Conference: “Grounding the Sacred”
Australian Catholic University, July 2015
Speaker: Carmel Bird
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHILD?
First I will tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a Spanish princess who travelled in a coach all the way from Spain to Bohemia where she married a prince. She brought with her many wedding gifts from her family, and among the gifts was a little statue given to her by her mother. Hundreds of years earlier, somewhere in the wild country of Southern Spain, a monk had made the statue from wood and wax. It was the image of a small boy who had spoken to the monk in a vision, urging him to pray. Following a time in prayer, the monk was inspired to fashion the likeness of the boy, and understood that his visionary visitor had been the child Jesus. The statue had come into the possession of a nun who gave it to the mother of the Spanish princess. When the princess’s own daughter was very old, she in turn gave the statue to a church in Prague. It was beloved and venerated, but when a foreign army took possession of Prague, the statue was damaged, discarded and buried in rubble behind the altar. Its hands had been broken off. And so it lay for years until it was discovered and was venerated again. It was at this point that it spoke out in a language the priest could understand saying, ‘Have pity on me and I will have pity on you. Give me my hands and I will give you peace. The more you honour me, the more I will bless you.’ And so it happened that the statue was completely restored, and has ever since stood in honour in the church of Our Lady of Victories in Prague where it is visited by people from all over the world, and is known as the Infant Jesus of Prague.
That’s the end of the story. Now I will speak to you in a more conversational tone.
The statue of the child Jesus is what might be called a trope which enters my fiction in a short story published in 1987. But before I discuss the significance of this image in the fiction, I must take some time to move the image from the fuzzy world of legend into what passes for reality.
There are points in the legend where time and place and person become specific, but the whole matter is so overlaid with mystery that I chose to frame it first in the vague language of the fairy tale. Rather than use terms such ‘a far country’, I considered that Spain and Bohemia were exotic enough to be tolerated in the context. However when it came to the fact about the Swedish army taking Prague, I decided to wipe them and just call them foreign. And all the characters, with the exception of the mysterious monk in wild southern Spain somewhere, do have names, the most celebrated of which is that of St Teresa of Avila who supposedly gave the statue to the mother of the original princess. It’s interesting to follow a few dates. The statue can be dated to the fourteenth century. That’s vague but useful. The princess married the prince in 1556. Teresa of Avila was born in 1515 and died in 1582. She was canonized in 1622. The statue was given to the church in 1628. The Swedish army occupied Prague in 1631. The statue was discovered, spoke, and was restored in 1637. Then in 1639 the Swedish army again swept into the city, but this time the people prayed for deliverance before the statue and the city was saved. The statue is now the focus of a world-wide devotion.
So, he is the Infant of Prague, enshrined in the church of Our Lady of Victories in Prague. He is 48 centimetres high, the size of a baby. He is dressed, according to the liturgical seasons, always in lavish royal robes from his vast and precious wardrobe. Very often reproductions of him are dressed in scarlet. In 2009 Pope Benedict gave him an ermine cape, and also a golden crown decorated with pearls and garnets. He has his own website, email, phone number and a shop where he sells a dizzying array of replicas of himself. His feast is in the third week of May. He is popularly associated with weddings and marriage, and in some parts of Ireland the bride puts a statue of him out of doors in a hedge in order to invoke good weather for her wedding day.
I’m not in the realm of high art or high literature here, but this statue is one kind of conduit to a spiritual realm. He is part of one level of the Catholic tradition of sacred objects, of pilgrimage, of prayer and veneration. The Christian may offer prayers to Christ, sometimes with an image in mind. Generally, I imagine, the idea is that the supplicant is invoking some kind of adult Christ. There are untold artistic representations of the adult Christ on which to focus. The picture in the Christian’s mind might be that of the Crucifixion. At some point in the life of some images, the image itself takes on a kind of life of its own and the prayers are felt to be mediated through the physical presence of the statue or painting. The statue itself can become something sacred. However, the question arises – does the sanctity of the object persevere if, for instance, the object is placed in an unsanctified context? If it is stolen, say, and sold as simply a work of art or folk art? Is the power independent of context? Sacred spaces can be ritually de-sanctified. Churches become houses or community centres. I am reminded of the chapel in Brideshead Revisited where, after it has been de-consecrated it is described as being ‘just an oddly decorated room.’
