Not long after the end of World War II, an American writer named Paul Gallico, repelled by the materialism of the post-war years, stopped on impulse to see the tomb of Saint Francis in Assisi. Though he knew little about Francis and did not come as a pilgrim, he left as a devotee, profoundly changed and inspired. Walking the cobbled streets he felt that Francis was there, his presence rising from the very stones.
Out of his longing to write about Francis came a legend — perhaps not factually true, but true on a deeper level, that of the devotee, who knows that in God’s world, in the world of His saints, all things are possible to those whose faith is pure and strong.
Pepino is a ten-year-old orphan boy, his entire wealth — his whole world, really — a gentle donkey named Violetta. Violetta has a unique expression always playing about her face — a kind of half-smile, as if whatever she is about pleases and amuses her. Violetta fills all the gaps in Pepino’s life: She comforts him when he is injured or lonely, and warms him on cold nights when he curls up next to her in the straw of the stable that is their home. Pepino in his turn cares for Violetta: picks off ticks, feeds and waters her, in all ways lavishes affection and appreciation on her.
Then comes the dark day when Violetta falls ill. Most upsetting of all is that her magical, joyful smile vanishes. Grief-stricken, Pepino realizes that help must come from above, where God and His saints live. Into his loving heart comes a plan, fully-formed: He will take Violetta to the crypt below the lower church of the Basilica of Saint Francis, for here lie the remains of that great saint who so loved all God’s creatures, and who surely will want to help Violetta.
As is so often the case when the devotee yearns to draw close to the Heavenly Beloved, obstacles rise up in his path. The monk gatekeeper turns Pepino and Violetta away with harsh words: What the boy asks is “against the rules,” would be a “desecration” of the holy crypt — and, his clinching argument, physically impossible, for no four-legged beast the size of a donkey could negotiate the narrow stairway with its right-angle turns so cramped that even slender two-legged pilgrims can barely squeeze through.
Undaunted, Pepino turns to Father Damico for guidance. This good priest hasn’t the authority to grant Pepino’s request, but sends him up the ladder of church hierarchy to the Supervisor. Remind him, Father Damico suggests to Pepino, of the old way into the crypt, now walled up but, if reopened, wide enough for a boy and his donkey.
An emphatic “No!” from the Supervisor sends Pepino on foot to Rome, to see the Holy Father, the one above all those church officials who have said no. Pepino feels crushed by the hopelessness of his quest — and yet, knowing that if he does not succeed, Violetta will surely die, Pepino knocks at a side door to the Vatican. “No,” says the Swiss Guard, for his duty is to protect the Pope from just this sort of impossible appeal.
When Swami Kriyananda felt guided to write Master’s teachings on the Bhagavad Gita, the book that became The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, he felt at first the enormity of the task — a ten-year project, he in his eighties, and no access to Master’s original writings — then, in a superconscious dream, the guidance to look for a “skylight.” For Swami, the “skylight” was his perfect attunement, on a superconscious level, with Yogananda’s intent and meaning. For little Pepino, the “skylight” is an old woman selling flowers near the door of his latest rejection. Hope rises anew in his young heart. Saint Francis loved flowers. Perhaps the Pope does too. Pepino buys a bouquet and writes a note to accompany it: “Please let me see you about my donkey Violetta who is dying, and they will not let me take her to see Saint Francis so that he may cure her.”
When the devotee has reached as high as he can by his own power, has poured out his love and devotion to God and His saints, then does God’s grace begin to flow. And so it is with Pepino when he goes again to the Swiss Guard, this time to ask him to take his bouquet and letter to the Pope. Faced with the enormous and trusting eyes of this boy, so filled with innocent and pure faith, the Swiss Guard, holding the little bouquet, finds himself transported back to his carefree youth, to the simple faith of earlier years. Holding the boy’s gift, the burly guard wanders the great halls of the Vatican in a daze. A Vatican clerk takes possession of the bouquet and letter and is soon himself transformed by the divine sweetness radiating from the flowers. In this way Pepino’s gift works its way upward through layer after layer of church bureaucracy until, finally, it lies before the Pope. And so the Holy Father himself, the simple joy of his youthful faith reawakened, sends for the boy.
Pepino carries away from his meeting with the Pope two letters, one to the Supervisor and one to Father Damico. To the Supervisor, the Pope writes that Saint Francis himself was regularly accompanied to chapel by a lamb. Is a donkey less beloved of God because its coat is rougher and its ears longer?
Father Damico’s letter commissions him to put a great and important question to Pepino. And this is the same question that every devotee must face when he stands on the threshold of God’s presence. The question is this: “Pepino, you hope that Saint Francis will heal Violetta and that you may resume your happy life together. But what if Saint Francis wants to keep Violetta with him in heaven? Are you as willing to give to God what He asks of you, as to take from Him what you hope for?” And when, after a struggle in his heart, Pepino knows what is right, what he must do, he offers to God what has long been most precious to him, more precious than life itself, his beloved Violetta. In that moment of self-giving love, the last obstacles fall away.
Masons are summoned to dismantle the brickwork. As the bricks fall away, through the swirling dust Pepino sees the ever-burning candle glowing by the crypt of the saint, beckoning God’s little one to come to the end of his pilgrimage of faith. And as boy and donkey pass through the archway, they walk side by side, Pepino with shoulders squared and head erect, and Violetta with just a trace of her old smile beginning to curl upward on her little mouth.
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing