Looking for Miracles

It was a number of years ago in Padua, Italy that I first became interested in religious miracles, though not as a means of healing my own or anyone else’s ailments, physical or mental.  Rather, my attraction stemmed from the realization that miracles were another fascinating means for travellers to connect with the cultures of other countries. Dot and I had gone to the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio, expecting to give it only a cursory look, for it is not deemed to be of particular artistic merit. But we ended up staying some time. What drew our attention were the hordes of faithful filing past the tomb of St. Anthony, and stopping to touch and kiss its polished stone. And when we looked more closely, we were amazed to discover an extraordinary array of offerings made to the saint in thanks for miracles performed. There were photographs of horrendous car crashes that devotees had survived with his blessing, pictures of lost children who were thankfully reunited with their distraught parents, and there were even the discarded syringes of drug addicts who had kicked their habits with the help of the humble friar.

At the rear of the apse in the Chapel of the Reliquaries, we found further testament to St. Anthony’s popularity as a miracle worker, for in it were housed some of his saintly remains: parts of his larynx, tongue, lower jaw, and, most amazing of all, the beard that purportedly grew after his death!

When we had had enough of this ghoulish gawking, we stepped outside and walked to one end of the adjacent Piazza del Santo. There a crowd of excited Italians was holding a toy Formula One car race, complete with loud speakers, checkered flags, hairpin curves, screaming engines, and horrific crashes. More need for St. Anthony’s intervention! 

Bitten in Padua by the bug of miracle-hunting, on a recent visit to Italy, Dot and I were keen to explore the turf of St. Anthony’s contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi. We were both suffering from bad colds at the time, but, neveretheless, we decided that the best introduction to this saint would be to follow in his footsteps and walk from the town of Assisi to his hermitage in the forest on the slopes of Monte Subasio. It is a four-kilometre uphill hike along a paved road today, not a country path, but we were certain, nevertheless, that we would encounter a steady stream of pilgrims along the way, making the trek to pay homage to St. Francis. We did not. There were only three of us on foot that day–a young woman from England and ourselves, three lapsed Anglicans at best. What we did experience on the road, however, was a steady stream of cars, buses, and taxis whizzing past us, carrying friars, nuns, and humble worshippers quickly to the grotto and back to town, where, presumably,they would join the long queue in the lower church of the Basilica di San Francisco parading silently past the tomb of St.Francis.

In their rush between sacred sites, the faithful likely missed out on the sorts of miracles that were bestowed upon those of us who took a little more time travelling to and from the hermitage. Just as Dot and I headed out of Assisi, it started to rain. I had brought my waterproof jacket, but Dot had no cover at all. But at that very moment, lying on a bench at the portal of the town, we spied a discarded, pale blue umbrella. One of its spokes was broken, but it still worked, and it gave Dot protection from the rain that day as it has ever since.

Just as we reached the hermitage the rain stopped, and as we began the trek back to Assisi, the sun peeked through the gray and black clouds. And then, as we reached the edge of Assisi, I stopped suddenly and turned to Dot. “You know, I’ve stopped coughing and sneezing!”

“I have, too!” Dot shouted with surprise.

In her case, the symptoms returned shortly after we left Assisi, but for me it was, indeed, the end of the cold. Was it St. Francis who bestowed these gifts upon us–three minor miracles? Well, two and a half at least, considering the return of Dot’s cold!

Back in Assisi, we encountered another miracle maker who rather caught our fancy, Santa Chiara, or St. Clare, whose remains are entombed in the enormous church that bears her name. To put it in contemporary terms, she seems to have had the hots for St. Francis. She was more than a decade younger, but despite her parents’ objections, she ran away from home to join him, eventually founding the order of Poor Clares. She proved to be adept at using the communion wafer to ward off invaders and local thugs. But here’s the most amazing part of her story. Bedridden and near death in 1252, she was unable to attend the Christmas eve mass being celebrated in the new basilica built to honour St. Francis. But then suddenly she was blessed with a vision of the mass from her bed, even though she was several miles away. Even more amazingly, she could hear the Franciscans singing. It was, however, not until 1958 that the pope, recognizing both the audio and visual features of this miracle, named St. Clare the patron saint of television. So, now you know whom to beseech every time that damn box goes blank or the picture turns fuzzy!

It was mid-October when we got to Florence, but the city was still so packed with tourists that we forsook the galleries for walks in the countryside. A local bus dropped us in the centre of the enchanting town of Fiesole, the site for the period film, A Room With A View. From there we walked back to Florence past luxurious, shuttered villas, olive groves and vineyards; in the film they cheated and took carriages between Fiesole and Florence.

Another day, we crossed the Arno and climbed into the hills above the river, eventually reaching the Piazzale Michelangelo with its panoramic views of Florence in the valley below. And then higher up we came to San Miniato al Monte, its white and green facade glistening in bright sunshine. The story goes that San Miniato, an eastern Christian living in Florence, was decapitated during the persecutions of Emperior Decius in A.D. 250. Yet, he managed to pick up his head, tuck it under his arm, and walk across the river. Then he climbed the hillside until he reached the spot where the church stands today. There, he at last lay down and died. He, and then other Christians were buried there, and a shrine in his memory was built in the fourth century.

Hmmm, we contemplate. At a leisurely stroll the walk took us an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Of course, San Miniato’s circumstances were different. He would have been in a bit of a hurry!

Rome was our last destination for miracles on this particular trip, and the chosen site for encountering them, the Vatican where the day before six church celebrities had been canonized by Pope Benedict. Chairs were still set up in St. Peter’s Square and a sizeable crowd, dotted with priests and nuns, was milling about. Large banners with images of the six new saints hung from the facade of the basilica. One of them was of our own Brother Andre Besette who, as the Globe and Mail put it, has piled up “Gretzky-like statistics” in the miracles department. Before and since his death in 1937 at the age of 91, he has had attributed to him by the faithful more than 125,000 miracles. He was a simple doorman at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal responsible for distributing to pilgrims sacred oil burned in a lamp that lighted a statue of St. Joseph. Turned out the oil, rubbed on the body, had incredible healing powers.

In 2011, the oratory gift shop was still selling more than 100,000 vials of the sacramental oil annually, and sales were expected to skyrocket with Brother Andre’s canonization.

Hmmm, we wonder again. So what is the Vatican’s cut of the oratory’s take for the oil? Financial gain wasn’t a factor in Brother Andre’s elevation to sainthood, was it?

We try to erase from our heads such cynical thoughts. Looking for miracles is, after all, a fascinating pursuit. It’s a whole new angle on travel. Why let reason ruin the fun?

(The section on Padua draws from material in “Art Appreciation 101,” Missing the Bus, Making the Connection: Tales and Tastes of Travel,  Penumbra Press, Manotick, Ontario, 2008). To obtain a copy, please visit: www.penumbrapress.com).

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About t. a. keenleyside

author of travel/food books and popular fiction
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