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Finding Happiness

While visiting a spiritual community in northern California called Ananda (meaning “Joy”) an investigative journalist armed with a fair amount of skepticism and a dash of curiosity discovers that the key to finding happiness comes from within and that when you change, everything changes.

Friday, October 24, 2014

At La Verna, St Francis asks: Must Devotees Suffer?

So, now we come to my last blog installment on our trip "In the footsteps of St. Francis." We come, at last, to his hilltop retreat, La Verna, in the Tuscan hills. Two years before his death, St. Francis, while on retreat there, received the wounds of Jesus Christ upon his body. He was undertaking a forty day fast when he had an intense vision in which he simultaneously experienced compassion for the suffering of Jesus on the cross AND great love for Christ and joy in the experience itself. After this, his body was left with the five wounds (feet, hands and side) of Christ. Francis was the first in history to receive this "grace" known as the "stigmata." At another occasion, Jesus Christ appeared to Francis in the flesh and sat with him upon a rock and conversed.

For these, and other, sacred events in Francis' life, La Verna has been a place of pilgrimage for eight centuries. Right before his death and as he left La Verna for the last time, he assigned to the brothers the duty to hold La Verna in perpetuity as a sacred place in memory of the blessings received there.

We pilgrims have been progressing deeper and deeper into our souls on this trip: first the fun and inspiration and amazement of Rome and Florence. Then to Assisi, to Ananda, and to the shrines there. And now, in our final days on this trip, we had two nights on these sacred grounds. The two nights allowed us to dedicate an entire day in silence, unscheduled, that we might individually go deep in prayer, meditation and contemplation. It is here that the metal of our journey's intention would be burnished in the flame of devotion and inner communion. It was to be here that the stigmata of our spiritual efforts would be imprinted upon our hearts, tested in the crucible of inner silence.

I cannot, of course, speak for other individuals in this but for those who saw the opportunity for what it was -- the apex or focal point of concentration for the intentions of our pilgrimage  -- it was a golden, if intense, time. Perhaps some did not find it necessary, but surely some felt hovering over them the reflection of St. Francis' life in the mirror of our own. His complete, indeed radical, commitment to God cannot help but expose our own to inner review.

Another challenge hovers, too: must we, also, carry such a cross of self-abnegation to achieve Self-realization? Does the spiritual path truly call us, require from us, exact from us such human deprivation as we see in the lives of St. Francis, St. Clare and many others? In such a place where God met man, where the "Word was made flesh, where heaven came to earth, the question begs an answer and anything less is evasion. The gauntlet of our life's purpose was thrown, as it were, in our face, on this mountain of spiritual aspiration.

Amusingly, however, visitors are conveniently offered a shield from this inner questioning by the disingenuous fact of large quantities of excellent food served daily -- as if Francis had complained of his treatment there (while fasting) and the monks felt they needed to make amends to all future generations. A bar, too, graces the dining room where not just coffee but alcoholic drinks can be ordered, along with a pleasing selection of candies, chocolates and goodies lest one's retreat be too great a cross to bear! Amazing, eh? "Reality runs up your spine," to quote Elton John! (The Franciscans evidently outsourced the operations to a commercial establishment.) At times, the din in the halls and dining room rivaled the Colosseum! Strange, eh? I even saw an upstairs room marked "TV Room." In another room was a vending machine for coffee and espresso.

But we pilgrims didn't come all this way to duck and run. We were not inclined to evade the shadow of the cross. Our strength, however, lie in the "joy of seeking Him," the joy of meditation. We had already been meditating frequently and deeply together and individually throughout the trip, at Ananda and in Assisi. Our joy level was both our shield from self-delusion and our sword of inner awareness.

What means the Christian (over) emphasis upon suffering, crucifixion, and pain? Is suffering the hallmark of the Christian life? Hmmmm: Is not to live, to suffer? Did not the Buddha discover that life for all beings was marked by disease, old age and death? Can anyone escape this three-fold suffering? No! But suffering is not the exclusive mark of a Christian: millions suffer and not because they are truthseekers! [I won't deny the teaching, however, that one who, to the degree of his earnestness, seeks freedom in God, will, by choice and by the necessity to overcome past, bad karma and pay for the "pearl of great price," attract tests necessary for purification.]

