In the via del Babuino, a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, stands a church called Sant’Atanasio. By Roman standards, it seems quite an ordinary church to all appearances: Renaissance, perhaps, of medium size, very like some others not two blocks away. A not-too-florid example of its genre. Mediocre, perhaps.
I first went there on a cold, rainy Saturday night in winter. The church was dark, and there were perhaps eight or nine others in the congregation, seated on those uncomfortable straight-backed wooden chairs with woven rush seats that inhabit Italian churches. Two heaters running on bottled gas tried bravely, but unsuccessfully, tried to dispel the cold that emanated from the stone floor and walls. One or two small electric bulbs glowed in an alcove to the left front side of the nave, behind a raised pulpit or ambo. Otherwise, it was dark. There was a faint smell of incense. In most respects, a not-untypical 16th century church. But one could see, if dimly, that there was a screen — a wall, actually, about fifteen feet high — between nave and altar. This alone was enough to set apart this church from a hundred others of its ilk in the city. At the scheduled time, a group of men entered from some hidden doorway. Twenty, perhaps. All clothed in flowing black robes and each wearing a brimless stovepipe hat, rather like a black fez without its tassel.
They grouped themselves around the dim lightbulbs. At first they began a recitation in a language I had never heard and did not understand, though I knew what it was. By turns, one person would speak, then the group. Then there was a short silence. Suddenly, the men broke into song, in harmonies I had never before heard or dreamed
of. The effect was incredible, thrilling! Chills ran down my back. At that moment, my life changed.
Haunted by those old-new melodies filling that cold, darkened, mysterious church, I knew that I wanted to know more, experience more of what it was all about. There, in that instant began my
‘career’ as a student of Eastern liturgies. Now, more than forty years have passed, but that one moment is still vivid in my memory, still inspires an avocation which I have pursued almost constantly since that night.
In between, there have been mentors, teachers, welcoming congregations, even students of my own; and grander churches and humbler. But that single ecstatic, electrifying moment made all the difference.
© Michael J. Cassidy 2007
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