St Francis of Assisi, Italy
To truly own the most important things in life, you must shed yourself of those which are taking up too much space. To be free, you must unshackle yourself of your worldly possessions.
Before I started travelling full time, I cleansed myself of most of the things I owned. There was no deeper philosophy to the act – it was more an act of necessity because I no longer had my own home to store all my junk. But, nonetheless, it was a cathartic experience that left me feeling free and unburdened.
The old winter jackets I hadn’t worn for years, gone. The stereo I had no need for on the road, gone. My collection of teenage mutant ninja turtle collector coins… well, they might be worth something one day! They stayed in storage.
Many months later, while sightseeing in Italy at the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, it occurred to me that he might have been on to something. Even 800 years ago, well before anyone could imagine the consumer society we’ve become, he saw the perils in materialism.
St Francis shunned the trappings of belongings and embraced a frugal life. He encouraged others to do the same, albeit in a more passive way than today’s self-help gurus.
I felt free when I got rid of my belongings. Weight was lifted from my shoulders and bonds untied from ankles.
I had nothing physical holding me back and nothing material to be concerned about. I was able to live in the present, rather than be concerned by what I had collected in the past or what I needed to accumulate for the future. It was all about the now.
Visiting Assisi, Italy
The story of St Francis of Assisi says that he wasn’t always that way. He was apparently the son a wealthy businessman and, in his younger years, he lived the life you might expect of someone of that upbringing. Fast chariots, loose maidens… maybe that kind of thing. But then it all turned around. He saw the light… and the lighter path.
St Francis is probably most famously known as the patron saint of animals and in his hometown you can see plenty of images of that connection. But it’s his rejection of materialism that interests me the most.
He spent time begging with beggars and was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty. He started to preach his message and, according to the history books, within a year he had eleven followers (so a bit like me and my blog!) but over the years his support base grew.
After he died, construction began in Assisi on the Basilica of St Francis. Strangely, it’s a large and grand building that doesn’t really fit with the teachings of the saint. But that’s religion for you, I suppose.
Still, it’s one of the most impressive churches in Italy and is an important site in any Christian pilgrimage. You can see it from kilometres away, across much of Umbria, with its distinctive style connected with the hillside.
In some ways, the whole city is a shrine to St Francis. Like his teachings, it is simple – even if some of the buildings have an unusual majesty in their scale. It doesn’t feel excessive, though. It feels like right.
“For it is in giving that we receive,” St Francis is famously quoted as saying.
In the context of today that has never been more true – but I think it could also be interpreted as ‘giving away’ not just ‘giving’. Life is not judged by what you have but what you gain. The possessions you treasure the most in your life will not be the material ones, but those more ethereal.
The best thing is that those more intangible belongings are often easier to obtain… you just need to make some room for them.