Our daily chant offices are sung in the Oratorio on the Villa grounds in Italy. Our Italian Oratorio will be proudly displayed on a representational box in a procession for the Madonna of Pisa icon visiting Barga for the 900 year anniversary celebration of the Pisa cathedral. Each church of the local Barga area will be carrying a Mary banner and a ‘box’! Each box will have particular drawings. On the two lateral sides, will be a representation of the particular church in the area, in our case the Oratorio, and then on the opposite lateral side a representation of the Mary/Madonna icon or banner in that particular church. The church banners are carried by strong young or older men; the ‘boxes’ are carried in the procession by children or in our case a monk, a lovely image, the monk and the children. A stirring vision of devotion, the monk and children, as each ‘box’ is placed on the high altar at the foot of the Madonna. One day God might use this image to spark a calling in one of the children’s hearts. On the ends of the boxes are a few sentences in Italian about the history of the church where each group of faithful prays and worships. In Villa Via Sacra’s case, the Oratorio has an amusing history; our Oratorio now consecrated, properly blessed and worshipful previously housed a pizza oven!
The Oratorio is similar to the warm monastery chapel at the Begijnhof in Belgium, my usual home in Europe. Here in Italy, the Oratorio has enough space for about 15 maybe 20 monastics and visitors and two ‘monastic’ dogs. Both my Begijnhof chapel and the Oratorio have wonderful paintings, icons and banners of Mary, the mother of God and Jesus as infant or Prince of Peace. The similarity continues with an array of books stored on shelves or in drawers for singing the chant whatever the season. The altar candles are lit and flicker brightly and shine steadily in both chapels for every chant service. We monastics begin our chant services daily, hoping to echo the steadiness of the candles and the love of Christ. The warmth and peace of the chapels and the processional banners or paintings on the walls surround and enwrap us.
The clouds of Italy have certainly enveloped our little mountain town of Barga. Cabin fever has been a constant long lingering illness for those of us on this usually beautiful Apennine mountain top. Many games and hot chocolates have been the order of the day. I myself have headed for Siena and Ravenna on days of business – a break in the clouds as they say. The small milk train I board has one track at the tiny mountain station. The train goes up to the terminus town, one or two stops beyond and turns around and rattles again down the mountain. More tracks open up in Lucca, Pisa and then a change of trains in Empoli or Prado and on to Siena or Ravenna but generally this is not New York or Boston. There is a casual laid back sympathetic, congenial unhurried atmosphere at the stations and during boarding….no bullet trains of Japanese fame or American frenzy and hurry. I thoroughly enjoyed the sun in the valleys and the budding cherry tress, the promise of spring to the beautiful Tuscan countryside — world famous these days. I arrived in Siena —the home of Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the church and confessor of Popes and also home to a beautiful Cathedral. The Michelangelo ‘Madonna and Child’ of Brugge (more famous recently through the movie, ‘The Monuments Men’), was originally intended for the cathedral in Siena. A wealthy Brugge merchant while trading in Italy, persuaded Michelangelo to sell him the statue, thus making this ‘Madonna and Child’, the only work of Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. I murmured a prayer of contrition in the Siena Madonna chapel; “I was sorry but we/ Brugge now had the lovely ‘Madonna and Child” by Michelangelo. Millions visit Brugge every year to visit her at the Church of Our Lady. Ravenna is famous for its mosaics, at least 6 churches or baptisteries with brilliantly colored mosaic apses or domes. Ravenna has history since the days of the Etruscans, and Dante of “The Divine Comedy” fame is buried here and of course there is the accompanying museum. As I wander in and out of churches, I watched a young Italian girl marvel at the sloped marble steps worn from the millions of faithful who have entered. As long as visitors and faithful alike enter the churches curious or devout, there is hope for the world.
The crypt of the cathedral in Siena with the fragmented frescoes appealed to me on another level. There was an Italian professor/ high school teacher there with his class. Obviously, one young girl had been chosen to give a report as all her classmates clustered around her with the backdrop of the frescoes. She expounded to the class on something I could of course not understand but a school class is a school class in any language to this long-time teacher.
