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Want to cram for the papal visit to the United States? Xavier University offering weekend workshops to help prepare.  Read more here.

In this 500th anniversary of Teresa of Avila’s birth, events around the country and in Europe are exploring Teresa’s impact and legacy. A featured keynote speaker in three such conferences, Gillian was recently interviewed for National Catholic Reporter.

Read the article here.

Waking up in Assisi isn’t quite like waking up anywhere else. But once you have known morning in Assisi, it is perhaps a little easier to wake up anywhere in the embrace of God.

The birds, soaring and singing; the bells of churches pealing; the greens and golds of the valley below; a pure and unbridled air entering your lungs–all the elements here speak of new life. Each day is a visceral reminder of the joy and goodness of life and of love.

I bring people to Assisi every year, and it is a single privilege and joy and blessing to do so. We walk in the footsteps of Francis and Clare in a way that allows them to speak to us through the centuries, until they, too, are walking with us. I like to say that, every year, I get to see people fall in love. And it is true. We fall in love, with life and with God, again, every year. And the effects are palpable.

In this blog, I invite you to walk with us, vicariously, as we open ourselves to the lessons of these passionate and wonderful human beings.

Chiesa NuovaThe DNA of Francis is pure mystery. How Pietro di Bernadone, a cloth merchant aggressively seeking his fortune, and gentle Pica, with her elegant Provençal ways, created one of the world’s most sensitive human beings is a testament to the subtleties of the Spirit. Two more different people could hardly be imagined.

We visit the church built over Francis’ birth home and the layers of complexity unravel. Francis, learning songs and tales of chivalry from his mother. Coming home in the wee hours after nights of carousing and revelry. Apprenticed into the family business yet dreaming of knighthood. Ransomed from prison only to find home almost as conflictual.

Our visit to Chisa Nuova commemorates both Francis’s family of origin and the kinds of relational tensions and conflicts that profound change sometimes provokes. In our reflections we note the dynamics of spiritual growth and the kinds of relational support that our growth requires. We ask which of the relationships in our lives are helping us grow toward our spiritual and human potential and grow in gratitude for those who walk with us on the journey.

In Perugia the plot only thickens. In 1202, at the age of 20, Francis joins others in an elite cavalry to defend the interests of Asissi in battle against the neighboring Perugians. Struck down in battle at Collestrada, his armor signals his potential value to his captors, who take him back to Perugia and hold him for ransom. Francis spends about a year there as a prisoner of war.

We follow him to Perugia, where we go first to the National Gallery of Umbrian Art to behold the images of Christ, Mary and the saints that stud its walls. Quietly we take in the beauty of intimacy between mother and child, the reality of the living God sacralizing the human story.

Sated, we descend the escalators and walk silently through the medieval maze below the modern city, where it is easy to imagine Francis’ year of imprisonment. The contrast of luxury and light up above to the dank darkness down below could hardly be more stark. We remember all those still trapped in spaces of darkness, violence, injustice, and distress and head back to Assisi for long conversation.


La-Maddalena“When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter to me to see lepers. But then God drew me near them, and I felt loving kindness for them. Then after some thought, I left the world.”

This paraphrase of Francis’ Testament helps us to understand the primacy of the scorned and rejected in his experience of God. Most of his biographers do not highlight the centrality of how Francis came to find God (and, concurrently, to grow toward his own authenticity as a person) in this space of profound tenderness. (In fact, the famous Giotto fresco cycle in the upper basilica of San Francesco eliminates this central moment in the narrative of Francis’ life entirely, whitewashing, as it were, the lepers from viewers’ understanding of Francis’ story.

Consequently, most visual and textual sources do not capture the centrality of encounter and of relationship with god, known through the marginalized, that is the core of the Franciscan charism. But those of us who enter this tender space, the church built over one of the leper colonies in the valley below Assisi, honor God’s invitation to poverty, simplicity, and the joy of living together in love.

The church of San Damiano, outside the city walls, is indelibly linked to the “revolution of tenderness” that Francis and Clare began. I like to think of it as the cradle of the reform movement.


La Verna2Our journey ends at La Verna, site of deep importance to Francis and to the entire Christian tradition. The land here was given to Francis in 1213, as a place “apt for spiritual retreat and renewal.” During his first visit here, the tradition speaks of Francis’ experience of Christ speaking with him tenderly in friendship.

Toward the end of his life, in 1224, Francis returned to La Verna for a period of 40 days’ prayer and fasting. It is this stay that has been immortalized in art and literature as the full realization of Francis’ partnership with Christ. We call it the “stigmatization,” the sharing of Christ’s wounds on the cross. In his description of this moment in Francis’ life, Bonaventure describes how Francis’ ardent love for God now literally burst forth from his body and the union of the two was made incarnate.

Surrounded by the piercing beauty of the Casentine National Forest, our stay at La Verna makes it easy to settle into the loving embrace of God.

An international congress on Teresa was held at St. Mary’s University in London June 18-20, 2015. Her address, entitled “New Life in a World of Suffering and Injustice: Teresa of Avila’s Vision for Today,” focused on the relevance of Teresa’s teachings and life to us today.

Download the flyer here.

Gillian Ahlgren was recently named an ATHENA finalist by the Cincinnati magazine. Named after the Greek goddess of wisdom and courage the ATHENA award honors individuals who have actively assisted women in realizing their full leadership potential, who have achieved success in their careers and have given back to their communities. Eleven local women were recognized, and the 2014 ATHENA award will be presented in a luncheon ceremony at the Cintas Center on the campus of Xavier University on October 21, 2014.

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