In the early morning
I chant the Divine Names
And worship the one who is
beyond the reach of thought and speech
and yet by whose grace all speech is possible.
I worship the One whom the Vedas describe as
neti neti––not this! not this!
That One the sages have called God of gods,
the unborn, the unfallen, the source of all.
Ashram Bhajnavali, Gandhi-ji’s translation
The verses above were sent to me by a young Indian friend that I met in Texas. (In Texas?) It’s interesting how I keep running into connections to India all over the place, even here in Florence. It was the connection with Chiara through Shantivanam that introduced me to Stefano and his family, and now Stefano has introduced me to his Indian connections here in Florence. The other night we went to Satyananda Ashram here in Florence, where Stefano has been going for years, an ashram that offers yoga in the tradition of the great teacher Swami Satyananda Saraswati, whose work many of us have read. It was founded and inaugurated by him personally in 1982. Swami’s main disciple Swami Niranjanananda also spent some time here. It is now run by Swami Anusandhana and his wife, Swami Uttarkashi. He was born in Bengal to an Indian father and an Italian mother but has been in Florence now over 35 years. She is an American who was raised in a family that was steeped in Indian culture––her mother practiced yoga already back in the 1930’s––and for some reason moved to Florence when she, Uttarkashi, was only 14. The two of them married in 1976 and had three children before meeting their guru 1981, after which they both took sannyasa from him and took over the ashram. Their aim is to maintain a “sattvic ashram,” a place where there are regular sessions of various yoga practices as well as quite a history of singing mantras and kirtans. As a matter of fact, tonight we are going back to the ashram for kirtan singing and the recitation, 108 times, of the mahamrityunjaya mantra––“OM tryam bakam yam jamahe…”––that takes place every Saturday for il benessere e la pace nel mondo––“well-being and peace in the world.” The music is led by a man named Ganesh Del Vescovo. (I hope someone can appreciate that name: Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, and Del Vescovo, meaning “of the Bishop.” Ganesh of the Bishop.)
Stefano arranged for us to go a little bit early and Swami Anusandhana spent a half on hour with us telling us all about his history and that of the beginnings of the Bihar School of Yoga. (I thought Radha would have appreciated it.) And the good Swami invited me to come back as often as I wanted during the next week, even after Stefano leaves. I will try to do so. Many of the asanas that he led us through I had never experienced before.
Treating this as a regular road trip, since I have work to do, I also found a gym walking distance from Casa Rossi that offered a weekly membership. Thursday I had gone there with Stefano to look it over and find out the cost. The young woman working there told me 40 Euro for a week, which I thought was a pretty good deal. On my way there the next morning, I was practicing to myself how to say in Italian, “The young woman who was working yesterday told me that it would cost 40 Euro for a week” in case there was a problem. Sure enough when I arrived, the girl who was working behind the desk this time said that it was impossible that it would only cost 40 Euro for a week and told me instead that all she could offer me was 90 Euro for ten days, plus an addition 5 Euro (refundable) for the tassiera–passcard and another 30 Euro supplement for I-still-can’t-figure-out-what. I managed somehow to make it clear that that would be a waste of money for me. After consulting another employee, who also thought it was impossible that it could only be 40 Euro for a week, to whom I also made it clear that I had been told it was so and any more was a waste of money because the American dollar is so weak (which is no problem of theirs, of course), the first lady made a series of phone calls until she finally located someone who told her indeed that during the summer there was a deal for 40 Euro a week. In the meantime, I was the center of attention at the front desk, this American arguing––politely, I hope, but firmly––over the price of a weekly abbonamento. You know, I think Italians just enjoy the conversation.
The house is beginning to fill up. Pamela arrived the night before last, and her parents arrived last night, and some cousins arrive tomorrow. Stefano will be leaving to go stay with one of his best men. I had asked him which one of his three testimoni was the best man, which he found very confusing. I explained to him that in America one of his witnesses is always considered the “best man.” He thought that was odd, since they were all good, and one of them is a woman. So he has now been calling them all “best man.” At the practice last night he said, “That’s Luca, he’s a best man. And there is Francesco; he is also a best man.” I can’t wait to meet Gianna, who I suppose is a “best woman.” There is also no maid of honor, by the way, but as far as I know none of them is male.