As I left and trekked the easily 20 minute walk back through town to the church where I was sure there was a mass at 6 pm, I saw a lady duck into a church that I had passed but entered. So again, I followed the crowd again and success! There was an hour of adoration beginning. It was beautiful as it was at the Beguinnage with our last priest. This priest loved the beauty of the altar and the monstrance in silver and gold and silk and velvet embossed robes robes accompanying the adoration. He donned the robes and led the monthly adoration with pomp, circumstance and elegant dignity albeit for only us 7 sisters and perhaps one or two other worshippers. So it was with this adoration here in Italy, beautiful dignified majestic and worshipful; I stayed until I knew if I did not go I would miss the Mass. God again had ordered my steps and blessed my Road to Calvary. Have no fear the my assigned task was intertwined with my walk of faith allowing me to again marvel at the will of God and how it encompasses and infuses encompasses both the daily mundane tasks and spiritual. He speaks through and infuses both with His presence if we are only watching and waiting.
The beginning of this experience was recounted in the previous blogpost, Road to Calvary — Siena, Part I
From the train station on the valley floor in Siena, Italy, it is a long and tortuous hike straight uphill to the center of town perched on the protected mountain top. According to Internet posts, within the last two years, eleven escalators have been installed to mount both residents and tourists alike to and from the station. So…. I followed the crowd and after 5 minutes, I had lost count of the number of escalators I had risen but sure enough I did arrive at the top of the hill on which Siena is located. However, it was another 1/2 hour walk to the Centro and the Duomo and another 1/2 hour to my hotel! I would have planned better had I know the size of the town. God had plans though. I wandered in and out of small churches on the way — their doors invitingly open and I could sit down and rest and pray. It did feel a bit like the Road to Calvary although not nearly what our Savior endured. I stumbled on a church with a daily mass at 6 pm to which I returned and worshipped with the faithful in yet another Italian church with two small chapels with scads of warm and flickering candles, obvious places of prayer. Later in the afternoon with a few spare minutes, I visited the Duomo, it having been 50 years since I was there. Nothing doing said the security guard! A 13 euro ticket was required and had to be obtained from another office across the. Piazza. My veil or my plea to pray carried no weight with this security guard. I had to go to the ticket office! So off I went and this time my veil was literally my ticket. The very kind smiling and very pleased ticket lady gave me a full three day pass to the Crypt Baptistry and Duomo. On my return, the security man was happy to let me in ( Security is a sign of the times and one has to do his job but he was obviously pleased a nun was getting in free. ) I loved the cathedral, snapping pictures and praying in all sorts of little alcoves and Mary chapels. The library displayed wonderful huge Gregorian chant books with the small ancient neumes and fabulous illuminations. The best part of this visit was perhaps that it was March 1 and there were next to no tourists.
The crypt was open to me as well and after succeeding with Italian directions, I descended the many stone steps to a slightly obscure entrance. You would have to want to visit this crypt to find it. This was truly a walk to Calvary with old fragmented frescoes now wonderfully illuminated and protected so both the faithful and the art lover can be blessed by this walk, from the washing of the feet to the descent from the cross and the laying of Our Lord in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and culminating in the last and prominent panel of the resurrection. I am always pleased to see Mary Magdalene, being named Sr Madeleine which goes as Magdalena here in Italy. This walk was definitely a Lenten treat for me designed especially by my God. I myself might never have found the place.
Read my next blogpost, Road to Calvary — Siena, Part II for the conclusion of this story.
Paris My Love……my heart sings when I step off the train or the bus to a Paris street. I am home…I am always at home in Paris! How is that? Perhaps Ernest Hemingway’s so eloquent words on life in Paris are the answer “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you for Paris is a moveable feast.” I lived in Paris as a young woman! Gender equality was not even a whisper of a thought in the 1920’s of Ernest Hemingway. I love Paris! Recently, I was again in Paris for a few days, with time to visit my favorite patisserie shop which I am convinced has the best patisserie in all of Europe and if the lines are an indication I am not the only one of that opinion. Being a nun, the churches are for me the best thing about Paris….. Notre Dame, Madeleine, my namesake, St Germain des Pres, Saint Chapelle or Saint Sulpice. As a young girl they touched me, warmed me, welcomed me even when I was not so sure I knew much of anything about God. The American Cathedral, the American church they sustained my infant faith. All these churches have had their era and they still speak to all who enter, the casual and the faithful, the believer and the unbeliever. The spirit is in the walls, in the paintings, in the statues, in the altars. The churches draw trillions of visitors who enter within their walls and are touched. Hopefully this year, my home community’s choir will be singing in one or more of these Paris churches, whether the warm and homey St Germain des Pres or the majestically impressive St Sulpice or the stained glass wonder of St Chapelle. Each church has its individual ministering and spirit of worship for God’s creation….. mankind.
