Thursday, January 29

"If we don't defend life at all times, then we will become a genocidal nation like the United States and those in Europe."

Wednesday, January 28


Sanctoral Update

A happy and blessed feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, protector, among other things, of pencil makers and invoked against lightning, to all my readers! It's also the feast of the Blessed Emperor Charlemagne, my illustrious ancestor, the illiterate patron saint of the University of Paris. Besides conquering most of Europe, restoring the Empire and having a highly confusing number of wives (including Blessed Hildegarde), he enjoyed playing with his children and didn't like boiled meat. Be sure to pay Emperor Mark Shea a visit today and remind him who started the whole Holy Roman thing. Things are a bit hurried here as I finish up my latest project, but expect plenty of updates this weekend on my visit to the Mamertine Prison (no, I wasn't arrested) and also, if I can make it, to today's celebrations over at the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Tuesday, January 27


Captain Kangaroo

A lovely eulogy of the man at National Review Online. Requiem aeternam dona eis.

St. Robert of Northern Virginia?

Fr. Tucker speaks of the amusing tale of the Robert E. Lee Episcopalian Chapel at Washington and Lee University. Once again, while I'm half-Southern and all Catholic, I've got no problems with this sort of ecumenism...
From a Recent Conversation

Student: Did you say anything about the Deposit of Faith in your paper?
Second Student: What's that?
Me: It's in a Swiss bank account!

Well, I'm sure it would work as a plot point in The Da Vinci Code, don't ya think?
Holy Smoke!

I love local church traditions, but this is too weird, even for me. An Italian town near good old Rome celebrates St. Anthony's day by letting their seven-year-old kids have a smoke, among other things. I wonder if Philip Morris would be interested in sponsoring it?

Thanks to my friend the Roman Seminarian for this exceedingly peculiar tidbit.

Monday, January 26


St. Gregory Nazianzen

Saturday Night Out on the Town

In theory, you could just about spend a whole day attending different masses in Rome. The mass schedule posted up at studio seems to cover every hour from six in the morning to nine ("twenty-one hundred" in Eurospeak) except for that sleepy stretch from one to five in the afternoon. Italy's long dark tea-time of the soul, as Douglas Adams might have put it. And this list doesn't even including the "fun" masses at the Tridentine indult parishes or any of the Eastern Rite liturgies.

Eastern Rite liturgies, yeah.

Last Saturday was a work day for me, highly uneventful. However, I do have my limits. I'm off the clock by six at the latest unless there's a genuinely good reason. And the other day I felt like whooping it up after a long day of drafting. So naturally, my first thought was to head over to the Pontifical Russian College for evening prayer. Smells and bells. A bit of hunting on a map--the big Rome map hanging on the wall of the foyer, which required standing on a chair for a better look--disclosed that the Russicum was not only half-an-hour's trudge through the cold. On top of that was near the train station, a place I generally don't like being around at night. Or even four in the afternoon if I can help it.

So, anyway, I decided to try closer to home and set out for the Ukranian College chapel of Saints Sergius and Bacchus about five-thirty. I vaguely remembered it being across the street from Santa Maria de Monti, and vaguely remembered that in turn as being somewhere behind the big brick maze of Trajan's Markets, so naturally I decided not to bother with looking up directions.

I soon heard the bells of the Gesu tolling three quarters of the hour. I had fifteen minutes and it was getting dark. After bumbling around on the periphery of the Quirinal hill, stumbling up steep streets and watching, half-despairingly, the floodlit seagulls circle the bronze chariots perched atop the Vittoriano, I finally found myself in the Monti neighborhood. The college faced onto a small cobbled piazza, a group of kids rambunctiously crashing back and forth as they played soccer. On the front facade, two statues of two bishop-saints in klobuk and mandyas stood behind protective kid-proof cages.

The chapel was humble, if speaking of a faded baroque elegance. Tinselly, faintly incongruous Christmas decorations were still in evidence, including two highly distracting fake tannenbaums flanking the iconostasis, an elaborate modern openwork screen hung with simple, full-length icons of Christ and the Virgin, St. Vladimir and St. Nicholas, their faces having the gentle, almost naturalistic openness of folk art.

There was no choir, and the priest was wearing only a stole over his black cassock. He was seated in the back as the tiny congregation of one seminarian and six or seven nuns and laywomen sung verses antiphonally between one another in mesmerising Old Church Slavonic. It was so easy, so natural, and yet so beautiful, the masculine and feminine voices mixing and separating with the unconscious perfection of a professional choir. But they were just like you and me, sitting in the pews of this tiny chapel.

The service continued, the priest getting up from his throne in the little apse to desultorily light the six altar candles with a zippo. Perhaps he'd forgotten the iconostasis was less substantial than usual and everyone could see him. The lights suddenly all came on and the celebrant exited and entered for a quick change of vestments. So, now draped in a golden cloak, he watched as the trading of psalms continued. A laywoman got up to lector, giving the reading in chant, unrehearsed and yet perfect. It was etherial and angelic, rather than masculine and earthy, like the chanting I had heard last month at the Greek College. It was a whole exotic new world, another flavor on the Catholic ice-cream cone. I seem to remember I enjoyed in particular the peculiar thrill of crossing myself backwards.

I'd forgotten about the awful trees in the process. Though the kids outside kept producing a strepitus more appropriate for Holy Week as their soccer ball pounded against the door. Afterwards, the big bearded priest popped out onto the square and began to give them a heavy scolding.

The service was over soon enough, and I lingered just long enough to bid fairwell to the image of St. Vladimir, a long-ago ancestor of mine, meditating on being a stranger in this familiar, if new place, among these hymns that I had never heard yet loved as if they were eternally familiar. Enough generations have passed between myself and Vladdie that I'm about as genetically Slavic as Catherine the Great, but it was still a strange and wonderful feeling, thinking of the ancient ties that brought these disparate souls together to praise God in a foreign tongue. I was a stranger among strangers, an American among Slavs. In Italy.

You can't get more Catholic than that.

And so I stepped out into the chill January night and wandered past Indian curry places, Arab restaurants decorated with Tutankhamun stained glass, and found myself, all of a sudden, at the Trevi Fountain. I'd somehow overlooked it these last four months. So I lingered, momentarily, and then set off on my way again. I decided to stop by the Greek College at the churhc of Sant' Attanasio for the second half of their Vespers, though not before I investigated three bookshops en route.

Sant' Attanasio was just as splendid as I remembered, full of resounding deep voices, light glittering on gold-leaf and tiers of guttering candles. And I don't think they minded me being late. After all, I'd seen at least one choir member leave in mid-service last time I'd visited.

After the service, I had a shot at venerating an ornate ostensory. I discovered, after squinting at the crabbed tiny handwriting on the customary parchment slip inside the capsule, it held a relic of St. Gregory Nazianzen. Cool. You gotta love one of the Holy Hierarchs. Also, I seemed to be getting pretty proficient at the whole backwards sign of the Cross thing. And if that wasn't enough, I discovered Rome's third English bookstore on the way back home.

So, bookstores and Old Slavonic chant. By all means, an excellent night on the town.

Sunday, January 25

The Muppets Take Mordor

Well, go read it yourself! And note, good fellows, You Have Been Warned.

The Transfiguration of Apulia

… Who delights to scatter such masterpieces over the place where we spend our brief time of exile.

—St. Therese of Lisieux
, The Story of a Soul

So I looked up the The Story of a Soul and
Put Therese and the Child Jesus to sleep.
And felt the quiet wash over my brain.

Everyone on the bus was drowsing in their naps,
But me.

Around us, rolled green fields
Soft and smooth and rich as velvet,
Beneath a sea of movie clouds
Hanging low and purple in the sky,
Tops crested wonderfully in white.

The sun came through in great luminous wounds
Rays streaking sidelong like baroque spotlights
As they transfixed a single silver spot,
A nebulous wing, a dragon head,
And this (I thought, not saw) should be the sign:
Twelve stars, a crown,
Ringing round a maiden pure,
Clothed in the sun,
Her feet on the moon
And in her arms a Child.

The telephone poles seemed like rows of crosses.
While ranks of windmills blew on the ridges
Grand enough for an army of giants.
Don Quixote’s nephilim come back from the dead.

Islands of beaten electrum shone
Amid the clouds
Against a sky of virgin blue
Marvelous blue, hazy blue
Rainstorm blue in the distant horizon
Suspended over mountains
Pink as Sicilian angel wings.

Light danced on the leaves, caught on the
Movie screen of the bus window.

It was Apulia, that lost province of Italy,
Yet it seemed
Like some weird Technicolor version of my own Indiana.
The familiar transmuted,
The lily gilded,
The gold refined.

And the clouds parted, like a great lazuli
Amoeba, fringed with light and lined with silver,
Like an oculus,
Its center blinding light.
Clothed with the sun.

It was beautiful as an army with banners,
The rolling green before us,
Around us,
Behind us and within us,
And yet I knew that soon enough
We would see
A new heaven and a new earth,
A New Jerusalem:
And all would come to despairing dust.

Remember man, thou art dust.
And to dust thou wilt return.

But then what shall we do—
Shall we wait in a darkened room
Until the Doom
And think of nothing else?

But even this temporary tent,
This makeshift universe
Has been decorated by a Hand
That saw it was good indeed.

And so we wait:
We, we are troubadors and fools
Jugglers and jokers
Building paper palaces for our God
And so much is the greater glory.

I sat there in the bus
Feeling detached and bodiless
(But not truly bodiless)
As we streaked through the afternoon
And I wondered perhaps if I had already died.


Snow and Secrets

I caught up with Melanie, one of my classmates, on the Ponte Vittorio Emanuelle. The bridge's great verdigrissed bronze angels reared up against a bare grey sky.  For a few hours, the Eternal City had taken on the strange wintry beauty of Vienna or Prague, and the view down the curving enfilade of the Tiber's steep-walled banks seemed as coldly exotic as the frozen Neva.  White crystals flecked her black hair.  "It's snowing!" I cried.

