Friday, May 21


A Lenten Magnificat

Reminiscences from Rome and Sicily

I began writing this entry while seated in the empty couchette compartment of a sleeper train speeding from Rome to one of the ancient cities of atavistic Sicily. Cefalú, a name that, when spoken, recalls all the primeval delights and terrors of the Stone Age. Something simple, chthonic, elemental.

There was something monkish about my little mobile cell, the regular hum of the tracks, the pale electric light, and my Carmelite-brown bathrobe hanging on a plastic excrescence later discovered to be a cup holder. And then there’s me, scribbling silently at a little fold-down table by the black window, glazed with the opaque iridescence of the night. Occasional sparks of distant cityscapes bob into view beyond the darkness. Orange light, white light, yellow-scarlet light. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll soon turn off the lights and watch them.

We would be in Sicily on a class trip that coincided with Holy Week, the eve of Palm Sunday to the night of Maundy Thursday, pulling into Rome on the tenebrous morning of Good Friday. The trip proved to be consumed with touring and watercoloring, but as the week passed, we would make close brushes again and again with the somber rites of the Passion. A minute here, a second there, little reminders like drops of blood falling from the Crown of Thorns. My notes from the trip are curiously stained with grey irregular gouttées of dried rain.

I was frustrated to be missing Palm Sunday in Rome. Still, as the train blazed further into the darkness, I consoled myself by remembering that the Old Rite set Passiontide’s beginning, not on Palm Sunday, but on the fifth Sunday of Lent, one week earlier. According to ancient custom, this is the day assigned to St. Peter’s among the Station Churches. There is one for each day in Lent, and when I visited it that morning, all the great reliquaries were heaped on the high altar beneath Bernini’s baldacchino, a blazing mound of jeweled caskets, ostensories, and golden papal busts.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.

Customarily, a solemn mass is said by a Cardinal. I had once straggled into little San Nicola al Carciere, that tiny church that stands standing silently by the curve of the Theater of Marcellus, knowing I had missed the stational mass for that day but still choosing to linger and catch the thick scent of incense that hovered over the nave from the liturgy more than half-an-hour earlier. A poignant perfume.

My friend the Roman Seminarian, had been reminding me dutifully for weeks before that the ceremonies at St. Peter’s commemorating the occasion were once-in-a-life opportunities, gravely sinful—or at the very least, significantly venial—to miss. I listened in rapt excitement over pasta all’ arrabiata as he described the penitential procession around the church’s nave, and, most spectacularly, the display of the implements of Christ’s Passion, two of the four great relics in the pier-chapels of St. Peter’s. Bells would ring as Vespers concluded, and a purple-robed bishop would appear high above the congregation at the balcony, showing the miraculous Veil of Veronica amid swirling clouds of incense.

There was no way I could turn down an invitation like that.

So I barraged my friends Vera and Amelia about the upcoming rite and placarded the walls of the studio with grandiloquent notices in 48-point font about the VEIL OF VERONICA, all in caps, and other liturgical and pseudo-liturgical terminology about the SOLEMN VESPERS that everyone worth their study-abroad salt should attend.

Vera and Amelia, my long-time accomplices, of course rose to the challenge. I have yet to get either of them to a Tridentine Mass, or to completely stop singing We are called, we are chosen but relics are easier to get them interested in. Vera, of course, wanted to see this hallowed, mind-bogglingly hallowed, relic of her namesake. The Veronica. The True Image, the Greco-Latin vera ikon. Amelia, being her roommate and, as I like to think, her faithful, if sharp-tongued, squire, was perfectly happy to tag along. And so, loaded down with my notebook, a abbreviated Breviary I didn’t quite know how to use, and some spiritual reading to keep the girls occupied during the lengthy and Latin Vespers service, we set out for the Vatican that Sunday afternoon.

