Florence, city of art. And of churches. Many, many churches, built by groups long since dissolved, or unable to maintain them, or just no longeral terraced. Some of them have been deconsecrated and some are used now just as special venues for concerts or other performances. One night, as we walked out in search of our usual piazzaorlasagnaorspaghettibolognasedinner, we heard music drifting into the night and as we were taking what we thought was a shortcut (not) we came to the small church from which it emanated. The door was open, allowing the music to escape intp the night. A young Asian woman was playing a solo piano concert. The advertising posters, which we’d seen as we walked, were displayed at the door, and a stack of programs lay on a small table. The woman played with fluidity, passion and skill, pouring out her heart and talent to an entirely empty building. There was no one sitting in the pews; no one, no friends, no family, no music lovers, not a single soul. ( in the interests of accuracy there was a man hovering outside–a teacher perhaps, or a manager?) We paused and listened for a few moments, but had to press on since we had a teenage boy with us, and as we all know, nothing, particularly piano concertos, stands between boy and food.
The kids were sorry for her “because she must have practiced a lot and nobody came to see her”. Yet I wonder– like the proverbial tree in the forest was the music less because it was only heard in passing? The world is full of beauty and blessings constantly being played; perhaps we are seldom fully in the audience, but shouldn’t we stop occasionally,and listen, and be grateful for that creative force that keeps on playing, creating beauty, regardless of how many are in the audience.
So we’ve joined with three other families to visit the “big three” (Venice, Florence, Rome) all in one week with experienced guides–you could say we were outsourcing all the research and background reading necessary for even a basic understanding of what we were seeing. And the guide took his job seriously. In Venice–Doge’s Palace (good), gondola ride (fun) St Mark’s Cathedral (interesting), then Florence –the great art, (an awful lot in a short amount of time), the Duomo, the church of Santa Croce (all beautiful, all inspiring) but did I feel any spiritual connection? No, and I wanted to. But all I felt was the interest of a tourist. And then we took a side trip to Pisa for the kids, who wanted to climb the tower.
We walked by the cathedral. There was a service going on. We could only stand at the back, briefly, to see the interior. Then on to the Tower, the souvenirs, lunch. All that time I kept feeling that I should return to the cathedral. I’d seen a side entrance for “people who want to pray”, so, while others had dessert and coffee I excused myself and went back. I sat in a pew, and found myself in a moment of wordless prayer–you know, not the kind where you are asking God for something, or praising. Just a moment when in silence you feel a connection. It was a moment of peace, of comfort. It didn’t last long, for sure, and so I left, and returned to absorbing information, seeing the “sights”, remembering to buy gifts, watching out for the children, checking travel arrangements, all those individual things that make up a trip like this one. Multitasking.
Yet in the middle of all my activities, God had given me a moment. I don’t remember the name of the church (Cathedral of Pisa?) or any of the information about who designed it or when it was built. What I remember is that moment, when, in the midst of activity God gave me a nod, and a nudge, and a gift of a moment of prayer.
I think, in our busy everyday lives, perhaps we need more often to let God have a moment of our time.
So we have been three days without internet access. Over the weekend, we had booked ourselves into a quiet place outside Bologna–an old villa, in the middle of the countryside, where we could rest, and recoup our energy before tackling the big tourist sites of Venice-Florence-Rome. Great idea, right? and yet, when we arrived, we found ourselves in the middle of a large Italian wedding. Not the simple country celebration–think more the wedding scene from The Godfather. Elaborate. And then there was another . . .and another. .. .and we realized our quiet retreat was a major event venue for Bologna. As the only–repeat only–guests for the weekend that were not affiliated with one or another of the weddings, first communion parties, corporate meeting, etc–we found that every space was filled, every night had music echoing, and since we needed to eat, our dinner was woorked into the catering schedule. No time to reflect when “New York, New York” echoes through your room at 2 a.m.
On the eating front though, the grandchildren ventured away from the pizza/lasagna rotation and ordered steak. The 11 year old girl’s filet was just perfect. And for our 13 year old boy–he thought he would try the T-Bone. “It is one kilo” said the waiter. “Sure” said the boy. We now know exactly how large one kilo of meat is–somewhat over the size of his plate. He dug in with relish, and we are amazed at his ability to finish it. I’m glad his parents, not us, are footing the bill for his food for the next eight years or so!
I think, though, the weekend has shown us what we probably already know and should probably already remember. If we plan for quiet, there may be chaos. If we ask for something, we may get more than we expected. God is always surprising us. It is up too us to accept what is offered. If it is not our expectation, it is yet a gift. Enjoy!
As is the love part. We love these children with all our hearts. They are a part of us, family. Just as their mother is a completely different person than either my husband or me, yet raised in our home, these two are even more different. That’s why these trips alone are so essential to us; so that we can get to know them as who and what they are, not as what we think they are, or what their parents say they are. And, at 11 and 13, a good part of what they are–eating machines. As my husband has remarked several times already this trip–this army travels on its stomach, for sure, and when they are hungry, the nearest pizzaria had best watch out. Fortunately, in Italy, there are, as my mother would say, a “gracious plenty” of pizza available. Trying to upgrade their culinary tastes, we have introduced them to lasagna. And tonight, in Assisi, another breakthrough. Eating at a restaurant recommended by Ricardo–story below–they at least tasted some of the spectacular pasta dishes on offer.
Ricardo–the proprietor of a shop we stopped in. Ricardo turned out to have spent his student years in Santa Monica and at UCLA, spends four months of the year on business in Santa Monica, and knows a few of the restaurant owners we know. Ricardo was genuinely pleased to meet people from his US ‘hood. It was as if we were fast friends already, and immediately got us a table at a restaurant that was completely booked. Now we all know that true friendships, true bonds, don’t come about instantly; and yet, his attitude was contagious. Perhaps, I wonder, if this is what Christian fellowship should be about–meeting other people who have one thing in common, a love of Christ, and then being willing and open to share that joy, regardless of the many differences in how we express it through our own cultures.
If we try, in our multitasking days, to allow one person that openness and grace, we might get a really good meal out of it.
Unlike the author of the popular "Eat, Pray, Love" I am not voyaging around the world to "find" myself. I'm not lost. I am in fact in Perugia, Italy filled with good food, and a lot of love. My husband and I are taking our two oldest grandchildren on their first trip to Italy. We love the kids, they love us, and they can, if they want, eat pizza at every meal. (so far,they're trying).
And, I hope, as we see some of the important sites in the history of the church, we might get a little praying going on as well
But for now, our first stop was Pompeii, a city obliterated in just a few hours in a volcanic disaster.
As we walked around looking at the remains of a city literally stopped dead in its tracks, I noticed a feature that not all ruin sites have; they mark a line of reconstruction. That is, there is a definite physical line drawn at the point their the original walls stop, and the modern work that restores the whole begins. It struck me that it could be a metaphor for our lives; somewhere, sometime, each of us has an event that seems to stop our lives. We have to take some time, unearth the foundations that are left of ourselves, and then do some rebuilding, some reconstruction, to create a new entity, both old and new, but whole. Then it's good to remember that line of reconstruction, that separation between the before and the after, that makes us a new creature and yet the same. Restored.