It seems like only yesterday I was slipping and sliding on the icy streets of Rome to make my way on foot to the Vatican, just for fun, when we had our rather freakish snowstorm at the end of February. It was a very cold and unpleasant day, though watching snowball fights in Saint Peter’s Square was entertaining that morning. Now, writing this toward the end of May, the daytime temperatures are rising, everything is in bloom, the grass is green in the parks, myriads of songbirds are back, and really a pleasant “moment” has arrived in the Eternal City. That won’t last, since before long we will be in July and August, when it is best to escape the city if at all possible, for cooler climes, such as at the coast or in the mountains. That means going east, west, or north of Rome, but definitely not south. It will only be hotter in that direction. Last year I headed north, but it wasn’t really far enough, and under the Tuscan sun it was almost as hot as Rome.
Earlier in the spring, after a number a very heavy rain in the north of Italy and in the environs of Rome, the Tiber River which perpetually flows through Rome was a raging torrent. Even the wide sidewalks along the riverbank were under water and only reappeared at the end of April. Now those sidewalks are being prepared for summer activities, which include the cleaning of the sidewalks of dirt and debris and setting up tents and booths for the food, art and other goods that are sold along the river all through the summer. Music is also a part of the experience. If you want to get an idea of what I speak, watch Roman Holiday again. Some of the scenes were shot along the Tiber riverbank festivities of summer that go back many decades. Roman Holiday was released in 1953, so it must have been filmed in 1952, the year I was born. Things haven’t changed that much along the Tiber in the summer.
Do I partake of the riverside festivities of summer? Not normally. Besides my usual work for our curia and Abbot President, there is enough for me to do already, including attending occasional lectures on Mount Athos or the Blessed Virgin Mary, partaking of a Scripture study day or a week of Gregorian chant study. Some of these have already taken place and some will be a little later in the year. Such opportunities seem to proliferate with the warmer weather.
The Gregorian chant study week will be at the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere neighborhood, very near us. The nuns are sponsoring a week of intensive chant theory and practice this summer. While I have been singing Gregorian chant for many years, and know a number of pieces by heart, I can always learn more and be a better cantor. I realize that as I approach the magic number seventy, that my voice isn’t want it just to be, but that is how life goes, like it or not. As the weather, so is life: somewhat predictable, but also filled with surprises.
The chant week will include a look at the spirituality of Gregorian chant, reading the notes of chant in the liturgical books, reviewing the various modes or tones used in chant, the musical scale and vocal production. The course will be at the end of August, when it will be “hot as blue blazes,” as my mom and aunt’s would say, the definition of which I am not precisely sure, but suffice it to say later August is usually very hot and humid in Rome. Maybe the Santa Cecilia nuns will have electric fans or even air conditioning. This is wishful thinking perhaps!
The three professors of the Gregorian chant course this summer include a Polish priest, a Latvian laywomen and an Italian layman. The Benedictine Abbey of Santa Cecilia is just a fifteen minute walk from our curia Sant’Ambrogio. Classes will begin at 9:00 and finish at 12:45, then reconvene at 2:30 and finish at 7:00 pm. Let’s see if I really have the stamina for all that. The course will run from Monday through Saturday, August 20 – 25.
I have now strayed rather far from a reflection on the weather, but one thing can be said: as spring comes, with the pleasant weather, longer days and lovely flowering of jasmine, roses and all kinds of other flowers, it tends to be a time of the return of many tourists and pilgrims to Rome. That is the case everywhere in the northern hemisphere, from New York to Helsinki, Dublin to Dubrovnik. It is also the season of serious reaction for those allergic to pollen. Fortunately I am normally spared of this annual annoyance.
More people in Rome means longer lines at the grocery store, more people on the buses and trams, longer waiting to get inside the major basilicas, since there is security to pass through first. All of this is no surprise, just the reality of the modern world and living in an incredibly popular tourist and pilgrimage destination for people from every part of the world. For students in Rome the beautiful weather means the ending of classes and exams taking place, a moment of understandable stress and worry.
As I have told more than one student, try your best, get a good grade, but the important thing is that you have learned something and that you pass the course if at all possible. Some students have as many as ten exams to face. If need be, I tell them to watch the video on You Tube of Mr. Bean taking an exam and doing all in his power to get answers from his neighbor. Do not imitate Mr. Bean, I tell them, but relax and get a good laugh at the extent some people will go to in order pass an exam.
The Mr. Bean video shows a very long written exam, but in Rome many if not most exams are oral and last only a few minutes. While on one level that sounds more merciful than a written exam, you have to be really attentive and answer carefully in the few minutes allotted for an oral exam. That can be excruciating and I speak from experience. At sixty-five, I am grateful that I am not a student, nor a professor for that matter. But I know many students and empathize with their plight. I laugh that once the exams are over they always seems like “changed people.” I was probably that way also.
Warmer weather in Rome also means there are more people making the one day pilgrimage to the seven major churches in Rome, a tradition dating back to Saint Philip Neri in the sixteenth century. Covering about twelve miles, beginning at the Basilica of Saint Peter at the Vatican, then to Saint Mary Major, and on to Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, Saint John Lateran, Holy Cross of Jerusalem, Saint Sebastian Outside the Walls and finally Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls. These are the “Station Churches” and pilgrims pray and sing along the way and in each church and take time somewhere along the way to enjoy a picnic lunch. Pilgrimage groups can number from a few to hundreds.
I have been to all of the stational churches, but never all of them on the same day. A group of monks of our curia Sant’Ambrogio made the seven churches pilgrimage toward the end of May this year, though I was not able to join them. In any case, the arrival of spring is welcome in Rome and presents many pleasant opportunities for those who live or who are visiting here.