We weren’t quite late, but once we crossed the broad marble thresh-hold of St. Peter’s, we realized that we weren’t the first people to get there. The polished floor gleamed with the blazing, searing white klieg-lights that rimmed the gilded cornice far above, and the side aisles were packed solid with pilgrims. Threading our way through the thick crowds, we found ourselves at last by the glass-sided altar of John XXIII, craning our necks over the three-deep rank that stood between us and the main body of the church. I fumbled indecisively with the books cradled in my arms and tried to figure out what to do next. Vespers was minutes away, and we weren’t even close to the apse of the great Basilica.

Things, however, have a way of working out for my friends. Amelia and Vera (especially Vera) have a peculiar resourcefulness which flows from them, as I clearly saw a week later in Cefalú. We spent most of the morning wandering slowly through the pale, cool, half-deserted streets of the seaside town as I filled my sketchbook full of tangled black hatchings representing interlocking Norman-Moorish arches and aboriginal baroque doorframes. My memories are vague and peaceful, sun-drenched and shockingly cerulean blue.

The heraldic insignia of Sicily is a party per saltire quartering of her former overlords the Hohenstaufens and the Aragonese. However, there is nothing stronger and more symbolically colorful than the sharp-edged meeting of golden stone and startlingly blue sky you see everywhere across the island as summer begins to rise from the womb of spring.

The day had begun under a pale sky, viscous with mother-of-pearl clouds, but as we made our way closer to the long, low waterfront, it grew bluer and brighter. I have on my desk, as I continue this far away from the train, a stack of photographs from that day that tell the story with a staccato procession of light and stucco, wildflowers and smiling faces. I can see the blue sky above rows of cubical plastered houses with simple geometric iron balconies, the sun painting a cruciform shadow from the cross-topped church across the street. I can see the long, even, silver-blue sea stretching infinitely broad, the horizon narrow and fading blue between the ocean and the puffy, low-hanging clouds. And then there are Amelia and Vera, arm in arm. The mountains rise like green humps above the town’s enclosed harbor in the background, the sky bleached by the growing sunlight. Amy’s squinting, teeth bared in a self-depreciatory smile, pencil clutched at her side. Vera looks like she’s about to laugh, head tilted ever-so-slightly to one side, her small, blocky sketchbook clutched at waist-level. The scarlet page-marker tape flaps loosely in the wind.

The class tour finished much earlier than expected, and Professor Lessmann urged us to climb the verdant, craggy peak that loomed high over the town. It was forty-five minutes to the top. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and I decided to join the two girls on the hike to the circle of crenellated ruins that clung to the little mountain’s green summit, flecked with spring wildflowers.

Both the girls were in their element on the switch-backed, steep path. Especially Vera, who had by this point taken off her shoes and was climbing the pebbly path barefood. She does things like that. It’s somewhat unnerving, but one learns not to stare. There’s something of a Charismatic Franciscan pure-child-of-nature streak in her genes which manifests itself at odd points. In Assisi, she’d gotten up in the cold pre-dawn and walked down to the church of the Porziuncola in the valley, sans shoes. At five AM. In the middle of a power failure.

Somehow, she survives these little adventures. Amelia has concluded she has some sort of blithely serene superpower immunity to danger.

She comes by it honestly, I discovered, as we made our way with exquisite slowness up the sunny slope. Down in the town far beneath us, by the coast that now looked as intensely blue-green as an aquamarine, there’s a little secluded courtyard walled in stained rose stucco where the townswomen used to wash. You approach it by curving, irregular steps, overhung by bracketed medieval stairways and the great black shape of a leafy tree. Low parabolic arches link it through a grate to the harbor beyond, a stone-lined channel flowing into shallow wash-pools. I was standing on one of the broad stepping-stones, wondering how cold the water was, when I heard Vera excitedly pipe up to Amy, “This is just the way my mother used to wash!”

Et exaltavit humiles.

As we climbed the mountain, amid the stiff, brown weed-grass and thick groves of green pine and olive, she told us more of the serene days of her childhood.

Her parents were of humble estate at that time (Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae?), choosing this simple cabin life out of a mixture of practicality and poverty. Paradoxically, her father was a mathematician and computer-expert, hard-wired into the twentieth-century by necessity rather than choice. But still, he and his wife and young daughter lived in a simple one-room house for the first few years of their life, surrounded by peaceful woods. Peaceful woods with no electrical hookups. While I’d often thought myself exceptional by remaining computer illiterate until seventh grade, one of my friends had grown up in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, quite literally. Little House in the Big Woods.

