Incident in Assisi: The Science of the Saints
Assisi represents a kind of Hollywood ideal of heaven on earth. The town's buildings--its hotels and shops and restaurants--are medieval or at least look the part. Look in any direction, and the green, rolling hills look like landscapes from the old masters. You'll find few cars on the cobblestone streets, but at any moment you could find yourself in a throng of brown-robed pedestrians.
It's the town of St. Francis, the town of St. Clare, and its inhabitants are proud of the fact. They strive to keep it credibly Franciscan for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists who visit each year. It's also the town of lesser-known saints such as Agnes of Assisi (Clare's little sister) and Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin, the ancient St. Rufinus and the Benedictine hermit St. Vitalis.
And it is the town of myriad angels. The centuries-old fortification is called the Rocca San Angelo--Holy Angel Fortress. The gem of Assisi's many churches is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, which houses St. Francis's own Portiuncula (Little Portion) chapel.
So many angels and saints, but so little time. We had made quick trips to Assisi--my wife, Kimberly, and I--but we wanted to walk its streets again, to make a pilgrimage more intentional and familiar. We advertised a tour and were to play host to more than a hundred fellow pilgrims from the United States.
We were eager, then, to believe the doctor when he told us that our seven-year-old, Joe, would be well enough to make the trip--even though our flight left just two weeks after his emergency appendectomy. Joe was mending, the doctor said, in an exemplary fashion, and there was no sign of infection or complications.
Joe, for his part, didn't feel he needed a doctor to pronounce him ready. Irrepressible, athletic, and gifted with the strongest constitution in the family, he was always up for an adventure. And Assisi, with its maze of hills and alleyways, forts and castles, promised him episodes straight out of storybooks and Butler's Lives of the Saints.
In Assisi Joe--and we--got more of an adventure than he dreamed, but a different sort of adventure.
The doctor's healthy prognosis was confirmed by Joe's movement on the flight to Rome, and then on the bus through the mountains to Assisi. My son's voyage had begun, and he was the explorer, the crusader, the true pilgrim. His worried parents, of course, were on the alert for any sign of strain, and occasionally we made the obligatory but pointless admonition for the seven-year-old to relax and get some rest.
Our first day was partial and included only a few of the sites associated with the lives of the local saints. Still, it was enough to earn the whole family--and even Joe--a good night's sleep when we hit the pillows back at the hotel.
The itinerary for our second day was full, and we set out early. But this day was definitely different. Within the first hour, I noticed that Joe was wincing and stopping. By the second hour, he was stopping to double over. At first, when I asked, he protested that everything was okay, and he denied having any pain more than a walking cramp. But soon it became apparent that he couldn't go on. Kimberly actually removed our toddler, David, from our stroller, and set Joe in David's place.
It was clear, though, that this wouldn't be enough, and we asked our tour guide to summon us a taxi so we could visit a doctor. Kimberly and I divided the duties: she would stay behind in the old town with the other children; I would accompany Joe to the hospital.
KNOW PAIN, KNOW GAIN
The taxi delivered Joe and me to an unassuming and unimpressive building: Ospedale di Assisi. It wasn't what I had hoped to see. It wasn't what I would expect to see at a comparable tourist destination in the United States. The outside appearance didn't leave me with a strong sense of confidence. What everyone loves about Assisi--its long lingering in the Middle Ages--was not what I wanted to find in its practice of medicine.
My worries were relieved, slightly, by the kind expressions of the people inside. Yet their greetings only added a new cause for concern, as it became clear that we shared few words in common beyond our simple greetings. They said their halting hellos and we our pathetically accented buon giornos; and then, with gestures and pidgin phrases, we set about trying to communicate about Joe's medical history and current symptoms.
My anxiety levels climbed higher, higher than the Rocca San Angelo that overlooked the town. Joe was, by this time, writhing in my arms as he sat awkwardly in my lap.
The people from reception ushered us back to the x-ray room, where the technician was also just arriving. Quite obviously one of the town's firemen, he arrived still wearing uniform overcoat and galoshes. He did his work as quickly as possible on equipment that looked, to my untrained eye, at least a couple of decades old.
We then continued our pilgrim way to an examining room, to await the dottore. It was a mercifully brief wait till we met the doctor. And, as if in answer to my urgent prayers, he spoke adequate English.
He looked at the chart as I explained the situation--Joe's appendectomy, his "exemplary" recovery, and then our crisis. He nodded, then gently touched a couple spots on Joe's abdomen before Joe cried out from the pain.
The doctor led me into the hallway and said the words I wanted to hear: "I think your son will be fine." With his limited English, he explained that the pain was now in a "safe" place. But if it should shift to the other side, Joe would need immediate surgery. "And that would be a serious problem, not only because we'd have to operate, but because we'd have to operate here." His tone seemed to indicate that here was not the best location for surgery.
We checked into the hospital for an overnight stay. Joe, who was ordinarily voracious, had no appetite for food. A boy who rarely complained, he was now reduced to moaning and crying into his pillow.
I tried to keep him amused, making small talk, and he tried now and then to focus on a handheld video game, but the pain consumed his attention and wrung my paternal heart. Around ten p.m. I asked him, "Where's the pain now? Is it still in the same place?" And he said, "No, it's on the other side." I asked him if he was sure about that, and he said he was.
Joe had not heard my conversation with the doctor, so he didn't know the import of his words. I excused myself and hurried down to the nurses' station, where I asked a nurse to contact the doctor. I took up a piece of paper and wrote the words, "Pain on other side. Danger."
