St. Cecilia Day in Sutri
(This post is from the evening of November 22nd)
“Ave Maria,” came the voice over the intercom of the Carmelite convent in Sutri. I was glad someone had answered and hoped that it meant I would be able to get out of the rain. “Hello, I’m a pilgrim…” I began. “Yes, please come in.” I heard a buzz come from the door and I eagerly opened it to get inside.
I found myself in a small, dark room with a closed door. I waited in this lobby area and soon I heard noise come from the other side of the door. I heard a light switch on, and a little door opened up on a large wooden counter that I hadn’t noticed in the darkness. On the other side of a grate stood a nun, looking at me. “Can I have your credential?” she asked, indicating a large turntable to her left. It was like I was cashing in chips at Vegas or buying something at a 7-Eleven in a particularly dangerous part of town, but the nun was replacing the casino employee or embattled convenience store worker, making for a funny image in my head. As she was busy stamping the credential, she explained that the convent did have a house for pilgrims, but it wasn’t heated, so I may want to look for somewhere else. I had no desire to go back out into the rain and it wasn’t actually all that cold, so I told her that I didn’t care and would take whatever they had, heated or not. She passed a key to me through the turntable and told me the house was next door. I was pretty certain, based on the way this limited interaction went, that they would not be serving dinner to me, so I went to set down my things and make my own plans.
I emerged a little while later from the cold room to wander about town and found the door to the chapel of the convent—which had been closed upon my arrival—now open. I went inside to go take a look and found a very dimly lit, sparsely decorated sanctuary. I could hear chanting and prayer, but attributed the noises to a recording that must have been playing over some speakers. Many churches in Italy follow this practice—I guess to give a certain ambiance to their worship places while actual services aren’t going on. As I approached the altar, however, I looked to my right and saw another room separated from the main one by a large grate. In the other room, facing the opposite direction of the main chapel’s altar, were the nuns of the convent conducting a service. I didn’t want to disturb their prayer, so I quietly slipped out and starting to make my way through town.
Sutri is one of these well-preserved, medieval hilltop towns that you can find all over central Italy. It is very narrow, resting on the crest of a hill, and one main street leads all the way through town along the ridge. I walked through the main square and continued beyond to find the town’s cathedral. The building had been altered many times since its early construction, and now was a jumble of architectural styles. The basilica layout was decorated with bright, baroque design, making for an interesting combination. On one of the poster boards near the entrance, I saw that there would be a special St. Cecilia Day mass at 5PM on November 22nd—today! Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and the Schola Catorum of Sutri would be making a special appearance that evening to provide music at the service. Since it was already 4:30, I decided to come back to the service after walking around a bit more.
I left the cathedral, and, as it began to rain lightly, I made my way down some of the smaller roads that went through the town. It was getting dark. Orange street lamps were turning on, glowing brightly in the rain. I ended up back in the central piazza and found that the area which had been deserted when I walked through earlier was now brimming with activity in spite of the bad weather. Couples were walking under umbrellas—reminiscent of Caillebotte’s Paris: A Rainy Day—and old men were standing in bars around the square talking to one another. The large clock on the gate at the opposite end of the square was reaching five, so I walked back to the cathedral to catch the beginning of the service.
When I arrived, there was hardly anyone there, but people began to enter as soon as I had found a seat at the back. By and large, the attendees were old women who took up positions near the altar. Instead of just sitting there, waiting for the service in silence, they began to go into a long series of chants. All stood, and one woman began reciting prayers—mostly to Mary—and the others would respond from memory. This ritual went on for at least ten minutes and I was surprised to see such precise and impromptu devotion from the laity. They finished, and the service began without much pomp. A priest was the only official present, and there was no procession or anything of the sort. The choir was standing in the apse, behind the altar, and all were in street clothes. The priest even had to do his own incense. The sermon—about St. Cecilia and the transcendental joy of music making—seemed very unplanned and improvised but was actually better than many I’ve heard. It didn’t try to make a cute point or delve into things beyond the scope of the day’s scripture and significance. The choir was a bit disappointing. From what I could tell, it was many enthusiastic, older members of the community who had no real vocal training or experience but made up for it with excessive verve and volume. Either way, it was interesting to see all the proceedings and I was glad to have had the chance to see the way another church does its business.