In the summer of 2012, a young American man, Jack, found his way to Assisi, Italy with a group of his friends. The group pulled up in their bus to a parking lot just outside the stone walls of the beautiful historical city. Jack's closest companion on the trip, David, was sleeping as they drove in.
"He missed the most breath-taking view of the countryside on the ride in just to get some sleep," Jack thought. Jack was a bit agitated that something like sleep could take precedence over such a beautiful view.
"O well," thought Jack, "It is just David being David."
As the group unloaded the bus, their guide, Padre Marco, reminded them sternly, "You must be back here three days from now at 10:00am sharp. That means you have tonight, tomorrow, and the following day to explore the town. The bus will leave at that time. If you are not here, you will be left behind."
The group carried their suitcases up a long, steep cobblestone street to their hotel, where they waited in the lobby for their rooms to be ready. As Jack waited, he looked through the picture window of the lobby and noticed an old horse-drawn cart rattle down the cobblestone street. In the cart sat three monks-all dressed in black habits-with their hoods pulled over their heads.
"Just like home," thought Jack, as he drew a connection between these Franciscan monks of Assisi, Italy and the Benedictine monks back home in Collegeville, Minnesota. He did not think much of these monks at the time, but he felt a sense of comfort relating this foreign place to the place he calls home.
"You're rooms are ready," the hotel clerk exclaimed happily to the traveling group of young men and women, with a peculiar smirk on his face.
The hotel clerk further explained, "You have the room for three nights, including this evening," as he smiled to himself. The smile was one of an inside joke, like the group was missing something. Jack was a little annoyed but after thinking for a little while, he attributed the hotel clerk's smirks to a difference in culture.
Jack and his group members settled into their rooms and unpacked while Jack swung open the hotel-room window to let in the crisp air of the Tuscan countryside. The view was extraordinary: rolling golden hills, small farmsteads interspersed about the countryside and a magnificent sun just beginning to set over the horizon.
"This is the most beautiful and peaceful place in the world," Jack thought to himself, as he captured a photograph of the lovely scene. It was a magnificent picture, but he knew he could do better. Jack's goal was to capture the most beautiful view of the Tuscan countryside to share with his girlfriend, Jill, when he returned home. Jill was the love of his life and he wanted her to fully experience the beauty of Assisi.
"If I capture the most beautiful view in Italy," Jack thought, "Jill will be so happy that she will want to marry me."
The group set off for the evening to explore the quaint town together, stopping to take in views of the beautiful Tuscan countryside as the sun set over the rolling hills. Padre Marco had been to the small town numerous times before and he guided the group with ease, telling stories of his past visits as they strolled past small shops and magnificent churches.
"The religious history is so rich in this small town," Padre Marco explained. "It is fascinating that St. Francis actually lived here and walked these streets," he went on.
Jack wanted to hear more about the economic, political, artistic and architectural history. Anything but religion, for he was not spiritual or religious.
The group continued through the winding streets. Each street looked the same: cobblestone surface lined by old, interconnected buildings. Jack noted that a person could easily get lost in a place like this, even though the town was so small. The group returned to their hotel around 10:00pm and decided to go to bed early to make the most of their second day in the tranquil little town.
Jack and David woke around 6:00am and went for a run through the winding, deserted streets. They were careful to take note of their path so they wouldn't get lost in the confusing little town. They stopped at the top of a hill, looking out over the walled-in town to the countryside. Jack knew this view was gorgeous, but not the best he could do. He would have to find another view, maybe higher up, maybe with more intriguing scenery, to bring back a picture for the love of his life. The two jogged back to their hotel, following the mental map they had made when they set off earlier that morning.
The group set off for another day of exploring. Padre Marco took them to the "Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi" to see the Franciscan monastery and view Giotto's frescos on the walls. Jack wanted nothing to do with the spiritual and religious nature of the monastery but he was intrigued by the artwork that lay within. They viewed the paintings that spanned the entire ceiling of the basilica. They were beautiful paintings, but he still had one thing on his mind: he knew he must find a beautiful landscape to capture via photograph for his girlfriend, Jill. As the group left, Jack noticed the three monks again. They were walking in a V-shaped fashion with their arms folded in front of them within their habits pulled over their heads. No one else seemed to notice the three monks conspicuously walking across the courtyard.
The group of friends ate lunch and went on their way to visit another church: Basilica di Santa Chiara. This basilica was the home of the cross that spoke to St. Francis. Jack thought to himself with overwhelming skepticism, "I guess that is what they say, anyway." Jack looked around at the artwork and architecture for a short period of time and then went out into the courtyard outside. Many group members prayed under the cross for over an hour while Jack waited patiently.
David was the first of the group to come out after praying and explained to Jack, "Something happened in there."