Often black statues of Mary reveal themselves in mysterious and miraculous ways, and are considered to be sacred as a result. Statues sometimes take on a physical life of their own and move themselves around from one location to another. The Infant of Prague has become a sacred object. Such objects are the subject of devotion, of what can only be called love. To the people who offer their prayers through or to them, they are beloved. Of themselves, they are beloved. It is as if the spirit of the sacred somehow dwells within them. I realise that some of the words I am now using have wandered off message – what do I mean by ‘the spirit of the sacred’? I don’t really know, but they were the only words to hand.
For my eighth birthday, in the spring of 1948, I received an imitation amber box, the size of a match box. It opened like a book, and inside was a little imitation amber rosary. An imitation silver charm of the Infant of Prague hung from the end of the chaplet, and the lid of the box, or the cover of the book, was imitation silver, impressed with a larger image of him. When I left my home in Tasmania in 1963, to live in Victoria, this box was stored in a suitcase containing other treasures, mostly small dolls, in the roof space of the garage. The whole suitcase has since disappeared, and although I have sometimes looked for an imitation amber rosary in an imitation silver and amber book, I have never seen another. It interests me that he went missing with the dolls, because if he resembles anything, it’s a doll. Statues of the Infant Jesus often resemble dolls. Charles Dickens, in his Pictures from Italy, described one such statue in Rome as ‘a little wooden doll, in face very like General Tom Thumb, the American dwarf.’ Once in the parlour of a convent in Spain I saw a nun dancing joyfully with a pudgy plaster Baby Jesus in her arms. I do have statues of the Infant of Prague, and a painting I once did of him, but perhaps more importantly he inhabits, one way or another, alongside the Black Madonna, certain strands of my fiction.
Now some of the deep preoccupations of my fiction are conception, pregnancy, babies, children. And lost children. Also art, as it happens, is a preoccupation of my fiction. These are obviously habits of my thinking and imagination. I am not saying they are unusual, just that they seem to be a natural element in my writing, currents that flow through the narratives. And they sometimes chime with the sacred imagery of Mary and Jesus. Conception and childbirth are of course central to the Christian story. The whole Bible can be seen to hinge on those few words in the Gospels about the conception and birth of Christ. ‘And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.’
There are other celebrated statues of the Infant Jesus in churches throughout the world, and although I have never visited the Infant of Prague, I saw, in 1974, the Bambinello in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome. This was in fact the statue Charles Dickens described as resembling Tom Thumb. The Bambinello doesn’t have the fame of the Infant of Prague, but he is very important and beloved in Italy, particularly in Rome where he is taken out in a special car to visit the sick. He is also considered to be significant in money matters. If you climb on your knees the one hundred and twenty four steps of the marble staircase that leads up to the Church in Aracoeli, you might win the lottery. In 1994 I noticed a very small newspaper item saying that the Bambinello had been stolen. Not just art theft, but sacrilege. Here were two of my preoccupations coming together – the holy child’s statue and the lost child. The lost child statue. There is even a little personal echo in there – whatever became of the Infant of Prague in the suitcase with the dolls? The common sense answer to that one is that somebody gave the suitcase to a charity, and the Infant ended up in a shop and was sold for thirty pieces of copper.
It is twenty years since the Bambinello was stolen. It has never been recovered, and the statue that now stands in the church in Rome is a copy, also made from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane. (I love the beginning of Pinocchio, the words being a subversion of fairy tales and of the idea of the making of a holy statue – once upon a time there was a piece of wood.) Anyway, the powers of the new Bambinello are the same as those of the original. This is an interesting concept – whichever way you happen to look at it. And the question arises: how about the powers of the stolen one?
International art theft is big business, but business requires a buyer. Who would buy the Bambinello, and why? He is decorated in jewels, but there must be easier ways to steal jewels. I asked myself this question, and because one way I answer questions is to write fiction, the result was a novel.
It was Ford Madox Ford who described the novel as ‘a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.’ I like that.
The Bambinello can not be classified as a work of great art, although he is a kind of work of art. Artifact I suppose. He is a fifteenth century statue sixty cm high, and his legend says that he was made in the Holy Land by a Franciscan. He was carved out of a piece of wood from the garden of Gethsemene, was painted by angels, and was baptized in the River Jordan. The boat bringing him to Rome was shipwrecked, but he floated ashore. He is a focus for devotion, and as such can I think be described as holy, or sacred. He exists within the sacred space of the Aracoeli, and is set apart from the everyday while being linked to the darker realities of life such as illness and money. Thieves violate the sacred space of the church, and further transgress by abducting the sacred object. They remove from the gaze of the worshippers the focus of their devotion, the statue that is the conduit of their hopes and prayers.