She was excited.  Just like a bit of South Bend here in Rome, she said, perhaps only half-facetiously.  We dodged the traffic along the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle and traded stories of our morning's adventures.  We had just come back from a class visit to the vast sprawling corridors of the Vatican Museums, sketching and thinking and stumbling through centuries of history.  

We had studied the labyrinthine town-plans of the great Corridor of Geographical Maps, all gold-green and indigo streaked with gilt compass-lines.  The torturous antique coastlines bristled with miniaturized portraits of towns, some ideograms, some verging on the real, names familiar and obscure set beside them in antiquated black type.  From here, the rector of the world had surveyed his domain, from this little microcosm, now neatly shuttered off and heated internally.  Outside, the greenery of the Vatican gardens had seemed incongruous under the pale sky, like part of another world from the rich cosmography of the maps.

And then, I had been crossing over to the Sistine Chapel, moving past the vast canvas of Polish Jan Sobieski--a monarch from a cold country--raising the siege of Vienna, when I saw them. The first gentle flakes of snow arabesking against the dun-colored brick of the fortified sanctum.  The first hints of curiosity had begun.  A handful of touristing faces were pressed to the glass of the windows ringing the courtyard, Japanese, American, the differences inconsequential.  I descended to the basilica--down a stairway marked for tour groups only--and found myself out in the open air again, St. Peter's travertine cornice soaring overhead.  

A person shrieked in Spanish into a cellphone that it was indeed snowing.  Out in the square, I could see silver on the great Christmas tree that loomed over the vast Nativity scene, still standing so late in the season, and couldn't tell for sure if it was tinsel or snow.  I still hoped for a blanket of white, but saw only water gather on the ground.

On the Corso, the flakes whirled and eddied, their rhythms growing stronger and wilder with every passing step.  Umbrellas had gone up as if it were an average rainstorm, and people hunched over, wandering disinterestedly down the street.  It seemed like a gigantic secret, our joy at this exotic cold, a gigantic secret that we were keeping from the whole city.  

The snow continued to whisk wildly, melting the bright terra cottas and pinks of the stucco facades into pixillated dreams, like a blizzard in Lima or a sandstorm in London, a chimera out of magic realism.  But this was Rome, where magic was real, where the impossible can happen every day, and when, somehow, you sense that an out-of-place snowfall somehow means something more than just a divine whimsy. After all, an incongruous summer snowfall had outlined the foundations of St. Mary Major so many centuries ago.

But soon, I saw the flakelets in my friend's hair had turned to little drops of suspended melt. The snow was dissolving, and soon my jacket was streaked with rain and the sky full of falling water.  The umbrellas became real again, rather than ensigns of fantasy, and we parted ways within eyesight of the great, flat, familiar facade of Sant' Andrea della Valle.  Rome had become normal again, a rainy, wet, Italian city, the surreal snowfall melting once again into the wonderful rhythm of the prosaic.  We'd had our fun, shared our secret, and now it was time to go home.

Wednesday, January 21

I'm outta here

I'll be skipping class for the rest of the week and heading out to Washington for the March for Life. The Irish fighting for life, as we're affectionately known around here, have 4 busses full of students heading out to the March this year. For those of you watching EWTN, keep your eyes open for us; last year their coverage featured an interview with our lovely president Janel. Their young adult radio program, The Wave Factor, has also asked for some of our group to call in during the show, for those of you with short-waves or high-speed internet.

I'll be back on Sunday, and blogging highlights shortly thereafter. 'Til then, "Go Irish, Beat Abortion!"

Tuesday, January 20


This is my kind of Ecumenism

S. Clement's Anglo-Catholic Church in Philly has got a whole new bright and shiny load of high-church Anglican eye-candy on their website in addition to all their old picture galleries. Plaudite, timpana, by all means. Heck, anyplace that has a shrine to King Charles the Martyr is bound to be interesting. Okay, now if only I could get the drool off this keyboard...

Umberto Eco and Don Jim

Father Tucker continues to prove his intelligence by suggesting conspiracy-hungry readers try Umberto Eco's witty Foucault's Pendulum instead of Dan Brown's lumpen Da Vinci Code. Foucault's Pendulum is one of my favorite "secular" novels, and Eco makes for truly intelligent reading. While you're at it, check out the Porta Ludovica website for more Eco semiotical fun. Also, coming back to the source, be sure to see the good priest's thoughts on General Lee on the occasion of Marse Robert's birthday.

Heraclitus and Ursula

The first thing I heard about Barletta was that it was home to the largest bronze statue left over from antiquity. The second thing that I discovered was, according to Professor Nessman, it was also the ugliest bronze statue left over from antiquity. And it wasn't even that old. Apparently some bits of the ungainly giant--either Heraclitus or Constantius II--had washed up on shore one morning during the early Renaissance. The townspeople decided to finish the job, with less than serviciable results.

Inspecting the completed sculpture in front of the church of Santo Sepolcro, Heraclitus's solemn, bag-eyed face looking more dourly Byzantine than classically antique, it seemed fine enough to me. Though for some reason, the top of Heraclitus's head was missing. Given the preponderance of flat roofs in the region, the danger of the Emperor filling up with rainwater seems a small danger.

We arrived in the dark Thursday evening. The outskirts seemed, at best, shabby, filled with haphazard high-rises with the occasional concession to tradition in the form of Italianate roofline dingbats. The hotel was on the outskirts of town in the beachfront tourist ghetto, a gleaming new pocket-sized four-star in hyper-clean imitation art-deco. The occasional nod to postmodernism showed up in a few crooked lines here and there that suggested the architect had hiccupped in the middle of drafting.

Still, I had a feeling I was going to like the complementary breakfasts, no matter who designed the place.

The mayor was footing the bill, and feeding us darn well, too. We soon were escorted next door to the Brigantino Due Restaurant to an extravagantly multi-course dinner of spinach pasta and fresh fish. In between the luxury, we were expected to take copious notes and measurements about all things Barletta, the net result being we would design a master-plan for the die-hard classicist town council who wanted something a bit more solid to show to the real architects to give them some ideas. So solid that he was willing to go as far as to let us stay for a week rather than just a weekend.

I was a bit agnostic about the town's prospects, though I planned to enjoy the food nonetheless. I hadn't seen much to suggest that a week or a month here would give us anything with which to save the place. The towns we'd passed nestled under the lofty peaks of the southern Appenines were choked with sprawl, and looked too busy trying to survive to be quaint. History, after all, had not been as cutely kind to the underdeveloped south as she had to the touristed hills of the Val d'Orcia or the cobbled streets of Arezzo.

Plus, there was the fact that our hotel's next-door neighbor was a video game parlor. The closest thing to classicism was the La Rotonda pizza stand at the bend in the coastal highway. To be fair, we had glimpsed the glorious floodlit Trani marble spire of the Duomo as we had driven past, but I wasn't about to hold my breath.

Not yet.

The next morning, the tour took us straight into old-town Barletta. We walked through the green, empty park around the stark sloped white walls of the old fortress. We'd meet the mayor there, though it seemed his Excellency was nowhere in sight and the heavy iron grill of the barbican was still locked. The moat was dry, but still looked thoroughly impassable.

And so we began to wander. We soon found ourselves standing on ancient paving stones, rich and mottled in their subtle rainbow of pink and yellow, their sharp edges glazed with hundreds of years of passing steps.

Then we entered under the arch of the campanile and passed into another world.

Narrow streets, iron balconies, a patina of beautiful peeling stucco. Time and antiquity pressed close as the walls of the tiny alleys. On our left hand, the austere white flank of the church rose; Saracenic arabesques and weird Romanesque gargoyles snarled at us across centuries of time. The tiny piazza before the Duomo was empty in the chill winter morning. We entered under the curve of an arch carved with a surreal bestiary of long-necked dragons and double-bodied centaurs tangled amid an Arabic tree of life, and found a small miracle of pale, clear light and even clearer stone.

A brief foray into the open door of the sacristy ended with the uncertain stare of a sexton, and so I slowly made my way around the ambulatory, bathed in the cool white light. In the north aisle stood a wooden half-length reliquary effigy of a swooning female martyr, eyes dark and raised to heaven, glossy and naive. Against the pale skin of her neck could be glimpsed a neat round red wound streaming precise drops of painted blood. Gilt gleamed on her ornate dress and carven waves of hair. St. Ursula, perhaps, by the limp cloth banner held in one dramatic outstretched hand. At her chest was a neat little glass window--and inside--

I wasn't certain, but it looked like a great curving shard of skull. The skull of a saint, inches away from me. I pressed my fingers against the glass, put my hand on hers, and simply stood there for a minute, astonished. It was--I felt chills, a faint quickening of my breath, confusion and excitement. Grotesque, perhaps, this disembodied fragment of someone else's life on display, and I felt that tingle of perversity. But soon, amazement overwhelmed it. But I was as close as humanly possible to a splinter of sanctity. Ursula, that great martyred princess of legend, who wasn't supposed to exist. Like the classical town that we were trying to re-build here.

I decided I was going to like Barletta.


Perhaps the ages have been unkind to Barletta's fringes, but amid the close-hugging townhouses of the old centro storico, the memories of the past still lingered, and lingered beautifully.

Barletta's only significant historic claim to fame, after Heraclitus, is a duel which pitted thirteen gallant but outnumbered Italian knights against a significantly larger group of occupying foreigners. Either Spanish or French, nobody I talked to seemed to be sure.

The overt act in the brawl occurred in a tavern off one of the tiny principal streets of the old quarter. The lofty, vaulted bar-cellar is still there, grand but empty. Its display cases are barren, the only exhibit a histrionic plaster effigy of one of the victors beating up a Frenchman (or was it a Spaniard?). About the only things of interest that remain are a stack of magazines, some marginally historic furniture and a tired docent. A mannered, historically accurate beaux-arts-Romanesque monument in the piazetta out front is about the only clue to who killed who here.

It may be Barletta's only claim to fame, but there are still hidden treasures tucked away from the prying eyes of beachfront tourists.

Around the corner from the tavern--around every corner, practically--could be glimpsed the facade of a graceful baroque church, springing to life with naive, glorious whirls of cherubim that seemed to unite the provincial perfection of Latin American baroque with the charming vigor of a New England Puritan tombstone. And to imagine growing up here, amid such splendid monsters and strange legends--it boggled the mind.

