Sunday, May 20, 2007

Good Friday remembered

I went to Tenebrae at San Gregorio ai Muritori, the FSSP church in Rome. It's squirreled away down a narrow alley, without a facade to give it away, and it's a tiny little place - probably wider than it's deep. But as you can see from the picture, "tiny" doesn't mean "Spartan" in Rome.

It's strange that Tenebrae, office of darkness that it is, should be sung in the morning. Especially on a golden Roman mid-morning in April.

Ay, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns / The earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds / To dying ears, when unto dying eyes / The casement slowly grows a glimmering square... (Tennyson courtesy of Sheila.)

Purple hangings covered up the paintings and crucifixes, the tabernacle on the side altar was draped in purple, and there was a purple sanctuary candle, which was disturbing. It made the light cold and sickly-looking. The black hearse with its 15 candles was ready.

The chanting began, and I followed along in a borrowed missal, my eye flicking between the English and Latin. The clear voice of a lone cantor floated down from the loft behind us, and the rougher voices of the clerics came from either side of the sanctuary. At the end of each psalm, a priest would rise and put out a candle. The candles became the only way to keep track of time as we sank deeper into the readings and their dark associations. Intellect could weigh them, but pity and terror were stronger - and so was remorse.

O you who pass by the way, see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.

This is the point where I should give you all some thoughtful insights into Christ's Passion. I'm afraid I have a ways to go before I can do that...

The psalms and lamentations ticked by slowly, and darkness crept up the sides of the hearse. (The chill ascends from feet to knees, / The fever sings in mental wires.) We were there for something like three hours, but to me the time seemed neither long nor short... it was like being in some dark place underground, quiet, all damp air and oak roots; no hurry, just darkness to think in. At last there was only the highest candle. And then the priest grasped and lifted it from its socket and bore it to the altar, and he stooped and covered the glow with his body. The lights went off and the chant continued somehow, in the dark. It had become the rite of burial. Without warning, the voices stopped, and something terrible happened: the priests took their breviaries and pounded them violently on the wood. It didn't sound like anything that belonged in the crisply sculpted and gilded little Roman church; it was savage and out of control and passionately sad. It was meant to contain the earthquake, the sun and moon aghast, the Veil torn from top to bottom. It did. Even now, bringing it to mind reluctantly, I feel a tremor run through me again. People were joining in around me, beating their hands furiously on the pews, and I raised my own hands, but I was so stunned that I could scarcely move. I threw a glance over to the tabernacle. The great swaths of purple were as dark as the inside of a bruise, and the lenten candle's cold flame pulsed out like a laboring star going under in eclipse. Contused light and shattered air. Even after the noise stopped, the outraged walls sent back its echo.

* * *

Several hours later, I found myself in the Piazza Farnese.

It had been difficult to come down from Tenebrae, difficult to walk back to my apartment dodging traffic and tourists. My one meal for the day had seemed frivolous. Moment by awkward moment, though, all that intensity faded and left me feeling merely sober and quiet. And then I went back outside and weaved and darted my way to the Piazza Farnese.

In my quest for the most impressive and compunction-inducing Good Friday possible, I had set out on a mission that seemed straightforward enough on paper, but was now becoming more quixotic by the minute. There was to be a 3:00 service at the English College, and various people told me that the College was in the Piazza Farnese. I expected to find it easily. Surely it would have a grandiose front entrance with a great big Union Jack over it, right?

Well, after several circumabulations of the piazza I was beginning to attract the notice of some Friendly Italian Men, and I decided that a fervent prayer to St. Anthony would be more productive than wandering about aimlessly with seven minutes left before the liturgy started. St. Anthony had me looked after, as always: immediately a flock of Asian nuns passed by, and I asked one of them where the English College was. She pointed me down a sidestreet. Still no sign of it. I paused for a moment to watch some monks at prayer in an open church - and then, on an impulse, I dived into a dark open doorway. And there on the inner door was a plaque that said "Ven. English College." Sweet.

Here I should say that there are few places in Rome that have as much power over me as the Venerable English College, alma mater of some of the bravest men who have ever lived. I can't remember when I first learned about the English martyrs, but I do know that it was from a child's book of saints that contained the story of Edmund Campion. I remember thinking that this Jesuit was so cool; he was a Secret Agent hiding in Secret Passages and pulling off all kinds of narrow escapes until the mean queen of England finally did him in (the book was mercifully lacking in detail on this point). But when I was 16 I encountered him again as if for the first time, and read his famous Brag. His audacity, his chivalry, his peerless prose - how can I express the effect they had on me? I plunged into the history of his time, and found many examples of holiness and sources of inspiration. Around the same time, I discovered Hopkins; and the ferment of his poetry and the history of England drastically changed my own poetry, from the scrawlings of a child into something my inner critic would largely approve of right now. So naturally I was looking forward to visiting this place where many of my heroes had walked, and where their relics were now venerated.

