My wife and I stood outside the Church of Sant’Agostino in the northern Tuscan town of Borgo Sansepolcro. It was Palm Sunday, a brilliant spring morning. It is a medieval church in a walled city, dating from the thirteenth century. This is the home town of Piero della Francesca, whose fresco Resurrection is one of the world’s great art treasures. We are strangers in the neighborhood.
—I can’t go in there.
—I don’t know what to do.
—Of course you know what to do in any church in the world. Go to a pew, kneel and pray.
We pulled open the door and did that, peering between our fingers from bowed heads. People came in, bustling about because it was Palm Sunday. Presently a boy about nine years old with shining dark eyes came and handed us olive branches.
The liturgy began, just as it does in our home parish, with singing, and praise for the King who comes riding into another walled city. In its time, the Palm Sunday procession took us back into the sun, following the congregation through the town. We passed the bookstore, the pizzeria, the music store, the lingerie shop, the store where we bought our umbrella in yesterday’s rain, the coffee bar where we found help to locate our hotel, everything that makes up a town, singing.
The singing alone would put any town in a new light, but this does more. It gathers up the whole into sight and mind, so that we carry it with us when we enter our destination, the Duomo at the other end of town.
Inside, at first we could see nothing in the interior darkness. The eyes adjust slowly. The first object visible is the altarpiece, the same under which Piero worshiped as a boy. Its gilded frame, six hundred years old, gathers all the available light. This is more than a picture; it is a piece of architecture, embracing a unique kind of space, the golden space proper to the saints and holy event painted in it. Their presence with us is a gradually dawning reality.
Soon we begin to hear the breathing and feel more than see our fellow worshipers. There are hundreds here, standing so close we can scarcely reach the font of holy water. They are humbly dressed, smelling of garlic and sheep’s milk.
Slowly there arise to our sight the gothic arches of the nave in which we stand, echoing those in the altarpiece. One suddenly realizes how powerful is this pattern which we take for granted; for pointed arches are not common in any other kind of building. The Church itself is an expansion of the altarpiece, a special space. It stands in relation to the town outside, as the altarpiece stands in relation to us here inside.
The liturgy resumes with the Passion narrative. Afterward we expect a homily, but today there is none. Instead, in a few short sentences, the bishop exhorts us to contemplate the reality of what we have just heard, and gives us time to do so. He knows when to keep silent before the immense fact of God’s self-offering. The Sursum Corda is almost a relief, a return to something familiar.
Then come the bells. In the great Italian churches, especially on holy days, the tower bells ring continuously through the Gloria. These are not mellow bronze English bells; they are raucous iron bells, cast to thank God for the passage of plague. Slamming through narrow cobbled streets, the bells come to the ears of people doing every imaginable human thing—sleeping, eating, stealing, lying, making love, fighting, working, fleeing work. People hear them for miles—some who have been through war, and more who have known hunger first hand. To such people life itself is still a miracle; to them the bells are a benediction, especially outside Church.
People hearing these bells cannot avoid knowing that people are praying for him, as the Church has never ceased to do. Again all are gathered up, now in sound, and carried beyond the town, to the ears of God; prayer hot from the forge; inarticulate, and the more acceptable for that.
Back in the street that afternoon, we see the Mass in a new light. More than a routine transaction between sinners and a forgiving God, this was a visit from our King, who is with us going in and coming out, who gives himself to the whole world without reserve. Surely, to worship this God is only to be in our right mind.