It's a slow town, an unremarkable town, even, the sort of average village that an Italian Garrison Keillor might make up meandering, poignant stories about. But a Garrison Keillor who would have grown up in the shadow of ancient churches with doors carved with linenfold panelling and images of the Host blazing above a chalice. In a history-soaked country, Barletta's shabby charm might seem ludicrous in comparison to Rome's hundreds of churches and eons of existence, but to an American like myself, it seems just about the right size. I could see myself being very happy here.

The town, for all my early cynicism, had a homely, homey beauty. Literally, it feels like you've stepped into someone's well-loved home. After all, our own Professor Marconi grew up in its welcoming, grimy alleyways and exotic stucco, beneath the forest of television antennae that bristle like spider-webbed ships' masts over the flat roof-terraces of the village.

We sketched and wandered, and wandered and sketched, and soon it was siesta time. The Puglians take siesta seriously: the cathedral's closed at least until four, and most shops hardly stir from noon to five. Clouds and chill gave way to golden-auburn late-afternoon light on the cornices of a dozen age-streaked stucco palazetti. Dead Christmas decorations still hung on the locked church doors.

Meanwhile, I had begun to inspect the people of Barletta, as well as her architecture. And it looked like they were perfectly happy to inspect me as well. I sat myself down on a metal bench in a little square that lay in the shadow of a grizzled white-marble civic campanile, cornices dark with the patina of age.

The piazza, humming with the din of midday traffic on the main street, seemed to be populated entirely by old men in flat caps. I sat there for a space, watching the pigeons waddle, heads bobbing, as the afternoon light caught the purple iridescence on their necks. Later, two five-year-olds started scrambling over the bench and eagerly demanded what I was doing, inspecting my sketchbook with cries of delight. After they had exhausted my meager Italian vocabulary, I excused myself and left them to clobber each other with delighted shrieks.

I continued to meander. In the cathedral, a cleaning lady was desultorily thwacking the base of the St. Ursula statue. Back outside, a young girl smoked on a balcony, giving me a diffident stare through the arched alleyway. On a convent square, an old man sat perfectly still in a darkened doorway, looking contented beyond compare. I offered a ciao to an old lady and a young woman hanging out laundry on a balcony, garnering a muttered giorno from the nonna. It was siesta. No need to strain oneself.

Almost everything was closed. Admitted, the scuzzy Lizard cantina was still open, its walls decorated by a single poster of Emilio Zapata, the bargain-basement Che. But the extraordinarily-named Shakespeare's Head English pub and the Irish jazz bar with the enormous Guinness advertisement painted on the front door didn't look like they would open for a while. The High Fashion Uomo store was, however, doing business with some exorbitantly large discounts, though given the quality of the flashy merchandise--something out of What the Well-Dressed Goombah is Wearing--it looked like the customers could use all the encouragement they could get.

But, goombahs or no, the town still slumbered beautifully.

Soon, a pink sunset was streaking the white stone of the church. Four kids, one sporting purple-streaked hair, sat under the wild Saracenic arabesques and munched potato chips. Within, the gleaming whiteness had turned to a serene pale gloom, illumed only by the warm sparks of light from the bulbs in the shrine to St. Roch, his downturned face kind in the darkness.

It was too dark to see St. Ursula, though, save for a tinselly spark on the gilded filigree of her dress. So I turned to leave. Perhaps I might return some day.

Plus, the four kids had started screaming and throwing themselves against the portal in some juvenile display of rough-housing. It seemed a good-enough time to leave.
The coast is toast!

Strong Bad discovers that Homestar is cool.

Butter-da is noh hush a bush push leopold.

Sunday, January 18

The Latest on Fr. Groeschel

Saturday, January 17

Wow, I think my train of thought just derailed....
(or, ... Meet the A-Team--I mean--Chancery)

I don't know why, but I looked up Etro, the Italian designer of Hobbit Chic, and while perusing the extremely trippy site, stumbled upon the Etro family's collections, which include a group of 15th and 16th century vestments. Nice vestments are among my weaknesses, and while there are only a few pictures on the site, they are definitely worth perusing.

Unlike, say, the Queen Amidala models featured on the equally trippy Exquisite Vestments site (ooh, the colors!). Which also offers episcopal bling-bling for that Mr. T-meets-Apostolic-successor look. Which could actually could be kind of cool (I pity the foo who tries heresy on my turf! Get ready fo' excommunication, sucka!) No! Really! I hear Bishop Burke's a big fan...

Best. Ad. Ever.

Thursday, January 15

Hobbit Chic hits the European Fashion Circuit

Wish I were making this up.

Juan Bautista Villalpando, S.J.

Okay, three hours until I leave. But I've just got one more thing to show you all: check out this interesting page on Fr. Villalpando, a seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit with a peculiar interest in Solomon's Temple. The Temple was a big deal to the scholars and architects of his era--in fact, much of this esoteric preoccupation is reflected in the design of the Escorial. Which Villalpando's curious reconstruction resembles strongly. I might blog further on the subject when I have a free moment down the line. Anyway, it's fun. His version of the Temple might not be necessarily accurate (I've read it would take five Mount Moriahs to hold such a vast complex) but it's pretty darn cool.

Well, I'm off on the first field-trip of the year, down to Prof. M's hometown, Barletta. It's in Puglia, the heel on the Italian boot. We're going to cook up an architectural project for the place and the visit is to gather research on exactly what the place looks like. Should be fun! I'll be back by Sunday, so expect more commentary soon!

Wednesday, January 14

Swiss nurse accused of killing 24 elderly patients

"The case has shocked the country despite its relatively lenient attitude to euthanasia."

Explain to me: How is that not the logical next step?
Oh yeah, silly me, the same way as abortion isn't the logical next step from contraception.

Never mind.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled re-education, already in progress...

Eternal City 3-D

How wonderful to live in a city with hills, I thought as I stood at the top of the Quirinale this afternoon. Below me, faded slightly by a delicate haze of mist, rose Rome's hundred domes amid the mazelike roofs of temements, palazzi and overgrown terrace gardens. The irregular, sloping piazza in front of the Presidential Palace was almost deserted, traffic roaring up the Via XX Settembre at my back.

It was a spectacular view, the cupolas drifting towards the grand crescendo of Saint Peter's. Beyond the Vatican I could even glimpse the severe geometric aerials of Vatican Radio crowning one of the low round towers of one of the old papal fortifications. Against the distant fringe of the umbrella trees of the Janiculum and the Vatican gardens, it could have been some blasted, picturesque ruin out of the backdrop of a Giorgione altarpiece. The sky was a melancholy, pearly grey, adding to the rich blue tints that hung over the gargantuan basilica.

It's odd to realize that, as you consider the scene, you're standing level with the eyes of the verdigrissed St. Paul that now stands atop the old weatherbeaten marble column of Antonius Pius off the Corso, or almost even with the bell-cote of Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament. The figurehead President of Italy may have his immense, starkly Renaissance residence atop the Quirinale, but the real power lies with the politicians lurking down beneath at his feet. Pleasant irony.

Tramping around Tuscany and Umbria, it seemed every new town meant a new and different slog up a steep, cobbled and treacherous street to the centro storico. And yet, I'm grateful for Italy's hills. Tallahassee, my own humble home town, claims to be founded on seven hills like Rome (and like Rome, attempts to identify those seven hills are notoriously vague) but there's nothing like this at home. Indeed, Europe's great civic hills are part of the glories of the continent. Toledo, Rothburg, Mont-Saint-Michel, Rome, these fortified mountains might be a pain on the walker, but they hang in the imagination far longer than gridded Washington or even the surprisingly flat mile-high city, Denver.

It's part of the eternal conflict between Paris's razor-straight streets with their wonderful Napoleonic bombast and Rome's crooked, marvelous scenography that manages to be both intimate and grandiose. The French model, the brainchild of men like L'Enfant and Haussmann, for better or worse, too hold in our own nation. It has its glories, it must be admitted, as everyone loves to sing of the Champs-Elysees or has their own romantic vision of the pre-revolutionary splendor of St. Petersburg's mathematical street-plan. Nonetheless, Rome remains a potent rebuke to this way of making cities.

For what it's worth, each city has its failures. Every Roman despises the Paris-straight Via de Concelazione with its suppository-shaped obelisks and the Via XX Settembre beyond the Quirinale is a concatenation of buildings, albeit marvelous ones, with little conceivable sense of order. Likewise, those part of Paris most like Rome are also troublesome: the Latin Quarter, while quaint, ended up as a suicidal labyrinth during the riots of the 1960s. And while Montmartre may have Sacre Coeur, it hardly bristles with the mind-boggling assemblage of famous churches that step out on every Roman street-corner to greet you.

The crux of this difference is that Rome was a city built by sculptors, and Paris designed by engineers, civil servants and artillerists looking for clean lines of fire. It's a fact rather than a rebuke: one might cynically remark about the French temperament that it speaks volumes that they would let their civic art be legislated by pencil-pushers, but it's equally potent that France's civil servants would be poetic and artistic enough to pull such a grandiose stunt off. Likewise, given artistic melancholia, it's more than a little frightening to think of the folks at the National Endowment for the Humanities taking over the Department of Highway Safety.

Fortunately, Bernini and Borromini were not members of the NEA, and their city is a miracle of beauty--beauty shooting out in three directions. It's a sculptural city, relationships connecting across twisting streets and over acres of tiled roofs as lantern answers lantern, cornice answers cornice, and bronze apostles size each other up on marble stilts. The whole landscape of hills and hollows is as grandly interlocking as the folds of St. Teresa in Ecstasy.

Yes, hills have their problems. You can get stuck down beneath them, for one. They get in the way for sure. In Paris, and in so many cities across our own nation, the sky is grand, expansive. Denver, out west, is Big Sky Country, while from Montmartre you can see all the world spread beneath you like a carpet. But Rome's more complex than that. Sometimes the sky is little more than a slit between overhangs, like an urban, artificial canyon. But even that seems as sweet and beautiful and heartbreaking as the grand view I'd witnessed on the Quirinale.