It was stunning, surprising, and yet strangely enthralling. It all seemed so uncontaminated, so simple. And yet I knew, as she spoke of her mother knee-deep in water with linens swirling around her as she fished them out and young Vera playing obliviously downstream, I knew that I would have been miserable in such a world for all the adventure it might have promised. And I thought about that for a long while as we walked up the mountain.

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.

A little more than a week earlier, we’d been at St. Peter’s, wondering what was going to happen next. I clutched and fumbled with my green leather-bound Breviary, anxiously craning my neck over the crowd of people, trying to grasp one insistent sliver of the great domed crossing of the Basilica. Faithful pressed close to the lamp-ringed confessio, while at the southwest pier, above the dramatic marble statue of a windswept St. Veronica, one of the chapel balconies was draped with rich scarlet velvet. Four candles were set upon the marble rail, while above them rose the twin vine-wreathed, spirally-twisted columns of the chapel’s aedicule. Within it, Bernini angels cavorted in heavenly play around a marble effigy of the veil that bore the face of God.

At the moment, however, the old legend that the columns might have come from Solomon’s Temple, or that they inspired the big bronze canopy over the high altar, did not give much consolation. Vera and Amelia were wading further and further into the crowd as my eyes clicked back and forth between the empty, gleaming nave and the north transept. Would it be so terrible if I hopped over the velvet rope that marked off the Confession chapel from the rest of the basilica? I couldn’t think of any other way to get round to the blazing bronze Cathedra Petri in time for Vespers.

Esurientes implevit bonis: et divites dimisit inanes.

Now the girls were chattering away with some woman, and I tried to bite down my frustration. The clock was ticking. It was less than five minutes to five. Vera waded back and I pushed my way forward. I could hear the grey-haired matron—maybe a nun—speaking. They’d let us through to the crossing after the procession finished. I stopped fumbling with my Breviary and breathed an easy breath. Maybe I was letting too much ride on this. I’d see what I was meant to see, and I had a whole book to read in the mean time.
However, as I soon discovered, there are few places better than St. Peter’s to spend five minutes—or even an hour—standing in eager anticipation. Soon, the organs sounded and the long Gregorian neumes of the Litany stretched solemnly across the inlaid pavement. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. I soon joined in, watching as the scarlet and purple of the penitential procession moved slowly down the edge of the nave, past the immense statues of mystics and founders stretching stony hands up to God. Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis.

Soon, Amelia and Vera had joined in, ora pro nobis. Before us, not a yard away, we saw clerks and priests move in profile, two-by-two, led by the thurifer, with a great silver crucifix and tapers just behind. Ora pro nobis. There must have been forty of them, in stark black and white, with only the numerous iterations of folds and trim and lace of their surplices to distinguish them. Ora pro nobis.

And I noticed, with a startled little laugh, my friend the Roman Seminarian move past in the procession, hands folded at his chest over his server’s cassock. He gets around.

Then came six or seven of the canons of St. Peter’s in their gleaming violet mantellete over their laced rochets, square purple-tufted black birettas carried at their breast. Bishops and even a scarlet Cardinal followed in choir dress. Ora pro nobis. Last came the hebdomary and his two assistants in penitential violet and priestly gold, heavy baroque copes armoring their backs. Omnes Sancti et Sanctae Dei, intercedite pro nobis.

And, as the chief priest and his attendants passed us by, all the crowd broke loose from their moorings and followed the procession into the apse, beneath the glowing gold alabaster window of the Holy Ghost. Up on the high altar, the great heap of reliquaries still gleamed magnificently, a sanctoral necropolis of gilt obelisks and sepulchres of happy, hallowed bone. (Et sanctum Nomen Ejus.)

