In these less structured days of mine, after my self-motivated daytime studies of Italian language, art and and various other subjects, I take my evening walk. Actually it is more of a walk-about Florence, for I have no time-frame, agenda or destination. I just walk wherever my feet take me. At times, in these wanderings, I find myself entering a church to take a break and a bit of reprieve. It seems that every time I think that I have perhaps stumbled into just about every church in this city, I stumble upon another. And that is just what happened yesterday evening. However this particular “stumbling upon a church” turned out to be, in fact, a rather magical moment.
I was off in a non-tourist area just doing my wandering and I looked upon a door. The door had a simple entrance and exit side (push/pull) and there were hours of opening posted upon it. It was obviously a church and since my experience in Italy is that if church doors are open, one is welcome to enter. I did enter and what I found was a very small church–more like a chapel–with a rib-vaulted gothic ceiling, but a very modern stylised cross in the apse. Seated amongst the pews were five elderly nuns dressed in full habits of varying shades of pale blues and greys. They were not seated together, but rather randomly dispersed among the pews. Between this section of pews and the smaller section of pews in the back, where I was seated, there was a gate. I won’t go into too many details here, but I will mention that it was typical to delineate the worshipping masses (in this case just me) from the clergy in the front of the nave with a type of screen or gate. So I quietly took a seat in one of the back pews. There was only one other woman in this back section of pews. She was on the opposite side of the aisle from me and a few pews back. She wore a nun’s cloak, but no head cover as did the other nuns in the front pews. Those nuns were chanting the Ave Maria, but then suddenly the woman on my left began leading them in the chants. Her voice was crystal clear and there was so much beauty in it and in the responses of the other nuns to each phrase that she chanted.
I felt somewhat out of place, so I just folded my hands and bowed my head. After awhile though, I started to feel more awkward–as though I had intruded upon a private devotional moment. I had sat for perhaps a half an hour savouring the peace, but finally I decided it was time to get up and leave this place of humble devotion. As I stood and went toward the door to exit, I briefly turned back and the nun who was leading the chants bestowed upon me the most beautiful smile-the smile that gives peace and tells you that all is right, that you are blessed and forgiven.
I was actually a bit unhinged by the power of the experience, and I continued down the street in a bit of a haze for a few moments. Then I thought to myself “I should remember this church so that I can return.” I wrote down the name of the piazza in which I was and then I turned around to find the door that so welcomed me and to write down the name of the church. But the door that I had originally approached and entered with the hours posted and the welcoming feeling was no longer there. There was only a solid wooden double door with so sign, no hours and no church name. In the brief time since I had exited, the door had been closed…or perhaps it was simply gone?