I like to fancy myself a bit of an amateur hagiologist, meaning I am fascinated by the lives of the saints. I am less interested, though, in what the saints' lives say about the saints themselves, but more about what they say about the people who - over centuries and centuries - have kept their stories alive. In researching obscure saints, it's amazing how frequently phrases appear such as "No accurate records survive of this person," "This story is undoubtedly of someone else and came to be applied to Saint B's life" or - a favourite from something I was actually looking at today, the story of two martyred brothers which ends with these fantastic words : "They may be entirely fictional figures."
For me, the story's the thing, so I don't get too caught up in these tedious incidentals. Regardless of whether those brothers (Pergentius and Laurentinus, by the way) existed or not doesn't really matter to me; what's important is that for more than 1700 years they're still talking about them in Arezzo Italy. There's a story right there.
Another such saint is Symphorosa, a mother who was reportedly martyred with her seven sons during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian at the beginning of the Second Century. If their story sounds suspiciously like the tale of the martyred mother and her seven martyred sons from 2 Maccabees, you wouldn't be the first to think that. There is also the same exact story about Saint Felicity of Rome. How many Italian mothers were martyred with their seven sons under the Emperor Hadrian? "The credibility of this story is seriously questioned" most say about dear Symphorosa.
But that didn't stop me from trying to track her down. I knew a guy named Aldo whose grandmother lived in Tivoli, home of the sublime Villa d'Este and Hadrian's Villa, just to name two things of note there. But when Aldo (a person with whom I was not particularly close and - truth be told - found arrogant and annoying) invited me for lunch at his grandmother's I jumped at the chance, not to see the wonders of those villas (which I had already seen) but because Tivoli is where they have an actual church dedicated to Saint Symphorosa, whom many say didn't really exist. Stories like that don't drop into your lap every day, I can tell you. (Although, having written that, I am amazed how often stories like that just do seem to drop in my lap, but that's by the by.)
So when I met Aldo at the station to head off to Tivoli, I was thrilled. "I want to see as much about Saint Symphorosa as possible!" I said with an excitement often reserved for sporting matches.
“Saint Symphorosa never existed," Aldo said, leaning forward to look out the window of the train as if what I had said didn't even merit eye contact. "I lived in Tivoli my whole life and I've never heard of her. My grandmother hasn't either, I'm sure.” He crossed his arms and leaned back, obviously proud of himself. I couldn't help but think he looked an awful lot like a young Vladimir Putin – same steely eyes, same arrogant manner. Aldo, I think, suffered from high self-esteem.
“With all due respect,” I said, “if she was martyred during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, that would have been significantly before even your grandmother's time. She could have existed. There is, after all, a church in her honour."
Aldo shook his head. “What naiveté,” he said. He stretched out his legs and rudely put them on the empty seat next to me, and I couldn't help but notice he was wearing enormous coffin-shaped shoes, improbably made out of what appeared to be shiny baby blue patent leather. I was in equal parts horrified and fascinated, much like when looking at photographs of natural disasters. “They're very, very expensive,” he said to me. “You could never afford them.”
“Well I'll just have to admire yours, then, won't I?” I responded. I think Aldo was immune to sarcasm, and he smiled as if he had just bested me in a game of chess. I continued, “In part, the historical inaccuracy of Saint Symphorosa is ultimately less important than is the fact that the story has survived and, being a story of an act of holiness, has perhaps inspired holiness in others.”
“That,” said Aldo, rolling his Vladimir Putin eyes, “is nonsense.” Ma è una sciocchezza.
Later, after having visited the church where I was able to obtain not one, not two but three different Saint Symphorosa prayer cards, we made our way to Nonna Luisa's – Aldo's grandmother. "Sì, sì!" she said excitedly when I mentioned Saint Symphorosa, and proudly pointed out that she had a small image of her on her sitting room wall (“Checkmate, Vladimir, checkmate!”) Aldo just shook his head and said "E' una sciocchezza," again judging it all nonsense. (I noticed, though, he said it very quietly this time and when Nonna Luisa had left the room - our Vladimir clearly was just a little afraid of his grandmother.)
I got to thinking about what the coffin-shaped shod one had said, that it was nonsense. But, being pedantic and picky (hobbies of mine) I reflected on the Italian word he used which is always translated as "nonsense": sciocchezza. It has, I think, a whole different feel than standard nonsense. Nonsense, quite literally, means without sense, something which has no meaning, whilst sciocchezza comes from sciocco, which means “silly.”
Now I highly doubt that Aldo was knowingly entering into an etymological discourse when he pronounced my whole premise silly; ordinarily I would not consider him a person of deep insight. But, I thought, watching Nonna Luisa grating some truffle on top of my linguini at lunch that day, maybe he was on to something, maybe was like the proverbial blind pig which could find a truffle and thus add an exquisite flavour to something in the world.
Maybe it was all silly. Taking the story at face value, it was silly for a woman to stand up to the most powerful man in the world when she knew she would be killed for it. It was silly for her seven sons to rush up afterwards and basically say, “Kill me too!” It was silly that a church would proclaim someone for whom there is not one shred of historical evidence as its patron. It was silly that they sold images of this possibly non-existent person in the shop for 50 cents. It was silly that I shelled out €2 for three of these cards and just said “Don't worry about it” when the girl at the counter said she didn't have change to give me. It was silly that Nonna Luisa had a little découpage icon of one of those cards on her wall next to Padre Pio and Pope John Paul II. It's all quite silly indeed.
But nonsense it is not. Without meaning it is not. Because that which is at the heart of the story – that for some there is ultimately nothing more important than faith – means a lot. The fact that the story has been passed down for generations as an example of commitment to belief in the face of adversity means a lot. The fact that from the time of the Emperor Hadrian all the way through to Aldo's Nonna Luisa and beyond there have been those who would recount the story and artists who would depict the story simply because the story had meaning for them means a lot.
After lunch I had hoped to stick around a bit and talk more to Nonna Luisa (who was infinitely more interesting than her grandson) but Aldo said he had something very important to do in Rome and that we had to leave to catch the train back. He kissed Nonna Luisa, who made a sign of the cross on his forehead whilst he rolled his eyes. I was getting ready to give her the customary kiss as well when she dropped to her knees in a movement the flexibility of which was astounding for a woman of her age. Padre: una benedizione, per cortesia. I gave her the blessing for which she asked, after which she kissed my hands and thanked me. Aldo rolled his eyes again.
It was just beginning to rain outside, a soft rain that smelled of history, and Aldo was having difficulty walking, as his shoes seemed to have no traction at all. “Did you notice that picture of Saint Symphorosa on the wall?” I asked, perhaps stirring it up a bit.
E' una scioccezza – una favola per i bambini he said. It's silly, a faerie tale for children.
Boh, I said – the Roman way of saying “I don't know.” But I did know. Or I believed I did, which is probably better. Aldo slipped again on the wet cobblestones and grabbed onto me.
And me? Well I decided once again that I would continue to endeavour to walk the path that the story laid out for me, that started with the creation of the world, and moved through one Jesus of Nazareth, possibly through Saint Symphorosa, and through Nonna Luisa. I'll continue on that path. Silly as that may seem to some.
Yes, I'll continue on that path. But in trainers. Or simple black shoes with rubber soles. Not in enormous shiny coffin-shaped baby blue patent leather shoes. Because, well, that might just be too silly.