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Grace

Isn’t that something? That is the view from inside the Duomo in Florence, looking up at Vasari’s frescoes inside the dome. We went to vespers there tonight. Sung prayers in Italian and Latin. It was heavenly. There were only about 30 people there in the side chapel; the cathedral only let people in who wanted to pray. I prayed before the relics of St. Zenobius [1] (337-417), the first bishop of Florence, and again in front of the famed painting [2] of Dante presenting the Commedia to Florence (it is much, much darker than the usual depictions). We ambled out into the piazza afterward as the sun was setting and the bells in Giotto’s campanile were sounding. My cup runneth over, I thought.

Earlier in the day we had been to mass. Casella and James C. are Catholic traditionalists. I couldn’t find an Orthodox liturgy around town, so I accompanied them. It was a beautiful mass, but it really made me feel how deeply Orthodox I have become liturgically. After a while, I began to feel a little dizzy, and had to step out for air. I walked around the block, looking to buy a bottle of water. I found one, then returned to the church and sat on the steps reading the Purgatorio, Canto 10. [3] It’s about the sin of pride, and begins with three examples of pride in action. Later in the canto, Dante meets the shade of Oderisi, a famous painter from Florence, whose fame has been eclipsed by others. Oderisi reflects on the emptiness of worldly fame, and taking pride in one’s respect in this mortal life. Sitting in Florence, which was once arguably the greatest city in the world, reflecting on how it has become a vast museum, is to understand what Dante meant. All things pass.

We had lunch after mass, then gelato — fig and ricotta, black sesame, and pistachio for me — then picked up our tickets for the Uffizi. The luminous genius of Botticelli and Michelangelo, in particular, defy my ability to describe. Eventually I just stopped trying to articulate to myself why these paintings were so great, and tried to allow myself to experience them directly. There were some paintings, the figures in which touched me deeply (but not so deeply that I recorded the names of the artists, mind you). Take this detail of St. Joseph admiring the Christ child:

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When I first saw it, I thought, “I remember looking at my newborn children in just the same way.” The sense of recognition. Or take this image of the Virgin cradling Jesus and John the Baptist:

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Here is St. Anthony of Egypt, the Desert Father. Look at those eyes:

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Eventually it’s too much. All that light and beauty is overwhelming. We were grateful but exhausted after the end of the exhibits. I’m glad we were able to ease into the evening with vespers after all that richness.

All this beauty did not make the people of Florence good back in its day. And yet, if goodness doesn’t produce beauty, does it have dimension? I find it hard to imagine practicing as a Christian outside of beauty. At the same time, if I were a part of a church or religious community that worshiped beauty and had no particular care for goodness, that would be hollow too. I know I’m going to be thinking about the relationship among truth, beauty, and goodness after I leave Florence, but it’s too much to think about tonight, after a day like today and days like I have had since arriving here.

Tonight James, Casella and I finished with dinner in our apartment. We ate good Italian food and drank good Italian wine and listened to Sidney Bechet, and then Louis Armstrong, and talked about God and Dante and Florence. Stepping into the kitchen to get more water for the table, I thought that this is the kind of moment I dreamed of when I was younger — a night like this, filled with friendship, music, food, and conversation about ideas. Like I said, my cup runneth over. I do not deserve any of this. I do not deserve to have friends like this, or a God so merciful, or the gift of poetry that restored me, or the privilege of being in a city of such devastating beauty. But here I am, and I receive it like a beggar. After walking out of the Duomo at sunset, I put some coins in the cup of the old gypsy woman begging near the doorway. After having received a gift like that at vespers, how could I pass her by?

Tomorrow: saying goodbye to James, who returns to England; seeing Santa Croce; packing and getting ready to head out Tuesday morning for Ravenna.

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22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Grace"

#1 Comment By Darth Thulhu On October 5, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

A true joy to hear that the day has been so blessed for you. May the rest of your journey treat you as kindly and gently.

#2 Comment By Uncle Billy On October 5, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

Good Italian food and good Italian wine in Florence. It does not get any better.

