Walking the Green Path: An Herbalist Discovers Her Calling in Assisi
I never set out to be an herbalist. As a graduate student I was offered a scholarship to study art history in Rome. My plan was to explore Neoplatonism as it was expressed in Renaissance sculpture and to make a catalog of dolphins on baptismal fonts. Since early childhood I had been mystically inclined, and the iconography of the dolphins seemed fascinating. They were carved on the fonts because according to ancient tradition they ferried the souls of the dead across the water to the other world. These images were carried over into Christian art in association with baptism.
I dutifully began to photograph and read, spending days studying in the dim Hertziana and Vatican libraries and exploring ancient churches. But, being me, I soon felt a pull to go to the countryside. I took the train to Assisi, in Umbria, to look at the famous frescoes of Giotto in the local cathedral.
What I saw there were sumptuously laid-out depictions of the life of the saint known as Il Poverello, “the Poor One.” I knew that Saint Francis had lived a life of dedicated simplicity and poverty, eating gruel with ashes mixed in and wearing simple brown robes, and I personally found it hard to connect with his story through the gold leaf on the lavishly painted images. I ran into a monk in a brown wool cassock as I was leaving the church. “Where can I find out more about how Saint Francis actually lived?” I asked.
He looked at me for a moment before replying. “Go to San Masseo.”
“What is San Masseo?” I asked.
“Don’t ask any questions, just go,” he said, pointing down the road.
I dutifully took off down the street. The road led out of town and eventually I saw a small wooden sign that pointed off to the right. There was a muddy little path through some bushes and then a small clearing where I saw groups of young men and women, mostly Germans, all roughly my age, lolling around on the grass.
“Have you come here to stay?” one of them asked in a friendly tone.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
I ended up staying for four days. Then I returned to Rome to pack up my belongings and took the train right back to Assisi.
Art history research was put on the back burner as I learned the ways of the Franciscan community I had stumbled upon. I soon began to take part in community activities such as baking bread in the stone oven and feeding the ducks and chickens that were given free rein to wander the kitchen and dining room.
I went to Mass twice a day (never telling anyone that I wasn’t a Catholic) and on Wednesdays and Sundays I fasted. Those were the days when we were supposed to “wander in the wilderness,” walking out of the community with no thoughts of a destination, because God would lead us to wherever or whomever we were supposed to meet.
I would clamber around the hillsides at those times, taking in the beauty of the flowers and trees and grasses, delighting in the bright green life that expressed itself in the ancient olives and tiny wildflowers. I never missed human companionship, feeling that the plants were my friends and companions.
One day I found myself on Mount Subasio, a place the saint himself used to frequent. This was a saint who talked to wolves and birds and thought of the sun, moon, and fire as his brothers and sisters. This resonated deeply with me through my own love of immersing myself in nature and reconnecting with the earth.
I was wandering around up there, high above the tree line, when a sudden storm came up. Next thing I knew, there was thunder and lightning and snow coming down. I was terrified because I was all alone. What to do? So I did something that in hindsight was actually rather stupid—I found a tiny pine tree and wrapped myself around it for comfort. It was the only living thing on the mountainside other than the grass.
The storm passed quickly and I was soaked. I remember looking at my shoulders and seeing snow caked on them. The whole experience was so exhilarating that I sang out loud as I made my way back down the mountain.
Right across from the path to San Masseo was a little Romanesque church that Saint Francis had repaired with his own hands. Being pre-Gothic, it had no stained glass windows to let in the light. It was very dark in there as I slipped inside to rest and meditate.
I settled myself on a wooden bench in the darkness, and suddenly I heard a voice coming from inside and outside of my body all at once. “Everything you have been doing until now has been for status and intellect and to please your parents,” the voice said. “You are supposed to be working with plants.”
I instantly knew that this was true. I had felt a bond and a companionship with the herbs and grasses that went far beyond anything I had experienced in museums and dry libraries. I began to mentally throw out everything I was doing: the master’s degree in art history, the thesis on dolphins on baptismal fonts, and my parents’ ambition that I be a college professor.
As I mentally threw out each item I felt lighter and lighter. Soon my chest was glowing with a kind of inner fire. I walked back to the little community of San Masseo and told them what I had experienced…
By Ellen Evert Hopman