On a dowager baroness and a bargain-bin saint
In March of 2013 I was locking the church when I sensed that someone was right behind me. I turned around and, indeed, standing so near I could smell his cologne was a man I had never seen before. He did not have the usual look of a kind-hearted tourist who wanted to know how to get to the Trevi Fountain, but rather of a steely-eyed thug, complete with a slicked-back black ponytail, a boxy black suit, and an open-collared shirt showing a jungly patch of chest hair through which several gold chains were entwined like snakes ready to strike at any moment.
“Don't worry,” he said like a serial killer in a film does right before he lures someone into a windowless van. “Are you Alaric Lewis?” I couldn't decide whether to be comforted or unnerved by the fact that he knew my name. “Yes, I am,” I said. “And you are?” “I am the Baron Pirovano.” Of course you are, I thought but said, “How can I help you?” He proceeded to tell me that he was part of an ancient noble Roman family and he and his wife the baroness (a Latvian lingerie model, he was inordinately proud to let me know) were looking for a chaplain for a kind of chivalric order they had instituted which concentrated on supporting orphanages. Perhaps sensing my doubt, he took out his phone and showed me photographs of a group of colourfully dressed knights, an orphanage they supported, and – I'm not entirely sure why – his wife in a rose-coloured negligée. He told me that he had asked “around” (where? I wondered) for a priest who was neither Russian Orthodox nor Roman Catholic but knew his way around ritual and wasn't averse to dressing up, and my name kept popping up. (I suppose that is a not-inaccurate description of me.) I said I would consider his offer. I did so in part because I wanted to help orphans, in part because of the ritual/dress up bit, and in part because I thought that a ponytailed baron and a lingerie model/baroness would provide me with loads of stories. I made arrangements to call on him at his castle the following week to learn more. The castle was not really a castle, but a series of ugly interlocking buildings from the 1960s that were the only bit left of what once had apparently been a flourishing estate. After chatting about what he was looking for in a chaplain, he asked me if I would call in on his mother, the dowager baroness, who was depressed and never left her apartment. I had imagined a Miss Havisham-esque figure but she wasn't like that at all; she was rather just like the ordinary working-class Roman women who lived in my neighbourhood – complete with a particularly salty vocabulary. She immediately told me she rarely left her apartment in part because she did not want to run into her daughter-in-law, whom she referred to as that “Serbian Witch.” “Isn't she Latvian?” I asked. “Same difference,” she said and began hacking uncontrollably. “They're all prostitutes.” She reached for a cigarette. “It helps with my cough,” she explained. We spent some moments chatting (she had been to Chicago once and seemed excited to talk about that) and then, obviously warmed up to me, she went on to say that she mainly never left her apartment because since the death of her husband Mattia she just felt a heavy sense of hopelessness which she said felt like an actual weight on her, making it difficult to move. I didn't really know what to say. It sounded like she was clinically depressed, but I didn't really know her well enough to suggest such a thing, so I just said, “I'm so sorry. It must be so difficult. Shall we pray together?”
She sighed. “If we have to. Follow me to the chapel.” With great effort she hefted herself up from her chair and I followed her down a hallway to a small chapel whose walls were filled with countless icons and paintings of saints. Along each wall there was a table crammed with even more religious nicknacks, all arranged on top of what appeared to be hundreds of lace doilies. To anthropomorphise the place, it looked like the love child which would result from a torrid affair between a Russian Orthodox bishop and a Victorian widow. We knelt and prayed a rosary under the watchful eyes of about – I'd guess – half of the Communion of Saints. We finished and she asked for my blessing. “Pray that someone will remember this old alone, forgotten woman.” I pointed around at the images of the saints surrounding us and said, “You're not alone or forgotten. They're all with you! Hope is here!”
I'd like to say she was overcome with my pious answer, but she just snorted, which brought on another coughing fit, which brought out yet another cigarette, which she lit off one of the votive candles. It's awful feeling so hopeless, and I was desperate to do something for her, but sometimes these things are out of our hands – we can't fix everything, as much as we would like to. However, weeks later at one of those tacky souvenir shops near the Vatican, I found a decoupaged icon of St Matthias - the patron saint of hope - for 5 Euros in the bargain bin. I snatched it up right away, clearly annoying a Filipino nun who was obviously getting ready to grab it herself. (“Not so fast, sister!” I thought but didn't say.) The next time I went to the “castle” I brought the icon with me and presented it to the dowager baroness with great ceremony. Was she overcome with emotion, immediately ripping Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque from her place on the wall and placing Matthias there? Were eyes which had grown dim with loneliness and isolation suddenly opened, and hope found to venture out into the world of human contact once again? Was this one small action – a cut-price gesture – the key to unlocking despairing doors and entering into a fuller life? Sadly, the answer to all of these questions seemed to be no. With a half-hearted nod of acknowledgement, she took the proffered icon and unceremoniously propped it up next to an ashtray. And then, adding a coda to the dirgeful motif, the icon fell to its side, Matthias apparently deciding that everything was all just a bit too much for him as well. Later, having a drink on the patio with the thuggish baron and his buxom baroness, I recounted my icon story, words dripping with the disappointment I felt that it had not been some kind of a watershed moment. The baroness seemed uninterested, picking at some flaking fingernail polish with a frown. The baron looked at me with hooded eyes that were squinting with intensity. He opened his mouth to speak. I leaned forward as one does when expecting insight. “Did you really think that was going to change anything?” He shook his head as in disbelief. “No,” I said quietly – almost in a whisper, slightly embarrassed. Such things were not so easily sorted; I knew that. But later, recording the exchange in my journal I thought that that's exactly what I had thought. Yes, depression is debilitating and yes, hopelessness is complicated but God's ridiculous and unexpected grace really can't be limited. I didn't expect the gift of that icon to be a magic fix-all, but I guess I hoped that it might, indeed, change everything in that it could serve as a catalyst which would in some unforeseen and unexpected way lead to healing. Because we can never know where God's grace will take us, how seemingly insignificant events just might be points on a map which somehow lead to fulfilment. I mean, think about that original Saint Matthias. He was just minding his own business, trying to figure out what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and in one instant, with a divine roll of the dice, he became an apostle, while poor Joseph called Barsabbas who was also called Justus was relegated to a life of telling people at parties “You know: I almost became an apostle.” “Did you really think that was going to change anything?” I suppose the ultimate answer boils down to hope: hope that no event, no interaction, is too insignificant that God can't use it somehow to further the kingdom; hope that we have eyes, hearts, and minds open to God's plan and not just focused on our own self will; hope that we continue to be strengthened to do our bit to point out grace to others through what we say and what we do. I haven't really been in touch with the count since I moved to Spain in 2015. I don't know if his mother is still around, and, if so, if she has been able to overcome what was weighing her down and enjoy life again. I don't know if St Matthias is still propped up by the ashtray, has somehow squeezed his way onto that crowded wall of saints, or has ignominiously ended up in some Italian car boot sale. But I do hope that in a world of bargain-bin saints, Latvian lingerie models, and depressed dowagers, anything is possible. And that hope? Well, it could be the key to changing everything. For us all.