In former times and according to a view of history which Paramhansa Yogananda taught (having received it from his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar), the time of Jesus Christ and the centuries which we call medieval times represented a low point in a long and recurring cycle (some 24,000 years) of consciousness on this planet. This relatively dark cycle (or "yuga") is called (in India), the "Kali Yuga." In this cycle, the general run of humanity cannot perceive subtleties beyond physical appearances. Buildings are large and made of rock, built with human hands, by slaves. Social mobility is non-existent. Authority is absolute. Humans identify themselves only with their physical bodies and thus imagine that if there's a heaven they will go there in their current physical bodies, forever an ego and separate from God, strumming harps and praising Him for an eternity!

God responds to human needs according to the capacity of our "eyes to see and our ears hear." Thus, in an age of such relative dark consciousness, Jesus' body had to be resurrected as a sort "ultimate" proof of his divinity; the penultimate mark of sanctity became the incorruptibility of the saints' bodies; physical suffering came to characterize the spiritual life. To be spiritual required rejecting family life in favor of a monastery; it required celibacy and living in poverty under strict obedience. One would practice all manner of physical and mental austerities such as self-flagellation and self-abasement to suppress sense temptations and root out any ego-active tendencies.

These attitudes and practices no longer inspire sincere seekers of truth, devotees of God, and servants of humanity. Fact is, and using, as we must, St. Francis as an example, he was a saint of great joy, as, indeed, are all true saints, east and west. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was (and is) loved by all because he loved all as children of God. Even Jesus Christ, so often depicted as a "man of sorrows," could not have attracted a large following with a sour and somber attitude. "A sad saint is a sorry saint, indeed" said Francis de Sales (a Christian saint). Or, as Teresa of Avila put it, "A sad nun is a bad nun!"

"What comes of its own, let it come" Paramhansa Yogananda counseled. In this new age, called the second age, Dwapara Yuga, an age of high energy, intelligence, and expanding consciousness, it is happiness (joy) that we seek. We see our potential; we have faith in ourselves, and in the future (because we are in now an ascending cycle of consciousness where things can only get "better," or so we are wont to affirm). It is joy that inspires us. And yet, when pain, disappointment, failure, suffering, or death touch us, as they must at some point, our joy, if it is true and of the Self, will allow us to remain "standing amidst the crash of breaking worlds."

The test of the crucifixion, of human suffering in general, is whether it crushes us, or whether we can transcend that temptation by remaining even-minded, cheerful and calmly holding on to our faith in the goodness (God-ness) that lies at the heart of all creation, and of all circumstances. Easier said than done, I grant you, but this is not only a test of spiritual path but it is the only way to live and remain sane!

The ability of the human spirit to contend with and transcend suffering, defeat and challenges of all kinds is the greatest witness to our own, innate divinity. THIS is what the saints (and others) can model for us. During Kali Yuga the spiritual aspirant was tested "by the cross." But for us now, "the payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy." (Quoting the Festival of Light ceremony used at Ananda temples and centers at Sunday Services.)

We can, therefore, honor and celebrate the victory of Jesus' resurrection (the power of love) over hatred (crucifixion & death), the victory of martyrdom (a test of faith and courage) over persecution (misunderstanding), and the attainment of perfect joy in the midst of troubles because we know that "joy is the fruit of love for God." We may, now in Dwapara Yuga, be motivated not by the courage and strength to endure difficulties in the imitation of Christ, but for the bliss and joy inherent in God and in the superconscious state of our soul. For this we undertake the discipline of meditation, the willingness to serve high ideals selflessly, the commitment of living simply and with self-control, and a life of prayer and devotion. But for all of that, so, too, will come tests and trials. In pleasure or in pain, we remain: even-minded and cheerful!

