Orta San Giulio & sun


There is sun this morning and after breakfast we are on the ferry to the Isola di San Giulio which sits in the middle of the lake.

I read that there are two paths around the tiny island, and, in fact the island is not only tiny but so heavily built upon that there is no place to stand to get a perspective on the whole of the island. This island is so crowded with villas, church buildings and the church itself, that we cannot see the church building from the front doors. Inside, it is a tiny church, painted and carved and guilded. Parts of the church were decorated or build at different times. A church was built in the 5th century, then replaced by one in the next hundred years, then added to in the 12th and 19th centuries. It is the metaphor of the island, every inch developed, redeveloped and decorated. There is hardly room for the pews. What is in the church could easily fill a church twice its size.

There are legends and stories of course. San Giulio was a 4th century Greek “religious” who, with his brother (Giulian) built 99 churches in this part of Italy. Giulio then set off by himself to find a place for the 100th church. He decided the island in the lake was the perfect spot but there was no one to take him to the island–there’s a tourist story for you. So he spread his cloak on the water and sailed it to the island. Once there, he slayed dragons and snakes, code for pagans, and founded his church. (He is the patron saint for masons for obvious reasons. Perhaps this is the reason for such heavy building on the isle.). What I can find online hints at a dark history, a queen hiding from an emperor and losing her kingdom and her treasure, reformers born on the island, the now Benedictine monastery which houses nuns for the last 30 years was a fortified castle.

It is a place with many ghosts who do not give up their stories easily.

Back to the paths. They are called the way of silence and the way of meditation. We immediately find the way of silence and circle the island in about 20 minutes, reading the signs along the way. We pass doors and gates to villas. They all have names and the infrequent possibility to look inside open gates reveals tiny manicured lawns and abundant flower beds. With hydrangea, everywhere hydrangea.We cannot find the way of meditation and for the moment I cannot figure it out. The is one road around the island. So . . .

We get back to the church in time for a mass. Considering this is late morning on a Sunday, it was an easy scynronicity. The church holds perhaps 100 people or a few less and it is full, mostly local people and a few of us infidels.

When the organ began, I handed Julia ear plugs and everyone else turned to the left side aisle. I expected to see the priest and his attendants but instead there was a line of nuns, two by two, making their way towards the altar. The women in all black were followed by a handful with white veils, I am guessing novices, and a smaller handful in dark skirts and blouses, I suspect postulants. For the most part they walked with heads bowed, holding black covered books. They walked through a gate on the side of the altar and filed into their own pews. As they filed in, the line was held up now and again. One of the nuns walked with head up and when the line stopped for a moment she caught my gaze. She’s looked at me, rather intensely, and I held her gaze. It was a long moment and I wondered why. No other nun seemed interested in those assembled. Then, almost in answer, she shifted her gaze to Julia and then back to me. She smiled very slightly and I responded. I felt seen through, bare souled but held dear. When she passed I was almost ready to cry.

An aside: there seemed to be women running this church. The usher a woman, the person who lite candles a woman, and then there was the long procession of nuns. For a moment, I fantasizes that the nuns singing the mass had taken over the church. The moment passed and a priest and three serving men entered quietly from upstage left. They have been completely upstaged by the procession of nuns and their beautiful music. Two of the nuns read from the epistles and another helps the priest give out communion. I hold out hope for priests of my own gender.

The nuns sang, both acapella and with organ. Their voices floating in the air. There is something recognizable and breath takingly beautiful in voices that are used in song daily. These were untrained and deeply practiced voices that could lift a spirit high and be felt deep inside a soul.

The priest perform something between an ordinary and a high mass. His back was facing the faithful in the old fashion style. He used a lot of inscense and sermonized for a very, very long time. Julia was interested and attentive during most of the mass but she announced her boredom during that long sermon, albeit in a whisper in my ear. Almost shockingly appropriate.

Julia was interested in communion, no doubt because most of those in attendance were receiving, but my own reserve held us back. I was raised Catholic and have not received communion since I left the church when I was a late teen. (Perhaps just one time after that because David wanted to experience it.) It feels wrong to me.

I have often wondered why and how people devote themselves to a monastic life, but listening to the nuns, I could almost imagine a life of singing, gardening and meditation. Considering that my main objection to the religious life when I was in 8th grade was their old fashion, dark uniforms, my current understanding may represent quite a maturing of spirit. Or not.

When the mass was over, the nuns filed out. We all turned and dutifully watched them. Again all but one walked with bowed heads. That one, searched me out, flashed me a full smile and was gone.

When we left the church, I had the idea that the way of meditation was the same road we had walk in the opposite direction. It was so. We read the backs of the same signs we read before and I appreciated the path from this opposite angle. The heap of metaphor falls upon my head.

We get some of the best views of the island and of the town from the boat.  I snap away.

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