In October last year I made a visit to Assisi, the home of Saints Francis and Clare. As you might imagine, it is a place of peace and stillness despite the many tourists and pilgrims who trudge up and down the narrow steep streets to visit the churches that house the holy sites connected with them. I was one of them.
The old town, where I stayed, is built up out of the hills in the shadow of Mount Subasio. Its biscuit walls glitter in the sunlight by day or glow in the lamplight by night. Mists hover over majestic views of the new town on the plain beneath and the surrounding Umbrian countryside.
There are fields and fields of olive trees outside the town, and, at the time of year when I visited, the olives are almost ripe for picking. My friends and I walked through groves of them as, having lost our way, we wandered in search of San Damiano, the intimate convent where St Clare, following the inspiration of St Francis, began her own community. One tree attracted my attention as we made our way back. Olive trees take three years or more to bear fruit and can flourish for centuries. This one was grey, almost silver, and its boughs were spindly and gnarled. It looked decidedly elderly. The trunk was skeletal as if it had been chopped in half from top to bottom. The tree would have been more at home in some apocalyptic landscape. The hollowed-out trunk looked like the victim of a nuclear war. The tree was leaning back from the pathway as if flexing for another attack. It was barely standing up in the earth. Yet its emaciated boughs were as leafy and green as the other trees that surrounded it and as laden with olives. It seemed like an image of my retirement!
On our last day, we drove to Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict, an hour or so away. Sadly, the town suffered an earthquake in 2016 and two years on, the scars of the catastrophe were still there. We drove through the arch of the old city gate which was held up by scaffolding and wooden struts as were so many other buildings around the main square. A ‘tourist information’ sign hung precariously from a tall building covered in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. The basilica and monastery of St Benedict itself were half demolished and from where I stood in the square, I could see the monks’ cells on the first floor, now devoid of the privacy of outer walls and doors. A light hung from the ceiling of one room and a bed and wash basin remained incongruously in another even though half of the floor had disappeared.
The tragedy of the earthquake lingered over Norcia like the mists over the plains around Assisi. Like the olive tree, the town was barely standing up. Yet despite the remnants of the devastation all around, shops and cafes were open, there was a bustling market in the square, and people were cheerfully going about their business in the autumn sunshine. Like the gnarled old olive tree, the town was still bearing fruit.
As I sipped my coffee outside a cafe off the town square, I asked myself how the people there coped over the last two years. I looked down the street to the arch of the old city gate held up by scaffolding and wooden struts and found my answer. Like the arch they were being held up: by faith, by hope and by each other. As we all are.
Neil Zoladkiewicz is an Oblate of Ealing Abbey and the U.K. Oblates Treasurer. This article is adapted from his blog ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ which can be found at https://meditationsofneilusaurelius.home.blog