by Philip Graham (Lisbon Dispatch No. 18)
(Philip Graham, a writer who teaches at the University of Illinois recently spent a year in Lisbon. His other dispatches appear at, http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/philipgraham/index.html)
A huge banner runs down the length of the Church of Saint Stephen’s white-stoned exterior, advertising a miracle that took place here 760 years ago. Over the centuries kings and queens have visited this church in Santarém, a pedigree that only adds to the legend of the Shrine of the Most Holy Miracle. While Alma snaps a few photos, Hannah shades her eyes from the noonday sun. As for me, I’d much better appreciate the surrounding whitewashed buildings, their balconies lush with flowers, if I weren’t still twitchy after navigating narrow cobblestone streets first designed when the internal combustion engine was an impossible leap of imagination.
“Ready?” Alma asks, grinning. She still can’t hide her pleasure at having found a website account of a miracle that goes back to 1247. A local woman, driven to despair by a philandering husband, consulted a sorceress in her cavern lair (and only after the usual rosary prayers had gone unanswered), in the hopes that M-A-G-I-C might spell marital relief. The price? The unhappy wife merely had to supply a communion wafer, blessed by a priest and so transformed into the actual flesh and blood of Christ. Oh, how desperation in love can lead to uncharted territory.
The following Sunday service, after receiving communion, that determined wife slipped the wafer from her mouth and bundled it into her veil, then scooted from the church. But a trail of bloody drops followed the woman on her way to the witch (waiting patiently in her cave outside of town), so she made a spooked bee-line home instead and hid the bleeding wafer in a wooden chest. When her husband returned home late that night from his latest binge of someone else, great beams of blinding light shone through the planks of the trunk. Instantly terrified into fidelity, the husband knelt beside his wife and they prayed together until morning. The miracle wafer has been preserved in the church ever since.
When Alma first read this story she knew that her unreconstructed animist husband would want to come here. The local variety of spiritual quirks is yet another reason Portugal makes a cozy fit inside me. Even Lisbon newspapers are chock-a-block with classified ads that tout the services of African diviners from the former Portuguese colonies of Guinea or Angola, as well as more homegrown spiritualists. Our friend Fernanda tells us that unusual indeed is the Portuguese woman who hasn’t consulted one of these guides. Alma once picked up from a pasteleria ladies room the flier of a “Consultora Espiritual” boasting expertise in the subjects of love, sexual impotence, and “mal olhado”—the evil eye. More than once I’ve stood before the urinal of some Lisbon restaurant and read from a poster on the wall about the skills of Professor Sissé or Professor Ali, each well-versed in the “segredos de magia negra ou branca”—secrets of black or white magic.
“Ready?” Alma repeats, and I nod, though I have to confess that my half-spoonful of unlapsed Catholic is just enough to fill me with a ripple of vestigial anxiety. Whenever I’m about to enter a church, I imagine my long absence might trigger an alarm.
No siren wails when we enter, just the roar of a huge Death-to-all-Dust vacuum pushed back and forth by an old woman in a corner of the modest interior: white walls, a geometric pattern of azulejo tiles, and a series of dark-hued paintings lining both sides of the church that depict the major plot turns of the miracle. But where’s the magic wafer?
Alma approaches the old gal in charge of that rumbling behemoth and gestures that she has a question. The woman frowns, fiddles with a switch, and the sudden silence almost hurts. While Alma warms up her latest informant, I take the opportunity to walk beneath the paintings and point out details to Hannah. “See there?” I say, “The wife is still in the church, but the wafer’s already bleeding,” and then, a few steps down, “And here’s where she and her rotten husband are kneeling in front of the magical wafer.” Hannah, who never indulged in the Harry Potter habit (preferring to gobble up the down-to-earth social dilemmas of tween novels), is only mildly interested in this spiritual drama.
Alma returns to report that the tabernacle housing the wafer is only opened during special religious holidays. Anticipating my disappointment, she’s already picked up a devotional card from the souvenir stand in the back. One side of the card features a photo of a golden monstrance shaped like a sunburst, encircling a clear crystal where some gunk that once might have been a wafer is smeared with what once might have been dark blood. While Alma continues the tour of the paintings with Hannah, I stay behind and turn the card over to read a version of the story that’s nearly identical to what Alma had read to me from the website. I’m about to set it aside when I notice a crucial difference: in this retelling, the scheming witch is a “Jewish sorceress.”
