Thursday, December 6, 2007

Lives of the Saints

I had always wanted to go to Padua, and the auction of Padre Pio’s Mercedes-Benz was a good excuse. The first day, I stopped in at the Scrovegni Chapel, with its famous cycle of Giottos (1302-05) depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus. One of the Scrovegni built the chapel to atone for the sins of his father, who was so bad that Dante put him in the Inferno. The frescoes are ravishing and fragile; admission is timed, so that you present yourself at the entrance to a glassed-in airlock at the appointed hour and watch an informational film before being admitted to the chapel, where you are allowed to stay and gawk and breathe lightly for just fifteen minutes. You don’t want to waste any of this precious time looking at tourist literature. Fortunately, a guide lined me up to follow the cycle, on two tiers, starting at the top with Joachim, the father of Mary, and running down one wall and up the other, and then around again on the lower level. He told me not to bother with the Last Judgment, on the back wall, because that was done by students and was not as subtle.

After spending Saturday at the car show, I set off on Sunday to visit the Basilica of San Antonio. The only thing I knew about Anthony of Padua was that there was a Catholic high school in Cleveland—or, rather, Parma—Ohio, named Padua, run by Franciscans. To tell the truth, I had him mixed up with Francis of Assisi. Anthony is often pictured with a lily and a child, so I also had him a little confused with St. Christopher (now deposed). And, of course, every Catholic child knows that St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost objects.

As soon as I left the hotel, I encountered my first beggar, walking a bicycle over a bridge. He offered me his palm for change, but I was so startled by the sight of a beggar with a bicycle that I could not respond. Also, the coins in my pocket were unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t want to be giving away two-euro coins instead of fifty-cent pieces. A little ways on, there was another beggar setting up outside a humble little church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. Begging is an industry in Padua: they blackmail you outside the churches. I gave this second beggar something, but apparently it wasn’t enough, because he chased me down the street demanding more.

The Basilica of San Antonio is a blend of three architectural styles—Romanesque, Gothic, and Byzantine—and the piazza is full of souvenir stands and cafés.

In the bookstores and gift shops of Padua, you look in vain for mementoes of or information about, say, Padre Pio. It’s all about the local saint—tutto San Antonio. Anthony was actually Portuguese. He changed his name to Anthony from Ferdinand, and also switched orders, from the Augustinians to the Franciscans. He wanted to be a martyr, but that didn't work out. Anthony took sick in the land of the Saracens (Morocco), where he thought he had the best shot at martyrdom, and on his way home to Portugal he got blown off course, landing in Sicily. From there, he made his way to Assisi. He had always been an assiduous student of the Bible, but not a showoff, so everyone was surprised when, on being called to fill in during a shortage of preachers, he turned out to be a silver-tongued evangelist.

At the basilica, I stood in a line that snaked around the back of Anthony’s stone tomb. People brushed it with their hands or laid their cheeks on it, and a monk told them to move along. The Catholic Church, in its wisdom, disinterred Anthony in 1981, just to make sure it was really him being venerated. They found his tongue miraculously well preserved, and pulled it out. While they were at it, they also removed his vocal cords. So Anthony’s organs of speech are enshrined in precious reliquaries, on view just past his tomb. There is also a museum in the basilica with remnants of his robe, and a multimedia presentation of his life story which takes place on the walls of two rooms that people shuffle back and forth between. I should have skipped the multimedia show and gone directly to the botanical garden, one of the oldest in Europe, which closes at one on Sundays, but I was curious now to find out about Anthony.

According to a little book I bought, a life of St. Anthony known as the “Assidua,” written by “a Contemporary Franciscan,” in the last year of his life, Anthony decided to preach every day for the forty days of Lent. He was like a rock star: everyone came to hear him, and wanted a piece of him. When the crowd overflowed the church, he spoke outside in a meadow. This rigorous schedule took its toll, and, foreseeing that he would die, Anthony left Padua for nearby Camposampiero, where he lived in a house that was constructed for him, at his request, in a nut tree. He was taken ill at a meal in the monastery (he came down from the tree for meals) and died in Arcella, having confided to his confreres that he wanted to be buried in Padua, at the church of St. Mary, now the Basilica of St. Anthony.