This evening, I looked up to find three or four of my fellow students crowding on the Studio Balcony, gaping upward, cameras in hand. Sunset. The sky was an electric jellyfish pink streaked with pale blue marbling above the tiered silhouettes of the apartments. We could see a tantalizing expanse of the grand canvas down the street towards Piazza della Valle. Hardly expansive on either hand, hemmed in by a bulwark of tiled roofs, railed balconies, overgrown terraces, iron rails, all washed by a thin blue layer of shadow. A filigree of television receivers sprouted from the uppermost levels, while the black shapes of birds whirled against the neon sky.

Big skies, it seems, are best seen through a little frame.
Okay, one more...

The final book of Narnia, you're a sometimes disturbing story about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. Your characters include an evil monkey, a misguided donkey, stubborn dwarves and all the human characters from the previous books. You manage to be heartbreaking and beautiful at once.

Find out which Chronicles of Narnia book you are.

Definitely the coolest online quiz in a long time

St. Pius X
You are Pope St. Pius X. You'd rather be right than

Which Twentieth Century Pope Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Link courtesy The Old Oligarch, who also got St. Pius X.

Tuesday, January 13

Murder and Mayhem Under Saturn:
Further Thoughts on Books and Libraries

I finished the paperback mystery I had brought on the plane over last night with a great rush of pleasure. I’m not sure why: the plotting was somewhat lackluster, the dénouement hurried. About the only good thing about the whole piece had been the delightful lack of the obligatory and ponderous bedroom scenes that so clutter up modern literature. And possibly its setting, the chill, exotic reaches of the Yukon in the midst of a dogsled race.

Still, I found myself, as I drifted in and out of sleep, struck by a deep sense of frustration at the thought I hadn’t bothered to bring another one. I wanted to go back, to undo my slavish, rushed reading, to hoard the precious text and distill it a little—only a little—each day.

On top of that I realized I’d left at home my little bare-bones survival library—G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges. I’d been agonizing for months before about forgetting them, and looked forward to having them back this semester. I lay there awake for a
while, and eventually a short prayer to little Aggie, St. Agnes, started to put things back in perspective.

Just books. Silly, I guess.

It’s strange the cravings you get abroad, away from home and familiar voices. Maybe it was just naked biblioholism. I doubt it, though. It wasn’t just a desire for $6.95 mystery paperbacks (notoriously scarce in Europe) that I was giving vent to, that I was losing sleep over.

I’d cut another cord with home, cast aside so soon something I’d carefully carried over 5,000 miles to remind me of Tallahassee, however tenuous the connection. That little book had gotten momentarily tangled up in the vast constellation of hearth and home, of mom and dad and evenings by the fireplace. It was a piece of somewhere else, a memory of an existence independent from the architecture that fills my waking hours.

I love my cornices and my column capitals, but every now and then you need a good mystery and a nice warm bed. A simple, even plebeian pleasure, I suppose, but then even Paul VI liked Agatha Christie.

The post-vacation jitters are traditional for me, I suppose. The first night I spent here back in August, I roamed around the hotel for a long while and finally went to sleep only after I’d spent a calming few minutes looking up at the dome of Sant’ Andrea from the hotel roof, watching the weird sky. Last night, the sky was that same eerie blood-purple it had been so long ago.

This morning, all was well. Except, naturally, I’d wished I could have gone to bed earlier.

Professor D. ended his lecture on our traditional class walking tour from the loggia of the Palazzo Mattei, looking down into the cluttered, antiquity-incrusted courtyard, stony late-Roman emperors studying us from circular tondi. Lush, damp foliage had begun to grow along the elaborately sculpted belt courses. Then I remembered, as he dismissed us, it was the headquarters of the Italian Institute for American Studies, and at least one of my profs had recommended I have a look at the frescoes of their library.

Library. Libraries mean books, and plenty of them. Not likely to carry mysteries about Alaskan dog-sled racers, but nonetheless, it was something I’d been meaning to take care of for a few months now.

So I stepped into the foyer, feeling the wonderful, soothing presence of old paper and English text on the spines. Admitted, most of them were about Native Americans rather than murder-mysteries or spiritual exercises and there seemed to be an acute lack of Dave Barry. But then, one can’t really make booger jokes under a gilded mythological ceiling.

I puttered about with the card catalogue, idly flicking through the cards. Lots of Poe, it looked like; that was something at least, but The Gold Bug didn’t seem like the sort of idle off-duty reading I was looking for. I counted a few Walker Percy novels, which was a bit more promising, but Poe looked like the big draw in the fiction section. If I wanted madness and mayhem and tortured souls, I could just crack open something on Borromini back at Studio.

Yeesh, architects. Never happy.

They’ve even got a whole book on the subject, called Born Under Saturn, available at the miniscule library in Studio. Though at the moment perhaps I’d prefer something a bit cheerier, without a whole chapter on statistics concerning “Suicides of Artists” or another with subheadings on “Weird Hobbies,” “Cleanliness Mania,” and “Florentine Eccentrics of the Early Sixteenth Century.” An acute lack of locked-room murders and oriental paperknives of curious design here.

But back to our story. The place was run on the European system, as the American docent explained to me chattily after I’d spent a few minutes bent over a catalogue drawer. Which meant, of course, no browsing in the stacks. A shocking notion to an American bibliophile like myself.

But then—but then—she was taking me into the stacks, to show me around. Oh—how wonderful—how absolutely wonderful. The long file of rooms stretched far back, receding into darkness, cornice-high shelves ringing the walls, piled high with so many books. It was bliss, absolute bliss. Not that I owned any of them, not that I wanted any of them, but simply that they were there.

I told her I would think about joining, and left the palazzo smiling broadly, gilding the lily by a final ceilingward glance at the splendid frescoes overhead.

Why do we love libraries so? There’s got to be more than a gross love of piled-up paper, a sort of academic materialism at play. A famous bibliophile, whose name escapes me, said that for him, heaven would be “a sort of library,” and perhaps unintentionally, he’d stumbled onto something there.

We love libraries because they are, in a sense, a strange, peripheral sense, a glimpse of the infinite. I’ve spoken of this before, but I didn’t quite understand the theological ramifications of it until today. For, as we move among these shelves, dozens of stories that we have read, or might have read, or might read, crowd close at the edges of consciousness, all at once, and all still unique. It’s a thrill, a wondrous thrill.

It’s a God’s-eye view of creation. I’ve only felt the same way, this same, sustained and highly artificial omniscience in one other place, one summer as I stood overlooking the peaks and mesas of the Grand Canyon as they stretched beyond the horizon. It’s the only place in the world big enough to be seen all at once. Like a library, itself an image of the universe from A to Z.

I’m no saint or seer, but I still think it’s true. For one thing, it also explains why, soon enough, we find ourselves frustrated by the grand choice lying before us, and grudgingly pick out one volume, one precious volume, and take it up to the cash register. Or why we reel away, staggered by the immensity of the great gash in the earth that lies beneath our feet, stretching down for thousands of feet. Omniscience is too much for our little heads to bear, for now at least. And that is a limitation I’ll gladly thank the Lord for.

Oh, yeah, and what weird hobbies, exactly? I might just like that crazy library book anyhow.
From our "Only in Wisconsin" Files:

A UW Madison researcher has found a way to slice cheese using a laser.

"At any other university, people would have just laughed. But this is Wisconsin. It's cheese. And this is no laughing matter."
Thanks to Fr. Tucker for the link.
Let this be remembered: I was walking past Sant' Andrea della Valle this morning, and a pigeon dropping missed me by about an inch. Splat on the pavement from waaay up on the cornice about sixty-odd feet overhead. But not on my shirt, which I think, in a weird sort of way, is another proof of the Divine plan. Also, it makes up for when I got dive-bombed last fall on Via de Baullari.

Monday, January 12

Pray for Fr. Groeschel

He was hit by a car last night in Orlando and is in critical but stable condition.
A Last Dash of Christmas Chiaroscuro,
or, Enoch, Aggie, and Me

And so I found myself back in Rome yesterday, jetlagged, confused and blissfully happy. It was an unseasonably bright and balmy Sunday afternoon, an unexpected surprise after a month of brown-grey drizzle before I left. And so, as the car rolled through Rome’s suburban sprawl--which seems incapable of making up its mind whether to be quaint or hideous--I sat back and enjoyed the warm sun and the crisp purple shadows.

Remember the shadows, they come back later.

The flight over had been relatively uneventful, if perhaps slightly insomniac: for some reason I’d elected to watch Freaky Friday on the plane rather than succumbing to the charms of Morpheus (the mythological god, not Laurence Fishburne). Yes, hardly an art movie, but I stand by my decision; in fact, I’d go as far to say that Miss Lindsay Lohan might eventually turn out to be a fine actress, presuming she doesn’t go and do something stupid like getting famous.

There’d been a minor snafu at Charles de Gaulle, but the long layover had given me plenty of time to explore the place, parts of which resembles nothing so much than the washing machine section of Sears mated with one of the more objectionable sets out of Babylon 5. And of course re-acquainting myself with the institution of the European bathroom, this one like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was about as functional as HAL the killer computer, anyway, with no soap and two water faucets on one sink, one of which didn't work. I had, however, no time to sleep there, as I had no intention of missing another flight.

So, once in Rome, I felt tired but restless, and while I eventually plopped down for a two-hour nap before Mass, I found myself back over at Studio soon enough. The sun had set on a blue Roman evening in the interim. I considered a walk, but stepping out onto Via Monterone, I was confronted with all the charm and ambience of a coal sack: the streetlights were still unlit. I turned back and reconsidered, and re-re-considered. I was still listless, and one of my friends said the walk might do me good.

I still had plenty of time to kill, so I made out for Piazza Navona. The Christmas fair had vanished, but there was certainly enough activity. A mime coated in plaster stumbled to get ready in a side street. A guitarist played mellow classics on a bench beneath the fountains and I soon found myself passing stores and restaurants I’d forgotten about or never noticed. I stopped in the foyer of a toyshop and admired the model soldiers, moved on and considered the aptly-named Don Chiscotte gelateria next to the Spanish Cultural Center. And then I spotted a narrow slit of golden light: the open door of a church.