Oh, gee, did I mention La Verna, yet? I'll plop some pictures into this soon, but let me return to earth with some descriptions. La Verna is somewhere between Assisi and Florence in the Tuscan Apennines, at about 4,000 feet altitude on the flanks of Mt. Penna. It's not difficult to get to but you're talking winding country roads, beautiful countryside, and not too far from a nearby autostrada. I doubt there's public transportation to it, but we had our rented vans, so I don't really know.

The complex of buildings and facilities, though somewhat hidden in the lovely forest, is surprisingly large. I was told of another complete complex of buildings with lodgings apart from ours. But ours is at the center of the important chapels and shrines. These buildings are of stone and are of a monastic origin and design. Labyrinthine hallways, with arched ceilings in the gothic style, weave to and fro, with staircases going up and down and all around; courtyards appear from nowhere, whether inside the four walls or outside. There is a maze of rambling and mysterious rooms, many with locked, heavy wooden doors, closed to our natural curiosity but open to our fertile imaginations. Nuns and monks can be envisioned darting furtively in and out of secret rooms, setting, as it were, the stage for a classic Agatha Christie novel! One is prepared to hear voices from locations untraceable. Add a heavy dose of fog and, all in all, it's quite a place!!!!!

There's a patio, plaza or piazza outside the mini-Basilica that overlooks the Cosentino Valley, which at our visit, was beginning to unveil the lovely colors of Fall. Overlooking that valley, as if to remind, chastise, or inspire the villagers below, stands a very tall, but stark, wooden cross. The basilica has a number of lovely art pieces by Andrea della Robbia. Adjacent to it is a small chapel (St. Mary of the Angels) which, in a vision, St. Francis was told by the Blessed Mother to build. He was given its dimensions which were exactly the same as that of the tiny chapel of the Porziuncula near Assisi. Its walls contain the choir seats for monks and nuns: there are no pews. I meditated there, and we as a group, several times. It is very still and deeply precious.

The most sacred spot is the Chapel of the Stigmata. It encloses the rock on which Francis received the stigmata. The rock has been covered by glass to prevent pilgrims from chiseling pieces off of it! A slightly hidden room off to the side contains within it a jutting segment of the actual rock. If you are bold, you unhook the rope and try the latch to see if it's unlocked, going inside to meditate and pray. The Stigmata Chapel also has the wooden choir seats along the sides. This is where you want to meditate, for sure! I, and others, found, that despite there being plenty of visitors and retreatants on the grounds at large, one could meditate there all by oneself for, say, an hour or more with no one else there! I cannot begin to describe that experience but I prayed for the strength to remain unceasingly in self-offering to God's presence and will in my life; and, to go ever deeper towards God's love and joy that I might share with others as I have received.

On the outer perimeter of the Stigmata Chapel are tiny cells (now tiny chapels) where various saintly monks had once lived. One door leads out along a rock ledge perched high up on the edge of the rock on which the building sits. It winds around the outside wall giving spectacular views before returning inside through an almost secret chapel. Fortunately, there is a hand rail but it's a straight drop down to the forest below! It is positively and stunningly breathtaking.

A long covered hallway protects pilgrims walking from the basilica to the stigmata chapel. It has murals depicting important events from Francis' life. Along the wide passageway there is a tiny doorway that opens into an inner courtyard of giant rock formations. The path leads a few yards down under some of these huge boulders to a spot where Francis was known to sleep. A grate has protectively been placed upon the spot: again, to protect it from relic hounds. But, wow, the energy there is enormous and the silence is as thick as the rocks themselves.

Across from the basilica doors and down some slippery stone steps one finds another, somewhat primitive domed chapel -- the Chapel of Mary Magdalene -- maybe twenty feet in diameter; a few crude wooden chairs have been placed in there. The stone altar contains, under glass, the stone where Jesus sat, in the flesh, talking with Francis! Like: wow! We had two group meditations there and I meditated there on my own as well. It's almost, well, spooky, especially late at night when the wind is howling!