#3 Comment By Grigoris On October 5, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

There are supposedly two orthodox parishes in Florence, one Greek, the other Russian.

Chiesa Greco-Ortodossa di San Jacopo, Borgo San Jacopo 34, 50125 Firenze.

Église de la Nativité-du-Christ et Saint-Nicolas-le-Thaumaturge. Chiesa della Natività di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo e San Nicola. 8, Via Leone X, 50129 Firenze

[nfr: argh! Why didn’t I find them? Angry at myself now. — rd]

#4 Comment By HeartRight On October 5, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

I couldn’t find an Orthodox liturgy around town, so I accompanied them.
I had been wondering whether you would succumb to the siren call of the Latin Mass or whether you would seek refuge with the Exarchate of Ravenna… isn’t there an Orthodox Archbishopric in Milan?

#5 Comment By John Cruz On October 5, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

I’m filled with a holy envy Rod. And such gratitude that you are sharing this with us!

#6 Comment By ThomasH On October 5, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

Well titled. Grace = unmerited favor. We receive so much from those we love but incomparably more from God. The deyenu expresses it too.

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 5, 2014 @ 10:24 pm

Oderisi reflects on the emptiness of worldly fame, and taking pride in one’s respect in this mortal life.

I prefer C.S. Lewis’s observation that God wants a person who had done a really find work of art, or architecture, or literature, or whatever, to be able to truly admire the quality of their work, no more and no less than if the same quality work had been done by another.

Its a useful antidote to false modesty.

#8 Comment By Karen W. On October 6, 2014 @ 12:10 am

Rod, the image of the Virgin Mary in the second painting looks just like the photo of your niece with Ruthie. Those shining eyes…

Enjoy the rest of your time in Florence — and many thanks for sharing your travel experiences with us!

#9 Comment By Ivan On October 6, 2014 @ 9:17 am

For the record, the Russian cathedral in Florence is beautiful and pious in its worship, though very very Russian. (I had some advantages as a Russian speaker when I visited, I guess. When I approached the chalice, the priest asked me when I had last confessed. When he heard that I hadn’t been in a while, he agreed to hear my confession after Liturgy and then commune me separately. A mitzvah.)

[NFR: I am really frustrated with myself that I missed the Orthodox churches here. I thought I had researched them. It’s more likely that I looked in Ravenna, but made a note to myself that I had already checked in Florence. Argh! — RD]

#10 Comment By CharleyCarp On October 6, 2014 @ 10:18 am

||

Meanwhile, back in the States, there aren’t even four Justices interested in listening to the arguments in favor of allowing states to dissent on SSM. A whimper, not a bang.

|>

#11 Comment By Rjak On October 6, 2014 @ 10:31 am

“It was a beautiful mass, but it really made me feel how deeply Orthodox I have become liturgically.”

I’m curious if you could comment a bit more on this point. It resonates with me, as a Ukrainian Catholic who nevertheless pops his head in periodically at Roman liturgies. The longer I spend in the Eastern tradition, however, the more fully I feel the difference.

[NFR: It’s hard to explain. This is the first Roman liturgy I have attended in full in eight years, and it wasn’t a typical one. It was a Tridentine high mass, much more formal than the Novus Ordo. It was an Institute of Christ the King mass; they are a very baroque order. I thought it was beautiful, but to me, it was very cerebral compared to the Eastern liturgy. — RD]

#12 Comment By Sam M On October 6, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

“All this beauty did not make the people of Florence good back in its day.”

This seems like a central question. I look forward to hearing how you shake it out. It’s something that I wrestle with a lot.

#13 Comment By Clare Krishan On October 6, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

Love your shots’ semiosography, focused on the celestial vanishing point behind the heavy ‘dark wood’ of the earthbound ambo: the 8-sided oculus signifying sanctification in celestial beatitude.

apropos ‘taking pride in one’s respect in this mortal life’ did you see this bizarre photo-essay in today’s London Telegraph on the tombstones of Russian mobsters: an amalgam of Northern-European machismo with Southern European food porn frozen in Tartarus. I couldn’t help recalling how these countenances hewn in igneous basalt echo Doré’s etchings of the Inferno…

Is there anything in the Russian expression of Orthodox liturgy that could condone such temporal excesses in life nay even celebrate it in death?

