The secret of Saint Francis’s remarkable life may be found in the often repeated phrase from his writings, follow in His footprints, a phrase found twice in Francis’ Earlier Rule, in his letter to Brother Leo, and his letter to the Faithful. Most significantly, this key phrase is found in a beautiful prayer at the end of his Letter to the Entire Order, a prayer he wrote as he was dying: “May we be able to follow in the footprints of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” This Franciscan phrase, follow in His footprints, originates from Peter’s first letter, 1 Peter 2:21, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps,” a scripture passage often cited in Francis and Clare’s writings. In his life and writings, Francis calls people “pilgrims and strangers,” and he called people to follow in the footprints of Jesus.
Clare was deeply influenced by the teachings and life of Francis, so it is no surprise these same phrases about following in the footprints are often found in her writings as well. Clare encouraged Blessed Agnes of Prague by saying she had “held fast to the footprints (1 Pet 2:21) of Him to Whom you have merited to be joined as a Spouse.” In her Rule, Clare considered the sisters in her order to be “pilgrims and strangers in this world who serve the Lord in poverty and humility. . .” In her Testament, she recalls that “The Son of God never wished to abandon this holy poverty while He lived in the world, and our most blessed Father Francis, following His footprints, never departed, either in example or teaching, from this holy poverty which he had chosen for himself.” Clare spoke as a wise trail guide along a pilgrim path when she wrote in her Testament, “as we have set out on the path of the Lord, let us take care that we do not turn away from it by our own fault or negligence or ignorance. . .” In her Rule, approved two days before she died, Clare once again used one of Francis’ favorite metaphors for the Christian life. “Beloved daughters in Christ, because you have rejected the splendors and pleasures of the world and, following the footprints (1 Pet 2:21) of Christ Himself . . . you have chosen to live in the cloister and to serve the Lord in highest poverty. . .”
To learn more about the lives of Francis and Clare, in 2015, my wife and I made a walking pilgrimage across Umbria, seeking to follow in the footprints of Francis and Clare. We made this pilgrimage through the hilltop towns of Umbria, the land-locked, “green heart of Italy,” renowned as the land of Francis and Clare. We entered Umbria from Tuscany, driving along Lake Trasimeno, the large round lake where Saint Francis fasted for forty days during Lent in 1213 on the island called Isla Maggiore.
In the medieval hilltop town of Trevi, sixteen miles from Assisi, we checked into a former Franciscan convent, Monastery of St. Chiara, now an ecumenical retreat center. From the guesthouse, we could see the neighboring town of Montefalco clearly silhouetted across the valley at sunset. The town of Trevi sits atop a hilltop spur of the Appenine mountain range, with buildings spilling down the steep hillsides surrounded by olive groves. We walked about Trevi’s steep, narrow pathways known as viccolos, visiting the town museum located in the Church of Saint Francis, with an exhibit of the history of olive oil production, roman artifacts and sculptures, as well as frescos around the medieval cloister telling stories of the life of Saint Francis. Our lunch was outdoors at Taverna della Sette, a restaurant just off the main piazza, surrounded by terracotta colored walls. As we ate our way through various courses of beautifully prepared food, Pavarotti sang arias over the sound system.
We stayed a night in the hilltop medieval city of Montefalco, “the balcony of Umbria,” situated on a high knoll in the middle of the Spoleto Valley. We visited the Church of Saint Francis in Montefalco, with brightly colored frescos by the beloved 16th century Florentine painter Gozzoli, depicting the life of Saint Francis. Under the sanctuary chancel, we discovered a museum to monastic medieval winemaking. This church in Montefalco was also the site of a medieval wine cellar where the local Franciscan monks brought their grapes, pressed them in winepresses seen in the museum, to prepare wine for communion in the basement of the church.
Our pilgrimage took us through Bevagna, another well-preserved medieval walled Umbrian city just eleven miles from Assisi near where Francis preached to birds. On our way through town, as we listened to the voices of many songbirds, we were told Bevagna was divided long ago into four quarters, with each quarter dedicated from medieval times, into artistic districts: silk-making, wax-making, painting, and paper-making. We headed into the paper-making quarter where we met Francesco, a stout paper-maker, using tools and paper-making technology from medieval times. He took us through an hour-long tour of his medieval industry, showing us how paper was made in the time of Saint Francis by making paper from rags before our eyes. In Italy, in the Middle Ages, local paper-makers from Umbria began to add glue to the newly made paper to bind the rag content and better hold the ink. Very likely, Francis and Clare wrote upon paper made in Bevagna in their letters, rules of life, and testaments. Paper from Bevagna was also likely used by Gutenberg in 1456 when he converted his winepress into the first printing press, and produced the first machine-printed Bible.
