Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Vespers At The Abbazia San Miniato Al Monte

On the same side of the River Arno where the Boboli Gardens climb greenly up a hill, there's another hill less than a kilometer away as the corvo flies, or about two kilometers by foot, down a narrow winding one-way road to the Piazzetta di San Miniato and then up the staircase of the Viale Galileo, past the Giardino delle Rose, past the people selling sunglasses and scarves and souvenirs, and up again on the Viale Galileo (the road this time) to the Abbey of Saint Minias on the Mountain, where monks have been singing vespers in the evening since the beginning of the 13th century. The Benedictine Order of Our Lady of Mount Olivet has been living at the top of this hill for more than 600 years, though this particular religious group has been in Florence for well over a millennium. We arrived at the top of the hill at 5:30pm or so, and had an hour to walk around the basilica and admire the mosaic floors (the original 13th-century stone) and the fading frescoes before going down into the crypt where the services are generally held, except on Sundays, possibly; there's a large altar and there are pews in the main part of the basilica, but the service going on when we arrived was down below. After walking around for hours in the hot Tuscan sun it was nice to sit on the cold marble risers for half an hour, waiting for the monks to come back and sing the Gregorian chants of the vespers service.

The vespers service is one of many that they conduct throughout the day, starting after their wake-up call at 4:30am and their last devotionals at 9:00pm, with long periods of silence for reflection and work. The previous service was just ending as we walked quietly down the steps to the crypt, and the two or three monks that were in that service puttered about putting away things behind the altar, which we couldn't see well because it's behind a floor-to-ceiling iron grate. All but one monk left, a very old and bent monk who seemed to be bowed in prayer whether sitting or standing, and who stayed in his seat until a larger group of young monks came back in for the vespers service. Actually, he still stayed in his seat, for the most part; getting up and down seemed to be difficult for him. I wondered whether he arrived for the first service and then just stayed there for twelve hours in constant reflection and devotion, or if he left at any point. After the service he got up and retrieved a cane from the corner of the crypt, and slowly, slowly walked to a private staircase, helped up the steps by his younger colleagues. Did he join as an older man? Had he been there since his teens? What would it be like to devote your life to praying for the salvation of the world? A quiet life, at least. It was lovely to share that devotion, and that silence, before emerging from the coolness of the crypt into a golden evening above the city of Florence.

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