"What do you mean?" Jack questioned.
"Well...I was praying and suddenly the cross began to "speak" to me, just like it did to St. Francis," David explained.
"Alright, then what did it say?" Jack prodded condescendingly.
"It told me to be more faithful," David said. "I think it was right. I think it was God talked to me."
"Well that is great for you," said Jack impatiently, thinking that David was lying.
Other group members started to emerge from the church and told a similar story. Jack was convinced that they had planned their stories and were trying to trick him because each person told him almost exactly the same story as David had. Jack was still unconvinced that God would call anyone to be more faithful in such a supernatural way; he did not have faith in God and certainly did not believe in anything that wasn't practical and rational. Magic, miracles, and divine intervention did not exist in his eyes. He shook it off and didn't investigate further as to whether this was a joke or they had really experienced divine influence in their lives.
The sun was starting to set, so Padre Marco took the group back to their hotel to regroup and then head to dinner. The whole group went to a restaurant with a beautiful view of the countryside as the sun began to dip under the mountains in the distance. Jack captured a photograph, but upon review, decided it was not good enough for Jill. He was determined to capture the perfect photo. Padre Marco ordered several liters of wine for the group and they began to drink as their orders were prepared. Jack, as well as many other group members, drank until they were drunk. They ordered more wine and took a few bottles to drink after their meal. Jack and David shared a bottle of wine as they walked the streets of Assisi with the group. Padre Marco, after some difficulty with directions, got the group back to the hotel after an hour of walking. Jack was glad to be back. He had a difficult and frustrating day with all of the "spiritual" happenings. He was far too drunk to stay awake so he fell into a drunken slumber.
The next morning, Jack woke at 10:00am in a groggy state. He looked around his hotel room and no one was there. Everyone's luggage was packed and sitting on their already-made beds. He knew it was late in the morning, but he figured someone would wake him up if they were heading out for the day. Jack got up, got ready, and went to look in the lobby for the rest of his group. His group was nowhere to be found in the lobby. The hotel clerk, the one with the peculiar smirk, was at the desk and motioned for Jack to come over. The clerk handed Jack a note with a smile on his face; that same smile from before. He knew something that Jack did not.
Jack read the note: "Jack, I have decided that everyone will split up today and experience Assisi separately." Remember, we will be leaving at 10:00am tomorrow morning. Don't be late. From, Padre Marco."
This was Jack's chance. He was going to use this day to find the best view and snap a photo for his girlfriend. He wanted to marry her so bad but knew it would take something quite impressive to win her heart. He would find the perfect place that day, he knew it. Jack decided to explore the part of town he had not yet seen to find the perfect view.
He walked the cobblestone streets and peered in the shops. It seemed like every shop had religious souvenirs, for the town was known for being the home town of St. Francis and St. Clare. Jack wanted nothing to do with religious souvenirs but one shop caught his eye. Rather than the traditional crosses and rosaries, the shop had painted wooden dragons. He entered the shop and talked with the shop keeper. The old man explained that he made the dragons by hand and that there was something special about them. They are meant to be kept for use during times of dire need. Jack thought the old man was crazy as he spoke of the special dragons that help in times of need, but he bought one because he thought it looked pretty cool. He paid the old man and tucked the dragon in his bag.
As Jack left the shop, the old man stopped him and said, "Remember, that carved dragon can help you in times of need." Jack thanked the old man and chuckled as he thought to himself, "I never want to be old and senile like that old man."
Jack ate lunch at a small restaurant where he overheard two locals conversing in English. This was peculiar as nearly everyone in the remote town regularly spoke Italian. Jack overheard the two old men speak of a castle. Jack remembered that there was a castle that lay on a large hill above the large town. He knew such a vantage point would provide for the most beautiful picture of the Tuscan countryside.
Jack immediately set off for the castle, "Rocca Maggiore," so he could make it there before sundown. It was a bit of a treacherous hike and it took him an hour and a half to get to the top of the hill where the castle was standing. He ran the last 100 yards, racing against the lowering sun. He quickly snapped a picture as the sun fell beneath the distant mountains. Jack viewed the picture.
"It is too dark!" he yelled aloud. He was frustrated and angry that he had put in so much time and effort only to fail once again in capturing a beautiful view of the Tuscan countryside. He knew this was the place to take the picture, but it was just too dark. Jack decided he would take a picture in the morning, as the sun would rise over the mountains, giving enough light to capture the beautiful view. After all, he only had to be back by 10:00am, which would give him enough time to take the picture, get back to the hotel, and walk to the location of the bus to meet the group.
