There are some icons that are, paradoxically, iconoclastic. This is most obvious in the cross. It is also true of the Porziuncula. The Porziuncula was among those churches that Francis rebuilt after he heard the Lord speak to him before the San Damiano crucifix: “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” We know that Francis initially understood this as a commission to buy bricks and to restore the churches in disrepair. But later he realized this as a call to restore the spirituality of the church. Still, there is something important and prophetic in Francis’ selling his father’s wealth in order to buy bricks and mortar so that he could renovate church buildings.
When we think about building churches, we may think of structures large enough to hold the inhabitants of a parish or having enough room for the congregation to grow. In the last few decades, one of the dominant models of church growth is the mega-church. This large, programmed model was not Francis’ – although he had a mega impact on the church and the surrounding cultures. The Porziuncula is tiny. It is only 40 feet long by 13 feet wide by 18 feet high. There is room for 20 to sit and maybe 10 to stand before the altar. This is the place where Francis and the first friars lived, prayed and died. This small, insignificant chapel that stands in the shadow of Assisi was the place where this amazing and reviving movement began.
Today, however, the Porziuncula is the center piece of a large ornate church. In the midst of marble and gold, the Porziuncula is an obstruction. The view of the altar is impeded by the Porziuncula for those sitting in the back pews. Its walls of old rock and its faded icons stand in contrast to the shine of the church that encases it. And so the Porziuncula, almost 1000 years later, continues to speak prophetically and powerfully about who God is and how God works in a world and even in a church that is entangled by greed, power and grandiosity.
Although the Porziuncula speaks against the church when it succumbs to these entanglements, it also speaks of Francis’ commitment to follow God in and with the church. He never rejected the church; rather, he only proceeded in ministry in as much as he had the blessing of the church.
The Porziuncula is an iconoclastic icon. It is an image that subverts attachment to images. It is an attraction that contradicts our notions of attractive. It invites the church to worship through renunciation and sacrifice, and yet it is inviting.
A couple of weeks back, Lenutsa and I, along with Sarah Lance, Walter Forcatto and Chris and Phileena Heuertz, had the opportunity to take a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy. This little medieval city is the place where two of the church’s great saints, Francis and Claire, lived out their vocation of prayer, poverty and love for God. Although these two remarkable Christians lived 800 years ago, their calling, lifestyles and faithfulness have been inspirational and challenging to the Word Made Flesh community. One of my hopes in making this pilgrimage to Assisi was to connect more with this movement of God, this radical spirituality, and its revitalizing effects in the church and for the world.
As I was preparing for my first steps on this pilgrimage, I came across a fundamental distinction in how we have conceived “space” in history: itineraries and mapping.
Mapping is a relatively recent development in human history. It is a modern idea that followed the rise of the nation-state (see Michel de Certeu’s The Practice of Everyday Life). In pre-modern times principalities did not have clearly defined borders and often had landholdings within other principalities. Nation-states, however, needed to identify their borders and employed the technology of mapping to serve its cause. Maps are static, two-dimensional abstractions of space. Mapping means homogenization and delineation, often arbitrarily, for the sake of identity and control. Mapping is a form of will to power, particularly power over space. Yet, mapping cannot account for the temporality of space. The only thing “temporal” in mapping is its claims to permanence.
In pre-modern times space was not conceived through maps; rather, it was understood through itineraries. Itineraries depict a storied-space (see William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination). They tell of sites, steps and experiences that one takes as they travel and as they make pilgrimage. They prescribe actions, prayers and places to sleep for different points along the journey. Where mapping imposes onto space the dominant story, the story of and for the nation-state, itineraries are purely local and particular. They are stories that emerge from the earth by its different smells and tastes, its rocks and its fruits. These stories are not merely told; they are performed.
(It was interesting to see no billboards in Assisi, which evidently are not allowed so as to keep its medieval appearance. It was even difficult to find an internet connection! The only way that the dominant stories, like McDonald’s, could smuggle their message in was on the sides of taxis that moved in and out of the city – that itself was a sad commentary on the contrast and aloofness of the dominant culture from the Franciscan story. I found the absence of the dominant narratives to be fitting to a place that celebrates Franciscan spirituality. And it is an example of how the soft prophetic voice of Franciscan spirituality continues to speak to our contemporary world.)
Itineraries are stories anchored in steps. Where mapping excludes the temporal, itineraries incorporate it. Space is not measured with metrics but rather with hours or days. Itineraries are written for boots, not jet-engines. At each step we are invited to follow in the footsteps of former fellow travelers, tracing a narrative through space and time. To see the same hills and valleys, to hear the same songs of the birds, and to experience the same gift of place. Itineraries tell of brooks and wells, of hotels and hospitality. Maps identify place, itineraries experience place.
Whereas mapping excludes the strangers and forcibly “settle” the pilgrims in order to define, protect and extend its borders (see Phyllis Tickle’s “Forward” to Phileena Heuertz’s Pilgrimage of a Soul), itineraries are invitations to strangers and to pilgrims to experience the generosity of locals.
Refusing borders and dominating narratives of space, the pilgrim follows the itineraries of pilgrims forgone. But the experience of each pilgrim takes its own shape. The itinerary is prescriptive but not coercive. The itinerary is an invitation. Taking the journey means crossing and even subverting borders and a dominant narrative about space. In this way, the practice of pilgrimage is a practice of resistance. It cultivates a life that resists the illusion of control, the exclusion of the stranger and the domination of people and places. Itineraries mean transforming the places on the map into alternative spaces filled with alternative lives and alternative lifestyles marked and orientated by our pilgrimage to the City of God.
As I made pilgrimage through Assisi, I reflected on the trajectory that Claire and Francis charted. They created a new storied-space, and they invited the likes of me to journey through it. But although their story was new, it too was not original. In the homes, barns and businesses that Francis’ and Claire’s lives transformed into “alternative spaces,” they all link the stories of the saints to the story of Christ. They were misunderstood, rejected, persecuted and poor and yet joyful, loving and generous. Claire and Francis were “saints” inasmuch as they imitated Christ. Their stories were original in that only they could live out their own stories as only I can live out mine. But they draw from the church’s tradition and are told against its background. They chart the itinerary and further enrich the tradition, which now comprises the background for my pilgrimage. O, to follow Claire and Francis, to walk faithfully and to fill each place with stories about our radical love for God!