Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tau and Birkenstocks

This is the Tau.  It is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, according to some references and the nineteenth in the Greek, according to others.It is seen everywhere in Assisi, and I mean everywhere. I have lots of photos of the Tau cross and it has become for me, a reassuring sign, a constant reminder that St Francis really did exist and that what he started in the thirteenth century is still alive and well today.  Here a Tau, there a Tau, everywhere a Tau. The Tau was Francis' only signature.  He used it to mark places he had been. His own version of "George Washington Slept Here".

The Tau has become the symbol for the order started by St Francis, the "Franciscans".  Unlike the religious order of sisters started by his great pal St Claire, the brothers are by no means confined to their residences.  Instead, the Franciscans are out and about, interacting with people of all walks of life, all the time.  They are easily spotted in their brown habits and their Birkenstock sandals as they pop up everywhere in Assisi.
They seem to glide on air.  On windy days, their pointy hoods billow in the breeze and trail behind as if they were flying kites.  On cold days, those less macho are spotted sporting woolen caps, quilted vests and socks with the birks.  Those who have to wander further from their monasteries carry backpacks.They all have the same basic brown tunic, cinched at the waist by a rope-belt that is finished off by three large knots, each signifying an important rule of their order as it was handed down by the founder.  Poverty, chastity and obedience.  Simple and out there for all to see.  My friend who came to visit during my stay in Assisi, was fascinated by the friars.  He isn't Catholic and has had very little background in the faith.  He decided that they were cool and that they had very nice jobs.  I'm hesitant to ask about this year's Halloween costume.

In 2001, a woman named Elizabetta Bianchetti received an important commission.  She was employed by the company that is Italy's leading supplier of ecclesiastical clothing and she was asked to redesign the habit worn by 90 friars of the Third Order Regular.  And so, she did.  And so, the sky started to fall.  Elizabetta described the reaction to her change as "mediagenic" for it was debated, praised, and excoriated by the Italian press.  It was considered to be radical, something that never happens, not here!  What was the purpose?  Why the need?  What would Francis say?  What would the world think....Pockets!!!!!!  Two pockets.  What, one for keys and one for, lookout the sky is really falling.....a cell phone?

The new habit, as it turned out, did not go over in a big way.  The order for them was scaled down and I'm not quite sure just how many of the monks in Assisi actually own one of the radical new and improved Bianchetti designs.  Most of the higher-ups agreed that the garb designed by St. Francis in the thirteenth century transcended time and no changes would be easily embraced now....or ever.

Think about it.  Francis did just fine with his communications.  No cell phones, no text messages.  No locked doors.  No keys.  Two pockets?  Never going to happen.  The sky need not fall.

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