Piazza Navona has two churches facing onto it, the grand Borromini Sant’ Agnese, built on the site of the little virgin’s martyrdom in the Circus Agonalis, and the neglected early-Renaissance church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, which is never open. Except it was open now.

I had at least an hour until mass at Sant’ Eustachio, so I decided I couldn’t miss an opportunity like this. The door was, much to my astonishment, a rear one that came out into a pleasant, unassuming ambulatory lined with lurid, dramatic baroque sculptures of Christ carrying the cross and the Virgin of Sorrows. Christ’s foot had been bronzed, smoothed by the caresses of centuries of pilgrims. And they seemed to still have their crèche up.

This brought two things to mind. First, all those frustrating hole-in-the-wall churches you can never find, and can never find when they’re open, well, Sunday night is the day to check them out. Occasionally, one runs the risk of interrupting evening mass, but this is hardly an obstacle to the devout--or, for that matter, stealthy--traveler. Second, and more excitingly, I remembered Christmas wasn’t officially over according to the ecclesiastical calendar. These days, Baptism of the Lord is the cap of the season, not Epiphany. The glorious constellation of lights and wreathes I’d seen just starting to bedeck Rome the week I left might just still be up.

Bearing this in mind, I started to wander with a purpose, but not before I’d stepped across the piazza to visit Sant’ Agnese, and found it even more splendid than I remembered. The façade loses much of its charm encased in hulking scaffolding and darkness, but the interior was the same. The troublesome piped-in music was still there, but I noted, much to my satisfaction that the ad orientem high altar was still in use--candles blazing, with a brass missal stand at the center and a delicate silver chalice to one side. It didn’t look like it was quite time for mass yet, so I loitered reverently, considering the bone-white marble statues of St. Agnes and St. Sebastian against their bold green marble false-perspective altar-pieces.

St. Agnes. Stony flames whirled around her baroquely-draped ankles, arms raised with histrionic drama to the heavens, and she looked rather nubile for a twelve-year-old. Still, it was with a certain sadness that I noticed that none of the post-cards for sale really captured the image’s wonderful primadonna tragedienne-cum-Teresa of Avila grandeur.

I took another turn around the church, and discovered that I wasn’t done with Agnes yet. Or at least, with a certain part of her anatomy. (Don’t worry: you’re thinking of Agatha). In a little, unassuming side-chapel, I found an elaborate reliquary, draped with enameled wreaths and topped with an image of the little martyr--but what did it hold? I noticed a little glass window at the base--out of which stared the dark eyesockets of a tiny little skull. The young saint’s.

Tiny, tiny, tiny, so delicate. It wasn’t just pious embroidery--she had to have been twelve, this sweet little martyred creature. Darn. My late-night aerial movie showing might have proved that talent isn’t wasted on the young (not all the time, at least), but neither, it seems, is holiness. Here she was, nine years my junior---if she was alive, she’d be the irritating younger sister of some close friend and I should be calling her Aggie rather than going down on my knees and addressing her as a spotless virgin martyr, God’s own little lamb.

Hey, Aggie, what’ja do in school today? Oh, prayed a few souls out of purgatory, healed a tumor or two, you know, the usual stuff. And what’ve you done lately, Matt?

Well, food for thought, anyway.


I soon found myself strolling through the back-alleys of the Campus Maritius, passing by Santa Maria dell’ Anima’s serene, if undistinguished, Renaissance facade. The Hotel Raphael’s facade next door was a grand festival of Christmas lights interwoven among cascading ivy. The organist was starting a prelude when I poked my head in. Santa Maria della Pace, another of the strangely numerous French churches in Rome, was closed, but the chic little restaurant out in the piazza was just heating up.

And so I wandered, enjoying the darkness and the last few sparks of Christmas cheer spread around the city. Italy might have ignored her Mother Church on just about every issue in the last twenty-odd years, but at least one of the more enjoyable aspects of the calendar reform of 1969 had made it onto the streets. Campo dei Fiori was crackling as lovers took pictures of one another with portable phones and a little Christmas market crackled at the far end of the square, peddling jams and honeys and some hokey new-agey medical texts. Lights were strung across the Via de Baullari under a grand sign proclaiming Auguri, a generic Best Wishes from one of the more pagan parts of the city.

They say that Campo dei Fiori is the Greenwich Village of Rome, though I wouldn’t know: the posters are all in Italian and might be advertisements for a John Birch Society meeting or Biracial Lesbians in Concert for all I know. It seems a nice enough place, and it’s even got its own elementary school, though I will admit that’s located down the street from a fashion poster of a semi-nude woman and a man locked in some sort of complicated Tai Chi position. Or something on those lines.

Meanwhile, back in Christian Rome, Santa Brigitta in deserted Piazza Farnese had a little garland of lights and pine around its Baroque doorframe, while the perpetually-closed Church of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e Morte sported a huge sign imploring all to come see their presepio, their Christmas crib.

And with good reason too, as tomorrow the liturgical clock would be re-set and we’d be back in the green of Ordinary Time. The lights would vanish, the Three Kings would turn back to Saba and the Isles, and the heavens would close on God the Father’s revelation of His beloved Son.

This particular Santa Maria is one of the odder churches in the city. The name works out to meaning something like Our Lady of Prayer and Death, and at at one time it belonged to Rome’s undertakers. The façade is baroquely sinister enough, full of winged hourglasses, clustering bulky Corinthian columns and grinning skulls. The ones on either side of the great central portal I’ve decided to name Bob and Filbert, incidentally. If you can stomach the morbid weirdness, it’s quite a splendid composition, and even more so in the washing light of evening.

Stumbling around Rome at night is actually a fine hobby. Every city’s night is different; Rome’s is a grandiose maze of golden-orange floodlight and purple sky, backlit fluorescence catching the hazy silhouettes of bicycles and motorini against stucco walls. And Rome is at her best then because Rome is baroque.

While it is probably a matter of pragmatism, there’s nonetheless a good enough reason that all these little jewel-box churches are open so late into the evening. Architecture, they say, is the art of casting perfect shadows, and the Baroque clutched that dictum to her wild and stormy heart as she inspired Bernini and Borromini to go about their daily business. Baroque’s in the business of grand contrasts, and it doesn’t get much more primal than light and darkness.

The various books of Enoch are among the weirder books of the Old Testament apocrypha, and I wouldn’t suggest they make a very useful guidebook to the celestial world. Still, I wonder if perhaps the old fellow (whether he was really Enoch or not) was on to something, at least some of the time. He describes heaven’s highest level as full of darkness and torch-flame, a strangely evocative prophesy of some many firelit churches of the last fifteen hundred years. Black night and hellfire are devilish, but God has been called the darkening Cloud of Unknowing, and the fire of the Holy Ghost has consumed so many saints.

There’s something over-pure about electricity that bothers me. Lightbulbs seem Gnostic, disembodied--too clean and tepid for a God Who became Man. Christ is the sun of justice, hotter than a million nuclear explosions, not a docetic Mickey Mouse you plug into the wall to keep the baby from hollering. Electric light would destroy this glorious, sensuous, pious chiaroscuro, cheapen the dazzling gold, turn so many spectacular evocations of heaven into Cosa Nostra Rococo.

Or, for that matter, turn Agnes from divine to merely diva.

It’s impossible to banish Edison’s specter from the basilicas of Rome--after all, San Paolo fuori le Muore disappeared as a result of an unfortunate fire, and the notion of a church lit only by candlelight would drive even Rome’s presumably lenient fire-code investigators insane. Also, as so many smoke-blackened ceilings and altarpieces testify, there’s a certain point when divine darkness just becomes soot.

But the Romans have enough sense--they still have kept the memory of wax tapers and blazing altars alive, and held back on the urge to blast so many cherubim with Hollywood Klieg lights. The delicate, subtle electric light that illumes Rome’s churches amid her balmy evenings is as close to the original ambience that the saintly Bernini and the tormented Borromini had striven to create in those theaters of light and darkness, the churches of Rome.

I came back, just in time for Mass. And I have to agree, the walk had definitely done me good.

Saturday, January 10

Books of The Times | 'American Jesus': When They Say Jesus, Which Jesus Do They Mean?

A compelling book review by Professor R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame. Have any of the other Domers heard of Prof. Appeby?

Friday, January 9


Turner's fanciful 1820 depiction of the Vatican Loggia, Raphael and his mistress shown anachronistically in the foreground

All Roads Lead to Rome

Well, it looks like I will be doing the famed Airline Security Shuffle tomorrow as I embark for the Eternal City once again. It's strange, sitting here and remembering doing it for the first time four months ago, remembering feeling that mixture of apprehension and excitement--and the utterly bewildering sensation I had no clue what I was doing whatsoever. Now, it's different. I'm ready, I think, at long last. I said goodbye to my grandmother this evening, both of us perhaps not quite sure what to say, I feeling overwhelmed by last-minute packing and planning, she simply feeling overwhelmed. She's recovering, slowly but surely, and I think I can slip away into Rome's past knowing I'll see her and my parents again soon enough.

So, here I am, standing on the brink of a new semester. There'll be twice as much liturgical and ecclesiastical fun in the coming months, plenty of churches to visit, Vespers to pray, and pasta to sample. First semester was a trial balloon, I suppose. I'm no longer the scared young architecture student I was then, fumbling over exact change to the anger of Italian salesclerks, or, most embarassingly, coming across the Pantheon one day while lost and not knowing it was literally around the corner from the cozy and familiar world of Studio. I've figured how Rome works, and Rome's figured out how I work, and I think we respect each other--though we're not afraid to laugh at each other, even to our own faces.