The hebdomary ascended the steps of the sedilia beneath the billowing Cathedra Petri, his splendid coped figure dwarfed by the scale and history of the Basilica. We shuffled in somewhere to the back, a few ranks back from the last pew, and stood, watching as the priests and choir sung the Psalms back and forth across the chancel. Amelia and Vera listened to the Latin with me, sometimes understanding, sometimes not as I pointed to the scarlet and black of the rubrics and responsories outlined in my Breviary.

It is a world they have only begun to taste and scent in Rome, this elemental little universe of clouding incense and silver veins running in lightning tangles on black marble, a world more familiar to me, but only just. I carried such splendors in my head from reading books. Only in Rome did it become real to me as to them, as real and solid as the rough fabric of St. Veronica’s veil might have been long, long ago, before it was softened by the touch of holiness.

Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est.

And up on that mountain hillside, we were in another unequally-shared world, me, the citified indoorsman and these two sturdy climbers. I’ve hiked before, felt the sun on my face, watched the light reflected bright as a mirror on a mountain lake, even carried relics to 10,000 feet in a surreal and somewhat exhibitionist Catholic Nerd stunt. But, it isn’t a world I can disappear into, not yet, and I know any tale of country comfort is just a fantasy. But it can be a pleasant escape, for an hour or two.

We sat on a small mound of broad, flat rocks amid the high, brittle grass, looking out at the cityscape far below as Vera fantasized excitedly and jokingly about fixing up the abandoned rocky hovel we’d passed on the way up here. It brought to mind thoughts of a simpler time, of candlelight and fireplaces, of families gathered close, of kerosene and farther back to Sicily’s ancestral memories of ancient Greek oil-lamps. And the thought that such a time had never existed outside of my fertile imagination.

She has left that world behind, too, as her family grew more prosperous, but she still dreams of it, I can be sure. Except hers was real, a real world of work, rather than something bred by one-too-many misreadings of The Hobbit.

The clouds were rising in a sky that was intensely blue at its zenith and faded slowly into a silver blue-grey along the sea-green horizon. The gnarled, knobby hills abruptly dropped below into a coastal plane, rich with green that soon broke suddenly into a maze of tiled roofs and church campaniles. The view grew more magnificent as we moved towards the summit, taking our time as we had hours until we had to reach the bus. Delightful, constructive indolence.

The hilltop was thick with green, with low-growing iridescent olive trees and sprouting silky-tufted weeds, with thick amorphous pines and ground studded with bright yellow wildflowers and bleached shards of boulder. Fragments of wall snaked along the edges, a few figures perched atop the ramparts in casual silhouette against the sky like characters from a Caspar David Friederich painting.

A clump of architecture students crouched relaxedly on a massive pile of rubble looking, I suppose, like the monkeys do on Gibraltar. Some of them started throwing rocks to see how far they could get, and another tried to see if he could get the shortest student in the class to climb into a rather deep well in the rock by offering him a bribe.

The mountaintop classicism of Sicily, windswept and blue and warm is a fine place to think of Rousseau and his natural man, bathing himself in sunlight as vividly-hued geckoes scurry amid the rock. But the fantasy never becomes reality, and the chthonic romance of these ancient places where archaic temples might have stood is soon clouded by the frightening memories of the darker turns of Greek myth, of bloodsoaked Hecate and the sacrifice of Ipheginia. Original sin crowds out our pastoral dream of some past pagan innocence.

My set of pastorelles was idle and Virgilian, the natural man dreamed up by someone who wouldn’t survive in the woods alone for a week, much less the natural stretch of his life. Yet Vera still sat there, a little ways down the rampart, as a rebuke to my thoughts. She was still barefoot. (Charismatics can be so puzzling). But tune that marked the time of her rural memories was not the Rousseauian scream of “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains,” but the simple firebrand Franciscan hymn of “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all you have made.” Nature was fallen, is fallen, but still remains a reflection of her glorious Creator, lit by the lamp of the Sun, a reflection of the face of the Sun of Justice.

And while her smile was genuine, nobody said that it was easy, living by the sweat of your brow. Beatitude is not happiness. An idle jaunt in the mountains one day could just as easily become a Via Crucis on another.

