Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che' la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era e` cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
I’m not sure those lines are exactly right. They are the opening of Purgatorio from Dante’s Divina Commedia, which apparently every school child in Italy learns at some point in his or her scholastic career. “In middle of the walk of our life I found myself in a dark woods because the right way was lost. Ah, just to tell how difficult a thing it was, in the rethinking of it the fear raises itself again!” They were the lines with which Don Bernardino greeted me on the morning of St Romuald’s feast day June 19, which also happened to be my 50th birthday, which I was lucky enough to spend at the motherhouse in Tuscany. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
My family arrived 7 June as planned. I had rented a car in Florence to go and retrieve them from Rome. I left in plenty of time to meet them as they got off the plane, not counting of course on the fact that an oil tanker was going to overturn on the A1 causing us to sit in traffic for 2 ½ hours. By the time I flew into Fiumicino they had already been waiting over an hour and were starting to make phone calls to Stefano (on his honeymoon) to see if he knew anything. To make matters worse, when I parked the car I realized I was in the wrong spot––the national rather than international terminal––but when I tried to move my rented Alfa Romeo station wagon, I couldn’t get it into reverse. Neither could I get the machine that issues parking receipts to work. So I was running up and down the terminal trying to catch sight of my folks, meantime running back and forth to the car to make sure it wasn’t getting towed, and then, finally finding them raced back to the car, which my nephew Tyge and I then had to push out of the parking space… You get the picture.
My folks and my sister had rented a townhouse in a place called Tavernelle just south of Florence. It was very nice, with three bedrooms and two baths, a generous kitchen and living room, enough space for the five of us plus my friend John who came later. We made a bunch of day trips the following week, to Florence for Mass at San Miniato and lunch with Luisa, to San Gimigniano and Volterra, Pisa and Siena.
We had one disastrous day, Wednesday, the second of my three trips to Rome in a week. Mom had procured tickets for us for the papal audience at 11:00, which we were supposed to go and pick up from a priest acquaintance of hers who lived near the Trevi Fountain. I had a sense of foreboding danger, or at least a healthy respect for human error, and had insisted that we leave very early. We had the route all planned out, with Tyge navigating. We got off fine, made one bad turn coming into Rome, corrected that and then headed into Rome. We made another bad turn but then while trying to correct that suddenly we found the streets absolutely gridlocked–blindate as the Italians say. There were carabinieri everywhere and roadblocks set up all over the place, which led to masses of cars all vying for the same little two lane streets. It was a nightmare, right out of the Inferno (since it was also getting hotter and hotter). No matter which way we turned, total gridlock. We actually found out that we did not have a very good map after all, so part of the time we had no idea where we were, but then even when we did figure out where we were, we had no luck crossing over to the part of town which I knew. At one point we asked a guy on the street what was happening, and he said, Doverebbe esser qualche politico importante––“It must be some important politician.” We watched the hour of our papal audience come and go and still we sat and sat. Finally I made a dash for it over the Tiber, just following my instincts, and at one point pointed to my left and said, “There, there’s St Peter’s,” found a parking place somewhat nearby and we all got out of the car. It had taken seven hours. We were all a little rattled and I was literally shaking, but I was impressed, and said so to everyone, at how patient everyone had been. No one had said anything nasty to anyone nor even complained too much.
We found out only then who the important politico was: President Bush on his farewell tour of Europe. We are a family of tried and true Democrats, mind you, (except for the year when I slipped away and voted for Bush pere), and my folks quite vocal critics of everything and anything having to do with this president, so you can imagine the outcry. Mom kept saying, “So President Bush made us miss seeing the Pope!”
We got some lunch and walked around, and then I drove everyone across the Tiber again to let Patti and Tyge see the Forum and Colloseum, while Mom and Dad and I walked up to San Antonio, our women’s monastery where they were to be staying the next week, to confirm their rooms and get a cold drink. That’s when the funniest thing happened. Patti and Tyge were waiting for us on the Circus Maximus where we had parked. They thought it was a little strange that there were no other pedestrians or cars, and so many carabinieri around. Then suddenly there was a wail of sirens and a long entourage of limousines driving by. Near the end of the line of cars they suddenly saw a familiar face peering out the window, looking straight at them and waving: President Bush.