If you follow the steps past the path to this chapel you go down amidst another group of gigantic rocks called the Sasso Spico: the Projecting Rock. Here is a place where Francis prayed and meditated. One time, while meditating on the passion of Christ, it was revealed to Francis that the dramatic rock formations and chasms of La Verna were created at the time of Jesus' crucifixion as indicated in the New Testament: "the rocks split" (Matt: 27:14). Who knows, but as many believe that there are on the earth "power spots," it is not so difficult to imagine that La Verne was destined to attract and hold the sacred vibrations of St. Francis' spiritual glory. A simple wooden cross marks the spot, under the overhang of an enormous rock, where Francis would pray.

When I was there, I saw no one. With the wetness of fog and drizzle dripping off the rocks and ferns, I settled in for a very deep meditation where no footsteps or outer sounds dare intrude!

I did find some free time to hike up Mt. Penna through the forest. This is more primitive, though friars did meditate and live up along parts of this, too. It is a solitary walk, very peaceful and entrancing in its colors of green, brown, yellow and red; its carpet of leaves, its ancient, gnarly roots, intertwining the path like some aged and great snake.

On our second night, after dinner (when we broke our silence to share a little bit), a storm descended upon us with blowing, cold fog and rain. Fog hugged the outdoor lights and the feeling of antiquity and mystery came upon the place like a kind of "Twilight Zone," a kind of alternate universe without tick, tock or clock. I attempted to brave the elements and find thrill in the the storm by going out after dinner for a walk but with the wind and rain, blowing sideways, I could barely stand and my thin Fall apparel seemed to melt into my skin. I meditated briefly at a tiny chapel lit only with candlelight but as I had heard stories of being locked out of the facility and having to stay outside overnight, my "second thoughts" returned me to my room. The whole place was "dead" silent. All had returned to their rooms after dinner.

Early the next morning we were supposed to meditate in the simple stone chapel of Mary Magdalene with the rock where Jesus appeared but the storm was so intense, the fog so thick, that we decided to move the morning meditation to the chapel St. Mary of the Angels. After breakfast and after checking out, we were going to allow ourselves more time to be there but the weather was so inclement that we packed up the vans and headed south to Rome.

By late afternoon we were at the seacoast of Ostia (near Rome and the airport), relaxing in the warm, humid Mediterranean air, watching a glorious sunset, before having dinner outside at the waterfront under the stars: pizza, salad, pasta and laughter born of open hearts. All in all, we were refreshed in body, mind and soul! It was difficult to contrast the morning wind and fog with the afternoon beach weather and view.

Thank you for hanging in there with these articles. Stay tuned for future pilgrimages! Here, then are some pictures!






May the stigmata of your victories over delusion be your badge of soul-honor!
Nayaswami Hriman

Thursday, October 23, 2014

St. Francis Walks On Ahead....

In the last article we left off visiting the little chapel, the Porziuncula, near the town of Assisi. The two other primary sacred places we visited where the hillside caves of Eremo delle Carceri, sometimes pronounced L'Eremo, and, the church of Santa Chiara.

I went twice to L'Eremo. It's up the steep hillside of Mt. Subasio, accessed quite near the north gate of the town of Assisi (the gate whose road leads uphill towards the Ananda Center and Community). It's so high up that you look down on La Rocca, the stronghold and fort that towers over Assisi.

L'Eremo was one of the places for prayer and retreat that St. Francis and his brothers used. There are rock formations and mini-caves that the brothers used. The still existing dens are marked with signs showing which of the famous brothers used which cave. Now there's a complex of stone buildings, of course, but the whole area is saturated with vibrations of peace and light. It's heavily wooded but over time there are paths, but once off the mostly level main boulevard walking path, the paths down into the canyon and to the stone huts and caves are very real hiking paths.

It is incredibly peaceful there and much easier to meditate for long periods, uninterruptedly, than anywhere else. There are surprisingly many people who stroll the grounds as the place is famous but if you don't mind a few people walking past you while you are meditating (and you stay off the main, wide walking path), it's really worth it. Here, for this article, words fail to convey the intensity in meditation and the joy I felt there. I have some pictures, but they, too, fall rather short of the mark.

