Time for a mega-post of pictures from my visit to the Adoratrices. I first heard of them about two years ago, and wrote them off because they were a bunch of French nuns in Italy. But I got more interested recently when I heard that they were planning to start a foundation in America. After talking with one of their sisters and then meeting with a priest of their brother order, I asked if I could visit the motherhouse. It's in Tuscany, near Florence, so I arrived in that city on May 18th (a day later than planned-- thanks, Iceland volcano!), and was met at the train station by one of the sisters.
Maybe you've heard that there's crazy driving over in Italy? There is. Lots of tailgating and cutting people off, but what terrified me was the way drivers create their own lanes. Three cars abreast on a two-lane road-- my people, THIS SHOULD NOT BE!
And maybe you're thinking that the nice young sister who picked me up would be a meek driver, not aggressive like everyone else? WRONG. :)
I was glad when we left the heavy traffic behind in Florence and followed the Arno River upstream through a bunch of little towns to one called Sieci. (see-AY-che). I like visual aids, so here's a map of our route. A is the Florence train station, B is the Adoratrices' convent, and C is the seminary, of which more later.
Past Sieci and up into the hills, I began to see a bunch of roadside shrines decorated with flowers. That made me happy. In Florence there's a grand old church on every street but not much evidence that the religion of the past is still actively practiced. There's plenty of American culture there, though. To me it felt like Swaziland four years ago, in that I was surprised by how foreign Florence wasn't. Same fast food restaurants, same clothes, and I even saw some of the same ads I'd seen in America just before leaving, with the same English text. Other ads were in English but with a kind of Italian accent, like the one for jeans that said "Be intelligent". I guess ad agencies figure that Italians can understand, and maybe English seems sort of foreign and with it over there. I admit that I keep saying "Adoratrices" instead of "Adorers" because it sounds cooler in French.
Anyway, in the hills over Sieci we came to a driveway marked with a cross:
And up the driveway I saw the front of the convent. (You can click the pictures for bigger versions.)
The motherhouse was once a vacation home, and clearly it used to be fabulous. I've no idea when it was built, but definitely before electricity and indoor plumbing (both of those features were added later.)
In 1949 the house was donated to an organization that ran it as a foster home. This plaque commemorates that:
The foster home lasted for a few decades and then the house stood empty for decades more, except for squatters who did some damage. The back end of the house was even burned, and the doorways were all bricked up to keep people out.
While all this was happening with the house, a society of priests called the Institute of the Christ the King Sovereign Priest was founded in 1990. It started in Africa, its seminary was established in Italy, and French is its common language. It's like the FSSP in that they have parishes on several continents where all the sacraments are celebrated in the traditional rites. Ten years after its founding, some blood sisters of ICKSP members felt called to consecrate their lives to God in support of the Institute's work. That was the start of the Adoractrices, who became official in 2004. Many others joined them soon after that. I think their first convent was in Austria, and they lived in France on a farm for a while, and then for a while they were in a convent in Florence. But all the time Monsignor Wach, head of the Institute, had his eye on this house because the sisters wanted a motherhouse close to the seminary in Sieci. Finally in 2007 he was able to buy it and the sisters moved in and began patiently restoring the place.
There's a pretty garden in back:
The side of the house that overlooks the town has a terrific row of French doors:
Those doors open to a patio:
And from the patio is a FABULOUS VIEW:
That's the Arno River, and the town of Sieci neatly arranged along its banks. You can see a dam in the center of the picture, and standing outside the convent I could always hear the distant sound of water roaring over it.
Further downriver it gets hilly and there are fewer houses and more green:
And darned if this doesn't look like a castle with battlements, facing the convent from right across the river, silently menacing. It makes me want to ready the catapult.
A big archway is the house's main entrance. Its double wooden doors open onto a tunnel, at the end of which is a grill with the Adoratrices' crest in it.
And that opens onto a little courtyard.
Said courtyard was not a perfect square but an irregular polyhedron, a quadrilateral, a trapezium.
I've heard the house described as "a beautiful ruin".
The French sister who'd driven me to the convent let us both in to the courtyard and summoned another sister, who spoke fluent English with a beautiful Irish accent though she was, in fact, from Normandy. That sister led me through some doors to this set of steps...