Anyway, I had one more trip to Rome on Friday. I dropped Patti and Tyge off for a day trip to Orvieto and then headed down to Fiumicino again to meet John Marheineke who was coming in a few days early for his chaperoning duty with the students of St Francis High School. We had a happy three days together then, nice morning runs and a little yoga overlooking the Tuscan countryside. No––let me describe a morning run on vacation with Cyprian in Tuscany: we ran about a mile to the end of a dirt rood and stopped to admire the landscape bathed in golden blue light, then ran a little farther down another driveway to stop and see a farm, then ran back up to the church where we sat down to meditate against the old stone walls for ten minutes, and then we ran past the house, stopping occasionally to look at and smell flowers, up to the Bar for an coffee and tow pastries and then we ran back to apartment compound where we did some yoga by the pool. I think of it as cross training. We also managed to sneak in a good deal of guitar playing over the next few days, particularly those first days entertaining the group from New Jersey that was also staying in the complex. Then we all headed back into Florence on Saturday to pick up Dad’s rental car and have another lunch with Luisa. John and I stayed on for the evening and walked down to the Badia Fiorentina for evening prayer with the Communità di Gerusalemme. I hadn’t told him anything about the music they sang and he had just the reaction that I imagined he would. After the one nun intoned the opening verse, the others came in their beautiful four-part Byzantine style harmony, John’s eyes opened wider and he looked at me and said under his breath, “Wow…” Sunday early morning, Father’s Day in America, we all headed for Camaldoli. On the way we stopped at the top of the Consuma Pass, in the village of Consuma, for breakfast of schiacciata, at a place that is famous for the same that Stefano had introduced me to some years ago and that I had been advertising all week. It didn’t disappoint. Then Mass and lunch at Camaldoli after which my family took off leaving John and I to our whiles. Later in the afteroon, we went and visited the four nuns who live in one of the converted villas at nearby Partina. John fell in love with them, as Suor Paulina guided us through a tour of facility and Suor Graziana showed us her famous embroidered jewelry work, woven of silver and gold threads, which, as she said un lavoro di un certosino–“the work of a Carthusian,” meaning it takes lots of patience. The other two sisters joined us, Madre Francesca and Sour Domenica (Sempre Domenica, she said: “Always Sunday! Even on martedi, mercoledi, giovedi––Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday––I am always Domenica.”) They offered us some tea and we offered them a little music, and then we headed back up to the hermitage for evening prayer. I had a good visit with Peter from Australia while John got in a good visit to the library, snooping around with his camera taking pictures sconces and door frames, and rare and ancient books, not to mention The History of the Doors. You gotta love a place that has sixteenth century manuscripts and 20th century books on contemporary culture living under the same roof. That’s Camaldoli at its best, and no doubt mostly the influence of Ivan.
The next day the choir from Monterey was to come to Camaldoli for us to begin our retreat and concert tour. After a good hike and run, John and I killed some time waiting for them––they wound up being two hours late––playing guitar and singing in John’s room on the ground floor of the monastery. After choir arrived we had lunch at the foresteria of the monastery, a visit and a conference offered by me up at the Sacro Eremo, and then Mass again down at the monastery before leaving for Assisi. Later in the week many of the pilgrims told me that that was there favorite Mass and lunch.
Then we headed for Assisi where we spent the next two days. We had the use of a large rather lifeless room in our hotel (ironically, for Assisi, called “The Grand Hotel”) for our morning prayers etc., but held our conferences over in a wonderful meeting room, the Sala Romanica, at the convento under the Basilica of San Francesco. I was sad to see John off to the train station Monday, but he had to go to his students who were arriving. We finished the retreat and had our first concert in the basilica superiore Wednesday evening. I was amazed: the place was full! It has an astounding acoustic and we sang very well. (So well in fact that the friar in charge already called and invited Sr Barbara to return at some point.) The folks that I had met in India who lived nearby were there for the concert and we had a nice bite to eat after the concert. I have to say, I love the Italy-India connection.
After the concert that evening I headed to Camaldoli again. I had been advised to take a route that, after the highways, carried me through hills and woods and little villages on 34 kilometers of a very windy road through the Valle Santa–the holy valley, as they call it, since it connects Laverna and Camaldoli. It was a little grueling at 1 AM, since that was what time it was when I finally made it there, pulling into Camaldoli itself around 1:30. I have this notion in my head that you are supposed to spend your birthday, like New Year’s Day, doing what you want to do for the year ahead. So I woke up on the 19th to the sound of birds singing, had morning prayer with the brothers, got Dante recited to me at breakfast, and then repeated the hike and run up to the hermitage, came back down and did yoga before Mass and lunch. Santosh! This is enough. I hope that’s the way I can spend the rest of the year ahead too.