The stories of saints are like sunsets: they don’t end when the ball falls below the horizon; the most amazing part is the changes in the sky once the sun is down. In this little book, Anthony’s life takes up all of nineteen pages, and the five days after his death take up twelve. The friars in the monastery where he died wanted to keep the body in Arcella. Nearby was a convent of Poor Clares (“Poor Ladies,” in the “Assidua”), who, because they had not gotten to see the saint while he was alive, schemed to have his body after he died. It was June, and the friars felt it would be prudent to bury the body, but Anthony was soon disinterred by rival friars who wanted to take him back to Padua. A pitched battle broke out, with one faction constructing a bridge to take the body to Padua without going through the town, and another faction destroying the bridge and laying siege to the monastery, and the Poor Clares pulling strings with the authorities. Finally, the authorities decreed that because Anthony was a Franciscan he had the right to be buried in the church where he had worked and prayed, in his adopted home town, and his body was returned to Padua.

There had been plenty of miracles while Anthony was alive—they are depicted in murals and recorded in books, some of them with the air of being so well known, like Christ’s miracles, as to require no elaboration: the restored foot, the child saved from fire/drowning, the unbroken glass. But his death opened a “sea of miracles.” In the final section of the “Assidua,” fifty-three miracles are recounted—the ones that were presented at the cause for canonization, which occurred with unprecedented speed, in 1232, less than a year after Anthony’s death. The stories are told in such graphic detail that, as with Homer’s description in the Iliad of how various warriors met their ends in the Trojan War, you are convinced that the stories are true. Here is one such:

“Another woman, whose name was Riccarda, for twenty years suffered from legs that were atrophied. She had become so monstrously drawn in by a certain calloused joining of the skin that her knees stuck to her chest and her feet to her buttocks. One day, using crutches instead of her feet, she came with certain paupers to the place of blessed father Anthony to receive alms from passersby. . . . Entering the place of the sepulchre, she wholly devoted herself to prayer. While she was thus praying, behold two round balls like eggs broke out between her shin and flank. Running within a kind of fluid under her skin, the balls descended all the way to her feet, making a noise like the sound of clapping hands, a sound that was heard by many. At last, her legs which had been made dry like wood for twenty years immediately gained in length, and, the skin having stretched itself, the flesh began to grow to its original size. When the custodians at the tomb saw what was happening, they very hastily carried the woman outside the door of the church and sent her away, not at all fully healed. But she, insisting in prayer for nineteen days and daily dragging herself to the same spot, finally, on the twentieth day threw away her crutches and returned home, walking through the centre of the city with a firm pace, not without everyone’s admiration.”

I searched in vain for any reference to St. Anthony as the patron saint of lost items. I decided that it may have been the sheer number of miracles attributed to St. Anthony that made him seem like a good person to pray to for whatever you needed most urgently, be it the use of your legs or some small thing that you’d just misplaced. It’s easy, once you get started, to make things up about saints. For instance, I’m pretty sure St. Anthony liked cookies. Lots of amarettoni and little chocolate biscotti are sold in his name, and the “Assidua” mentions that he had “a certain natural bulkiness.”

One night in my hotel room in Padua I was awoken by a heavenly aroma. It persisted and persisted, and I couldn’t sleep for the excitement in my olfactory system. There was no visible source of the smell, and I began to wonder if it might not be the odor of sanctity. At last I decided what I knew all along: that it was the delicious scent of the morning’s cornetti—brioches with cream or chocolate or marmalade filling—wafting up from the bar around the corner, where I would go for breakfast.

By the time I left, I had finally found the right combination of coins to give the beggars.


lucette said...

And after all that trouble in finding a resting place, they cut out his tongue and vocal cords: no rest for the weary as one of my relatives used to say (to my great confusion as a child).

peter1589 said...

Well, well, well, thank you so much. You see, there is a cathedral up in Montreal which has the miraculous testament of numerous crutches hanging all over the wall. An atheist who went to visit was heard to say, "What? No wooden legs??"

At last a story which proves the miracle of regeneration. Of course, it will always be insufficient for the inveterate, invulnerable skeptic on his way to Hell, but thanks for the story just the same.