I pushed open the door, feeling slightly intimidated, and glanced at the man in the glassed-in office on the left - but an usher waved me into the chapel on the right, and I sailed up to the front of the church, which was already crowded, and sat on a bench by the wall. The interior had obviously been reordered by some comissar of 70's ideology, but this couldn't take away my appreciation of it. The chapel is sort of English-Byzantine, if you can imagine that: it has galleries all around the top and lots of gold, but there's something very English about the berry red and peacock blue used on the walls, as well as the quaint patterns on the floor. Oh, and I was sitting right next to a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Top that.

The liturgy began, and I was glad to hear those English voices. Somehow an English accent sounds homey even to an American, when she hears it on a Roman street through the brassy flourishes of Italian speech. We joined the schola in singing:

Jesus the Christ, obedient for us, humbled himself to death upon a cross. / Wherefore God raised him, giving him a name more glorious than any other name.

Then the Passion was sung, with the schola singing William Byrd for the crowd parts. There was Veneration of the Cross, during which the Reproaches were sung, and Holy Communion. It was all beautiful.

Afterwards I knelt in the chapel, wondering what to do next. My philosophy professor, who also likes cool English Catholic things, had urged me to request a tour and ask if the college had a bookstore (containing, perchance, rare volumes of recusant poetry not to be found on Amazon), as long I wasn't "weird and freaky about it." Okay. Piece of cake. All I had to do was avoid treading on anyone's fastidious English manners...

But now I was becoming more and more convinced of my inability to avoid looking freaky, seeing as I was descending into fangirlish euphoria because I was praying in the same church as St. Robert Southwell had. I was thinking of giving up, resigning myself to being shy, when a tall young seminarian walked in and asked everyone on the left side of the aisle to move over to the right. I obeyed, wondering what was going on. To my great satisfaction he launched into the whole history of the English College, from its very beginning to the present.

All around me were high school kids dressed in an unusually natty manner - it looked as though they were adhering to Christendom's strictest Sunday dress code, and I have to say, they were looking quite sharp. Their teachers and chaperons were asking questions about politics and the state of the Church in England, which the seminarian answered in a calm, balanced manner. He surprised me a few times: I learned that it is still illegal in England for Catholics to ring church bells ("Technically it's illegal, but we don't care."), and that the law forbidding priests to wear cassocks outside their churches was only repealed in 1981 for the visit of John Paul II ("or he would have been breaking English common law the second he stepped off the plane. Ian Paisley was waiting there to make a citizen's arrest, though." ::much laughter:: ) He showed us various monuments in the chapel, including the tomb of one Cardinal Bainbridge ("He met a sticky end. The rector poisoned him because he was after his job."), and a marker for Robert Persons, Campion's confrere, who is buried somewhere in the church. And he told us about the Martyr's Picture. This is the huge painting of the Trinity over the altar, and it has a lot of subtleties: Christ's blood is falling onto a globe and turning into fire when it lands on England, and an angel is holding a banner with the motto "I have come to cast fire upon the earth." So the students were supposed to set England on fire with their zeal. Whenever they heard that one of the college's alumni had been executed, they gathered in front of this picture and sang a Te Deum (the modern students sing it every year on December 1st). Another neat detail in the painting is the small landscape below Christ, which is actually the view out of the Flaminian Gate. The Flaminian Gate is the northmost gate of Rome, the gate that looks toward England, and the students came in through this gate and left by it. Every day the students went to Mass and that picture was before their eyes, reminding them of where they were from and where they were going and why. We were also told about the Liber Ruber, the "Red Book" where the students signed their names, vowing to go back to England after they finished their studies. Apparently the modern students have continued this tradition, and the seminarian told us that his name is in it several volumes down. I caught a flash of that joy and gallantry when he talked about going back and re-evangelizing England - it seems that the English College has done a good job of keeping the old missionary spirit alive and adapting it to the needs of the present day.

At some point it dawned on me that I had gate-crashed a private tour, but I wasn't about to leave. I put on my most insouciantly innocent air and followed everyone through the back garden, the private chapel, the Cardinals' hall, and the upper gallery of the main chapel. By the end I think I had a mild case of Stendhal Syndrome. Mega kudos to Trinity Academy (this, I learned, was the school to which the young scholars belonged) for giving their students such an opportunity! I envy them the excellent formation they are getting.

The only disappointment was finding out that the college had no books for me to buy. Ah well. I was running out of room in my suitcase anyway.

After I left the English College, I met up with some CC friends and walked to the Colosseum for Stations of the Cross with Benedict XVI. There was a crowd of epic proportions, but I did get pretty close to the Pope. And ironically enough, I hardly noticed the pedantic changes to the Stations that (rightly) annoyed so many in the blogosphere. I didn't have a booklet, and everything was in Italian; so I only vaguely comprehended what was being said.

When the crowds let out, the entire street all the way to the VE Monument was one surge of people. We CC'ers walked all the way back to the Vatican and the Via Candia, still holding our lit candles, saying the rosary; and I climbed the three somnambulant flights of stairs to my room and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. I needed all the rest I could get. Tomorrow we would have to brave the line for Easter Vigil...

Forum at twilight on Good Friday.

(The photo of Tenebrae at San Gregorio is from Fr. Z.'s
What Does the Prayer Really Say?)

No comments: