The Burden of Tradition in Assisi
In Assisi earlier this month, I heard myself using this expression. Situated 160 km north of Rome, Assisi is still a much sought after place of pilgrimage and the life of St Francis, the early 13th century saint, still inspires many. I was privileged to take part in an ecumenical conference just there and it was amazing to see the extent to which St Francis still is the role model, in terms of concern for and a life with the poor, openness for dialogue, and increasingly so, a model of ecological care.
I will here bring to attention just one experience from this wonderful week, spent together with other scholars from more than fifty different countries, an experience that could be captured in the expression “the burden of tradition”.
We spent most of one day on the hill of Assisi and one afternoon was dedicated to the church of St Francis, the Basilica di San Francesco. We were taken through the lower basilica as well as the church proper. We were shown St Francis’ grave as well as his body (!) that had been embalmed. Towards the end of the day the following story was told, explaining why his grave was on this particular hill and subsequently this great basilica to St Francis’ memory. A poor man, and equally the breadwinner for his family, was found stealing bread from a shop. He was caught and apprehended; the poor man could not make up for what he had stolen. Penalty: the death sentence, an example had to be set. St Francis heard of this and tried to intervene. He was willing to pay the shop for the losses incurred. The legal authorities said however that this was to no avail; the sentence meted out had to take its course; so the poor man was hanged. At that moment St Francis decided to have his grave at or near the site where this had happened.
I was touched by this story, so typical of St Francis who in his everyday life was a living member of the community of the poor. But what I saw in Assisi this day was something different. Layer upon layer traditions were built that had relatively little to do with St Francis’ real concern, basically elaborate and heavy church buildings that must have cost fortunes, his life adored and venerated by the pious pilgrims also of the 21st century coming by, in short St Francis having been made into something else than what he was and probably would have wanted to be remembered as.
Maybe my story – having been a conference pilgrim to this church, having heard this story there and then – could serve as a metaphor for how we must handle our traditions. We all live by traditions, even the most radical person does, but the question is what we do with them. If tradition is not constantly tested and reformed one would inevitably end up with layer upon layer of material that may have little to do with what was the original intention. The layers, that in fact were thought to highlight the original tradition, may in fact conceal and obscure what was intended. Das Ding an sich, the fact that St Francis established, still in solidarity with the church, a life together with the poor, could be seen as an unburdened tradition, something that must be retrieved again and again.
Figuratively speaking I would say that the burden of the incredible church structures in granite stone built on top of St Francis, literally, were made very light by St Francis’ life story. His own story also being stronger than the constant veneration of him; rather one should be seeing him as an example, a counterpart, in following Christ.
I was certainly not a stranger to the fact that some of the pilgrims in Assisi had this ability to uncover the life story of St Francis (and his monastic sister Clare), from their calling away from a family life in riches to a monastic, community life in poverty.