And, since sleep is a prerequisite for thoughtful travelling, it seems best to close with the words of the great diarist of another metropolis, Samuel Pepys: And so to bed. Ciao, y'all.
The Saint and the Detective: An Apologia for the Regional Mystery Novel

As the last few days of my vacation wind up, I sometimes find myself touched by melancholy. And, as I consider the pages of my pocket guide to the Eternal City, I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m leaving my hometown soon or because I’m longing for Rome and I’m not yet there. But my work, I believe, is finished here. My grandmother is on the mend. I’ve shared those treasured fireside naps and chats with my parents. I’ve had my turkey-and-dressing Christmas dinner at long last.

Another thing on my little list of nostalgias was, strangely enough, stopping by Tallahassee’s branch of Borders, one of those grand, faceless chain bookstores that dot parking lots across the nation. Twelfth-century France had her white garment of churches, but today’s America has clothed herself in an ecru polo shirt of bookstores and Starbucks. I can’t say I don’t dislike this development; maybe it’s the sandwiches or the mint brownies or even the large, if somewhat haphazard, selection of books, but the place starts to grow on you.

Let me remind you we have to take our literary kicks where we can. Towns like Tallahassee tend to be places the principal method of intellectual discourse is checking out whether the decal of Calvin (the cartoon character, not the Reformation killjoy) on the truck in front of you is praying before a cross or urinating on a rival automobile logo. We simply don’t have the history of cozy little hole-in-the-wall bookshops and bobo coffee-houses of New York, so I take what I can get.

Admittedly, Borders sometimes drives me nuts. The eternal Dan Brown crypto-Gnostic tie-ins and the inauspicious placement of occult grimoires opposite the Religion section shelves will set me flying out the door in a litany of mutters and crossing. But perhaps I am too hard on the place—the other day I actually found a surprising number of orthodox theology amid the selections of Hans Küng and Gary Wills.

Still, the point remains for me that it is often enough simply to be among books. Borges described money as “future time,” a symbol of our free will to buy a particular pleasure or experience; without delving into the morality of that quip I often feel the same thing is true of books. It is future time, and future borrowed time. You walk down the fiction aisle feeling the beckoning of dozens of doors into other people’s lives, other places, other times.

Reading becomes in a sense, a healthy vacation from oneself. The sheer variety of experience available, the number of titles and authors crying down from the shelves to drop by for tea and cakes, becomes wonderfully mind-boggling.

I think I feel this peculiar and pleasant sensation most while having a turn past the ranks of mysteries. I will freely and unashamedly confess to being something of a mystery junkie. One of my favorite bookstores was the bare-bones Rue Morgue in Boulder, Colorado, which allowed no other genre on its shelves, while one of the more memorable pleasures of Notre Dame is waiting for the yearly release of Professor McInerney’s latest whodunit.

It’s a harmless, wholesomely bloodcurdling hobby, I think. There are many reasons to love a mystery, but my own are, I believe, unique. It’s because the modern mystery is the most successful fruit of one viable literary idea of modern times.

I mean, of course, the school of Regionalism. One writer has called the great forest of paperback thrillers and police procedurals the last refuge of the regionalist. Tony Hillerman has created a Navajoland as famous as Hardy’s Wessex or Faulkner’s Yowknapatawka County, while Iain Pears’s chaotically genteel evocations of Rome are almost as fun as the real thing. It’s democratic, too—every aspiring writer sees their home town and thinks, hey, I could have some fun here.

However, regionalism is everywhere, mystery or not. Perhaps it’s my bias for travelogues, but it’s hard to deny the prevalence of place for today’s novelist, whether he plans to gruesomely murder or graciously marry his heroine. It’s an eccentric and strange novelist who doesn’t want to evoke the sinister Massachusetts of The Scarlet Letter and a cold and sad reader who doesn’t ache to visit New Mexico after closing the last page of Death Comes for the Archbishop. Nobody these days fastidiously names their hero Mr. X and sets his romance with the beautious Y in the splendid city of Z.

The previous centuries are full of nebulous literary surroundings. There are Dosdoyevsky’s despairing Russian streets named only by initials, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s slovenly metropolitan geography and mechanical descriptions. Even the great Chesterton’s incandescent imagery have a certain dreamlike unreality to them. Sometimes, there’s a certain magical vagueness there, as in Anthony Hope’s dime-novel kingdom of Ruritania, but other times it verges on the frustrating for those of us who crave the reality of cities, the taste of their air and the colors—dull or eye-searing—of their great panoply of life.

However, the regionalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their idea has endured. Even fantasy novels come with maps and glossaries that are detailed to the point of absurdity ever since Tolkien created a realism—and regionalism—for a magical world that never existed.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. There aren’t many other paths for the writer to tread. The other great experimental flowers of the modern age are simply irreproducible. T.S. Eliot’s quotidian polyphony is perfect, and Borges’ pre-post-modern headgames are splendid, but both are easily imitated and poorly reproduced. The result has been a ludicrous overflow of authorial conceits from books-within-books, to novels based on crossword puzzles and magical-realist dictionaries. They’re sometimes fun, sometimes preposterous, but ultimately a dead end.

We consciously notice the surroundings in mysteries because the plot’s already a given. We know the irritating actor slated for the part of Pooh-Bah will get the axe or the spunky young female dogsled-racer will solve the case. For those raised on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, the cadences of a predictable plot have a certain harmonious rightness to them. We can sit back and enjoy the mental scenery as a result.
But what are we to make of the mysteries of regionalism, and the regionalism of mysteries?

The mystery as a genre has changed substantially from the golden age of Agatha Christie. Perhaps all the great plots have been exhausted—how many more locked-door murders or purloined do we really need? There are plenty of new angles that verge on the gimmicky, from obsessive-compulsive detectives to investigators who practice feng-shui. Silly.

But perhaps there was also flaw with those intricate gilded plots themselves. I could never really love Agatha Christie’s novels—her Poirot seemed a pale comparison to David Suchet’s splendid impersonation with his stylish televised art-deco universe. On paper, we’re reduced to simply knowing he has a silly mustache, a Belgian background and likes modern furniture.

The Poirot mysteries were ingenious puzzles; but I didn’t want a crossword, I wanted company, a pleasant chat on the plane or the long car-ride. Indeed, those mysteries of the golden age of detection that still stick with us long after we’ve read them—Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, all of those wondrous immortals—they’re about people and places. About people and places with problems, not the problems themselves.

We love a good mystery because, as we solve it ourselves, we feel we’re working hand-in-hand with a new friend in new and exotic surroundings. We love Sherlock Holmes not because he is a genius, but because of his dressing-gowns and his tobacco and his crowded, very real flat at 221 B, even if perhaps the streets of the city beyond sometimes are confounded and you can’t find Saxe-Coburg square on any map. We love Lord Peter because of his wit and style—and the essential good-heartedness we see as he moves between brilliantly-evoked quaint villages, chic London and studious Oxford.

The best detectives are flawed like ourselves, as they stumble through a very physical world clues and the discovery of second body, but ultimately they triumph, which gives us hope.

I’d go as far as to say that we love a good detective novel with its regional color for the same reason we love the lives of the saints. Every nation has its detectives—and its holy men. Could you imagine London without Sherlock—or Cardinal Newman? Could Jim Chee solve mysteries in South Bend and Roger Knight patrol the Big Rez? Could you imagine a Father Brown who came from Rome or a Philip Neri born in London? All struggle with the same evil, but in their own unique way. The regionalist mystery is Catholic in its mingling of universal knowledge and splendid provinciality.

Both the saint and the detective, despite their own flaws and the omnipresence of wickedness in the world around them. There’s a fairy-tale familiarity to both, a struggle between good and evil that, for all the setbacks, ends in a Truth that sets us free.
Heresy of the Week: Artotyritic Montanism

Montanism itself was an early heresy from the 2nd century AD -- essentially a personality cult that surrounded the "charismatic" Montanus and two prophetesses, Maximilla and Prisca, all of whom went into various ectasies and spouted mumblings considered to be more authoritative than the Pauline epistles. Nonetheless, they have few remarkable doctrinal deviations to speak of. The sect's primary claim to fame was snagging the Church Father (and fireball) Tertullian as a follower, who was attracted by their strict manner of life (three Lents, no remarriage, and a slightly-excessive love of persecution). Indeed, after leaving the Church for the Montanists, Tertullian declared that the Catholic Church consisted of gluttons and adulterers, who hate to fast and love to remarry.

In otherwords, not the most fun heresy around.

On the flip side, should the Wisconsin Rite ever be surpressed and the Cheeseocracy ever need an alternate state religion, the Catholic Encyclopedia reports...

"They were called 'Artotyrites', because their Sacrament was of bread and cheese. "

Thursday, January 8

Speaking of both cheese and Andy's Bishop...

Archbishop Dolan sporting the Wisconsin Rite biretta.

Hey, that's our bishop!

The World Over just did an excellent interview with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee and Bishop John D'Arcy of Notre Dame's own Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese.

I highly recommend listening to their thoughts on the year in review and especially Bishop D'Arcy's mentions of ND. Just ignore the part at the end where they start ripping on the football team. With all due respect, maybe Abp. Dolan should just stick to faith and morals.

Wednesday, January 7

Cheeseheads, Unite!

The cheeseocracy isn't even subversive anymore, people are just simply blind to its massive underground power. I have uncovered countless books, web sites, periodicals, and commercials, all lauding the wonderfulness of cheese.

As an unbiased Wisconsinite, let me assure. Cheese is your friend. The Anti-Cheese lobby has thrown some pretty remarkable lies at us "Cheesists," but these fanciful tales of world-domination are detestable conspiracy theories without a grain of truth. Trust me. Now finish your cheese.
"We are fools for Christ's sake"

A delightful little article by National Review Online's resident mom-in-charge, Meghan Cox Gurdon, about her mishap-laden entry into the Church. I'm just glad I don't have problems like that with my server's alb.

Tuesday, January 6

I thought I knew the meaning of ridiculous until this day

Well, fellow denizens of the blogosphere, after a long hiatus it looks like Strongbad is back in full force with a brand-spanking-new email. Reason to rejoice, I should think, especially since it involves Homestar Runner wearing a ceramic bowl on his head as a combat helmet.

