Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Going to the Chapel
Exactly one week ago, as I write, Dave and I were climbing the seemingly one thousand steps to the church at San Miniato in Florence. It was our last day and we had hours to wait until dinner and San Miniato was right around the corner and up the hill from where we were staying. We went to listen to the Vespers service being sung in Gregorian chant.
The service was held in the dank, dark crypt of the church, below the presbytery. We were probably a third of the audience, who came and went during the service. The music, sung by only seven monks, standing in semi-circle behind bars was mysterious and holy. I felt privileged to witness it. But also conflicted: what did it mean for me as a person of faith to enter into the churches and sacred life of the citizens of Florence?
We had decided we would walk into the Duomo because it was there and we were there and it was magnificently grand. It was hard to picture worshiping there, ever though, and both Dave and I felt the grandeur of the church as impressive but not something that led us to God.
I had woken up early on Sunday morning in Florence to hear the nuns singing an early mass, and I recognized one of the tunes their organ was playing. But I did not join them for any of their services, even though the sign posted in our room said we were welcome to do so.
I wondered about the monks of San Miniato and the nuns of our convent. They were few and mostly older (except for one monk who looked remarkably like our friend Wes and who wore Birkenstocks under his robe.) I wondered about the vocational call to monastic life and whether it was often heard anymore. I wondered whether these monks and nuns tolerated our presence or whether they resented being observed as objects.
Part of me wanted to stay to bear witness to their faithfulness, to sit in the chill of the church and have the faithfulness to stay until the end of their song. I recognized the irony in the fact that they did this faithfully day in and out, and we could not stay to hear them out even once. But then I remembered that they were not doing this for an audience aside from God. I did not have to stay. I was neither confirming nor denying faithfulness by staying or going. I thought too of the Old Order Mennonites of our own area, who are often viewed as tourist attractions, simply because they have continued to live their call faithfully. I wondered what posture faithfulness would take on my part.
We decided we would go to an English church the Sunday we were in Florence. It looked like a street front, but inside was a small cavern of gold and marble, with puffs of incense clouding the air. The mass was sung and it was beautiful. The music director sang Our Father in a way that opened my ears and later sang a song about peace in the Middle East that dovetailed with the sermon (given by the Bishop of Europe, no less) that moved me to tears as I went forward to take communion. But Dave was daunted, put off by the smells and bells of the service, and for the first time since I've known him, he stayed in his seat for communion. He explained to me later that it was too different for him.
What does it mean to be part of this big church? What does it look like?