EVERY PILGRIM who visits Assisi must make the short walk outside the city walls and spend time at the sanctuary of San Damiano. It is one of the most important places in the Franciscan story.
The event most often repeated about this place is the encounter between Francis and the image of Christ Crucified who spoke to him and said: “Francis, go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.” Thomas of Celano tells the whole story:
—Second Life, #10, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume 2: The Founder, New City Press, p. 249“With his heart already completely changed—soon his body was also to be changed—he was walking one day by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned by everyone and almost in ruins.Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences and discovered that he was different from when he had entered.“As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him. "Francis, it said, calling him by name" go rebuild my house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.""Francis was more than a little stunned, trembling, and stuttering like a man out of his senses. He prepared himself to obey and pulled himself together to carry out the command. He felt this mysterious change in himself, but he could not describe it. So it is better for us to remain silent about it too. From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.”
Herein begins the mystery of the cross in Francis’s life. At first he interpreted his experience in a literal manner, doing all he could to provide the means, with stones and mortar, to rebuild the physical structure of San Damiano, which actually was in ruins.
Although this may have been part of the intent of the revelation, Francis quickly realized that the rebuilding process had to include the transformation of his heart, his inner self. He would have to rebuild his inner self, and in doing so, discover his true identity. A simultaneous vocation unfolded: rebuilding the place and rebuilding his person.
Architecturally this church does not stand out like some of the others in Assisi, but it draws all members of the Franciscan family because of its unique place in the call of Francis. It was here in the original, small church, falling into ruins at the time, that Francis went seeking direction for his life. From the cross hanging there, Jesus spoke to Francis in these words: “Francis, go and repair my house which is falling into ruins”.
Today, a replica of that Crucifix, commonly called now the San Damiano Cross, is found in this church, but the original is housed in the basilica of Santa Chiara within the walled city where the Poor Clare community now resides.
The stained glass windows frequently seen in pictures promoting ecology and Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures are found beyond the portico near the entrance to church. There are frescos dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, not only in the church itself, but also in the refectory where Clare ate with her community and in the cloister.
In the photograph of the church above, above the rose window there is a door in the facade. The story is told of Clare coming to that door with the Blessed Sacrament during the attack of the Saracens upon the city and, through the grace of God, turning back the approaching destructive forces threatening the town of Assisi.
The dormitory in which Clare and the sisters slept on pallets on the floor is still able to be visited and flowers are placed daily in the corner where Clare slept. The refectory contains the heavy, wooden furniture dating from Clare’s time and some of the choir furniture is still preserved in the church. There is a deeply felt silence in this sanctuary and a sense of being present to the simplicity of life to which everything in the place bears witness.
Clare lived here outside the walled city with the first Poor Clare Sisters until her death. She wrote the rule for her order here. Here at San Damiano, in a hut in the garden, Clare cared for Francis in his illness. She received the townspeople who came for help. Lives of St Clare recount stories of miracles of healing wrought here. From San Damiano Clare wrote the letters to Agnes of Prague – the letters which most clearly outline her spirituality. On her pallet here in the dormitory, just two days after she received from Innocent IV the privilege of living without property and in poverty, Clare died on 11 August 1253.
The Church is somewhat removed from the walled city but a walk down through the ancient olive trees and time spent in silence in the tiny church that has been preserved very much in its original state will long be remembered as a privilege of sharing in the graced stories of Assisi’s two remarkable saints – Francis and Clare.