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
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:
“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.”
—Second Life, #10, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents,
Volume 2: The Founder, New City Press, p. 249
Herein begins the mystery of the cross in Francis’ 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.
Focused on Christ
How did Francis go about rebuilding his life? The
process slowly unfolded from his gazing upon the Crucified
Savior over time.
What were the steps? St. Clare, a contemporary
companion of Francis, described it best in her Second
Letter to Agnes of Prague, when she wrote: “Gaze upon
Christ, consider Christ, contemplate Christ, imitate
Christ.” Those four steps would become the pathway
into the discovery of a new heart, a new power and a
I want to focus on just the last of these four directives: “imitate Christ.” That is the key to understanding
what happened to Francis at San Damiano and the
key to an effective rebuilding of one’s life.
To imitate relates to the word “image.” In our context
here, it means I become the image upon whom I
gaze. Francis would learn that his self-image, that is, his
identity, was to become that of Christ on the cross. Both
Francis and Clare must have spent countless hours
contemplating this mystery. The change that would take
place within Francis’ heart was imaged by what he gazed
upon, and this new self would become his tool for
renewing the house of God.
The Incarnation Is Key
The key to this is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation,
God revealed to us who God is. The Incarnation showed
us the face of God. But what does this image portray?
What do we see? What Francis and Clare saw in the person
of the Incarnate Christ was humility, poverty and
charity. The most visible, tangible expression of this was
In the Incarnation, Francis saw that becoming
human was the basis for humility. In embracing our
humanness, Jesus did not cling to being God. This
choice was the epitome of humility. In so choosing,
Jesus could accept everything to which human nature
is prone, even death. This image of Christ as seen on
the cross became an essential component of Francis’
Like Jesus, humility for Francis meant not to cling
to anything or appropriate any goods, titles, honors or
position. It meant to be a servant to all, even inanimate
creatures. It meant generosity of spirit and generosity
of heart, the willingness to let all others be first. It
meant obedience to all, being subject to all, just like
Jesus, the Word made flesh, who did not cling to
honor, status or power.
In recognizing his true self in this
image, Francis embraced the essence
of his being and the realization that
he needed nothing else to give him
The poverty Francis saw in the Crucified
was the poverty of being a human
creature. Although Jesus was God, he did
not cling to this status. He didn’t hold
on to it. In letting go of divinity, Jesus
accepted the status of a human creature,
being dependent, powerless, helpless
and empty on his own.
This is the essence of poverty. Some
call it poverty of being or ontological
poverty. This true picture of humanity,
modeled in the Incarnation, enabled St.
Paul to write that Jesus, “though he
was in the form of God, did not regard
equality with God as something to be
exploited, but emptied himself, taking
the form of a slave, being born in
human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).
Jesus, as God, chose to become
human, or poor, in order to reveal God’s
self, which is love, and teach us our
true identity. Again, this poverty of
God was most visible by the fact of
God’s Son on the cross. Here Jesus
embraced powerlessness, emptiness and
utter helplessness and opened himself
to complete abandonment and trust
in his Father. These were, and are, essential
components of the human
The other element that the image of
Christ on the cross portrayed was that
of charity, compassionate love. Jesus’
outstretched arms drew in all humanity,
welcoming every creature into the
embrace of God’s tender love through
mercy, forgiveness and acceptance of
all. This meant recognizing and accepting
the worth and dignity of each one.
As we internalize the same, we are
slowly transformed into the image of
Jesus, which is the image of our true
The path into this discovery of self is
the cross. The cross is a mirror. In seeing
myself in that mirror, I see Christ
Crucified, and in seeing Christ Crucified,
I see my most authentic self. As I
am transformed into that image, I
become the person God has always
intended me to be.
The distinguishing marks that identify
me are the same I see in Jesus:
poverty, humility and charity, which are
identifying marks of the face of God.
Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20 are then
very fitting: “It is no longer I who live,
but it is Christ who lives in me.” Then
I am my true and genuine self.
This reflection is difficult to describe
and I’m sure equally difficult to understand
or accept. Yet it lies at the heart
of Francis’ spirituality and mission. It
also ties in most intimately with his
experience before the San Damiano
Crucifix and the invitation to rebuild
the Church. It was a transformed heart,
a transformed self, into the image of
Christ that became the tools by which
society, the Church and all life could be
As we embrace this process, we take
a major step towards discovering who
we are as a disciple of Christ; we are also
well on the way to rebuilding our inner
life and ultimately rebuilding the house
How can we make this real and concrete?
It seems to me we must come to
a moment in life where, like Francis, we
say: “This is what I want and desire with
all my heart.” Once that is clear, then
the rhythm of daily prayer is essential.
We need to beg God for the kind of
transformation of heart needed to have
a dwelling place for humility and
poverty and charity. We cannot achieve
this on our own power. It is God’s project,
God’s work, and only grace can
make it happen.
The other arena is that of relationships,
whether among friends, in the
family, community life or one’s workplace.
It is here that humility, poverty
and compassionate charity are brought
to life and nowhere else.
Francis’ biographers point out that,
when people met up with Francis or
heard him preach, it was not simply a
question of listening to words of peace
and joy. Nor were people merely persuaded
to reflect upon reasons for forgiving
each other, doing penance or
thanking and praising God.
