Drew Dellinger, Thomas Berry, and Steve Snider in front of the Temple of Minerva in Assisi in the Piazza del Commune (1991)
Rising steeply out of the endless miles of beautiful green and yellow pastures in the Umbrian valley of central Italy, about a hundred miles north of Rome, stands a stunning, tidal wave of mountain known as Monte Subasio. Perched on its northwestern foothill, sits the ancient town of Assisi. It was in this town, surrounded by fertile farmlands and olive orchards, where I first deeply encountered the hearts and minds of two extraordinary men of global significance: Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone, also known as Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and Thomas Berry (1914-2009).
I was a 22-year-old college student in the summer of 1991, about the same age as Giovanni (aka “Francesco”) when he was captured and imprisoned seven centuries earlier during a battle with the neighboring town of Perugia. I was also about the same age as Thomas when he entered a Catholic monastery in 1934 to begin his lifelong journey of intense learning, contemplation and reflection about the state of the modern world. As a Study Abroad for the Earth (S.A.F.E.) participant, I was part of a small group of college students and adult learners who were lucky enough to travel to Assisi to study with Berry, a man considered by many as one of the greatest cultural historians, religious scholars, and ecological thinkers of the 20th century.
The buildings of Assisi were constructed over many centuries out of the pinkish-white stones from the very mountain upon which they rest. These beautiful buildings stand in stark contrast against the sloping, green backdrop of the giant mountain behind them.
Assisi is a city of steep hills, narrow, zigzagging cobblestone streets and tight alleyways that climb up and down between buildings, connecting and reconnecting secret stairwells to ancient streets. Walking Assisi’s maze of endless pathways and shortcuts in the summer is a workout that left us students short of breath and drenched in sweat. It was a playground of possibilities. In many ways, daily life may have changed little since the time of Saint Francis. Around every twist and turn you find Italian homemakers sitting quietly in their second floor windows, sweeping their front stoops, or hanging their laundry out to dry.
Assisi in the summer bustles with locals and tourists alike and is filled with great, family-run businesses such as the Hotel Posta Panoramic where we stayed. The inn provided delicious home cooked Italian meals, breathtaking views of the verdant valley below – and no air conditioning. As North Carolina natives, the lush green meadows, woodlands and mountains and the summer heat of Umbria felt familiar to both Thomas and I and made us feel at right at home.
I first encountered Tom’s work in 1987 when I was a senior in high school in my hometown of Chapel Hill. By chance, I randomly discovered Brian Swimme’s book The Universe is a Green Dragon, based on Berry’s work, at The Intimate Bookshop in Chapel Hill. Coincidently, Thomas was born 73 years earlier in 1914 in Greensboro, just 50 miles down the road. Over the course of the next four years, between 1987 and 1991, I became a big fan of Berry and reasonably well versed in his work. I had also been lucky enough to meet Thomas and hear him speak a few times at a conference in Seattle in 1990 – so at the time I thought I understood his work. But this trip to Assisi in the summer of 1991 was to be the first of three consecutive summers I spent traveling to Assisi with my lifelong friend and collaborator, Drew Dellinger, to study with our future friend and mentor. The summer of 1993 was our last trip to Assisi and also included a very memorable week-long journey with Thomas to Ecuador to visit endangered rainforests and shamans in remote villages. This trip to Ecuador was also part of the S.A.F.E. program and was a fabulous experience in its own right. However, studying with Berry in Assisi that first summer initiated a deep personal transformation of my heart and my mind, as well as a transformation of my understanding of world history, the history of the universe, and human role in the universe. In retrospect, it is clear that when I entered my first class with Thomas in Assisi in 1991, I still had a lot to learn about the heart and mind of Thomas Berry.