Photo: Alessandra and I on the steps of Todi's Cathedral.
Today we took Tina’s daughter, Alessandra to Mass with us. She is an exceptionally pious soon-to-be 11 year-old girl. She got dressed in her best clothes and wore the rosary that Andreas made for her around her neck.
Tina was very glad that Alessandra was going with us to church and she said that Alessandra was even happier. “She adores you.” Tina said while seeing us off at the door, winking and making a gesture for me to hold Alessandra’s hand. Right away she latched on to me and off we went.
There is a bit of a language barrier between us, Alessandra’s mother tongue is Romanian, but she does speak a little Italian and English. (She prefers to speak to me in the bit of Italian she has picked up while in Italy, as she is too shy to try out her school-taught English!) However, through hugs, smiles and hand holding we actually understand each other just fine!
Her eyes sparkled as we climbed the many steps up to the entrance of the Cathedral, a place she had never been. Upon entering the church she quickly reached up to dip her fingers in the holy water and then she crossed herself. She looked around with wonder and seemingly a touch of trepidation as she walked down the long Medieval nave. She sat between Stefano and I in one of the front pews made of antique timber, simultaneously solid and warped with age, use and damp.
Like me she didn’t know the prayers in Italian, but she followed along meticulously in the worship aide throughout the Mass and tried to read the words in Italian as best she could, without fear of mispeaking! In fact, once or twice the priest deviated from the written text and she got flustered having felt as though she lost her place. She looked at me pleadingly and exclaimed “Dove?!” asking me in Italian where we were at within the liturgy. I tried my best to figure it out and would either shrug my shoulders or point to the line of text. She always smiled in response. She took communion with us, opening her mouth wide to receive the host, with her hands clasped in prayer in front of her. Afterward she prayed fervently with her eyes tightly closed and kneeling rigidly in the pew along side me.
After Mass we took a photo outside of the church and then we treated her to potato chips and soda at a bar. (I had learned that she prefers chips to desserts or even gelato!) I noticed that she saved some of her chips to bring home to her mom.
This story may seem anti-climactic. I guess it is. It’s hard to describe the way that I was moved by Alessandra’s piety and joy. It is something like bringing students to see the Sistine Chapel for the first time. No matter how many times I have seen it, something of the students’ enthusiasm and novelty is transmitted to my being and energizes me. It was like that going to church with Alessandra, but the rejuvenation was beyond academic passion and thrill, it was more of a renewing tender spiritual force.
Previously Tina had told me many stories of how special her daughter is as we peeled potatoes in the kitchen together or scrubbed pots. One of the most moving stories was about the time when Alessandra learned of a nearby town in Romania where the families were very hard-stricken with poverty. Many of the children there did not even have one toy. Upon returning home, she immediately set to bagging up her few toys and belongings to give away to those children.
When Tina learned what Alessandra was doing she ashamedly cried and tried to explain to Alessandra that they were just as poor as the other families but Tina worked even longer and harder to be able to give Alessandra those few toys. Alessandra smiled at her and said “Mamma, don’t worry, it is almost Easter and the church in America always sends the children of our church beautiful Easter baskets, so soon I’ll have another toy, while maybe those other children never will.”
Alessandra is a precious gift herself, a beautiful Easter basket of sorts, an embodiment of the Christian celebration of joy, faith, hope, and charity. In her presence I experienced a kind of resurrection within the worship experience. She is anything but poor in spirit, and does she ever have much to give!