I’d laugh out loud, but I’m too appalled. Though I’m not the kind of guy who willingly undermines someone else’s religion, this particular miracle needs one big whopping asterisk. Unless you believe in transubstantiation—and no Jew believes in that—a communion wafer is nothing more than a little cracker. Where’s the motivation to steal one? So, you can scratch the “Jewish” bit from the sorceress. But the kicker, and I think I speak with some authority here, is that no self-respecting Jewish girl would ever, ever live in a cave. Never happened, never will.
I feel as depressed as if I’d just uncovered a friend’s awful sleazy secret. At least someone felt guilty enough to scrub the slur from the website. And then I wonder, what happened to that so-called sorceress? I hope she didn’t turn out to be some hapless scapegoat, providing dry run fodder for the Inquisition looming two centuries down the line.
After her tour of the paintings, Alma sidles up beside me and says, “Pretty wild, huh?”
“Oh, you have no idea.”
She gives me her And so? arched eyebrow, because my wife always knows when a juicy story is in the offing.
We cut across the broad oval of the Rossio, Lisbon’s popular praça lined with cafés catering to the tourist set, then linger for a moment before Peruvian musicians strumming guitars and tootling panpipes in front of the statue of Dom Pedro IV, until Hannah (who’s discovered her shy self this year) whispers that I should drop a euro in the waiting guitar case. That contribution accomplished, we continue past a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar that serves ginjinha, a potent cherry liqueur that will, if you don’t stop at one small glass, effect a secular version of transubstantiation by turning your legs into rubber.
Then we’re standing before the Church of São Domingos. My asterisk to the miracle in Santarém has encouraged Alma to finally overcome her hesitancy about visiting this church, which holds an even grimmer story. In April of 1506, the church was packed with people praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary, whose eyes appeared to be dripping tears. Perhaps the worshippers hoped this was a sign that the plague raging through the country might soon end. So when some New Christians—recent forcibly converted Jews—expressed doubts about the mechanics of the miracle, they were killed in the church aisles. The melee spread out into the Rossio, and then throughout Lisbon, the mad three-day spree only ending after some two thousand Jews and New Christian converts had been killed. Decades later, the sentences of the Inquisition were announced in front of this church, just before the public roastings.
Again, no alarm trips off as I enter; instead, the recorded voices of monks intoning Gregorian chants hover in the air. Which is a good idea, since in the absence of such calming music I might want to run from the place. Beneath the rose-colored curved ceiling, the church’s stone pillars stand cracked and gouged, pieces missing—scars of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Worse, the walls exude a faint scent of smoke, a lingering souvenir from a fire that ravaged São Domingos in the 1950s. If you were the sort to give God a mean-spirited street cred, you might say that he’s taken revenge on this church.
A few worshippers sit in the wooden pews, but most stand by the sides of the church, where a series of tables display little red cups holding stubby white candles, the flames’ flickers adding extra light to the dim surroundings. Hannah is immediately drawn to these candles, and when I explain that people light them in the memory of loved ones who have passed away, she nods at the need for this; all her grandparents are long gone, three before she was born, and their absence has always loomed large for her. Alma, as subdued as I’ve ever seen her, walks with Hannah to one of the tables, her hand already in her purse for the small change that bestows lighting privileges.
I stay behind and instead begin to make my way through the church as quickly as possible. The place contains too much of what chased me from the religion of my birth, its promise of peace mucked up with the mess of the world. I pass alcoves where statues of saints offer the standard devotional gaze, cross before the church’s elaborate altar, and then stop, surprised.
Elevated halfway up a corner alcove and lit from above, a golden stature of the resurrected Christ seems to float in the air, his long robe draped over a body as lean as a Modigliani figure. His face bent down slightly with the gentle peace of a Buddha, it seems that compassion could truly erase suffering. It’s perhaps the calmest version of Jesus I’ve ever seen, and I feel I could stand here for hours—in this church, of all places—or at least long enough to reduce the heat on the bubbling stew beneath my mask of Everything’s Okie-Dokie: my brooding and fits of anger, my need to please, and a self-pity that too easily shifts to self-importance.
Behind me, a woman sobs. I turn to watch her twisted face, framed by tangled, graying hair, as she lights a candle and ineffectually dabs at her eyes. Then she crosses the altar to weep before a statue of Jesus that’s nestled in the opposite corner alcove—just released from the cross, he’s cradled in his mother’s arms, the sculpted marble realism of his dead body a landscape of pain and suffering that seems as far from the statue hovering above me as one could imagine. Why, I wonder, did she choose that Jesus? And why am I lingering here? I stare up again at my preferred version, and it hits me that Jesus is an ever-morphing, all-purpose avatar. He’s no longer himself—hasn’t been, I guess, since the very beginning. If you want peace, then Jesus wants peace too, but he’s also not above underwriting fear, paranoia or hatred, if you’re so inclined. He’s a chalice, waiting to be filled.