I returned to the room and waited for the doctor. Joe was writhing in agony. I tried to calm him, and gradually his moans subsided into a whimper as he fell in and out of an exhausted sleep. Not knowing when help might arrive, I turned off the lights in the room and did the only thing left for me to do.
I dropped to my knees in the most desperate prayer, imploring God's help in the most general and inarticulate way.
And I was startled by a sudden sense of presence--a vivid sense.
God was with me in that room. If you had turned on the lights and I had seen him, I wouldn't have been surprised. God was close to me in my helplessness. I had the clear sense that he was asking me: What are you afraid of?
I was taken aback, and I responded frankly, though interiorly: Why would you even ask that? You know what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid of losing my son in surgery in a place that's not prepared to deal with this sort of problem. I love him, and I don't want him to die.
And just as clearly I sensed God's reply: Is that all?
I couldn't have imagined this. I couldn't have made this up. It seemed to me that the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-compassionate God was belittling my concerns. But as long as he was asking, I'd answer with both barrels: Well, no, that's not all. I'm also afraid what will happen to my wife, his mother. It would shatter her.
Again the response came: Is that all?
So I kept going: No, it's not. He has siblings. And here we are on a pilgrimage, far from home and responsible for a hundred pilgrims. Am I supposed to abandon them?
And is that all?
It began to dawn on me that my fears that were on the surface--and that seemed obvious to me--were linked to deeper fears, more subtle fears that had to do with my family life, my personal life, my professional life, fears of failure, fears of loss, fears of humiliation. In an instant, my life appeared before me as a web of fears, cares, concerns, anxieties, and worries. Till that moment I'd never quite been aware of this.
But God had been. It became clear to me that God was not asking questions so that I could inform him of anything. He was asking so that I would have to formulate answers--and so he could show me how much my life was controlled by fear.
Into my mind came the first papal words of the man who was then the pope, Blessed John Paul II. He said to the world: "Be not afraid." He was echoing Jesus (Matthew 28:10) and so many angels (Luke 1:13, 2:10). And no one--not Jesus nor the angels nor Pope John Paul--ever said there was no reason to be afraid. They just told us to get over it, to get past the fear, and to accept the grace that God was extending to us through our trials.
It was then that Assisi lived up to its reputation for me. In an instant I realized that Joe and I were far from alone in the room. God was with me; but there with God were so many others. I knew the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our guardian angels, and the saints whose footsteps I'd been following, Francis and Clare. There was Padre Pio, and St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Josemaria Escriva--all saints who had significantly influenced my spiritual and intellectual life. They were really there, in the presence of God. They were there because they truly cared about Joe and me, and Kimberly and the pilgrims, and they were interceding for all of us.
As never before, I knew the truth of the Scripture: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross" (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The saints, the great cloud of witnesses, were cheering us onward as we raced forward after Jesus our "pioneer," through our share in his cross.
The same chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews acknowledges the presence of "innumerable angels" with the saints, "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Hebrews 12:22-23); the angels, too, were with me in that room, praying with me, praying for my heart's intention: for Joe.
Please don't get me wrong. I'm not a man given to mystical flights, or visions, or locutions. My family and closest friends will testify that I'm not prone to euphoria. Nor do I think my experience was anything extraordinary. I believe I experienced, for a moment, a heightened sense of what is truly ordinary. This is the backdrop of our everyday life: The angels and saints are with us as witnesses, as friends, as family. We are never alone. We need never be afraid. This is a simple corollary of our salvation. It's a fact too easily forgotten.
"The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4:5-6).
As I let my fears be known, I grew more aware of the saints' presence. They were, in a sense, more present than I was--more awake, more alert, more alive in God. They were like older siblings who had come to the aid of a younger one who's injured. My prayer became a conversation that included all of them. And, again, if you had flipped on the light and I had seen their faces, I wouldn't have been surprised.
There came a moment when I thought I could pray like this all night--but I realized that that would be selfish, and it would leave me useless to everyone at the time of Joe's surgery. I knew I should get up off the floor and get some sleep.
That was when it occurred to me: for the last two hours and forty-five minutes Joe hadn't uttered a peep--no crying, no moaning, no writhing. He'd been sleeping peacefully the whole time.
I didn't sense that a miracle had happened. I just felt a certain peace, and I went to Our Lady, who had been there from the beginning, and I prayed a Rosary to close the night.
THE SCIENCE OF THE SAINTS
I woke around eight a.m. and noticed that Joe was still sleeping. I heard muffled voices in the hallway and recognized one as the doctor's. When he peeked in the doorway, I motioned for him to speak softly. He told me he had already put in a call to assemble a team for surgery.
I explained that the pain had shifted in the night, and that Joe was up late crying, but around midnight he stopped. I told him I had been on my knees praying at the time.
He smiled, indulgently but skeptically.
Suddenly Joe woke up, sat us, and said, "Buon giorno!" The night before he couldn't even sit up without help.
The doctor was visibly startled. "Buon giorno, Giuseppe," he said. "How are you feeling?"
Joe yawned and said, "Great." Still looking skeptical, the doctor lifted Joe's shirt and pressed on both sides.
Joe meanwhile told the doctor about how the pain had moved the night before, but then went away.
The doctor was incredulous and ordered tests. Over the next three hours, the nurses drew blood and passed it along to the lab.
Around midday, the doctor came back, scratching his head. "I'm not a religious man," he said to me. "I'm scientific. I don't believe in miracles. But when you practice medicine in Assisi, you encounter these things. Things happen that science can't explain."
And that, it occurs to me, is true science--what St. Edith Stein called "the science of the saints." And it is the subject of this book.