Vespers at San Damiano (Lost in No Translation or Uptown Monk)

The way I figure it: If you get the chance to go to an evening prayer service with a bunch of Franciscan monks in Assisi then you take it. If it happens to be in San Damiano—where the whole movement started and was also the home of the first members of the Poor Clares—then even better.

But, first, let me pause for a moment because I’ve mentioned two related but different San Damianos (San Damiani?) in the last two blogs and the overlaps can get kind of confusing. San Damiano is where Francis had the experience with the crucifix in which he heard Jesus telling him to rebuild the church. The crucifix is no longer in San Damiano but is located in the Basilica of St. Clare. The church that he rebuilt is now housed in St. Mary of the Angels. The remains of Francis himself can be found in the Basilica of St. Francis. The relics game broke the band up a good bit.

But back to San Damiano and the Franciscan monks. The monastery lies roughly a kilometer outside of Assisi down a super steep hill. During the day, visitors can come see the monastery that served as the home for Clare and the other women who made up the original Second Order of the Friars Minor (also known as the Poor Clares). Today the historical spaces are maintained by Franciscan monks who live in a newer part of the monastery.

Though the monastery is closed during the morning and evening, guests are allowed to join the monks in worship and prayer services at the beginning and end of the day. All of which is how EA and I found ourselves filing into that small, centuries-old chapel at 6:45 one evening with monks, nuns, religious pilgrims, and tourists. 

As the sun was still shining brightly, we baked inside of the stone sanctuary as people continued to filter in. Monks handed out prayer books and a paper pamphlet with songs to the guests. Just before seven, a friendly looking monk with gray hair taught us the songs that we would sing in that night’s service. He had a beautiful voice and when he hit the first note of that song in that ancient place, it felt like time had stopped. I admit that I nearly teared up.

The service was difficult for us to follow. For starters, it was conducted in Italian which we do not speak. Secondly, neither of us had ever attended a vesper service. As such, we had no idea about the rhythms of when to sit and when to stand. Even once EA figured out where we were in the prayer book, those leading in worship would occasionally venture completely off the page to a place that seemingly everyone else knew by heart. It was an excellent place for an American Protestant to look foolish though no one seemed to mind or notice.

Midway through the service, when we were finally starting to get a grasp on things, there was an enormously long time of silent meditation. I mentioned a few blogs ago that I believe the modern church needs to better embrace silence. I still think that, but when you don’t know why the silence is happening or how long it will last then it feels like you are in a spiritual staring contest with an unknown competitor.

I tried to pray, but my mind eventually started wandering:

Wow, how long has it been? Five, ten minutes? Is this intercession or confession? It says “intercessione” in the prayer book, but I still don’t think I’m on the right page. Okay: focus. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” This seems really long. Is the priest okay? Like he didn’t pass out or fall asleep, did he? No one up front looks worried. That monk kind of looks like he is wondering why this is going on so long too. And he’s probably used to long times of silent contemplation. I wonder if the monks ever get on each other’s nerves. Like does one particular monk sit down for lunch and the rest think, “Geez, not this guy.” That doesn’t seem very Franciscan. At the same time, no one’s perfect. Good gosh, how long is this going to take?

And so on. The time of silence was at least ten minutes, maybe fifteen. For all I know, I fell asleep, dreamt everything up to this point, and will wake up with my face buried in the prayer book as the kind gray-haired monk shakes his head in disappointment.

The service eventually came to a close. Near the end I picked up quickly that we were praying the Lord’s Prayer and it yanked my mind back into focus. I prayed in English alongside so many others praying in Italian. It was a small reminder of how the gospel reaches well beyond the context of the American South in which I was raised. We sang the benediction and then we spilled outside to find the sun setting beautifully behind the valley below.

As EA and I scaled the mountain back to Assisi, we talked about our confusion during the service and the massively long silence. Both of us realized that we were not really sure what we were expecting to get out of the service. Besides the first note sung by the gray-haired monk and the Lord’s Prayer, I didn’t have any sort of theophany or even a spiritual “aha!” moment. For much of the time, I was lost. Yet I didn’t feel let down. I was still glad we went. After all, if you get the chance to go to an evening prayer service with a bunch of Franciscan monks in Assisi then you take it.

The Duomo in Florence (A Redemption)

San Damiano Cross at St. Clare's (Rebuild My Church)