April 18, 2008

Some months ago I blogged lightheartedly about the “€œbone church“€ in Rome, whose crypt is entirely decorated with the disassembled skeletons of friars. But today I actually went there”€”a starkly different experience, and one that provoked a few sharp thoughts about the task which faces us on the Right.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception is a haunting little brown, stone parish that stands incongruous on the chic Via Veneto”€”like the skull which always winks out of a painting of “€œVanitas.”€ There’s “€œvita”€ here, all right, but I wouldn’t call it “€œdolce.” Underneath a church that’s fairly ordinary by Italian standards”€”which means that it contains so many lovely and reverent baroque artworks that in the U.S. it would serve as a site of national pilgrimage”€”lies a crypt which draws in tourists, eager to see entire chapels, altarpieces, ceilings and walls encrusted with carefully placed human bones.

There’s always a line, and a basket invites donations”€”which is only fair, since the place is a tourist magnet, appealing to different drives than those which goad us to the Trevi Fountain. Here you throw in coins with the wish that you never have to return, that you never need join in the fate of its founders”€”the vowed obedient impoverished celibates whose humility was so extreme that they deeded their last remains, the final sad reminders of mortality their bones, to be pulled apart and made into the ornaments for the rites of their religion. This is all the more appropriate for a faith whose emblem is an instrument of torture reserved for slaves. If the cross, the 1st century equivalent of a lynching noose, can be transfigured from gore to glory, then so can a room full of skulls. What could be more appropriate, in fact? Perhaps more parishes should adopt this mode of décor. It might cut down the number of unbelievers who insist on having church weddings….

My observation about the cross applies to Protestants and Orthodox with equal force; while neither of them engage in iconography quite as graphic as we Catholics in depicting the sufferings of Christ, nor do they shrink from the shadow of the Cross. The lyrics of the Lutheran hymn “€œO Sacred Head Now Wounded,”€ and the icon of Extreme Humility dip nearly as deep into the pathos of the God-Man as the most Lenten Latin image.

Of course, the crypt’s initial effect is macabre, and some (not all!) of the visitors come mainly for kicks and giggles. How odd to see a skull surrounded by two shoulder bones that look like wings, to make a grinning Angel of Death. How clever, in a twisted “€œgoth”€ way, are the vertebrae glued together into a chandelier. And the thigh bones that form the Sacred Heart.

It’s harder to muster a chuckle over the full-sized standing skeletons vested as friars. By the time you come to the fourth chapel, where two skeletal arms, one robed and one bare, cross to form the Franciscan emblem, most of the folks are quieter. I was happy to explain to one set of visitors that the souls sitting in flames were not in Hell but Purgatory”€”hence the saints reaching down to pull them out. That lightened the mood a little.

In the final room, where the altar is warded by a fully vested Grim Reaper, waving a scythe made out of bones, there is nothing left to say. You are ready to head for the door”€”which is locked, so you must retrace your way through the bone-rooms you’ve already visited, in search of fresh air and some escape from these grim reminders of our common, onrushing fate. The wisest visitors make their way into the church upstairs, whose only famous monuments are to the son of that secular savior of the West, Jan Sobieski of Poland, and to Padre Mariano, a popular Capuchin preacher of the 70s nicknamed “€œthe TV priest.”€ What a relief, to leave behind all those skeletons (apart from the one inside you, you can’t help reflecting), and kneel in the warmth and welcome of the Presence of the Lord who conquered it all.

It is only this sort of hope, which strains through the needle’s eye to spy the camel, and crawls up the Tree of thorns to wrestle with Death, then hounds him into the depths of the earth to harrow Hell itself, which can sustain in times like these”€”when our elites plan our displacement by foreigners (and in Europe, infidels), when our colleges countenance human sacrifice as performance art, and our families fragment like mosaics under the hammers of the iconoclasts. No pagan nostalgia, or cult of unprecious blood, or fantasies of prosperous anarchy, will carry us along. The hour is now too late, the dark too thick and the fog too full of “€œmal-aria,”€ our enemies too mixed in with our friends”€”while our old weapons melt away, or fall from our enervated fingers. No upraised fist, or straight salute, or peace or dollar sign will drive out the chill from these bony digits. Even clenched in prayer, their flesh feels all too thin. It may be that all we leave behind in the end are our dry bones, in the gaze of impious eyes. But at the very least we can see to it that our skeletons make up angels.


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