And let me just pause here to say that the house is kinda crazy. I'm not sure what all the spaces were for originally, and I'm pretty sure it's been altered in various ways since, but as it is now you can't predict at all what rooms are going to be where. Some sides of the castle are one room thick, some two rooms thick. Some parts have two stories, some have three, and towards the end of the week I accidentally discovered a basement as well. There are tiny rooms and huge rooms, brand new windows and old windows with wavy glass, rooms with pretty painted ceilings and rooms with holey ceilings and rooms with no ceilings. No staircase in the house is remotely like any of the others, and at least one staircase would not be allowed to exist in America owing to its high injury potential. The walls are two and a half feet thick. Some rooms look like they've been empty for decades, and others are very elegant, depending I suppose on where the sisters have been working. And just check out the front of the home again:
Do you see how some of the upper windows are divided? You're actually looking at the high windows of the second story, and the ankle-level windows of the third story. That's all I have to say about that.
(Except that I think the round shutter on the round window is cute.)
So the stairs I left you at opened on to a longer staircase,
and at the top I encountered this vintage door:
It opened on to a very large attic room, half full of wooden desks.
Lots of old books too, in several languages, most often Latin.
One corner of the room was mysteriously shielded from view by a red brocade curtain:
But I'm not the least bit interested in knowing what was back there, are you? Let's move on.
My hostess told me that most of the other sisters were at the seminary down the road, helping out with the mail as they occasionally do, so I was left to my own devices until suppertime. This suited me very well, as it gave me time to go all round the house and take the pictures you've just seen without worrying about interrupting anyone.
As I ambled about I came upon this in the front yard:
Pasta? Seriously? What poor creature is being fed pasta?
It turned out to be this poor creature:
He has abnormally short legs and a slightly squashed face and he's very cute. The sisters have named him Thésis, which is a Gregorian chant rhythm that's slow and restful, just like this cat. The only time I saw him looking nimble was when he leaped through the locked courtyard gate to get inside. I'm impressed that he perseveres in religious life on the diet they give him, but maybe he's just too lazy to run away.
Oh, that red curtain? Well, you probably guessed already:
It was my bedroom! As soon as I saw it I thought it was awesome. An attic room in an old castle in Italy beats even the Li'l Orphan Annie setup that the Nashville Dominicans had us in. I love all the interesting rooms I've stayed in on my quest to find a religious order to join. I should write a whole post just about that.
From the window I could see the comings and goings at the front gate. I could even see without being seen, if I used the reflection in the window glass, but I'm an ingenuous aspiring nun who wouldn't think of a thing like that.
My desk held a nice carafe of water...
And a pink rose...
And a daily schedule! So helpful! If only I knew French!
I wrote in the translations that a sister gave me:
Lauds, Terce, Vespers and Compline are the Hours that the sisters pray together in the chapel. As for petit déjeuner, collation, déjeuner, goûter, and diner, those are five opportunities to eat. Yes, my friends, five. You know, I've considered orders that are big on fasting. There were some Benedictine nuns, for example, who eat only two meals a day, and during Lent they wait till after sundown to eat at all. And now here I was visiting a place where they have plenty of meals and tea and cookies in between. An Institute priest told me before I visited that the sisters' rule is based on that of the Visitation nuns, founded in 1610 by St. Jane Frances de Chantal and St. Francis de Sales (my confirmation saint! Hooray!) with a mitigated rule for women who couldn't handle the very strict penitential life that was standard in religious orders at the time. Father said if I wanted lots of corporal penance I'd better join the Poor Clares or the Carmelites, not the Adoratrices. When I saw the schedule I understood what he meant. :)
That first night I slept like the dead. Breakfast the next morning, like all the meals, was in the refectory-- that's what religious congregations call their dining room. The mother superior's empty chair was under the crucifix, the postulants were in the middle, the sisters were along the walls, and I as a visitor had my own table in the corner of the picture.
This refectory is behind some of the French doors you saw above, which means that it has the gorgeous view. So as I sat down to breakfast in solitary splendor that first morning, I looked out over the town and felt a big grin spread over my face. Such a ridiculously lovely room to breakfast in. All week I felt unreasonably happy at every meal.
Even the refectory ceiling is lovely. I think ceiling murals were the fad in Italy for a while in the 1800's.
But there was something funny about the refectory. It was this:
Four chocolate eggs sitting on the table at Reverend Mother's chair. I knew they were out of place as soon as I spotted them. Every convent I've ever visited has been very neat and clean with everything put away, and definitely no candy laying about unless it was in its own nice little bowl. So what could be the meaning of the eggs, sitting there in such haphazard fashion? Was this a signal of some kind? My suspicions seemed justified the next day when I saw that the eggs had shifted position and were now in a perfectly straight line. The next day they were arranged in the form of a cross. The next day they had disappeared entirely. The next day they reappeared, surrounding a small wooden clock. It drove me crazy.
