31 May 2010

Going on a Pilgrimage

Every year, during the last week of May, the small Sicilian town of Petrosino is a buzz with pilgrims. Yes, pilgrims. There is something about the word "pilgrimage" that conjures up ideas of walking for hours, enduring some kind of pain or discomfort and waiting in line with the sick and ailing. But this Pelligrinaggio di Santo Padre had none of it. In fact, everyone seemed to be pretty comfortable--what with the huge parking lot in-front of the entrance, the numerous food carts selling snack food and the abundance of plump, well-fed Sicilians crowding the shaded benches. 

Like most things in Italy, this has become more of a thing to do in company than an actual act of spiritual sacrifice. But there was a full mass in the adjoining church and lots of singing of hymns and plenty of spiritual pride. Pride, of course, is never lacking in Sicily. 

So the story goes that the miners of tufo (the porous stone that most of Sicily is built with, soft to cut out of the ground, but hardens to stone as it dries in the sun.) were working in a cave when one of them came across a piece of tufo naturally shaped like a man. They were so moved and impressed by this discovery that they brought the statue to the church to be displayed. The next day, however, they returned to the mine to discover the very same statue exactly where they found it. Again, they brought it to the church, but alas, the same thing repeated again the next day. It had to be a miracle! What other explanation could there possibly be? 

Although I did not find the story terribly interesting, I was curious to see this naturally man-shaped statue that was so revered. So off I went on my very first pilgrimage! "Goin' on a pilgramage...gonna catch a big one..." Oh wait--wrong song!

We arrived by car, a fairly new means of arriving, as the tradition is to go on foot. So the 35 minute car ride was spent telling me all about how the whole town used to walk together in a three hour procession down the road. This seems like a crazy idea to me considering how fast the cars go down this barely two-lane highway, but Italians are crazy when it comes to the road. "Unfortunately", it was explained to me, people are no longer allowed to do the pilgrimage by foot because too many people had been injured by cars. Wow, I didn't see that coming! But just as well, because I really wasn't up for a three hour hike in the blazing Sicilian heat.

The entrance was very nice, a lovely respite in the middle of a dry town. It was packed with people dressed in their Sunday best--thankfully no line of self-flagellating devotees. We headed through the wooded courtyard to the sanctuary, where the miraculous statue is kept.

I was so curious to see this naturally shaped stone that spawned such devotion. And curious as to how it would it be displayed. I have seen many different religious relics and altars and strange displays in my travels. I have been to a church in Austria that claims to have a vial of Jesus' blood, a church in Germany that claims to have a splinter from THE cross, a church in France that displays a jeweled robe of Mary (which is displayed on a pint-sized doll--I don't think she was that small) and all these places have enormous churches built around these small relics, all because they brought the oldest form of tourist--pilgrims. And the more tourism, the more cash flow. So what kind of naturally man-shaped stone could compete with these biblical relics?

We headed into the sanctuary...
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust, but was that paint I saw on the 'natural' statue? There was a glare from the door that obscured his face. And...wait a minute...there is something glowing... I slowly shuffle along with the line of people, watching the women kiss their hand and place it on the plexiglass covering the statue. Yeah, there was something glowing alright--a neon blue halo. I am confused--I think maybe this is not the statue--that maybe it is a pre-statue, because this shiny, shellacked statue could not be the real deal. This thing is carved and painted and sitting with a freaking neon blue halo. In a state of suspended belief, I continued around the bend expecting to see the real statue. But there was nothing else. I asked my mother-in-law if this was it and she affirmed that I just walked by the statue. Really? REALLY?? I swung back around for another look, hoping to feel awed and amazed.

And well, I did. I felt awed and amazed that this whole story of a naturally man-shaped statue was found looking like this. Awed and amazed that all these people believed this BS story and awed and amazed that people used to risk their lives to walk three hours to see such a kitsch display. Am I just too cynical or realistic for this kind of thing? No, I have a lot of respect for traditions and history and I have studied and seen things that are much more of a stretch to believe. But I'm sorry, this is just ridiculous. They totally lost me with the neon halo.

But my true lesson was yet to come. Shortly after exiting the 'sanctuary', we ran into a bunch of relatives. After several minutes of hellos and cheek kissing, they were all anxious to hear what the American thought of their pilgrimage. Still in a completely appalled state of mind, I momentarily forgot that I was with Sicilians. And no matter what they say about something, even if they seemed to agree with me that the statue was silly, Sicilians are geloso--they have fierce pride for anything that is theirs. So when asked what I thought, I told them that I was really disappointed that it wasn't really a natural statue and found it over the top to have a neon halo.

Oops, I just insulted the family. The funny thing I have learned about Sicilians is that when they ask you if you like their town, or their food, or their stuff, or their idea...they don't want to hear whether you really like it or not--they just want to hear that you do. It doesn't matter if they complain 24/7 about the same thing, you need to like it. So the moral of my pilgrimage story is: if you ever find yourself asked whether you like something in Sicily, just say: "yes, it's great!" and all will be right with the world.

Until next time...

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