Sunday, January 4


Water and Chalk: Curious Customs of Epiphany

Omnes de Saba venient aurum et thus deferentes, et laudem Domino annuntiantes.
V. Surge, et illuminare, Jerusalem: quia gloria Domini super te orta est. Alleluia, alleluia.
V. Vidimus stellam ejus in Oriente et venimus cum muneribus adorare Dominum. Alleluia.

—From the Graduale of the Mass for January 6, Tridentine Rite

Today, the first Sunday after the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, is kept the Epiphany of Our Lord. Formely, this date was the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, the Epiphany being celebrated instead on January 6 as a fixed feast, a double of the first class. The Holy Name of Jesus, after seeming to disappear for a time, has since been restored to the Kalendar on the date of January 3.

Liturgically, Epiphany is distinguished by the proclamation of the date of Easter and the year’s other movable feasts. According to the Caeremonium Episcopale, this is customarily enacted after the Gospel by a deacon vested in cope, though sometimes it has been placed after the final Collect. In other places, the custom has been utterly forgotten, though it seems among some of the Lutherans it has been preserved or revived.

Another rite associated with Epiphany is that of the blessing of water, particularly rivers, as the Christian Orient also took the opportunity to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, or Theophany, on the same day. In Palestine, the river Jordan would be blessed and the faithful would customarily immerse themselves in it three times to gain special blessing. In Egypt, similar practices surrounded the blessing of the Nile, though often the people would also bring their livestock to be immersed as well. In Moscow, the Patriarch would bless the waters of the Moskva River after a hole had been cut in the ice and cast a chalice into the frigid river to be brought up by a particularly bold diver. Horses would drink from the blessed water, too.

The Byzantines, however, blessed water in churches for distribution, and the custom has been continued in the West on the vigil of the feast. The Latin Church on the whole did not practice this custom with as great an emphasis as the East, though it was to be found in the dioceses of lower Italy before its wholesale adoption and approval by Rome.

The ritual, as approved in 1890 by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, is a complex one, though it may have since been simplified since that time. First, the celebrant approaches the altar. He should be vested in a white cope. He is assisted by deacon and sub-deacon and proceeded by a crucifer and taper-bearers and other clerks and clergy. A vessel of water and a container of salt are waiting in the sanctuary.

The Litany of the Saints is intoned, including an insertion of two invocations asking for the water to be blessed and sanctified, accompanied by signs of the cross. The Our Father is then chanted, followed by Psalms xxviii, xlv and cxlvi. These are followed by a lengthy Exorcism and the singing of the Canticle of Zachary or the Magnificat. A collect is chanted, followed by further exorcisms of salt and of water according to the conventional manner of the rite for providing Holy Water. The salt is then poured into the water in the form of a cross, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and a concluding prayer is then said, after which the people are sprinkled with the new water and a Te Deum sung.

Other customary blessings for Epiphany include a blessing for Gold, Incense and Myrrh including a lengthy oration proceeding the actual benediction asking that “God’s creatures, gold, incense and myrrh…be freed from all deceit, evil, and cunning of the devil,” so that they might “become a saving remedy to mankind.” Chalk may also be blessed to be used for a distinctive benediction for homes on Epiphany. Included in the Rituale Romanum is also the full text of this solemn blessing for homes. It consisted of a brief entrance dialogue, followed by the singing of the Magnificat and the Our Father, followed by a collect and responsory and the blessing of the house proper.

Though the 1964 English text of the Rituale Romanum does not mention it, at some point during the blessing it was apparently customary to write in chalk upon either the principal door of the house or all the door-frames a complicated series of crosses, numbers and initials containing the year and the first letters of the names of the three Kings, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. It seems that this ritual may be carried out independently of a priest by the head of the household, though it looks to me that the clergy have been rather inconsistent in encouraging this pious and laudable custom among the laity.

It may seem peculiar, chalking up something on your front door so likely to puzzle the postman and the neighbors, but then, let us recall, it can’t be any stranger than it might have seemed to those three kings to find their Chosen One in the form of a little tiny baby in a dusty Palestinian town. Too late now, but perhaps next year? That’s the spirit.

Saturday, January 3


St. Anthony’s Tongue

more reminiscences from the Veneto, 2003

I owe St. Anthony an apology for what I did in Padua. When I went to venerate his tomb and venerate his relics late that evening before we embarked for Venice, it was with a group of semi-agnostic curiosity-seekers in tow.

There are only two ways Catholics can approach relics. Or perhaps not. My idiosyncratic acquaintance Vera (one of the so-called Maenads, who are actually remarkably sober) manages a third way, but I’ll come to that later. Either you embrace them vigorously as the theological fruit of the Incarnation, or you get, as Strongbad said so succinctly, the jibblies. Maybe not the jibblies, but at least you consider signing up for the Unitarians for a couple of months.

The Church’s long history of venerating the bodies of the saints fascinates me, perhaps because I believe it answers to a real human need to have tangible reminders of the past around us. The physicality of the Faith, which you encounter in a vivid and even graphic sense in Italy, is a great testament to Her truth. While perhaps somewhat unnerving to modern sensibilities, those golden reliquaries and the dozens of grinning skulls on black marble tombs stand as reminders of the General Resurrection.

It’s a call to be familiar with the body, either corrupted or glorified. For my part, I’ve given a nickname to the skeleton on the tomb at the church next door to Studio back in Rome. I think Mort’s rather suitable, don’t you?

On the other hand, there is some hint of that enjoyable head-game called “Shock the Agnostic.” Not that it’s too terribly hard.

Non-believers of a certain stripe are used to seeing religion as drab, dull, a little bit reticent. The province of silly old biddies of both sexes. At the very least, seeing that some of us still take the old traditions seriously, that someone would encase a sacred chunk of some saint in silver and gold—well, that might be enough to shock them out of their complacency.

There’s plenty of that in Italy, trust me—even an ordinary pilgrimage statue can be plenty weird, like the “Smiling St. Zeno” in Verona who has a fish dangling from his crook, and the strangeness factor is easily upped when you get to second-class relics—like St. Lawrence’s gridiron in Rome—and then, trumping it all are the body parts, sometimes very interesting particular body parts indeed.

Coming from Irish-Catholic America, evangelized by priests from a war-zone country where non-Protestant churches, much less an apostle’s finger, were rare, Europe and particularly Italy are powerful antidotes to the Cartesian temptation to see the Faith as exclusively spiritual, disembodied or even Gnostic. The teenager who throws Christ over for Buddha in search of “something more exotic” can’t possibly try that line of argument when he’s standing in front of a half-preserved jawbone of a medieval Franciscan preacher.

For that matter, it might remind him that the central pillar of the Faith, the Eucharist, is pretty wild stuff. And I mean that in all seriousness; a God that allows Himself to be touched, much less eaten—it screws with our cozy, comfy, half-inbred Deist notions.

I think that’s why I get so excited over bits of saints. To some extent the novelty of seeing two dozen waxy-looking local virgin martyrs at every turn is wearing off. I’m now holding out for the big guys, the Apostles and Doctors. Or at least some recognizable body parts as opposed to those tiny third-class bits that crowd every sacristy from Turin to Salerno.

So, maybe in retrospect, I had a good-enough reason to publicize my friends about the various portions of St. Anthony displayed at his shrine in Padua. At the best, it would be a teachable moment, and at the worst, apart from the gross-out factor, they’d have something weird to write home about. I mean, a sanctoral tongue, you wouldn’t want to miss that.

Incidentally, it’s not just the tongue. They have his vocal chords and also “the sacred chin,” which went missing for a time when it was stolen in 1991 by masked bandits who were working for a Venetian mobster who wanted it as leverage to get clemency.

That alone proves how universal Anthony’s appeal is, in a perverse sort of way. If you’re going to introduce someone to relics, maybe St. Anthony is a good place to start. Everyone loves St. Anthony; even the most execrably-catechized Catholic remembers the little rhyming prayer to him that their kindergarten teacher taught him: St. Anthony, St. Anthony, something is lost and needs to be found / Please come round. The fact he’s a Franciscan, a bit more cuddly in the popular mind than my edgier favorites, the firebrand Dominicans, also helps.

It was raining softly when the bus reached Padua. Some of the Maenads and I grabbed lunch at the local Brek, one of a strange Italian chain of budget restaurants that can only be described as Wolfgang Puck’s idea of fast food. They cook the pasta in front of you and the ingredients always seem to be fresh, so you don’t agonize over the contents of, say, the strangely tomato-free pomodoro sauce from the tourist menu or the vacuum-packed tramezzino from that culinary blasphemy, Mr. Panino. It’s cheap, reliable and the cafeteria setup and weird décor is a small price to pay.

Weird décor, yes. The room we were eating in seemed to be named after the circus strongman-turned-Egyptologist Belzoni, and was decorated with the requisite papyri and various miscellanea from Cecil Rhodes’s garage sale. Belzoni seems to be a local boy-done-good, but St. Anthony trumped everyone else easily. Incidentally, the cafeteria was the ugliest building on the piazza.

The girls went off to investigate shopping possibilities and I excused myself to stroll down the Corso Garibaldi towards the river. I passed a store display window decorated with dummies whose heads were covered in paper bags with smiley faces magic-markered on them, as well as another of those Giuseppe-slept-here statues of the redshirted liberator. Then there was a delicate little half-alpine baroque campanile and a newsstand selling not only next year’s Mussolini calendar but one with pictures of Che Guevara as well, in an attempt, it seems, to offend as many people as possible.

Padua’s architecture is a curious, if pleasant mix. The three main squares of the city are those of the Frutti, Erbe and Signori, the fruits, herbs and Lords, which respectively held markets and government buildings. A sensible enough arrangement.

The only eyesore is the palazzo de ragione, one of those monster town meeting halls that dot northern Italy with a roof like an overturned galleon hull. It resembles nothing so much as an idiot-medieval version of Palladio’s basilica at Vicenza. You can understand why the Vicentine city-fathers got Andrea to reface it. Still, the teeming market halls that cluster beneath it are a marvel, far more lively than the starchy, gentrified shops under the basilica. They’re full of fresh, fishy, salty, meaty smells, though I also spotted a rather tasteful signboard advertising Carne Equine, which gave me pause. The second one I’d seen that week.