But, for the moment, anyway, I perched myself on the edge of one of the crenellations, looking down into the valley far below, and enjoyed the moment and the sunshine. Perhaps I recalled, however fleetingly, taking another of the photographs in my roll, a relief of Christ meeting His Mother on the road to Calvary, enclosed within the pointed Gothic arch of a humble church door.

Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae. Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.

And, beyond the doors of another church, locked deep in my memory, Vespers was drawing to a close. One final antiphon was chanted, and the choir rose the notes of the great Magnificat. I rummaged through my Breviary and pulled out a manila insert with the text in English, and handed it back to the two girls.

My soul doth magnify the Lord
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior
For He hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden
For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed
For He that is mighty hath done to me great things
And Holy is His Name
And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with His arm,
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He hath put down the mighty from their seats
And exalted them of low degree
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich He hath sent Empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy,
As he promised to our fathers to Abraham and to his seed forever.

My friend the Seminarian, who was up there somewhere tells me that sometimes the acolytes, through Providence, humor or bad taste, end up incensing the Cardinal when the choir gets to He hath put down the mighty from their seats. I imagine it’s a liturgical urban legend. I turned around and I noticed Amelia was smiling to herself as she read it, utterly, unconsciously, lost in the wondrous text. The next day she asked me if she could photocopy the page.

Soon, the procession was making its way in the midst of the people again, in perfect ecclesiastical order, circling the altar and its great canopy, until it coiled around itself in the south transept, the cross rising like a black silhouette against the grey stone. Billows of incense rose high, transfixing slants of afternoon light. And suddenly, a thousand or so heads turned as bells rang high in the balcony above us. The moment had come.

I had, perhaps, completely forgotten it that sunny afternoon on the mountain, but there was one thing, one image of the face of the Sun of Justice I had not forgotten. That morning, we had visited the Cathedral at Cefalu, a massive, blocky Romanesque structure with two stumpy towers crowned by pyramidal stone roofs. Ornate Saracenic arches festooned the façade, more ornamental than structural.

Within, amid porphyry columns crowned by tesserated capitals that looked like the cushions of a Constantinopolitan Patriarch, was possibly one of the most memorable things I’d seen that year, a magnificent Norman-Byzantine mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator hovering high in the apse. God’s face. I scribbled notes in my sketchbook, frantically trying to get the emaciated Eastern countenance of Christ just right, and simply gave up. It was unbearably beautiful, vastly different from the fearsome faces of so many reigning Judges of the World that were enthroned in so many Greek and Russian cathedrals. Christ had personified God’s Justice, and rightly so, but here, His humanity was softened, merciful, even poignant. Incipient iconographic wrinkles swirled on His brow. His dark Phanariot hair was streaked with Viking blond in comparison to His dark curling Arabic beard, His eyes staring, almost as if on the verge of tears, His lips trembling on the verge of a smile. He seemed on the edge of a fathomless lament, or a fathomless sigh of contentment. Gilt shadows bloomed on His kingly tunic, His hooked fingers curling into a blessing.

Blessing. The bells were ringing. High above us in St. Peter’s, flanked by attendants with lights, stood a bishop in violet choir vesture. He raised his hands, a golden box in them held up before the crowd. I clutched at my Rosary, at the relics in my wallet, thinking that I was in the presence of something even older than the Church, an eyewitness to the day God had died. He lowered the box, and picked up a heavy reliquary cross. The true Cross, soaked with Christ’s blood, a sign of ignominy made into a mark of triumph. Exaltavit humiles. He raised and lowered it in a cruciform blessing, and then bells rang again and he withdrew beyond the ornate iron grill of the chapel door.

Gloria Patri, gloria Filio, gloria Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

We had just seen two of the holiest relics in Christendom. Perhaps it was a momentary glimpse: and all I could see was a vague rectangle of gold with a face-shaped cut-out to show the imprint on the holy cloth. But I like to think that the Face on the cloth, faded by history and the candle-smut of veneration, was the sorrowing face I had seen in Cefalú, on the day I stood on top of a mountain.

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