Let's simply say that for those who are serious about prayer and meditation, L'Eremo is a MUST.

This blog system is not picture friendly, so I'll just plop some down right here:


The other spiritual hotspot is the church, Santa Chiara. It has two distinct features: St. Clare's body lies "in state" there, and, the cross (originally from San Damiano) that "spoke" to Francis is displayed there. This church is normally crowded but if you're lucky you can hit a quiet moment. The line down to the tomb can long, hot, and slow and you get a few seconds to look at the body on display. If you step back out of the line you can stand there a few minutes to pray if you like, but you're likely to get bumped.

Upstairs in a side chapel hangs the special cross and it's easier to sit in a pew there and pray and meditate, though there's plenty of movement all around you. I enjoyed going there twice but I didn't stay very long though I certainly felt uplifted. I lucked out on my second visit and the place was virtually empty. I rushed downstairs and prayer before the body without being hassled. I prayed for the strength and purity of intention and resolution that Clare so obviously radiated and felt very uplifted.

Across the main plaza tourists frequently visit the ancient Minerva Temple from Roman times. It was long since converted into a church. I can't say there's any super-special vibration there but it certainly is beautiful, artistically-wise. I did sit and meditate for a few minutes and it is very peaceful in there. It was, of course, there during Francis' life and so I assume he prayed there, too.

Wandering the streets of Assisi is a trip in time and space itself. Enjoying a meal, a coffee, or a gelato along the ancient narrow cobblestone streets is well worth it. A few photos to share which include the Minerva Temple/Church inside and out.


I want now to share with you the inspiration felt at Ananda itself: high above the town of Assisi. When members of Ananda visit another Ananda community outside America (say, Italy or India) one discovers that even if we don't speak the same language, you feel instantly at home. The Temple of Light is where most meditations take place and we participated in various ones, plus a Sunday Service, plus Padma and I "officiated" at a marriage vow renewal ceremony for two of our pilgrim friends. Here one can meditate without the cross-currents of tourists and the vibrations of others, even in prayer, for the vibration of Catholicism is very strong in Italy. So here, at Ananda, we were truly at home and uplifted in the vibration of kriya yoga, Self-realization and our guru, Paramhansa Yogananda.

The absolute highlight, meditation-wise, however is the former home of Swami Kriyananda. It's about a kilometer from the main Ananda Il Refugio complex and just off the road along a tiny tree-lined lane. This is where he lived, sometimes many months at a time, and, where he died, April 21, 2013. In his bedroom and on his bed is the robe he was wearing the morning he left his body. His tiny meditation room is just off the bedroom, as is, of course the adjacent living room and dining room. It is all lovingly preserved the way it was on that day in April. He named his home, "Seva Kutir." This is Sanskrit and means roughly "A Home Dedicated to Divine Service."

I believe we had four meditations there. We'd take turns being in the bedroom or in the living room. It is here that the unique and heartfelt vibrations of our chosen spiritual path and line of preceptors can be felt most strongly and purely, especially in the form of calm, clear joy. Some pictures below:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

St. Francis - Ahead of His Time, and Still Here!

Wednesday, October 8, we arrived by train from Florence to Bastia, one train stop short of the town of Assisi, Italy. Rented vans took us "up the hill:" around the outer periphery of the charming and beautiful town of Assisi, and out the "north gate" at the top of the town. The road, SS 444, winds its way up the hills that coalesce into a mountain, around and behind Mt. Subasio upon whose western flank the town of Assisi clings.

The terrain is eerily reminiscent of the Sierra Nevada foothills around Nevada City/Grass Valley, CA where the first Ananda community was established. Night was falling as we climbed higher and higher up the mountain. At the top, the road levels off, though still curving around, before descending the other side into another valley. Along the ridge, then, sits Ananda Assisi: a retreat center and intentional community, with affiliated businesses (both community and personal) and private homes strung along SS444 in both directions.

