I wrote this piece a couple years ago after reflecting on an encounter in Venice. It is a simple example of how traveling has broadened my perspective over the years.
Ring the Bell
We arrived at San Giorgio Maggiore to find that we were alone. Where were the other visitors for the Gregorian chant? We walked around with the notion that maybe if we just wandered a bit, the answer would reveal itself. It did not, so my aunt pulled out her Rick Steves’ guidebook and reread the passage. “On Sunday, ring the bell at the door to the right of the main entrance for admission to the mass.” Compared to the grandness of the church, the door felt a little less sufficient. Maybe this was the door Alice went through after chasing the rabbit. We rang the doorbell as if we were ready to be welcomed into someone’s house. I guess it is someone’s house after all, the house of God. I backed away further from the door in case an irate man came down to shove us off. But instead, a nice monk appeared, and quietly guided us to the room where the mass was being held.
Yes, I said mass, not chant. We sat in the tall choir pews that neither pleased the back nor the behind. Where were the chanters? I learned about the Gregorian chants in my college music course and loved the sound of the repetitious sayings. I wanted to hear the heavenly prayers. Instead we heard half-asleep, monotone men reading in Italian. They spoke together in the same dull voice. It reminded me of the nuns on TV that constantly repeat the Ave Maria. As I watched, I felt pity. Pity for a life that lacks fulfillment, a life of repetition. I imagined what it must be like to be a monk, to wake up in the predawn hours to perform mass, and continue to perform mass several times throughout the day. At this point, the voices became murmurs as I wondered why anyone would choose this life. This is not a life God would want a man to live. I understand they are spreading the Word of God, but there are only four visitors.
At this point I became impatient. I came to hear chants, and instead I was trapped in an uncomfortable chair. My stomach made noises that I am sure everyone could hear, and I was just ready to leave. A few short moments later, the mass was complete. We rose and made our way towards the exit. Shortly after exiting the room, we found that we were not alone. One of the monks was not far behind, and he asked us if we would like to stay for coffee. His English caught me off guard.
He guided us downstairs to the kitchen and dining area. There was a man already there, percolating some coffee. He was staying with the monks for a short term basis. Unfortunately, he did not speak any English, so we were only able to enjoy each other’s’ company. Dona Andrew began conversation. “How did you hear of the mass? Did you enjoy it?”
“We learned of a chant from Rick Steves.” replied my aunt. “Thank you for inviting us in.”
“Oh yes, Rick Steves. I remember him visiting.”
While drinking my tea and savoring my sweet lemon dessert, I sat and thought about my previous impression of this man. The problem was not my impression of this individual man, but of the men as a group. I don’t know them at all, and yet I felt I had the right to judge their lives and choices. I have no right. I constantly do this in every aspect of my life. I make up stories of who I think people are based on my impressions. Impressions are very important, but they do not provide an accurate enough picture to portray the whole story of a person. As I took another sip, I realized that I have a major fault with assumptions. While Dona Andrew was talking, I became more and more interested. Since I found out my story was so wrong, I wanted to know the truth. I asked him how he became a monk. His response was not expected.
“Back in Scotland, I found myself becoming very selfish. I looked at my possessions and the life I was living, and I knew that I could not stay on this path,” he stated as he stirred his coffee.
At 30 years old this man became a monk. I kept thinking: you can do that? You can be a normal civilian and simply just decide that you want to be a monk? I don’t know what I imagined. Perhaps that it was something not chosen, but more of something indicated at birth like hair color. My little world was ill informed about monkhood. I wanted to know so much more, but it did not feel appropriate to inquire about this man’s whole life story during our first meeting. As the drinks became low and the snacks had disappeared, he offered to take us on a tour of the church.
He guided us through the nave and pointed out the tile. The design was geometric in a similar way to Escher. From various perspectives, the flooring looked three dimensional. He discussed how he found beauty in the idea of perception. What an interesting connection considering my previous perspective of this place.
My perception changed more as the conversation continued. He showed us a painting by Titian in a room that seemed lonely of visitors. The scene showed Jesus being pulled down from the cross. He described the image to help us understand its importance. “Do you see his hand there? It is larger than the other one. We ask ourselves why the hand limp in Mary Magdalene’s hand is larger? Perhaps it is to show her importance.”
As he continued on I was left wondering what he meant. I couldn’t keep quiet, so I asked what he thought it implied. He didn’t know for sure.
“I think that Mary Magdalene may have more importance than we may know.” I let out before thinking.
“I wonder. You know, it only matters that you believe in something. To be honest, I don’t care what you believe, as long as you have faith in something,” he declared as if they were the words of God himself.
The tour was ending and I was not ready to part. We provided him with some gratification euros for the delightful discussion. I exited the doors of San Giorgio Maggiore to an empty vaparetto dock. As we waited for the next boat, I worried about not only leaving this island, but also this way of thinking.
It is odd how the most important moments are not planned. Perhaps all planning in life should be minimal.