But I wasn't curious about it or anything. Let's move on.
Lunch and dinner in this convent are served in courses, with two or three sisters waiting on the rest, which made me feel rather grand. Meals begin with some appetizer, and then a main dish and a side dish, and then a cheese course, and then dessert, and lots of bread throughout the meal, and wine on every table. I watched the sisters surreptitiously, trying to copy their French table manners, and I discovered that much of what I would eat with my hands, they attack with knife and fork instead. On the other hand, they start each meal by taking a piece of bread and putting it on the table. There are big empty plates in front of each sister, but no, bread goes on the table. I highly approved their habit of using said bread to sop up whatever sauce or dressing might remain on their plates, since that's the best part. Makes it easier for the sisters in charge of washing dishes, too.
There's no talking during most meals; instead one of the sisters chants some spiritual reading or other (in French). In fact the Adoratrices keep silence all day except during "recreation" when everybody gets together and talks. It's that way with most of the congregations I've visited, and I appreciate the rule of silence so much, especially at breakfast when I don't feel like talking to anybody. It makes you more deliberate about conversation when you're allowed to have it, and more aware of God's presence the rest of the time. Also I bet it militates against the formation of cliques.
With the Adorers, recreation usually happens after lunch, when everyone moves to the next room for tea accompanied by little pieces of cake or chocolates, as well as by some kind of cordial or brandy... actually I have no idea what to call it; my knowledge of the names of alcoholic drinks is pitiful. But I know the sisters make this drink themselves, from plums I think, and they pour it into tiny glasses and it's sweet and flavorful and I have to drink it slowly because the vapors go right up my nose, and it comes in two varieties, one called Philothea and the other Théotime, after the fictional people to which St. Francis de Sales addressed his Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God. I wish I could've brought a bottle home.
Anyway, at recreation I got to know the sisters. It sounds like nearly all of them were associated with an Institute parish or acquainted with an Institute priest, and heard of the Adoratrices that way. Most are French, with varying levels of English fluency. The three Americans there (and the Irish postulant) have learned French, which is the order's common language.
They told me that when they first moved in, the refectory was all bricked up from the inside, so it was a dark cave lit only by a bare buzzing fluorescent light. They have seriously improved the place. Some of them specialize in doing all the remodeling work around the house; others do the cooking or gardening or sewing.
After breakfast on that first day, one of the sisters pulled me aside and explained that the mother superior had been forced to travel unexpectedly, so I would see her in a few days. In the meantime I could join the sisters for chapel and for meals, and have most of the rest of the time to myself, like on a retreat. The sisters had Lauds and prayer in the chapel right after breakfast-- here's one of the the chapel doors:
The Hours are chanted in Latin. In the morning they chant on that single high note that I encounter almost everywhere I visit-- the bane of my second-alto existence. In the evening they do a really pretty chant accompanied by the organ. I was pleased to find how much Latin I understood just from praying the same Psalms in English. If I could figure out one line from cognate words, I might recognize which Psalm it was, and that would help me figure out the rest of it.
Here's what the altar looks like. It's a small chapel with rows of benches for the sisters on either side. If they get many more vocations they'll overflow the space, so they're already fitting up one of the larger empty rooms to be a new chapel.
After prayer we had second breakfast and then I wandered out into the yard to pray. Gradually the sky clouded over, and around the time Mass started at 11 am, it was raining buckets. There were loud cracks of thunder during the Consecration; it was really something.
It rained all day, so the sister who went out into the courtyard to ring the bell for meals brought an umbrella with her.
There was another girl sitting at my table at lunch. I had no idea who she was, and as we were keeping silence I politely ignored her. But the next day after tea and cookies, when all the sisters had drifted out of the room, she made bold to introduce herself. It turned out that she was another American interested in joining the Adoratrices, and what's more she's from the L.A. area too! We had great fun chatting and comparing notes and exploring the house until the Vespers bell called us away. She'd noticed the chocolate eggs too and had the same suspicion. We speculated: could someone be sending coded messages about... us?
Days later we learned that the eggs mean nothing at all. The sisters are just amusing themselves by changing them around every day. So they said.
I spent most of the week praying. There were hours every day to sit in the yard or walk up the road, and read the Diary of St. Faustina and ponder and ask God a hundred variations of "Do you want me to join this order?" which is what I always ask Him when I visit one. This was my favorite hill to look at outside. It has so many shades of green.