The central feature and gathering place for Ananda Assisi is the former hotel building, Il Refugio. Here guest registration takes place; a book and gift store exists, guest rooms on several floors, an outdoor cafe and gazebo, ancillary administration bungalows, and the main feature, though hidden from the road, is the Temple of Light where meditations and classes are held.

We arrived for a late dinner which is taken in silence until about half way through. Announcements are made in Italian, with some concessions made for groups our size for English speakers, and other languages (Russian and German, esp.) as required. Peruse, if you like,

After dinner, our vans took us further along the road (what, less than one mile?), to our accommodations: a rented facility called Il Ritero ("the retreat"). On both sides of the main two story rock building, are strip-like hotel bungalows (four or five simple units in one "strip"). These housed most of us. They are clean and simple. Bathrooms there are curious: when you shower it wets the entire bathroom, toilet, bidet, sink, your stuff.....everything! Not sure why this cultural nuance, but it seems pervasive and tenacious, all reason and convenience aside.

Padma and I were housed in a lovely little duplex a few hundred yards from the main center and across the street. Two or three others were even closer in a large 3-story building named "Brindaban" (the name of the town in India where Krishna lived).

The next morning, Thursday, a weekly 3-hour meditation took place (and every week) beginning at 6 a.m. It's followed by breakfast in silence. Bread, toast, fruit, oatmeal, butter, peanut butter, and jam, with tea and coffee and milk, comprise the typical fare. We got pancakes that morning, as I recall, in addition!

The rolling hills of Umbria alternate forested areas with areas of cultivation and pasture. In the Fall, hunters emerge from towns in the region to hunt. Thing is, they bring their own birds in cages; let them loose, and then, in manly fashion, shoot them. Retrieved by their ever faithful hounds, they, no doubt, return home proudly displaying their courage and skills.

With or without seasonal hunters, the hills are alive with beauty and serenity. There can be no doubt that St. Francis and his band of brothers walked these hills chanting God's name. There is no doubt that this land is blessed by the descent of grace into human form. It lingers in the soft breezes, in the warm sunshine, in the flashes of lightening and the crashing of  thunder, in the powder blue and happy yellow flowers that spring up on their own all around, and in the deep silence of the still night air.

In May, red poppies appear and populate fields throughout the region. Quaint farmhouses dot the hills, with pretty little gardens and stately trees in attendance. Broad panoramas of hills and distant mountains leap out at you as you round a turn in the country road that hugs the hillsides lovingly.

Our first outing was to the giant Basilica of St. Francis which dominates the western end of the small town. A sharp contrast to Francis' simplicity and lifestyle, it nonetheless is a focal point of devotion for millions.
Three stories beneath its frescoed ceiling is Francis' tomb, and that of several of his closest brothers. It's been called into question whether his body is there, but I find that kind of doubting unhelpful. If for no other reason than the devotion of millions, I found meditating there in the pews very peaceful and uplifting.

We had an official tour given by a Franciscan priest from New Jersey. We used the headsets that tourists and their guides use. His humor was extremely irreverent but even he could not obfuscate the spiritual vibration of the relics, art, and sanctity of the place. It was interesting that he wove his theology into his patter but used phrases like "making good decisions" in life (ergo, going to heaven) and "finding happiness!"

By pre-arrangement, he took us outside the public areas and into the rooms of St. Joseph of Cupertino. Joseph was a simple, humble and, I believe, all but illiterate priest who lived about a century after Francis. His story is quite remarkable and his claim to fame is the fact that he often was seen, publicly and by crowds, to levitate in ecstasy while attempting to "say" Mass. But with our intellectual tour guide, our stay there was rather limited. We sang a song together and had a few moments of silence. [Many years ago, Padma and I were able to go into those rooms with Shivani Lucki and meditate there on our own for a much longer period of time. A few days later, our pilgrims traveled by van to Joseph's home town where his incorrupt body remains on display.]