#14 Comment By Clare Krishan On October 6, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

oops missing URL
“For Tarasov ‘these tombstones are a piece of modern art and show an attitude to death which is completely different to other cultures” Picture: DENIS TARASOV/CATERS NEWS
[7]

#15 Comment By dominic1955 On October 6, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

Great story. You are lucky to be able to take such a nice vacation.

As to the liturgy aspect of things, I’m a Latin Mass but I feel totally home in an Eastern Rite Divine Liturgy and I think they share a lot in common. The Divine Liturgy is less “formal” in the rubrical movement/carrying out of the ceremonies type of way, but is no less “formal” in what is presented and its own canon of movement/carrying out of the ceremonies. I don’t think the formality of the Roman Rite detracts from the “mystery” element either.

#16 Comment By RB On October 6, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

I’m finding those paintings very, very affecting. I love that one of Mary holding the Christ child and John the Baptist, two little boys snuggled together on her lap. Isn’t it funny how when small human things are relatable–in this case, the loving wrestle of snuggling two toddlers at once–makes the divine part just soar in significance? Lands. I love this art. I love it.

#17 Comment By John Doe On October 6, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

There is light, and there is The Light. They are both beautiful, but if the lesser does not point to the greater then it loses its purpose and becomes a radiant mask of death.

#18 Comment By Chris 1 On October 6, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

It was a beautiful mass, but it really made me feel how deeply Orthodox I have become liturgically.

I’ve had that same experience. Just saw this:

I thought it was beautiful, but to me, it was very cerebral compared to the Eastern liturgy.

Knowing that the differences between the Mass and the Divine Liturgy, liturgically speaking, is mostly stylistic I’m struck by the same thing. I think it is due to a confluence of effects:

The Mass is largely spoken, not sung. From the onset the priest recites “In the name of the Father..” while the Orthodox priest sings “Blessed is the Kingdom…”

The Mass is more efficient in moving from moment to moment, and does not return “Again and again” to the prayer “Lord, have mercy,” which is reserved for the Mass’ penitential moment.

Finally, Roman Catholic calisthenics are tame compared to their Orthodox counterpart. 😉

The effect of these stylistic differences is as great as the difference between attending a reading of a play and a performance of the same work.

#19 Comment By Chris On October 6, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

[NFR: It’s hard to explain. This is the first Roman liturgy I have attended in full in eight years …. I thought it was beautiful, but to me, it was very cerebral compared to the Eastern liturgy. — RD]

every time I have attended a western liturgy (Roman, Lutheran, Anglican etc) I always think “that was nice I suppose but my my my it was sooo very linear.” You’dahve to be Orthodox to understand but I am wondering Rod if you get what I mean.

[NFR: I do. Boy, do I. I would not have gotten it without having practiced as an Orthodox Christian for years, though. It’s just hard to imagine from the outside. When I first started attending Divine Liturgy, I thought, “Nothing here is linear; it’s all a mess!” It took time. — RD]

#20 Comment By Chris 1 On October 8, 2014 @ 12:33 am

When I first started attending Divine Liturgy, I thought, “Nothing here is linear; it’s all a mess!”

And what a beautiful, non-linear mess it is!

To me the non-linear nature of the Divine Liturgy is what makes Orthodoxy the Christianity for this electronic age…which (as McLuhan puts it) encourages people to live “mythically and in depth” rather than in a linear Cartesian construct.

#21 Comment By The Dean On October 8, 2014 @ 10:21 am

I lived and attended language school in Florence back in 1988. I think Goethe said it best, paraphrased “Italy has changed me to the very marrow of my bones”.

#22 Comment By SteelyTom On October 8, 2014 @ 11:31 am

I love Armstrong and Bechet– but if this isn’t a time and place for Monteverdi and Gesualdo….