Online Edition – May 2006
Vol. XII, No. 3
Holy Week at Monreale — Foundation of Liturgical Piety
Father Romano Guardini was a German theologian, a teacher of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and author of the 1918 book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, which was the inspiration for the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s book of the same title published in English by Ignatius Press in 2000. This personal reflection of Father Guardini on visiting the Cathedral at Monreale is from from Reise nach Sizilien (Voyage to Sicily). The English translation of this work was done by www.chiesa, it is reprinted with the kind permission of www.chiesa.com.
Monreale, Holy Thursday, 1929
Today I saw something grandiose: Monreale. I am full of gratitude for its existence.… What should I say about the splendor of this place? At first, the visitor’s glance sees a basilica of harmonious proportions. Then it perceives a movement within its structure, which is enriched with something new, a desire for transcendence that moves through it to the point of passing beyond it; but all of this culminates in that splendid luminosity.
So, a brief historical moment. It did not last long, but was supplanted by something else entirely. But this moment, although brief, was of an ineffable beauty.
There was gold all over the walls. Figures rose above figures, in all of the vaults and in all of the arches. They stood out from the golden background as though from a star-studded sky. Everywhere radiant colors were swimming in the gold.
Yet the light was attenuated. The gold slept, and all the colors slept. They could be seen there, waiting. And what their splendor would be like if it shone forth! Only here and there did a border gleam, and an aura of muted light trailed along the blue mantle of the figure of Christ in the apse.
When they brought the holy oils to the sanctuary, and the procession, accompanied by the insistent melody of an ancient hymn, wound through that throng of figures, the basilica sprang back to life.
Its forms began to move. Responding to the solemn procession and the movement of vestments and colors along the walls and through the arches, the spaces began to move. The spaces came forward to meet the listening ear and the eye rapt in contemplation…. The crowd sat and watched. Almost no one was reading. All were living in the gaze, all engaged in contemplation.
Then it became clear to me what the foundation of real liturgical piety is: the capacity to find the “sacred” within the image and its dynamism….
The spaciousness and majesty of the place embraced every movement and every figure, commingling them and uniting them together.
… Every now and then a ray of sunlight pierced through the vault, and a golden smile spread across the space above. And anywhere a subdued color lay in wait on a vestment or veil, it was reawakened by the gold that spread to every corner, revealed in its true power and caught up in an harmonious and intricate design that filled the heart with happiness.
The most beautiful thing was the people.… The sacred ceremony lasted for more than four hours, but the participation was always lively. There are different means of prayerful participation. One is realized by listening, speaking, gesturing. But the other takes place through watching. The first way is a good one, and we northern Europeans know no other. But we have lost something that was still there at Monreale: the capacity for living-in-the-gaze, for resting in the act of seeing, for welcoming the sacred in the form and event, by contemplating them.
— “Holy Week at Monreale” from Reise nach Sizilien (Voyage to Sicily) by Romano Guardini