Friday, February 1, 2013


I know why I developed an early and unhealthy interest in the gruesome lives of the saints: it was in the usual way, under the wimpled auspices of ancient nuns. They whose mission in life was to teach uniformed & runny-nosed urchins the delights of martyrdom. That much is clear and obvious, if slightly pathetic.

But why is my delightful granddaughter, a Brooklynite of distinctly un-Catholic parentage and upbringing, so intrigued by the beheadings, defenestrations, stonings, and grillings of the early Christian saints? Surely she did not learn of such things from me, as I forbear to mention Diocletian in the presence of anyone under the age of 85.

But there it is. Leda is fascinated with saints in paintings.
CSB and I took her to the Brooklyn Museum last weekend. What with a death in the family, and school, and inclement weather, we hadn’t seen her in quite a while, and grandparental withdrawal symptoms were setting in. So we hustled to Brooklyn, scooped up Leda and took her off for some culture. I imagined she would be drawn to Egyptian mummies, Pacific totems and Keith Haring. Not for the first time, I was dead wrong.
There we were in the 3rd floor Beaux Arts Gallery, an arcade of paintings encircling an empty indoor courtyard, beckoning a six-year-old with the toes of an combination African dancer, rock climber, and sloth. Yet it was off-limits.

I was making my way from Anna Ramirez Dressed in Black to the Madonna of Humility, when Leda insisted I join her in front of a French 15th century altarpiece featuring Saints Cosmas and Damien getting beheaded. How could she have known my fondness for these twin doctors of early Christianity? (For their goodness and knowledge, for their famous proto-transplantation of a leg – with angelic surgical assistants, and for their survival of numerous forms of attempted martyrdom before finally succumbing.) Could she have known that their twin skulls reside in not one but two churches? For a total of four skulls?

Why is that man chopping people’s heads off?

The ones with halos are Cosmas and Damien and their brothers, and the Roman emperor hated them.

Why did he hate them?
Because they were Christians. Because they were good doctors who helped people and didn’t charge any money.
But why are they just standing there waiting to get their heads chopped off? Why don’t they run away?
Good question. Because they want their heads chopped off? To get it over with? Maybe they were really held down or forced in some way, but the painter didn’t want to show us that stuff.
Next on the wall was a predella featuring the Stoning of St Stephen, the protomartyr. This is problematical is many ways.
Leda looks hard at a hallowed man in a bare landscape surrounded by half a dozen men in colored tights tossing small objects.
What are they doing?
I am sorry to say the people are throwing stones at St Stephen, they’re stoning him.
But why?
It was a way the authorities killed people back then, when they didn’t like their religion.
But all those pebbles aren’t going to kill him.
I think they really threw bigger stones, and yes, sooner or later it killed him. It’s not a nice way to die though.
I know a nice way to die.
What’s that?
The way Buelo died, because he was old.
I don’t have to answer this. Because she is absolutely right.
Last in this hagiographic lineup is Saint Lawrence, patron saint of chefs and roasters, on account of his gruesome death.
What are they doing to him?
To Saint Lawrence? They’re grilling him. It was a kind of martyrdom.
Why would they want to do that? Who would want to?
I guess because it was painful. It was the Romans. They didn’t like the Christians because the Christians had one god, and the Romans had many.
They couldn’t share?
No, sharing was not an option.

It may not appear that way to you, but I actually thought I was doing pretty well, answering the unanswerable. Until we got to Purgatory. There simply is no way to explain purgatory to anyone with a rational mind.

Who are the ones in white?
They must be the souls St Lawrence is liberating from purgatory.
What is Purgatory?
It’s a place where the church said you would go if you weren’t good enough for heaven, but weren’t bad enough for hell.
This gives her pause, as it would anyone.
How bad do you have to be for hell?
Pretty bad I think. You have to kill someone or be terribly mean. But we don’t believe in hell anymore. Maybe some people still do, but you don’t need to worry, there is no hell.
Is there a purgatory?
There definitely is no purgatory.
What are the devils doing?
Writhing in pain because they’re trapped in fire. But you really don’t have to worry. Priests invented hell so they could scare people into doing what they told them. It really doesn’t exist.
But killing people is still bad.
It is very bad.

I think there is no way to reflect on a conversational opening like this with an inquisitive six-year-old, and not feel that a great opportunity was missed. There was my moment to explain the human need for scapegoats, the irrationality of persecution, and the historical context of Christian saints. Instead I wracked my brain to explain purgatory in such as way as to ensure she would not have nightmares.

No comments: