We found the Monastic Community of Jerusalem on the Via del Proconsolo, in residence at La Badia (the Abbey) Fiorentina. Via del Proconsolo runs between the Duomo (the apsidal end) and the River Arno. We had heard these Brothers and Sisters sing the noon office in Rome at Trinita dei Monti and looked forward to visiting them in Florence. We stopped in early to visit the gift shop, Monastica (only open 10-12:15, 3-6:15 p.m. Tues-Sat, Mon, 3-6).
There was singing coming from the shop. As I looked over the cards, icons, and books, blue-robed Sister Sara explained that the CD was a new recording of the chanting there at the abbey, “Vergine Madre, Figlia del tuo Figlio.” Happily the CD’s were for sale. I also found a book on the Benedictine abbey in English, with a detailed and colorful history, going back to its founding in the tenth century by the wealthy Marquise Willa of Tuscany.
I thanked the ingenuous sister, who glowed with happiness, for the presence of these Fraternities in the many cities of Europe (now twelve locations), with their unique charism, to “live in the heart of the city in the heart of God”:
“The monks and nuns of Jerusalem strive to put the prayer in the heart of the city and carry the city in the heart of their prayer. They want to create an oasis in this urban ‘desert’ of alienation and anxiety, loneliness, yearning or indifference by ‘giving life’ to a place of silence and prayer which would be also a pace of welcome and sharing.” (fr. their brochure)
These young people are city dwellers who rent their housing and work part-time, part of the Diocesan church, have no walled cloister, but only the cloister of silence and prayer. They sing the morning, midday, and evening hours of prayer in four parts. They bear the name “Jerusalem” because this city is patron to all cities; it is was the city where Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose to new life; it is where the Church was founded and where the first Christian communities were born; it is a symbol of our hope in heaven.
I thought of my friends in Rome. Sister Emanuel and the Missionaries of Divine Revelation in Rome bring the the Church into the secular world through education, by teaching the truths of the faith; Father Paolo and the Camillians bring the Church’s healing to the sick, the dying, the suffering throughout the world. The Fraternities of Jerusalem live and work among those who live and work in the cities, bringing to them the life of prayer and peace and beauty, an oasis in the desert. I am so thankful for all of them and have been so blessed to witness their work.
When I introduced myself to Sister Sara in the shop I explained about my little book, and she seemed eager to receive a copy, that the language was not a problem. So we have a new friend in Florence now. When you visit say hello for me (and do the same in Rome with Father Paolo and Sister Emanuela).
Before returning for the 12:30 prayer office, we braved a windy alley leading to Santa Croce basilica and the broad square spread before this white Franciscan church. Leather factories and shops lined the piazza. A band played Italian songs before a group of young school children sitting crosslegged, entranced. Pigeons fluttered and tourists snapped photos of the massive facade. The day was coolish with billowing clouds streaking the skies, covering the sun, but the drama played in the skies was welcome.
The line for a ticket (6 Euro, about $10) was not long, and we soon were moving through the vast basilica, past glimmering apses of stained glass, into the southern transept chapel where Renaissance masters depicted the last days of Christ. There are many famous paintings here, but I always recall my characters visiting in Pilgrimage, my first novel, about a journey of healing through cities and villages in Italy. Even so, they have used the ticket proceeds well, allowing access to many restored masterpieces, with English information panels, something I don’t recall from before and definitely worth the admission.
It was time for our noon prayers and we headed back to the Badia to hear the Sisters and Brother and spend a quiet half hour praying for Florence, our families and friends, and the world. We tooks seats in the wooden pews and gazed about the old church with its vaults and frescoed apsidal ceiling. The space is larger than Trinita dei Monti in Rome and smaller than St. Gervais in Paris, with (it appeared) transepts, chancel, and nave of equal length, in a Greek cross plan. Before us, on the altar, a golden monstrance held the Host for adoration, and a number of faithful knelt before the Real Presence of Christ, spending a few precious and sacred minutes with God. Three Sisters knelt too, keeping watch.
Soon, more Sisters and Brothers entered and knelt. Their white robes fell to the floor, and it was as though they blended into the pale marble so that they would not distract us the focus of prayer. Icons, newly painted, stood to each side on massive pillars, and a painted crucifix hung high. A life size icon of Christ stood before the Holy Sacrament Chapel off the north transept. The Renaissance church had been gilded by these icons, and the eye was drawn to them for contemplation.
The grace and beauty of those thirty minutes restored my soul. We prayed with the figures in white, focusing on the vivid cross, and as the chanting of the psalms winged through the air, a quiet settled upon me. Gone was the rush of tourists and crowded sidewalks, the noise of traffic and sirens, the elbowing and push of tour groups eager to own Florence’s treasures. Here in this space, in this moment in time, in the middle of the desert, we listened to the singing as we prayed too.
We left silently, our hearts open to the world in a new way, open to God. We followed the road to the river where the gray and white skies hung low over the high waters, past the Ponte Vecchio, to lunch along the way back to our hotel.
A good first day in Florence.