When we were in Rome, a couple of weeks ago, I insisted we go and see “my favourite church in Rome”. The first church I ever liked, to which I owe my introduction to, and love for, early sacred music.
It was all because I was a teenager with a crush.
I was sixteen and attending the French Lycée Chateaubriand in Rome. In the morning, I’d leave home earlier than I needed to, in order to reach the Aventino, where my French soon-to-be first boyfriend and his family lived, and, with some luck, “happen” to find myself on the same bus as he. This required major planning with the help of maps, bus time tables, and psychic abilities to be able to predict when the Rome buses would actually be running.
That morning, through over-eager miscalculation, I arrived on the Aventino nearly an hour before I’d expected to. The winter morning daylight had barely broken, and not wanting to loiter in the street, in the cold, I walked into a church. Santa Sabina.
I’d never seen a church like this before. From an early age, I had been both drawn to and frightened by churches. I’d always found something unnerving and menacing about High Baroque Roman churches. As a child, I couldn’t find the right words to articulate what it was, exactly. Now, I realise it evoked for me something deeply powerful and unforgiving.
Santa Sabina was different. An open, wide nave with two rows of plain stone pillars, and no seats for the congregation. Further down, before the altar, a separate, secluded area where, I guessed, there were a few seats, although from where I stood, hidden behind the first pillar, I couldn’t see who was there. But I could certainly hear them. A regular, repetitive, lulling chant by male voices. Gregorian chant, although I didn’t know that’s what it was called, then. Nor did I know that Santa Sabina was a 5th Century church, and that the singers were Dominican monks. All I knew was that, for the first time, I was in a church that I not only found far from menacing, but positively inspiring in a way I’d never known a church to be. I felt a strong pull, a deep sense of longing, like the yearning to come home. So new and yet so familiar.
I was mesmerised by the regular, even chanting. It wasn’t imposing, like the great masses in the large basilicas. It was deeply comforting. A balm for my anxious soul. I listened, entranced, leaning against the quietly strong, gently reassuring stone pillar. I wanted to stay there for ever.
After that day, and even when, a few months later, I started going out with my French boyfriend, I would often leave home early, just so I could go and stand in Santa Sabina, behind the pillar, for a few minutes, and immerse myself into that dimension of peace created by the ethereal, and at the same time comfortingly grounding, music.
Love this! Reminded me of Kathleen Norris’ descriptions of the chanting and singing her book The Cloister Walk.
So glad you liked it but equally glad you mentioned ‘The Cloister Walk’. I’d never heard of it and I found the title intriguing. So I looked it up… and have now ordered a copy. Thank you!
I love Kathleen Norris. She fed me spiritually when organized religion left me cold.
Charles was there. 😄 We loved the Aventino. No tourists, lots of green spaced and a heavenly tranquility.
No tourists?! There were floods of them when we were there. Perhaps it’s because you went a few weeks before us, so less into the tourist season. But, yes, the Aventino is beautiful. Di you see look through the famous keyhole?
Hi, Katia. I also have a fondness for Gregorian chants, though I doubt very much that I know the music as well as you do. For me, my first knowing acquaintance with them started when I was 19 and working on my theatre arts major. The theatre crafts shop part of the degree took place at the university stages, and at the biggest, there was a huge sound system. The director of the shop often played Gregorian chants while we were all working on the sets, and it was a welcome change from the occasional buzz of the table saw, or the noise of hammering. But the combination of the music and the sometime noise interruptions somehow reminded me of the way early churches were built, by talented craftspeople dedicated to the church. The echoes of the music were magnificent, and very restful. Thanks for the post.
I can see why the director of the shop played Gregorian chant while you were working. It’s gently rhythmic and very soothing. Thank you for commenting.
Lovely essay! I, too, prefer the Romanesque to the Baroque.
Thank you for commenting, Christine :–)
This was beautiful. I can remember an Evensong in a tiny country church in St Donat’s . That profound effect lasts all your life. The Gregorian chant is still with us despite all the turmoils of the centuries. That gives me hope that not all is lost.
I often put a CD of Gregorian Chant or Sarum Chant when I go to bed at night. It feels like a balm after the anxiety and anger of the day.
What a beautiful space to hear Georgian chants in, full of light. I love the pillars. Looking for more images, I found this little film clip:
Thank you for the clip. If you like pillars, you must go and see what is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen: Durham. https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk
Wow. Thanks. Have you read ‘The Pillars of the Earth,’ by Ken Follett? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pillars_of_the_Earth
I tried reading it, a few years ago, after watching the television series, but I didn’t get on with Follett’s writing style.
I found the story of Tom Builder riveting.
Yes, it’s a great story.
I’d love to stand behind that pillar right now!
‘Bless your heart!