That calls for a closeup:
I also enjoyed this side yard. The tall trees and wildlife remind me of Yosemite, which is the nicest thing I can say about a place, and the resident birds sing loudly during Mass.
I don't have any good pictures of the birds I saw, or the deer, or the red squirrels with their tufted ears. But here's a nice snake:
When I visit active congregations they keep me pretty busy and I usually can't even find time to keep up with my diary. With the cloistered congregations I visit some of the nuns at the grill for an hour or so, and have the rest of the day to myself. The Adoratrices are in between, mostly contemplative but not strictly cloistered. They were founded to support the priests of the Institute, chiefly by prayer, but they also envision sending sisters out to some of the parishes to help the priests there in the sacristy or with catechism. Right now they're almost all at the motherhouse, and I gather that the apostlate will have to wait until more of them have finished formation. In any case they intend that prayer and contemplative life will always be the main thing.
Occasionally they hike into the hills, or visit museums in Florence, or even take a trip to Rome (a few hours away). On weekdays priests come from the Institute seminary to say Mass for them, and on Sundays the sisters go to the seminary. The Institute has more than fifty priests, I hear, and nearly seventy in formation. None of the seminarians were around the week I was there, because they always join the annual pilgrimage to Chartres (Great video on that pilgrimage here).
On most nights I lingered in the yard for as long as I could while darkness fell, then returned to my room and saw this lovely view of the courtyard.
In the mornings I had a penchant for photographing the roof.
Lots of stuff growing on that roof.
It's like a forest up there.
An entire ecosystem!
I also made friends with Thésis. Wasn't difficult. It turns out he loves attention, so when I squatted down to pet him, he put his li'l paws on my leg...
Then climbed halfway onto my lap...
Then hopped right on board...
And mugged for the camera.
By that time I'd discovered that he sheds like crazy and drools when he purrs. So the next time he wanted to cuddle up to me, I took off my nice wool coat so it wouldn't get messy. He promptly cuddled up to the coat.
I got to meet with Mother a few times once she got back from her travels. We went walking up the road together and she told me about the order and answered many questions. They have a bunch of patron saints but it sounds like the one that most influences their spirituality is St. Francis de Sales. They don't have much corporal penance but they try to accept everything that God sends them, every circumstance whether good or bad, for love of Him. That of course can be very hard. They do expect to be sending their American nuns back to America, but there's no guarantee of that. Joining them means going wherever the superior sends.
Sunday was the feast of Pentecost. I entered the refectory at breakfast time for my usual bread and jam and cereal, and discovered... Nutella!
NUTELLA! Chocolate hazelnut goodness... for breakfast!
It's great to be a nun because the menu changes with the Church calendar, so on holy days you feel very festive.
"And one of the best things about it," said one of the sisters to me, "is that in the old calendar, Pentecost is an octave. So we might be having Nutella all week!"
The Adoratrices have the traditional Latin Mass, follow the old calendar, and pray the old breviary in Latin. They have classes to learn Latin. The native English speakers knew very little French when they entered, but in full immersion they picked it up, and the postulants who'd been there for only six months were already able to converse pretty well. Of course, outside the order everyone's speaking Italian.
Since the seminary was empty, we headed into Florence for the Mass of Pentecost.
It was fun walking the streets of Florence together. People stared and took pictures-- one guy aimed his camera at us and then as we got closer he suddenly jerked it up as if to demonstrate that he was photographing the buildings and certainly hadn't been interested in us. Some children seemed very interested, but one little girl was frightened and hid behind her mother. We walked right by the hotel where I knew my parents were staying, so I kept an eye out but didn't see them. Too bad. It would've been fun to shout, "Hi Mom! Hi Dad!" from the middle of a flock of nuns.
Our destination was Santi Michele e Gaetano, which is a beautiful old church that's been given to the Institute to run. The priests say the TLM there every Sunday, and on this Sunday the Adoratrices did the chants. I wish we'd had time to hang around and see all the artwork in the place.
In the afternoon we took a walk to the empty seminary. Here's a sign we passed on the way. "Chianti"-- I think I've heard of that. :)
At the seminary the sisters gave us a tour of the place. I wasn't the only one taking pictures:
I'm told that the seminary buildings were even more run-down than the convent when the Institute seminarians first moved in, but they've had a lot longer to work on it.
