate, theorize, analyze, scrutinize, judge, demonstrate, interpret....."STOP!" I have often screeched. How about a break?
Everyone has an opinion about everything. Now, with all these crises everywhere, an ocean of opinions on the whats, the whys, the hows have created a flood of repetitive facts. Read any newspaper, watch any television program, browse the internet. The flood rises as everyone claims justice, blaming real or imagined culprits and it just goes on and on , higher and higher.
It seems that in the 21st century we have precipitated ourselves into an abyss of extremes. Over informed and over opinioned, people often do not halt the consumption of information. It's healthier to find a middle way: to know when to think and when not to, when to speak and when to keep quiet, when to step in and when to step out, when to make things happen and when to allow things to happen, when to be extrovert and when to be introvert. The realities of life can be found also through a complementary silence in one's self. When we cool down, when we can listen, when we can tune into the other then we can speak from a space of insight otherwise it is just a cacophony of emotive, often prejudiced ramblings.
So I came to Assisi just to stop: to be quiet, to contemplate the flow of things. I remember Plato's words: "I am trying to think, don't confuse me with facts." True reflection does need a distance from the barrage of facts!
Even the great thinkers like Plato needed to take time out. Silence, the slowing down of one's self, creates a space of quietness within, which in turns creates clarity of understanding. Silence refreshes and rejuvenates the mind, whose habitual appetite for noise, news and diversion has created an addiction to everything external. We are the creators of our stress, our crises and breakdowns because we have forgotten to stop, reflect and renew. We clearly understand the obvious need to recharge our mobiles but what about our minds? To experience inner quietness is as important as expressing ourselves. Without recharging ourselves we cannot function, we cannot communicate with life. Actually this inner calm gives perspective and a balanced perception to the myriad details and negative things we are daily bombarded with. Inner silence filters everything that comes to us from the outside.
Creating a space for silence is crucial for meaningful living. Taking time out to be silent is a necessity. To stop, to step back and be still gives fresh oxygen to the mind. It is like a car. We buy a car because we wish to move. To go from one place to another but we would never buy a car that did not have a brake because no matter how far or well the car moves it must also be able to stop. Our life is for expression and interaction but we also have to stop from time to time and reflect on our motives, our judgments, our movements. To stop means to observe and see where the traffic in my heart and mind are going, otherwise habit obliterates the truth of things and my clarity and peace disappear. So Assisi was a place where I could brake and stop as I had often done on a mountain top in India.
Enjoying the tranquil hills of Umbria I could forget the clamor, clatter, push and rush of the cities I usually find myself in and experience the serenity and beauty of nature, which activated my own inner tranquility.
Francis created his spiritual gentle revolution by first getting close to nature and tuning in to her serenity and principles. He provided an alternative to a legalistic, theologically congested church which had forgotten the simplicity of its own original spirit. His experience of the Divine had reminded him of a Universal Benevolence, which he felt was reflected in the interconnectedness of life not only of humanity but also of humanity with animals, nature and her elements. It became his task to remind others of this divine love and intrinsic interconnectedness. No wonder he is regarded as the Green Saint,the patron of animals and the environment.
At his hermitage just outside Assisi I saw a bronze statue of him lying on the ground and two companion monks with their circled fingers held up to the sky measuring something. It is said that Francis loved to gaze up at the bright Polar Star and his companions were trying to measure certain aspects of that star. The earth and sky were also his companions.
Francis learned to be realistic as well as spiritual for he stated: "Start by doing what is necessary, and then do what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible."
To make the impossible possible is a sign of real spirituality, to achieve what others cannot dream of. What others may call crazy or unrealistic but is accomplished by an individual step by step is a kind of sanctity: an integrity of spirit
Francis once said:
"Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society."
"Sanctify" is not just a religious term he is using but it is his deeply felt sense of wholeness and oneness with nature and humanity and unlimited trust in the Divine. To achieve this sanctity he realized that he and his spiritual companions had to absolutely let go of selfish possessiveness and the greed of being. The respect we give to that interconnectedness of life and to life's resources is an answer to the wars and crisis we see around us today and what he himself had experienced in medieval Italy. He was so shocked by war's brutality and violence that he broke down and had to reposition himself, his purpose and his code of being. This breakdown is vividly represented outside the Basilica of St Francis where a statue of him on a horse captures his sense of utter desolation and disillusionment as both horse and man limp back from the war.
So in his hermitage away from his task of rejuvenating Christianity, traveling over Italy and to countries such as Egypt, Corfu, Syria , aligning himself with the poor and sick, Francis found the time to gaze at the stars, mountain, flowers ,water and trees. He also spent time talking to the animals and to his brother sun and sister moon. Giotto captures all of this in the paintings which decorate the basilica of Francis where we spent Good Thursday early morning in meditation. A small group of us, who had especially come for a two day dialogue, shared a collective silence for about one hour. Two days earlier a small group of Buddhists, nuns, yogis, Platonists, Christian meditators had actually come together to discuss the creative and healing power of contemplation as a contribution to today's crises.
Certainly our group felt that inner silence was a crucial start for newness in thought and action. Greece came up as an example of crisis and our Platonist friend from Germany perceptively stated that the crises has first started in Greece because that is the heart of western culture and all western culture , to a smaller or greater degree is suffering from the same malaise. So Greece as the parent receives the first blow of the Western collapse. He went on to say that where the crisis is also exists the solution. The roots of heritage hold the antidote to the poison.
The American coordinator of our Contemplative Alliance stated that now it appears to be the time that spiritual principles need to be valued and applied for social transformation. Thought, word and understanding are necessary but also action. So thinkers do not just keep on thinking, speakers do not just keep on speaking, analysts do not just keep on analyzing but also act. Action that can be effective when a contemplative empowering has happened individually and collectively to change the anachronistic routes of thoughts and behavior. Without that inner transformation then the same consciousness keeps repeating the same mistakes. The wheel keeps turning in on itself and there is no exit. All innovation began and was sustained by a transformation in consciousness. To act from a space of transformative silence facilitates the application of spiritual principles into social living. Otherwise either we rehash decrepit formulas or become too complacent. As Plato said:
"The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men."