The Great Equalizer
We embrace myth, not just as a representation of culture and history, but as means of universal communication. Even when there is a language barrier, myth connects us. We no longer believe in monsters like Polyphemus or Scylla and Charybdis, but we go back to these tales to advocate for heroes, to remember valuable lessons: seek good, conquer evil; keep pride in check; find meaning. Myth becomes personal—we hold it to collected unconsciousness and use it to make sense of reality in times of need. Maybe that’s why we’re surrounded by saints on this little island of Ortigia. They lived. They were here, once upon a time. Were they exaggerated? Did they really perform miracles? Does it matter? The plight of St. Lucia, the relics of St. Thérèse, and the altar of St. Peter offer solace and hope—something that will be around long after we’re all gone.
As I walked through the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, Sicily, I thought of this, that is, those myths we cling to in times of need. Almost 500 years ago, when the catacombs were created, Brother Silvestro Da Cubbio’s body was prepared—drained of blood, organs removed, flesh dried out, and he was put into a wall niche on display, and celebrated on Giorno dei Morti, or the Day of the Dead. Upon their deaths, other monks joined him, then honorary members of Palermo’s society—military members, writers, artists, government leaders—thousands of them. Their remains line the walls, eroding away, their bones falling into each other with the progression of time, their jaws dropping—some in looks of pain and horror, others as if they are laughing at the morbid spectacle they left behind. They once walked this earth just as we all do, working, playing, making love, making mistakes, looking for comfort and peace. They must have thought, at least at some point, that they had all the time in the world. But the bones, in various states of aged disrepair and decay, the dates pinned onto the rags that once were clothes, remind us that we will all be there. That is our greatest commonality. Rich, poor, intelligent, simple. We will all turn to dust or ash, only to be recognized in the faint phenotype that mark future faces—only to be recognized in the brilliance of stardust.
I found myself in the “bambino” hall of the ancient crypt, studying the miniature skeletal faces. Some of the babies were curled up in cradles, others positioned on rocking chairs holding a sibling’s hand. My mind was consumed with what their parents must have felt upon visiting them here for the first time. How their mothers must have sobbed and prayed to the saints for the souls of their babies. How, even in their state of decomposition, they must have felt compelled to take them from the walls to cradle and hold, to love the remaining bones that were once animated with flesh and sweetness.
I made my way to the temperature controlled glass casket that held Rosalio Lombardo—“Sleeping Beauty.” She died of pneumonia at the age of two and her father, so overwhelmed with grief, hired an embalmer to preserve her. Unlike the other bambinos of the crypt, her face, like a plastic little doll, dons a look of perpetual sleep. Her blue eyes opened just a slit, her cheeks blushed red, she actually looks like she still suffers from the fever that took her back in 1920. There is a local legend that she opens and closes her eyes each day, but scientists maintain that it is only an optical illusion—the angle of the light from the nearby window tricking visitors into the hope of another saintly miracle.
I’m not sure how long I stood there. The nearby noise of a youth soccer game and a child’s song faintly echoed in the hall. From the beginning of this writers’ retreat, I had been excited to be a part of the creepy, morbid tourist attraction. After all, I’m the girl who thoroughly enjoys the occasional stroll around ancient cemeteries, reading unique epitaphs on tombstones, honoring those who came before us. I’m the one who climbed a mountain to sit at the feet of my favorite dead poet. But this. This was something entirely different. Finally, I looked down the hallway of the long tunneled catacomb, thousands of bodies lining the walls, and I was alone. Completely alone. I wasn’t scared. Just very still and very small. “Your mother loved you very much,” I whispered to the little doll. I don’t cry at the cemeteries I visit, I didn’t cry at the grave of Sylvia Plath, I don’t cry when I visit the graves of my loved ones, but I cried for this little girl’s mother. She isn’t mentioned in any of the literature about this sleeping child—only the grief of her father, in desperate need to preserve this baby.
I backed away from the glass casket; the blue from the slits of her eyes remained. Head down, I walked the tunneled halls of the dead wanting only sunshine—wanting only escape. As I left the cold, dry crypt, I passed the souvenir shop and saw her—the Virgin Mary on a half-euro postcard among the pictures of the catacomb’s dead. With a subtle, peaceful grin, she told me not to cry. Not to worry. Not to dwell on the looks of skeletal horror that had just surrounded me. She’s smiling in radiance at all my doubt and skepticism of the faithful—those who pray to her for guidance, those who would buy that postcard. Saint Mary, the ultimate symbol of maternal pain, smiling, because peace will come. We know this through the stories we pass down, the stories we seek out in times of need. We will live, we will die, and we hope to leave some goodness with those who remain so that they can provide comfort. So that they, like the saints, can radiate the light found in the stars.