A few minutes after 7PM we entered the church, Santa Maria del Carmine, the church wherein we will hold our wedding in less than six months, the priest, Don Antonio greeted us at the door. He had a small office behind the church. We returned with our document from the city hall to finish the paperwork process with him which we had begun in the morning. There was one lamp on his desk and no other light on in the small room. Some light was coming in from the door, which lit the small room connected to Don Antonio's office.
The walls were white and there were two paintings with wooden frames painted gold. One painting depicted Jesus carrying the cross, and the other, Madonna and child. Both were quite dark, as if years of grime had set on them, and looked now like they were studies in tone. In the corner of the office, behind the door, there was a steep wooden spiral staircase rising up into the ceiling, but I couldn't see the entrance from where I was sitting, on the other side of the priest's desk with my back to the staircase. As soon as I noticed the staircase, I wanted to know where it led. It was quite cold and we sat in the semi-dark with our jackets on, and tackled the Catholic bureaucracy of a wedding.
Don Antonio's desk was completely covered with stacks of magazines, brochures, various papers and pieces of mail, still unopened. There were many other gew-gaws, as well: a crystal ashtray full of keys and medallions, a wooden hourglass filled with pink sand, a tea strainer, rubber stamp holder, a small porcelain angel figurine, a faceted crystal egg-shaped paperweight bearing the etching of a mosque on one side, a tape dispenser, numerous pens and a fax machine. There was a phone on the wall to his right and a large calendar next to that. Behind his desk stood an immense collection of filing cabinets of which some of the doors and drawers were opened exposing the ancient volumes and documents within, one of which he consulted to verify the date of Angela's baptism. I had brought my original certificates and their attendant translations, which were now on the desk in front of Don Antonio.
A man in his early 60s, perhaps, Don Antonio was bald on top with a grey crown of short hair around the back and sides of his head. In the light, I could see thin, long hairs on his nose. Don Antonio, sitting close to the desklamp, which partially obscured his face from me, checked dates and consulted various documents in front of him. We finished the paperwork quickly. He unzipped his dark grey sweater and then unzipped another sweater which was exactly the same as the first. He reached into an inner pocket, exposing a third sweater underneath his priestly attire, and pulled out a pen. He asked us to sign the document and then asked for 20 Euro, which made me chuckle a little.
We thought we were finished, but Don Antonio showed us an exam he had to administer to us, which consisted of asking us a number of questions which, if you can imagine, would be important to the church, such as: Why do you want to get married in the church?. What do the sacraments mean to you? What are the sacraments? Why do you want to get married to each other? He looked us directly in the eyes after each question. There were many others, but these represent the most difficult of the lot as we weren't really prepared for the exam. As our answers, despite our air of sincerity, showed a lack of knowledge about what we were actually requesting, and due to the serious negligence in our observation of the sacrament of confession which, in my case, perhaps, hasn't occurred in more than 20 years, Don Antonio took it upon himself to redefine these things for us. He began by telling us that we should, at least, go to confession once a year on Easter, which is naturally a cleansing period as it is a celebration of the reawakening of Jesus.
After an hour of consultation and explanation, and checking his watch a few times, Don Antonio wrapped up the exam and excused himself momentarily. Apparently, he had been expected for a catechism class. He returned after a few moments and we began to express our thanks and bid him good night when his telephone rang. After hanging up, he said we could sit down again. He wasn't needed and said we could continue our conversation. My heart sank.
We seated ourselves and he and Angela began a long conversation about China, which completely excluded me. We were an unusual couple--Angela from Italy, me from America and both of us living and working in China--and, naturally, Don Antonio had many questions about our life there. As this renewed conversation began, Angela's telephone began vibrating loudly and incessantly. Someone was trying to get ahold of her and, this is true, her parents as well as her brother and his wife, were waiting for us to eat dinner together. Unfortunately, as my Italian is not sophisticated enough to carry on the kind of conversation they were having, I just sat and listened. I was praying that Angela would answer her phone.
Thirty minutes passed and I interrupted their rolling conversation to ask if there was a bathroom. I was in luck and surprised to learn, as Don Antonio pointed behind me, that I would get a chance to climb the wooden staircase! Don Antonio got out from behind his desk, unlocked a padlock, and motioned toward the lightswitch high up on the wall at the top of the staircase. I couldn't have been happier beginning my limited exploration of the more secret chambers of the church and began to mount the ancient wooden steps. There was a door at the top of the staircase, next to the lightswitch. The narrow space, no wider than the width of a human body, continued on a few paces beyond the door and disappeared to the left. A long horizontal picture of Jesus reclining, in the same style of the paintings in the office below, hung on the wall in front of me. Pushing through the doorway and ducking a bit as the celing was quite low, I entered the bathroom. Nothing special about it. An open window let in the cold air and looked out upon a tree. I did what I do and paused for a moment, trying to think of a way to prolong the excursion, but felt guilty and exited. When I opened the door, I noticed many other smaller paintings hanging on the opposite wall. Turning to descend and rejoin the conversation below, I noticed that the staircase continued upwards behind a closed door, which blocked any further view of what lay beyond. I realized that I was about one-third of the way up the church's bell tower. Content to have seen this much, I went down and took my seat next to Angela, refreshed and satisfied. The conversation lasted for another 30 minutes, during which time I had taken out my workbook and began setting this passage in motion.