Having had art inculcated and cultivated into my growing up years, I am a bit of an art aficionado; my year in France built on this foundation. I visited every important art museum in Europe. At some point, I was only interested in the views from the windows or the museum cafeteria as opposed to the Michelangelo or Rembrandt beside me. At 19, youth does not really comprehend the legacy being offered or the immense privilege being given.
One Sunday afternoon, as I wandered the cobblestone walkways in old Barga, I found an open door to a grand palazzo beckoning in English to an art display within and for free (very important for a nun! ), of the paintings of a local artist. If for no other reason than I wanted to see the architecture, I went in. The palazzo was huge and the rooms immense, ceilings 20 feet high, a long ladder was needed to reach the top shelves of an enormous bookshelf crammed with ancient classics. This ancient stone palazzo was once the home of a local painter of whom no one but locals would have heard and the palazzo remains in the Cordati family. But….the exhibition that covered all the walls of a once immense salon/ballroom and the once fireplaced bedrooms was both prolific and impressive. Each room held different eras of this man’s oeuvres. I was rather enthralled by both the architecture and the paintings, the production of a lifetime. His journey could be read through his paintings. Having seen enough Michelangelo and Rembrandt in my time, this Cordati was rather fascinating. Cordati had fought in WWI and lived through the bombings and battles of WWII that surrounded this small mountain town …..and then endured and survived the postwar years of wretched poverty. His paintings were predominantly people, young and old, lads and lassies, women and men at their daily tasks and poses. Unsurprisingly, a certain melancholy enveloped the subjects. His paintings were lovely, realistic and arresting but somehow sad and sorrowful. Perhaps there was for him, catharsis in his paintings.
As I walk the way of the cross, this Lent I am reminded that the path to Calvary had also a melancholic, painful sadness. Thank God the resurrection is yet to come!
The cathedral in Pisa, the nearby town of Leaning Tower fame, is celebrating its 900th anniversary. One of my sisters here could not even conceive of a 900 year old church. The USA is young, 400 years; 1620 the year of the Mayflower landing in Plymouth Mass. 1776 is the beginning of the USA as an independent country not even 250 years old. At any rate, the icon of the Madonna of Pisa from the cathedral is making a tour, visiting the nearby towns and villages in the diocese to honor and celebrate these 900 years. Barga, my hillside town will host the lovely Madonna for 2 weeks. A planning meeting for Eucharists at the surrounding churches and a procession up through the old walled city to the Duomo was in order. Songs, Eucharists, adoration and a speaker are all part of the celebration. Villa Via Sacra, our community here, was graciously invited to take part in this small town’s very Catholic and special celebration; one sister and one brother were off to a meeting all in Italian in a small classroom next to one of the town’s many churches. A compassionate, genteel yet very efficient padre organized us all.
The spirit was congenial, open and welcoming, including we, the non-Italian speaking American religious ecumenical community and the choir directors and representatives of the churches of Barga and the surrounding very Catholic and Italian villages. Now we spoke only rudimentary Italian and when we left an hour and fifteen minutes later after smiling a lot and laughing hopefully at the correct moments, we were not totally sure what we had agreed to or what we were going to be a part of but it did all seem wonderful. One other Italian member who presumably was supposed to help us actually spoke less English than we Italian! This is a small Italian town!
By the end of the meeting, I had crafted a sentence in Italian which I was presumably going to pronounce “thank you so much for including us in the meeting” When I began, the Italian choir director, next to me finished the sentence for me knowing instinctively the spirit I wanted so much to convey. God is amazing and it truly only mattered that we were one in His spirit. I think the Madonna of Pisa is already pleased with and blessing our celebration.