“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."(Matthew 13:44)
“[St. Francis once said:] See to it that you never abandon this place [the Portiuncula]. If you are driven out from one side, go back in at the other. For this place is truly holy and is the dwelling place of God.” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, 106)
What is “Spirituality of Place”? Are certain places holier than others? Or does one particular place have more spiritual value than others? Since Katia and I made the decision to move to the Marches, Italy to work with the friars and live in the Land of the Fioretti (Little Flowers), I find myself thinking about this a lot. We certainly did not move here for better “opportunities.”
A couple of millennia ago, ancient pagans believed that certain places possessed mystical powers in which the “spirits” were felt more strongly. Such places were usually associated with nature, and they often built temples over or near natural springs, in the hills or on mountaintops. After the Romans converted to Christianity, many of their temples were converted into churches. Italy is full of them: there is the Pantheon in Rome -- the temple where “all gods” were venerated -- which has been a church dedicated to Mary and the martyrs since the 7th century. In Umbria, about halfway between Spoleto and Assisi (near the old Roman Via Flaminia) stands a picturesque classical paleochristian shrine overlooking the Clitumnus springs. Once dedicated to the river god, Clitumnus, the Roman soldiers used to bathe in the water after battle for healing; since the third century, it has been a church. If you’ve ever been to Assisi, you surely visited the ancient Roman temple in the central square. Once dedicated to Minerva (goddess of wisdom), it is now a church dedicated to the Mother of Wisdom called “Saint Mary over Minerva.” Incidentally, the Romans built Assisi as a holy city; they were fascinated by the presence of underground water that mysteriously emerged from Mount Subasio.
But what about today? Can we Christians still refer to a “spirituality of place”? Certainly, as Christians we don’t build churches where we feel the “spirits” more particularly. But can we find God more in certain places and less so in others?
As Christians, we experience God wherever “two or more gathered” and the Word and prayer are present -- usually in churches. As Catholics, many of us experience God powerfully in chapels where we spend time before the Blessed Sacrament. Further, pilgrims who go to Assisi, Rome, the Holy Land or the Marian apparition sites often feel something powerful while walking in the footsteps of the saints or Christ himself. Many, in fact, testify to experiencing mystical and supernatural phenomena in these places.
And many of us Franciscans have a particular affinity for nature where we experience the presence of God by simply walking across a mountain, along the beach, or in the forest. Certainly this is a legitimate way to experience the Creator, as he has fully informed all of his creation.
In fact, our pagan predecessors weren’t very far off in their veneration of nature. After all, the desire to worship the one true God is written within all of our hearts. However, there is a subtle but important distinction: we don’t worship creation in and of itself; instead, we worship and praise the one true God through creation. St. Francis himself used a beautiful ancient Latin/Italian word in his Canticle of the Creatures to describe this nuance: per. It means “for,” “through,” “via” or “by.” The closest we come to in English is something like, “I parked by the curb per your instructions.” Francis never praised the sun, moon, stars, wind, water, fire, earth, or even death in and of themselves; rather, he praised God for, through, via, and by these elements. A close read of the “Three Youths” in the Book of Daniel (3:57-88; 56) reveals the same thing. The elements of creation are not divinities in themselves; rather, they are reflective of the one Divinity who is reflected in them and who deserves our praise and worship.
So while we reject pantheism (the idea that all things are God or are consubstantial with God), we still acknowledge the immanent presence of God in the world. Even in the Old Testament, God never remained totally aloof from his people to whom he was constantly “descending” and moving closer: he walked in the garden with Adam and Eve; he promised Abraham an heir and a particular homeland; he made a peace covenant with Noah; and finally, under Moses, he revealed himself in the commandments. Yet, God revealed himself most fully when he lowered himself by becoming man in the Incarnation. When the waters of baptism touched the Christ, Jesus was not redeemed; instead, the world was.
So, I think we can say that yes, the presence of God can be experienced in all places of the world. Then it is not such a surprise when we discover certain places that are more or less “informed” with God. In this regard, our experience of the “spirituality of place” is subjective.
St. Francis himself loved particular places. It is true that he never wished to stay for too long in any one place (unlike the Benedictines who vow themselves to live “stably” in one particular monastery). Nevertheless, he was particularly fond of certain hermitages and places. His favorite was the Portiuncula. In fact, Francis once told his brothers, “See to it that you never abandon this place. If you are driven out from one side, go back in at the other. For this place is truly holy and is the dwelling place of God.”
Katia and I have found such a place, too -- here in the Marches of Ancona. It is filled with friaries, hermitages, monasteries and convents. St. Francis himself visited this region at least six times, and in the 14th century, this region -- in the words of Paul Sabatier, one of the pioneers of Franciscan studies -- “became and remained the province more truly Franciscan than every other.” And today there is still a vibrant Franciscan community of friars, Poor Clare sisters and laity here. While Assisi has the bodies of Francis and Clare; here in the Marches, we have their faces.
And when one finds that treasure where they find God most fully, “out of joy [he] goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”