We entered into Assisi through Porta Perlici, passing Rocca Maggiore, the ancient fortress overlooking the city where Francis and Clare lived nine centuries ago. We checked into St. Antony’s Guest House, a spacious facility run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement, located just a block uphill from the Basilica of Saint Clare. Our room featured a balcony offering us amazing views of Assisi. We arranged to stay in Assisi for seven nights, booking our room through monasterystays.com, a website of guest lodgings in convents and monasteries across Italy. Our week in Assisi included quiet mornings for prayer, study and writing at the guesthouse, trips out into the city in the afternoon to explore, times for worship and prayer at various churches across Assisi, a self-guided, historic walking tour of the sites of Francis and Clare, and delightful evening meals at various restaurants. We enjoyed several evening concerts during our week in Assisi, including the Fionian Chamber Choir from Denmark; the Scola Gregorian Assisiensen, a nine voice men’s choir from Assisi dedicated to singing Gregorian chants; and a chamber choir singing selections from Faure’s Requiem. We also heard daily outdoor concerts, including a harpist and cellist who played in the Piazza Santa Chiara, their music rising up to our balcony at the guesthouse.
One of the main reasons we came to Assisi was to follow in the footsteps of Francis and Clare, studying the life and legacy of these amazing saints in the places where they lived and prayed. During our week at Assisi, we went on walking pilgrimages around Assisi, to places related to Francis and Clare. With sparks of faith, hope, and love for Christ, Francis and Clare lit a spiritual fire that transformed their world in the 13th century, a fire that continues to transform millions of people worldwide today, including over four million pilgrims to the little town of Assisi to connect with the life and legacy of Francis and Clare.
During our week-long pilgrimage in the footprints of Francis and Clare, we took many day hikes around Assisi, to places related to Francis and Clare. We visited the Oratorio de San Francesco Piccolino, the birthplace of Francis, and Chiesa Nuova Church, the church built over the birth home of Francis. We lit candles at Chiesa Santa Maria Maggiore, the church where Francis was baptized, as well as and in Duomo San Rufino, where Clare was baptized, and where she first heard Francis preach. We walked through Piazza Vescovado where Francis gave away all his earthy possessions to begin his ministry, and we walked past Bernardo da Quintavalle’s home, where Francis lived while rebuilding San Damiano. Bernardo was one of Francis’ first disciples and followers. We walked through Porta Nuova, and less than a mile downhill from Assisi to the Convent of San Damiano, where Francis first heard a call to ministry as he meditated upon the cross. Francis spent two years rebuilding this chapel. San Damiano is also where Clare began the Order of Poor Clares, where she served faithfully for over forty years, where she wrote the first monastic rule written by a woman, and where she died. We offered our prayers by her bedside, thanking God for her faithful, prayerful life following in Christ’s footprints. We entered the Temple of Minerva, an ancient Roman temple, converted into a Benedictine Abbey Church at the time of Francis, where Francis received the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as the first governing guide for his order of monks. We walked up narrow viccolos to Chiesa San Stefano, one of the oldest and most unadorned churches in Assisi, truly embodying the spirit of Franciscan spirituality within her walls. It is spoken that the bells of San Stefano rang of their own at the moment of Francis’ death in 1226. Of course we trekked across to the Basilica of San Francesco, built two years after Francis died to honor his life on the site where executions had taken place in Assisi. Francis’ body is buried there in the crypt, beneath marvelously painted and frescoed sanctuaries, adorned by some of the greatest painters of the high Middle Ages and Renaissance, including many scenes of the life of Saint Francis by Giotto. One evening, we walked to Chiesa Santa Chiara, where Clare’s body is buried, to join the sisters for Vespers. We walked walk five miles round-trip, out of Assisi, up the side of Mount Subasio, through forests, to Eremo della Carceri, a prayer hermitage used often by Francis and his followers during his lifetime. The Eremo della Carceri radiates humility and simplicity in the Franciscan way of spiritual life with God, beautifully expressing the prayerful spirit of Francis. Along the way to the hermitage, we took time to pause for prayer and look out across the fertile Spoleto Valley, reflecting upon the lives of Frances and Clare who walked this valley nine centuries ago, “with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even [their] steps stir[red] up no dust, [they walked] forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness,” “following in the footprints of the poor and humble Jesus Christ.”
 Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. and Ignatius C Brady, O.F.M., trans., Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 61 (emphasis added).
 Armstrong, Francis and Clare, from The Second Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 195, (emphasis added).
 Armstrong, Francis and Clare, 219.
 Armstrong, Francis and Clare, 229 (emphasis added).
 Armstrong, Francis and Clare, 232.
 Armstrong, Francis and Clare, 210 (emphasis original).
 Armstrong, Francis and Clare, from Clare’s Second Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 196; and from Clare’s Third Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 199.