We went to meet Don Andrea, who is the very friendly, very funny parish priest with a thick Florentine accent at Santa Maria a Quarto, at Bagno a Ripoli outside of Florence, the place where they are to be married. He is also the one who did their marriage preparation. He treated me like an old friend and went through the ceremony with us bit by bit, trying to figure out what part of it I would do and what part he would do. I have been feeling pretty relieved that he was to be there as well, instead trying to conduct a wedding in a foreign language. At the end of our conversation he said it was all fine, except that he wasn’t going to be there! Well, maybe for the first few minutes, but after that he ahs to go down to the parish church (we are in a little old chapel on the same parish) and celebrate the 11:30 Mass. So I am going to have to do the whole thing on my own. And we are not going to have a practice.
Last night I went over to San Miniato, the Olivetan monastery where Raniero and I stayed when we studied Italian in 2000, my first trip to Italy. First loves always remain the strongest, they say, and San Miniato, Florence, and the view of Florence from San Miniato, will forever be etched in my heart as the place where I spent the happiest days of my life. I returned there a few more times as a guest of monks, happily singing and praying with them. Father Abbot, well up in his late-eighties by now, was always very kind to me and even invited me to stay with them and go on the road from there when I first took my exclaustration. Of course what is odd about that is for an abbot of one monastery to invite an exclaustrated monk from another monastery to live with them. And especially them, because the Italian Olivetans, and those of San Miniato especially, pride themselves in their strict observance: they pray all the hours together, some of them in Latin; they are always in their habit, even when they go out, only they rarely leave the monastery except with permission and never after evening prayers; and so can barely imagine one of their monks going out to do concerts and wander off to India for a few months every year. And yet here was old Fr Abbot inviting me to make San Miniato my residence. I never told my Camaldolese brothers about that, and ultimately decided not to accept his offer, but I was tempted and quite moved.
I remember once having a discussion with one of my elders about the use of Gregorian chant, me wanting to introduce a bit more at New Camaldoli, using the argument that I thought it was up to monks to preserve something of the great traditions of the church. He countered by telling me what he had garnered from Don Benedetto, our infamous progressive prior general of the 1970s, that a “monastery was not a museum!” He had a point, up to a point, and I couldn’t help thinking about that comment last night, because the reason I went to San Miniato was to attend the inauguration of a museum that they have opened on the second floor of the monastery. Bernardo and Ildebrando, both of whom I know quite well, are quite the collectors of artifacts and rarities, even from other monasteries, but especially all the things they found hidden all around San Miniato in various saloni and armadi. And so they have put together a marvelous display in the grand salon upstairs, complete with museum quality display cases and descriptions. They invited a select crowd of friends and benefactors to inaugurate the museum last night after Mass and Vespers. I went early enough to participate in Vespers, all in Latin from the Antiphonale Monasticum, and Mass, all in Latin, though Novus Ordo, except for the readings, which were in Italian.
It all got me thinking again a lot about classical versus progressive. There is something to be said for preserving a sacred tradition instead of re-inventing the wheel every couple of years or generations. The dark side is that it becomes all ex opere operato, formulaic and soul-less, that the power is in the doing and not in the taking part and the transformation of life that is meant to happen in the taking part. On the other hand I have always wound up with the progressives, the best of whom are trying to continue the tradition, to make sure that it is a living tradition––be it musically or in terms of life style. The dark side of the progressive is it can become change for the sake of change, that the baby gets thrown out with the bath water, that we are constantly re-inventing the wheel, and asking ourselves who we are and what we should do.
It’s never easy to spread your arms wide enough hold seemingly different things together, like Ganesh of the Bishop or, better, like Jesus on the cross, “stretching out his hands between heaven and earth.”