Jack decided to explore the outside of the castle, as the inside was closed off at this time of night. He peeked through cracks and tried to climb parts of the wall. It was an adventure and he was glad to be rid of the religious activities of the city down below. As he was climbing around, Jack's camera fell out of his bag and onto the ground, shattering the lens. Jack sat down and sobbed. He was in anguish; he had just lost his only chance of marrying his one true love. He needed that photograph to win her heart. After several minutes, he pulled himself together and began to walk back toward the city. As he began to walk, the dragon from the shop fell from Jack's bag. After seeing the dragon lying on the ground, Jack remembered what the old man had said, but Jack did not believe in miracles or magic or anything of the sort. He picked up the dragon and was about to put it back in his bag when the dragon's wings began to move. Startled, Jack quickly let go of the wooden dragon and to his surprise, it began to fly above his head breathing fire. It dipped and dove all around while breathing fire and suddenly, the dragon made a dive into Jack's bag. Jack rummaged around in his bag only to find that the dragon was nowhere to be found and his camera lens was in perfect condition. Jack was confused; he knew magic was not real.
"What just happened?" Jack thought to himself. "What in the world was that and how did a dragon made of wood fly, breath fire, and fix my camera lens?"
"The old man wasn't crazy, he was right," thought Jack. The dragon had helped him in a time of dire need.
Faster than seemed possible, 7:00am rolled around and the sun was rising over the mountains. Jack ran to find the perfect spot to take a picture; he leaned against the wall of the castle. He found the perfect view through the newly-repaired lens: the city of Assisi below with its clay-shingle roofs and cobblestone roads, the golden Tuscan countryside just above with farmsteads scattered throughout, and the burning red sun barely peaking over the prominent mountains in the distance. Jack snapped the photograph at the perfect moment. It was the best picture he had ever taken. He had finally captured the most beautiful view in all of Italy.
Jack was confused and exhausted but also relieved. He began to descend the hill away from the castle toward the city as he thought about the old man, the dragon, and the two men in the café. He was caught up in thought, bewildered by the sudden fix of his camera lens just in time to capture a picture of the Tuscan countryside at sunrise.
"How did that happen?" Jack thought, as he searched for a rational answer to the seemingly irrational evening. Was he sleep-deprived? Did that actually happen? He was confused, as many people would be.
Jack walked for about an hour before he looked up and realized he was lost. Starting to panic, as it was already 9:00am, he began to run to higher ground to get his bearings back. He suddenly realized he had no idea where to go. The town was confusing and he did not remember the location of his hotel or where the bus dropped them off three days earlier. Jack realized he only had one hour to get somewhere that he had no idea how to get to. If only he had paid attention to directions during the previous two days. Just then he saw the three monks in their cart traveling along the cobblestone road down the hill from where he stood.
The monks stopped directly below Jack but did not make a sound or gesture in his direction. Jack walked to the cart and without saying a word climbed into the back. One of the monks made a motion with the reigns and the cart took off down the road. Jack sat in the back of the cart, unsure of whether he should strike up a conversation. He had seen these three monks together on three occasions. They did not say a word. They rolled in silence through the cobblestone streets. As Jack looked around, nothing looked familiar. Eventually, they ended up at the bus stop where Jack's group was to meet. It was exactly 10:00am. Jack thanked the monks, hopped out of the cart, and went around the corner to find that everyone had already loaded the bus. He turned around and waved to the monks who were now rolling away in their cart as the members of the group watched the scene from the bus. David ran off the bus and went to question Jack.
"Where have you been, man?" asked David.
Jack explained everything that had happened to him: the old man in the shop, the men talking in the café, the trek to the castle, the broken camera lens, the magical dragon, and finally, the three monks in the cart.
As one would expect, David thought Jack was going crazy. Some of his story was believable but David expressed, "Magic dragons don't exist. Also, you just walked around that corner; there weren't any monks in a cart on the road."
At this point, the two had made it to the bus and the rest of the group verified what David had expressed to Jack: magic dragons aren't real and none of them saw a cart with three monks drop Jack off.
Jack thought to himself, "I was skeptical of their stories before but now they do not believe me. I know what I saw and experienced was real. How could they not see those monks in the cart? Were they monks? Why hadn't they talked to me?"
Jack was beginning to think, "What if they weren't actually monks but they were superhuman messengers of God? Maybe they were the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?"
Jack remembered the hotel clerk who seemed to know something that no one else did. He must know that special things happen in that town. Jack realized that something special did happen in that town. In the last three days, he set out on a task to fulfill the desire of his true love and succeeded. He learned to fully appreciate the beauty of nature and he realized that one must have faith in the extraordinary.
Jack didn't care if anyone believed his story. He knew what he experienced. He just wanted to be home to show the beautiful picture to his future wife. As the bus drove away, Jack came to find that he learned a lot about himself and about life in those three days: nature is beautiful, love prevails, and faith in God will bring you home.