It was my mother’s idea to go to mass at the Duomo in Pisa. The last time I attended a church service when abroad on holiday was 27 years ago, when Ian and I took well-behaved baby Sam along to hear the Gregorian chants of mass in Solesmes. We’re not catholic and I guess I feel a little voyeuristic attending such a sacred service, but, after an exceptional week running my How to Write Life Stories course at The Watermill in Posara, it seemed like the right thing to do. I’m always a little nervous before such things, not knowing what might be ahead and whether I’d sense what I was supposed to do and not make a fool of myself.
We don’t speak Italian and despite several trips to Italy have still not quite grasped the subtleties of how to pronounce the letter c. How was I to follow the Order of Service if I couldn’t even pronounce cielo? As soon as we took our seats I noticed the shaft of light that seemed to be coming directly from the eyes of Christ high up in the dome of the Sanctuary down to towards the congregation. On a visit the day before I’d been entranced by the modern marble sculpture of the lectern and was delighted to get a better view this time and see it in use.
The choir gathered. They looked a motley crew, dressed in black party dresses or open-necked shirts and trousers, gathered in random formation on some raised wooden benches as if they were watching the dressage from the free seats in the grandstand. Their seats, if you could call them that, were beneath a concave swell of ceiling atop four pale stone pillars. Yet, the moment they opened their mouths I knew why this was the perfect spot for music-making. The acoustics were phenomenal. They were in just the right place and we had come at just at the right time.
As the priest, and what I assumed were his priests-in-training, walked towards the altar, filling the air with incense from their swinging thurible, one held a silver-jacketed bible high above his head, the choir were in full voice and the congregation rose to their feet, I was so glad I’d come.
I found I could follow the Order of Service after all and soon got the hang of the cc, ch and ci sounds after all. Things always have a habit of working out in the end.
This was the perfect bookend for a perfect week, when again, the right people had gathered seemingly randomly at just the right time for them. They too had been tentative at first unsure what to expect. Many had fidgeted in their seats, but it took no time at all for the magic of the chuckling stream that passed The Watermill to carry them along with its magic. I had no incense to wave, though the constant whiff of open wine bottles may have done the same trick. My Bible, should I dare to call it so, may well have been the workbook I had taken along and we read from it when I needed to give an example and knew my own words would not be enough.
The students soon learned the ropes and by the end of the week their voices had swelled to fit the acoustics of the secluded, sacred, safe space that is The Watermill. Thanks to the delights of the local market at Fivizzano, many ended up buying the same linen dress and soon, we too, were wearing a uniform of sorts.
As I relaxed and enjoyed the service today, a phrase continued to run through my mind. It was a phrase that Dave had coined on the last day of August’s writing course.
“I lift thee and thee lift me.”
For that’s just how it felt. I have done my best this week to sense the mood and do whatever felt natural to lift the spirits and raise the confidence of my wonderful students. And, in doing so, they have lifted my spirits so high that I feel doubly blessed. Isn’t this the only reason to do anything? For helping others is one of the best ways to help ourselves. I am already excited about going back to The Watermill next May.