The afternoon was a little more droll. As nice as it sounded on paper to spend my 50th birthday and St Romauld’s Day at the motherhouse, being surrounded by 300 guests (for the feast, not for my birthday) in a foreign country wasn’t that much fun. I slipped away as soon as possible and spent most of the afternoon doing laundry, changing my guitar strings and napping, and got to bed good and early for my early AM departure back to Florence.
Anyway, back to Florence the next morning to deliver the car, one last visit up to San Miniato, mainly to do e-mail besides visit with Ilde and all, pranzo and an afternoon visit with all my Florentine friends––Luisa, Stefano and Pamela down from Treviso, and their and now my friend Francesco. Then I was off to the Demidoff Hotel to meet the choir again and do the evening concert at Santo Stefano al Ponte right on the Ponte Vecchio. That concert was harder. The building is a chiesa sconsecrata–deconsecrated church. It has a cold ambiance and a strange acoustic. Besides that, a catering company had set up their kitchen prep unit for an outdoor fashion event on the Ponte Vecchio right in front of the doors of the church, so access was blocked to possible audience members. The woman tour guide, Rita, let off the full steam of her Italian temper at them––it wasn’t their fault––called the police and gave us quite a show. Still, many of my friends came for the concert, Stefano et al, plus some other people from his wedding and my Camaldolese confrere Axel who is studying in Florence, so it was still a good evening.
Then we headed to Rome. After Mass at the hotel, the bus drove everyone else down to Piazza Santa Croce for one more morning of sight-seeing, and then drove me––all by myself with the driver in a 50 passenger tour bus––across town to the stazione where I took the Eurostar down ahead of them to Rome, to get my room here at San Gregorio and meet my family who was to be staying across the Circus Maximus with the nuns at San Antonio.
We had our Mass at St Peter’s with the choir yesterday at 10:30. I must say after all these years I can still not warm up to St Peter’s in any way, especially the stiffness and cold formality of ritual and the stifling clericalism––dozens of vested priests and bishops and a cardinal concelebrating, an all male schola, all male acolytes. The choir sang very well and were most edifying in their devotion and excitement to be there at the visible center of our faith, but that is not the center of our faith. The heart, the heart is the center of our faith. There was one nice moment for me that the Psallite people will enjoy. We were in the chapel behind the main altar, the Altar of the Chair as it is called. And the choir was in the what Sr Barbara calls “the pen.” Sr Barbara had graciously scheduled for us to sing our Psallite Thanksgiving ostinato “May God Grant Us Joy of Heart” as the communion song. I usually perform the verses on that pretty freely, a stke that would mightily contrast to the high-collared execution of the de rigeur usual Gregorian chant of the place. I did try to sing it a straight as possible, adding the third and fourth verse, which I have actually never sung. But on the last verse and the final Alleluia verse I put my binder down and closed my eyes and just let it out. It did turn a few heads apparently. I didn’t want to shock but I did really want to bring my voice to that huge space, and some lightness and life to all the Baroque pageantry as well. I think we did. I was half-jokingly threatening the choir that I was going to break into “There Is A Light,” which has sounded astounding with that many voices singing it in the four-part arrangement in every place we have been.
We did get a peek at the Pope doing the Sunday Angelus out of his window right after Mass. As much as I am put off by St Peter’s, I was still anxious and quite moved to catch a sight of the Holy Father and to hear his voice live. From our vantage point he was about a half an inch tall, a little speck of white, but still, to know that that was really he I found moving. He’s doing his best.
Then our final concert was last night at the Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù, the motherhouse of the Jesuits. It is a beautiful place, in spite of being high high Baroque. I didn’t know that the body of St Ignatius is actually there as well as the hand of St Francis Xavier in a reliquary. The rector was as gracious as could be, the acoustic was amazing and the choir did very well. A handful of our nuns came to the concert last night, including to of the sisters from India. They and four Keralese priests who are here studying were all most happy to have heard the Indian pieces, He Prabhu, but especially the Aarathi which was in their language. I have to say I light up whenever there are some Indians around and fell myself more at home. Again, that Italian-India connection.
My folks are still here. We will join the choir for a closing feast tonight and then I will head out on the train in the morning to go visit some of my confreres in distance parts, Natale at Monte Giove in Fano, and Marino at Fonte Avellana.
(I am posting this only now on July 1 but will try to catch up soon. Am currently in New Jersey, working a National Pastoral Musicians Convention and staying with my godson Alberto and his family, traveling home on the 4th.)