Rather, they were confronted with
these realities in the person of Francis.
They were in the living presence of forgiveness,
peace, faith and love, because
Francis had integrated these values into
his person by taking on the image of
Christ on the cross.
Francis became conformed to the
Crucified to such a degree that at the
end of his life he appeared like the Crucified
with the wounds of Christ
engraved into his flesh. This would
complete what began at San Damiano
when “the wounds of the sacred Passion
were impressed deep in his heart,
though not yet on his flesh.”
Francis sought repeatedly for ways to
encourage the brothers to give birth to
these essentials, to strive for purity of
heart, and thus give birth to Christ in
their own lives. This is the transformation
that must go hand in hand with all
other endeavors in proclaiming the
Kingdom of God. This is the inner
rebuilding that gives life and spirit to
any outward effort.
The image of Christ in Francis was
very real, as we read in Celano:
“The brothers who
lived with him know
that daily, constantly, talk of Jesus
was always on his lips,
sweet and pleasant conversations
kind words full of love.
Out of the fullness of his heart
his mouth spoke.
So the spring of radiant love
that filled his heart within
He was always with Jesus:
Jesus in his heart,
Jesus in his mouth,
Jesus in his ears,
Jesus in his eyes,
Jesus in his hands,
he bore Jesus always
in his whole body....
With amazing love he bore
in his heart and always held onto
Christ Jesus and Him crucified.”
—Francis of Assisi:
Volume 1: The Saint,
New City Press, p. 283-4
Let the Crucifix Speak to You
A pilgrimage to Assisi would be incomplete
without time at the sanctuary of
San Damiano. This place is most quiet
and suitable for prayer in the early
morning before 10 or in the early
evening. Sit before the crucifix, listen to
your heart and hear Jesus say: “Jim,
Joanne, David, Beth, Jerry, Bob, Susie,
Carol, go rebuild my house; as you see,
it is all being destroyed.”
Or visit the Basilica of St. Clare
within the walls of Assisi. The original
crucifix of San Damiano is housed
therein. It is unmistakably a place of
prayer where the windows of one’s
heart may open to hear the voice of
In the cross, the pilgrim discovers
his or her true identity and finds the
rebuilding tools needed to renew the
house of God.
This article is excerpted from In the
Footsteps of Francis and Clare (St.
Anthony Messenger Press).
Roch Niemier, O.F.M., has accompanied thousands
of pilgrims through places dear to Franciscans. From
1981 to 2005, he was director of Franciscan Pilgrimage
He is a member of the Assumption Province of
Franciscans and was ordained a priest in 1965. He
received an honorary doctorate of humane letters
from St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York,
An Assisi Pilgrimage via DVD and Two Books
by John Feister and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.
Whether you have been on pilgrimage to Assisi, birthplace
of Sts. Francis and Clare, or simply want to know more
about these saints and their world, you probably suspect that
they can help you live more fully as a Christian, right here
and right now.
Assisi Pilgrimage: Walking in Faith With Francis and Clare,
a new Franciscan Communications DVD from Father Greg
Friedman, O.F.M., makes that pilgrimage
experience tangible. This two-hour
program allows viewers to hear the
stories of pilgrims who have visited
Assisi and the most important places
connected to these extraordinary
In addition, Franciscan Pilgrimage
guides—including author and poet
Murray Bodo, O.F.M., Clare scholar
Margaret Carney, O.S.F., and Roch Niemier, O.F.M., author
of the accompanying article and a book about pilgrimages
to Assisi—tell the stories of key places and events in the lives
of Francis and Clare.
Music by Franciscan composer Robert Hutmacher adds a
medieval flavor. Special features include interactive maps,
timelines, a detailed explanation of the symbolism in the
Cross of San Damiano and a pilgrims’ dramatization of
Clare’s departure from wealth.
A pilgrimage helps the person making it to get in touch
with the deepest strains—including God’s grace—in his or
her life. By breaking our routines, by stopping to walk in the
footsteps of holy people, we pray and reflect on our own holiness.
That, as Assisi Pilgrimage demonstrates, can happen near
In her book Francis and the San Damiano Cross: Meditations
on Spiritual Transformation, Susan Saint
Sing, a former resident of Assisi and an
active follower of Francis, takes readers
to the chapel where Francis prayed
before that cross. She recounts the spiritual
and physical transformation of
Francis as he began to “rebuild” the
church—first that run-down chapel and
later the larger Church.
The transforming message of this
cross “speaks to us still, beckoning us to repair our lives, our
relationships, our failings—in honor of Him who gave his
life there on the cross in order for us to become more in the
fullness of his presence, to be instruments of peace.”
In the Footsteps of Francis and Clare, by
Roch Niemier, O.F.M., veteran pilgrim
guide, explores the “spirituality of place”
and takes readers through the streets
of Assisi, to nearby San Damiano, Maddalena
and the Portiuncula, and also to
Greccio (where Francis celebrated
Christmas) and to La Verna (where he
received the marks of Christ’s wounds).
Pilgrimage (item D1222, $29.95) can be ordered
from St. Anthony Messenger Press (800-488-0488) or
online at catalog.AmericanCatholic.org. Francis
and the San Damiano Cross (B16735, $9.95) and In
the Footsteps of Francis and Clare (B16793, $19.95) can be
ordered there as well.