The convent used to be a rich family's vacation home, but the seminary's even better: it was an estate of the Martellis, one of the noble families of Tuscany. The last two Countesses Martelli had no descendants, so when they both died a few decades ago, the estate was willed to an order of Benedictine monks who had the traditional Mass. The Benedictines lived there for ten years to see if the congregation would flourish, but when they didn't get any Italian vocations they decided to fulfill the Countesses' will by passing on the property to another traditional group of priests, and that's how the Institute got it.
There are lots of fun details around the buildings; I'm not even showing half my pictures. Here's one room:
I like this statue from near the entrance. The Blessed Mother with her awesome veil is crushing the serpent with her foot while her Son gets ready to administer the killing blow with his Cross, and they're both completely peaceful about it, quite unperturbed as Satan in serpentine form writhes in his death agony.
Some Easter candles that the seminarians decorated themselves:
The candles were in a tiny chapel that had this statue of Jesus over the altar. What a powerful visual representation of the sacrifice of the Mass.
Here's the seminary's main chapel.
That's not a great picture, so I stole another from the Institute website. The sisters like being near the seminary partly because they can go there for solemn liturgies on Sundays and important feast days.
This painting hangs on the wall of one of the seminary's sitting rooms. I bet you'd like an explanation of it.
So would I. Some liturgical dance of the Gregorian Rite, perhaps?
Check out this huge painting. It's the Martelli family tree, spanning centuries. There are little symbols near many of the names, often hats or heraldic shields. See that one entry in the upper left that's twice as big as the others?
That's the cardinal in the family. :) Here's his Wikipedia page, but there's not much info there.
Outside the seminary were flowers and another lovely view. I was told that the Martelli estate includes the whole hillside.
The side yard. The seminarians themselves tend to the grapevines beyond the wall and make their own wine. See that half-ruined arch right in the center? My parents have been to the famous Chelsea Garden Show in London, and they say there are manufactured ruins for sale there. You can buy one for your backyard and pretend you're the scion of a noble and ancient house... or you can go to Casa Martelli and see the real thing.
At least... it better be the real thing. Anyway. There was a huge circular lawn, originally for exercising horses, so we took a turn around it. The girl on the left in this picture is one of three postulants and the girl on the right is one of two candidates who just entered. In addition the order has seven novices in white veils and six professed who wear black veils. It's a long formation: candidacy for some undetermined length of time, postulancy for a year, novitiate for three or four years, and temporary profession for six or seven. In fact I'm not certain whether even the most senior sisters have taken final vows yet. Most of the sisters in the Adoratrices look young(er than me. I'm 32).
The back of the seminary overlooks the valley. See the big family crest on the wall?
It's a "griffin rampant", as they say in heraldic jargon.
I did some Googling and learned that the griffin rampant is indeed the coat of arms of the Martelli family, and it turns out they once had Donatello carve them a much better griffin for their palace in Florence:
This site has a critique of the work: "It possesses all the traditional attributes of the griffin. It is fearless and heartless: its horrible claws strike out to wound in every direction, and the whole body vibrates with feline elasticity, as well as the agile movement of a bird. Regarding it purely as a composition, we see how admirably Donatello used the space at his command: his economy of the shield is masterly. It is occupied at every angle, but nowhere crowded. The spaces which are left vacant are deliberately contrived to enhance the effect of the figure."
Fearless and heartless with horrible claws! Perfect for a seminary! I need a coat of arms. But I digress, and now everyone's walking home without me. :)
On Monday, my last day, I came down to breakfast and found Nutella again. A Pentecost octave is a beautiful thing. :) I slathered some graham crackers with Nutella and crammed them in my mouth, and fortified by that breakfast I fetched my suitcase and headed back in to Florence with the same young sister who doesn't speak English.
It happened on the city outskirts that we stopped at a light in a long line of cars. A young man with black hair, kinda tough looking, starting walking down the row of the cars handing out some kind of newspaper to each driver. I'll never know what he was advertising, because when he came to our car he took one look at Sister in her black habit and hastily switched direction. He glanced back over his shoulder as he retreated, and I couldn't tell if he was suspicious or frightened or just in shock, but clearly he did not wish to meet a nun that day. Sister and I both giggled.
That's pretty much all, folks, since I already complained about the plane journey in the other post. :) It's high time I got this one published and started answering emails. Gold stars all round to those who read through to the end!
By the way, in a post this long and full of information I heard second hand and remember more or less vaguely, there are bound to be mistakes, so it would be better not take it as an authoritative description of the Adoratrices-- just the impressions one visitor had. Same goes for all the posts I write after visiting different orders.
Update: So this is the order I'm going to join. :) Here are some posts with more information about the Adorers: part deux and part trois.