Before this visit I thought I’d pegged how I would react, but the world holds it own mysteries, doesn’t it? Down the length of this church, with its scars and scarred history, Alma still stands beside Hannah, who lights another candle, grateful for a chance to connect with relatives she’s never met.
Sitting and waiting beside Alma in the vast interior of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, I can’t quite believe this church managed to survive the earthquake of 1755 with nary a scratch. The stone pillars, reaching to the heights of the intricately sculpted vault, appear far more delicate than they really are. The Portuguese, it seems, can work miracles with engineering skills in the service of the miraculous.
A thin bald priest is halfway through intoning the mass, with a voice so gentle and slow that I can understand most of his well-worn phrases of love and forgiveness, even as they echo in the enormous space of the church. Beside us sits Maria-José, a short woman with a wide, pleasant face that can shift from laughter to complaint and back again in an instant. The mother of Hannah’s best friend Sara, she patiently endures our attempts to whisper chit chat in Portuguese during the occasional downtime of the mass. In a few minutes, both girls will march to the altar and sing, as members of Os Pequeños Cantores de Belém, a children’s chorus that performs in some of the classiest venues in Lisbon—they’re even scheduled to record a couple of songs with a Portuguese opera star, Teresa Cardoso de Menezes. Hannah loves this chorus, even if rehearsals before a performance can stretch to four or more grueling hours. Alma, in perfect Jewish mother mode, allows her pride in Hannah’s voice and accomplishments to overlook the small detail of her daughter performing devotional songs in Latin.
While waiting, I glance about at the stained-glass windows, the endlessly rising pillars, and the church’s entrance, where the tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões lie side by side. They make a fitting pair, since Comões’ epic, The Lusiads, glorifies da Gama’s maritime discoveries; but if you ask me, the bones of the playwright Gil Vicente should spend their eternal rest here too. Often compared to Shakespeare (who wrote nearly a century after him), Vicente’s trilogy of plays about life’s end-game boats bound for heaven, hell, or purgatory is a masterpiece of acid wit, stunningly skeptical about the corrupt underpinnings of Portugal’s then still-budding empire. Flip open a page and you’ll find an angel berating a nobleman who benefited from the country’s then growing colonial holdings:
“You despised lesser folk, looked down on them,
and as you grew prouder, became less than them.”
Flip open another page and there’s the devil, accusing a cardinal of emotional complicity in the crimes of the Inquisition:
“Your auto da fe,
your act of faith,
was an act of hatred,
of a tortured soul
that knew only how to torture,
of twisted desire
that knew only
how to twist
Beats me how a fellow could write like that in the early 16th century and still keep his head.
A side door opens, and the children walk in a line to the altar, wearing dark red robes topped with white collars. They settle into two small groups on either side, like the separate wings of a bird, Hannah and Sara standing together. On the opening day of that awful first school Hannah briefly attended, she noticed Sara guiding a fellow student’s wheelchair through the between-class chaos of the hallway. From that moment their friendship began, and months later the two girls, now in at least the shallows of adolescent sensitivity to the world’s gaze, can still jostle and joke with each other like kids. Sara’s easy empathy is even more striking because she lived in an orphanage until the age of ten, when Maria-José, a retired plastic surgeon, adopted her. For the past two years, Sara’s new mother has been introducing her to the wider world.
Across the altar from Hannah and Sara stands the bully who so tormented our daughter in that same first school. She’s parked in the other half of the chorus because months ago, Hannah took the choral director aside and bravely requested that they be kept separated. Though this girl (who we’ve heard once provoked her younger sister to the point of writing a suicide note) has long since minded her Ps and Qs, I still feel a flicker of rage at the sight of her.
Such a hard road, forgiveness.
The choral director raises her arms, holds them in the air, and when she nods the children’s voices unfold a melody that balances somewhere between languid and stately. I close my eyes and try to make out the thread of my daughter’s singing, and though a word, a phrase seems to briefly hold her stamp, I soon give in to the full blend of those young voices.
Each song seems flecked with something I can’t exactly place, something beyond the Latin words of worship. Eventually, I think I can hear, in the colors of those harmonies, the weaving backstories of Sara’s orphanage, Hannah’s challenging year, the bully’s twisted talents, and even secrets of the other children that I know nothing about. Maybe that’s what shapes this music’s not quite tranquil beauty, the tangled stories these joined voices express and yet rise from, nearly untethered from trouble as the echoes in this vast church lift them just a little higher.
(Quotations from the work of Gil Vicente are from The Boat Plays, translated by David Johnsto (Oberon Books))