Sacred Layers


St. Francis died on the floor of a church so small that two people standing with arms outstretched could touch its lateral walls. It's called the Portiuncula: an apt diminutive. This was the place he came when he felt the call to be like God and gave up everything, running with arms outstretched to embrace what Christ embraced—poverty, chastity; the outcast, the leprous—and he ran there again to strip himself of the tunic he had borrowed of the world and embrace that last of his siblings, Sister Death.

Now the Portiuncula nestles, not in the Italian countryside, but within another church: a sweeping marble plain and massive pillars converge on the little stone chapel lit by the cupula yawning above. He who enters the first church is surprised to find his view of the altar obscured by the second: an oddity among ecclesial structures, to be sure, and one not easily forgotten.

Last year I so entered, and in such manner was surprised. We walked through the vast Baroque doors into a funeral Mass; the expanse of floor was choked with people, and somewhere, off beyond that chapel with its little spire, a lector was in the midst of his reading.

I threaded through the crowd in that holy place to the holy place where a holy man had gone to meet his Beloved.

And I prayed. A prayer, within a church, within a Mass, within a church. Words and spaces tumbled over one another, superimposed. And there was in that surreal moment something symbolic, something almost liturgical (in the way that liturgy lets us say with our bodies what our syllables cannot); something to be treasured in the heart, and returned to.

In this post, I have returned.


It's easy to think of time as linear: every day we are a day's space further from the time of Our Lord. His life is borne on the tide of the past away from us, the dust of antiquity blurring His deeds and words. But eternity brooks no geometry. We can no more get further from Christ by the mere succession of moments than we could get further from a room by walking around in it.

And yet—how far our hearts can be from Him, how lonely in our own homes.

Our seeking is the opening of our eyes to find that we are already encompassed. That plaintive cry which we thought so much our own is only an echo of His, and our longing springs from His love.

So our prayer (mewling, insufficient, devoid of proper words) rests in a prayer which protects it, sustains it, and speaks when it cannot.

I think of Mary's yes. When I cannot conceive of God wanting to dwell with me; when that seed of despair sown by the fall, the tare whose roots run so deeply into my soul, seem to make a mockery of the possibility that I might be loved; then I can run to Mary's yes and climb inside of it and be glad that it is so strong and so much bigger than my own belief, and that, when feelings fail, her great faith can cradle mine. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.

And even her yes, Lord, was nestled inside of Yours.

When I don't believe: let Your incarnate surrender help my unbelief. When I can't muster the strength to trust, let me remember that You have trusted perfectly on my behalf. When I'm rocking and wakeful in the storm, carry me in the sleep You slept in her womb—and Your Father's hands.

Surely it is not only prayer which is concentric; for He Who gave us words for God was Himself the Word, enfleshed.  

The moments of His life are not passed, but around us, encompassing all of time.

They are shelters on our pilgrimage, mysteries in which we dwell on our journey home.

Every heart is Nazareth, and Gethsemane.

So our lives are His in Whom we live, and move, and are. We say our prayer with the very Breath He breathes in us. And our grief bears more than a coincidental likeness to the cross; our every darkness is already His two thousand years ago.

The mind, chronological, rebels. Perhaps only a symbol will do; perhaps only a church within a church can give any clue to the strange life of the man who ran to die there.


St. Francis, deep in the pines of Mt. La Verna, stepped past the threshold of time and place and discovered Calvary. And when the night which had covered him withdrew, there were wounds in his hands and feet.

St. Francis died with his arms outstretched, marked with the wounds of Christ.

As though minutes, too, could be wrapped around one another; could converse across the centuries; could be held at once in a larger Now.

As though all our mortal life were lived in the Heart of God.

Jessica McCaleb