On our way up the hill back to our vans, we stopped at a very sweet, pleasant, shaded and wholly genuine outdoor cafe for capucchino. Then back to the Ananda Center for lunch and a tour of Ananda. The tour took us to the Inner Life offices and warehouse a few kilometers past the center and down the mountain in a tiny village; to the offices of the publishing house for our books in Italian, to the art gallery and workshop for several resident artists, to a member-owned organic farm (just like ours on Camano Island), and more. As much as I am tempted to speak of the Ananda community and center there and their years of dedication and the growth of it against all odds, I think I'll stick to my subject (yes, for a change!).

That evening after dinner, we were treated to a concert of music by their choir and some musicians. Many key resident members were away at the time of our visit, being just after the intensely busy summer retreat season, but they rousted enough voices to charm and inspire us. Music, like Italian cuisine, art, and countryside, has a mellifluous, light and harmonious quality that is its very own. I liken it to what happens when you buy the excellent Italian coffee and bring it home to America. It's good, but can never quite taste as good as it does in Italy. So, too, the songs they sang were familiar to us all (composed by Ananda's founder, Swami Kriyananda) and our choral groups do a wonderful job here, too, but's not the same.....

The next day we went back to the town of Assisi to the convent of St. (Sister) Clare, called San Damiano. In St. Francis' time, it was a run down church where he prayed and where the crucifix came alive and Jesus spoke to Francis saying, "Rebuild my church!" (Now that same crucifix is to be seen in the town of Assisi at the church there dedicated to St. Claire, called, surprisingly, Santa Chiara!)

I may be speculating here but to me, and I'm sure to others, Claire was to Francis as Teresa (of Avila) was to John of the Cross: each a reflector to the other in a relationship as pure and as inspired as any such could ever be. The poignant and touching story of Clare, a beautiful teenage girl born of a prominent and wealthy family in Assisi (like Francis himself), being inspired by Francis' conversion and total dedication to Lady Poverty and his guru, Jesus Christ, secretly leaves her life of luxury and pleasure to follow Francis. They were obviously, in a sense, "spoiled rich kids" of the town and of course knew each other. Francis, formerly, the party guy in the town, was naturally well liked and well known. But, as is true in the life of many saints, both east and west, these two souls, born by past spiritual karma into position and opportunity, were but disguised saints whose "coming out" had to wait for the right moment.

The famous scene where Francis, surrounded by the very few brothers who had at that early stage come to follow him (also, upper class "boys" like himself), cuts Clare's beautiful hair in a symbolic but very real act of renunciation that is like no other. Artists down through the centuries have been inspired to depict this life-changing and archetypal event which touches us on a deep level. Her sanctity and her spiritualized love for St. Francis is one of the all time greatest stories ever told. Francis rarely permitted himself to express his feelings to her outwardly but there is no doubt of their mutual feeling, depth and purity. (I'm not here to tell their story, so I must move on).

But I say this because the spiritual power of the old convent and its utterly stark and intense simplicity, expressive of the seemingly harsh life the sisters lived there, is like pure light and crystal clear water, untainted by anything merely mortal or mundane, even if all that is tangibly left speaks of their life of material lack. The vibration of God, unseen but powerfully felt, pulses from the very stones.

Another spiritual power spot is the Porciuncula, the second little chapel that Francis and friends helped restore. As is well known, a large Basilica was built over the top of it and while not commenting on the incongruity of it all, it does protect the chapel from the weather. It's hard to get a seat in the "toy" chapel but it is well worth whatever wait is required. Swami Kriyananda, Ananda's founder, praying there many years ago, felt intense sweetness. In prayer he asked St. Francis, "How is such sweetness possible?" The answer he received was "by never judging." Whew! It is also the place where Francis died and a place where many events of his life took place. It, too, is not to be missed. And after an hour or two of prayer and upliftment, you can reward your efforts and share a gelato across the street with St. Francis looking over your shoulder -- sweetly.

Well, let's take a break, shall we? We'll return to Ananda and to Assisi in our next installment.

The blessings continue and the main reason I write these is so I can "go back!"

Swami Hrimananda