The inside of the hall, which we glimpsed later at dusk, is a vast space roofed with a complex web of medieval beams. The frescoes are a medieval maze full of saints, bishops, tradesmen and allegories of the liberal arts, a sober riot of faded blue and gold. Unlike the exterior, I’d hate to see this hall classicized.

I spent a pleasant portion of the afternoon seated under a loggia in front of a closed theological bookstore sketching the quiet little Cathedral piazza, just down the street from the Piazza Signori. The sun was forgiving and warm amid the clearing clouds and chill air.

The Cathedral front is one of those endlessly-unfinished blank walls that are a testament to Domani and serve as the focus for a Beaux-arts cottage-industry for proposals to re-face it, naturally, none of which ever get taken up. Its silhouette is nonetheless complex, mysterious, almost irrational in its near-Venetian splendor. As you slowly move past the elaborate Romanesque cupolas and drums of the attached baptistery, you see a slow and stately procession of Venetian brick Gothic apses and a lofty lead-sheathed dome that is half San Marco, half Santa Maria della Salute rising over the crossing.

We saw the nave at twilight, whitewashed walls full of delicate dusky shadows as the transepts receded into the darkness. Its forms were massive and strong, Serlian delicacy transmuted into a prophesy of Edward Lutyens. The plan was, to put it mildly, curious, with not one but two crossings with transepts, a lantern over one and the dome over the other, but the idiosyncrasy was lost amid the building’s powerful, stark ornamentation.

Heavy, vigorously crude pietra serena capitals and cornices rose above us, a provincial memory of the great island churches of Venice that we would see in a few days’ time. A handful of ornamental sparks, gilt on the high altar and tasseled hanging baldacchini, gave a trace of life to this empty sepulcher. It was spare and solemn and powerful, a tribute to the Spartan myth of the Venetian republic that had ruled her terrafirma with an iron fist.

Old Venice’s memory is ubiquitous but not overpowering here. The University’s administration building is housed in the vast old capitanato with a blue-dialled zodiacal clock and a relief of the lion of San Marco. Another winged lion stands atop a high pillar, mimicking the column of the piazetta before the Doge’s palace.

Ah yes, the University. Padua’s the home of another of those anarchic, ancient Italian universities, just like her sister Bologna. Students periodically rose up in revolt against their professors. If I recall correctly, one time it happened when the faculty canceled vacation, preventing them from being able to attend the raucous Venetian carnevale.

There were dozens of semi-obscene satirical posters plastered all over the place poking fun at student leaders—we’d seen them in Vicenza as well—while the students themselves seemed to be engaging in another time-honored evening ritual of open-air striptease. A large crowd of them were watching a co-ed strip herself down in front of a block of academic offices. At least Professor Nessman told me it was probably a ritual. The woman seemed to be taking the lead, at least, but it still was a little unnerving. I decided to spare the catechesis, though I think I shouted something suitably indignant.

Holy tongues and studious strippers. Strange place, Padua.

St. Anthony’s tomb stood on the edge of the old city, and it was dark by the time we navigated our way through the twisty side-streets towards the wide piazza that fronts on the vast façade of the Basilica. It rises, half-oriental and Venetian, in a myopic dream of domes disappearing into the floodlit night.

Oh yeah, and they expected us to see it all in about ten minutes.

Despite the growing darkness, souvenir carts were still set up in the square, peddling the usual junk-drawer assortment of rosaries, brand-spanking-new icons and garish holy-card-quality plaques. More interestingly, large trays of banded candles were being peddled. They ranged between oversized baptismal taper to midget Paschal candle size, some tall, some small, some absolutely huge. I later discovered it was customary for the faithful to purchase one to leave behind in veneration at the saint’s tomb, finding large numbers of snuffed-out tapers lying in metal pans around the sepulcher.

The church was cavernous, suffused with a pale green subterranean gloom. Gothic arches and piebald striped pillars flanking dozens of frescoed saints ensconced in tromp l’oeil arches gave it an almost Moorish grandeur, seeming a backdrop out of Parzifal. The high altar was immense, bristling with tapers and gesticulating saints all gazing on a lofty crucifix. My reverie was interrupted by a small knot of my friends eager to get down to business. “So, Matty, let’s see about that tongue,” said one eagerly. I was all too happy to play tour-guide.

We flew past mosaick’d side-altars and medieval murals teeming with virgins and martyrs and found a well-lit fiberglass sign hanging oddly against the medieval surroundings that directed us to the Saint’s tomb, a vast altar of white marble gleaming in the floodlights. We followed the crowds of pilgrims, filing clumsily around the ambulatory, brushing our hands against the bronze plaque marking his body, perhaps out of reverence or faint confusion or a little of both. The ten minutes were ticking past, and besides my friends’ curiosity, for my own sake I didn’t want to miss the relic either.

Another nice, well-lit sign, like something you’d see in an airport, this time pointing me to the Chapel of Relics. And that was enough for us. We sped down the curve of the ambulatory, past darkened chapels, and there it was. The anticipation was driving me nuts—either this’d be a sacred moment, or my shot at seeing one of the greatest saints of the Franciscan Order would be marred by a bunch of hangers-on looking for a cheap thrill, and it would probably be largely my own fault. The oratory stood at the head of the basilica, directly on-line with the high altar, the apex of St. Anthony’s cultus.

The chapel was a curvilinear baroque riot of dappled rose marble and wild crowding cherubim. A raised ambulatory studded with statues ringed the vast reliquary reredos screening the entire back wall of the circular chapel, its three arches framing a complex tangle of gilt rococo strapwork supporting a jeweled constellation of dozens upon dozens of pinnacled ostensories and monstrances, gem-studded chalices and patens and ciboria. Inscriptions identified the complex web of sanctoral identities, crumpled parchment signatures of theologians framed in gold and everything from first to third class of a dozen more obscure virgins, martyrs and confessors. Overhead, a gilt sunburst framed the stucco dove of the Holy Ghost.

More touchingly, in a plain display-case below the curve of the ambulatory was the tattered grey-brown habit in which the saint’s holy body had been laid to rest centuries earlier, reverently removed from the tomb at the most recent of its canonical identifications in 1981. They had placed his cracked and worn bones in a plexiglass box and sealed it with ribbons and wax to preserve the preacher’s identity for another generation.

And then there was the star of the show, the fragments of holiness that justified this grand panoply of sacral gold and heavenly gems. In the crowded center arch, amid the whorls of gilding, at the lowest register laid a strange and unsettling reliquary, a great crystal ball flaming up from a bronze book, combining the saint’s attributes of fiery tongues and learned tomes. In the glass sphere, eerily fogged with perspiration and humidity, were St. Anthony’s incorrupt vocal chords, a testimony to his preaching that had only been discovered when the tomb was last opened.

At eye level was the eerie sacred chin, encased in a golden bust-shaped reliquary of almost Slavic, Byzantine opulence. Intricate lapis-blue enamel whorled around brow and shoulders, around the vast filigreed halo that ringed the head’s crown. And where the face would have been, the gentle, sweet face so familiar from so many preconciliar sentimental illustrations, was a glass dome, a sphere like a medieval spaceman’s helmet, the mottled, toothed jaw within a peculiar mottled brown-pink.

And above was the tongue. Enshrined in its pinnacled ostensory, it looked like some obscure spiny sea-invertebrate. Yet it was a miracle it still existed, shriveled or not, rather than having returned to dust epocha ago.

We filed around the horseshoe-shaped ambulatory, some staring, some asking me for explanations as I ran through the same little sermonette about five times, others simply nodding in serene puzzlement. A few Italians who had wandered in our group bothered to cross themselves. I paused by Professor Nessman, standing at the entrance. “It’s amazing,” I muttered, overcome with the weird wonder of it all. “Oh yes,” he concurred eagerly as he glanced back at me, though I realized he was busy fascinating himself with the ceiling plasterwork. I don’t think he got within ten feet of the sacred chin.

I sort of shrugged and went back to hovering on the edge, trying to see if I could turn this into a catechizable moment. Eventually I paused over by the worn wooden desk manned by a Minorite friar and mumbled how much it was for the pamphlets on the Shrine. He gently told me it was just a donation, and I started dropping coins into the slot. He quickly told me to stop and handed me the booklet. I whispered Pace back to him and smiled a farewell.

At least now I knew there was another person in that chapel who believed.


When I got back to the bus, I was eager to find out what Vera thought, shock, delight or mere puzzlement. She’d wandered off at some point and I’d missed her in the Chapel. She likes her saints in neat little tombs; she’s neither hot nor cold on relics, though, being an artist like myself, she understands perfectly the equilibrium of body and soul that Catholicism preaches. Though unlike me, she doesn’t quite go for the gory Latinate flourishes of gilded skulls, black Requiem chausibles or morbid memento mori tombs that I tend to see as the logical conclusion of that doctrine. So, none of the fun stuff. Naturally, I was curious to hear what her reaction would be. Plus, she’s so difficult to shock: I couldn’t miss out on a great opportunity like this.

Well, Vera is Vera—she’s the sort who colors outsides the lines and it still turns out like Rembrandt. She’d managed to avoid the whole problem entirely and had taken the opportunity to track down a Friar and go to Confession.

Perhaps she chose the better half. I tromped up the stairs to the second story of the bus, feeling completely foolish. Had anyone gotten anything out of this, or had I just simply made the Church’s pious customs look weird? Had my little plan backfired on me? I shrugged and tried not to think about it.

Then a funny thing happened. People piped up once the bus started rolling. Curious souls wanted to know what miracles the great saint had done, how he had earned that enameled halo that ringed the reliquary of the sacred chin. What had he preached? Why had he preached? And so soon all the popular tales of the sermon to the fish, of the donkey who knelt down before the Sacrament, of the miser’s lost heart were soon whirling through the imagination of all my friends, eagerly perusing the pamphlets they’d picked up on the way out that they might have sooner just discarded.

All that because of a dried-up tongue that looked like a sea urchin. It seems to me that St. Anthony, silenced by death, is still as great a preacher today as he was during those long-ago days of the early Franciscans. And so it should be.

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