My real interest here is not so much the arts in general, as the literary art. I write fiction – which is a matter of making up stories and writing them down. I made up a story about the theft of the Bambinello. That’s one thing. But it’s a big jump from thinking and writing about sacred objects to embracing the idea of ‘the sacred’.
Literature, suggest the notes about this conference, might make the sacred tangible. Or it might be a way of structuring the experience of the sacred. This may well be so. However I have to say that when I wrote the novel about the Bambinello, I was not conscious of setting out to do anything so grand.
‘The sacred’ in its abstract form must be the whole other realm of that which is set apart from all that is ‘unsacred’. I wonder if it is really possible to name a category ‘the sacred’ – or is it only possible to name objects or places as ‘being sacred’? How useful is the abstract noun when compared to the adjective? Is the literary art a gateway, a guide that can lead a person to enter the sacred? To perceive the sacred? Embrace the sacred? And does literary expression of aspects of the sacred bring the realm of the sacred into the realm of the unsacred? I hesitate to use the word ‘profane’ here because I think it might have too many misleading connotations. So ‘unsacred’ is now in my working vocabulary. I have never thought of it before. Literature can tell you where to look, how to look, what to do with the sacred when it confronts you. More elusive for me than the terms ‘arts’, ‘literature’ and ‘the sacred’, is the word ‘grounding’ in this context. I have chosen to interpret it for my purposes to mean ‘placing’ and ‘revealing’. Placing the sacred by means of making art or literature. As a client of art or literature, finding a way to know, to recognize what is sacred.
It’s still rather too grand for me.
As a fiction writer I don’t set out to invoke the sacred. I think that writing poetry usually has a whole different approach, and probably does often have as its aim an access to the numinous. But for a fiction writer what generally comes first is the excitement of telling stories, of making some sense of things by inventing narrative. Could that mean I am, when writing a story, sometimes trying to make sense of the sacred? Actually, I am inclined to think that it might not be possible to make sense of it. In the case of this novel, which is called Child of the Twilight, there was the inspiration from the news item about the theft of the statue – a news item which chimed with some of my preoccupations – statue of holy child, lost children, babies and pregnancy and conception (working backwards there). All this led to the construction of a fictional narrative, a story that touches on the sacred, but is in the first place more interested in the characters and the plot than in guiding readers towards the sacred. It is possible that by way of the plot and the characters, the novel addresses the question of the sanctity of human life. That’s possible.
When readers consider a novel they are in the luxurious position of being able to interpret it from several angles and in various ways. Things readers say, things critics say, things reviewers say, things academics say about a book are often something of a surprise to the writer. The writer is working from the inside out, while the reader is coming at it from the outside in. What I think I am doing isn’t necessarily the same as what a reader sees me doing. As a writer I reveal my moral position on matters whether I know it or not, and I reveal a great deal more than that. I think there is a lot of truth in the idea that readers find what they must in a text. Charlotte Bronte has the narrator of Vilette say: ‘To a feather-brained schoolgirl nothing is sacred.’ She could be right. There are readers and readers.
The title ‘Child of the Twilight’ was really meant to be ‘Child of the Twilight of Time’ but the publisher’s marketing department cut it back because it was too long. Now I come to think of it, that’s item number one in what is different in what I was doing and what the reader sees. The title on this book actually means nothing to me.
Child of the Twilight is narrated by a young American woman, a novelist born in 1988. She is named Sydney, after the Australian place where she was conceived. Her parents were both infertile, and Sydney was the result of genetic material from two unknown and undocumented sources. So although the woman she calls mother did give birth to her, by Assisted Reproductive Technology, known by its acronym as ART, she can never trace her own true history. (The same letters in a different order form the common acronym for Religious Art Theft.) The fact of her origins is central to Sydney’s own understanding of herself and of the world in general. Her family is wealthy, travelled, and pious, education of its girls being in Sacred Heart schools. This places them in the worldwide and very real family of girls who went to Sacred Heart convents. Sydney herself is a species of non-believer, considering all knowledge with a fairly cold eye. She describes herself as Sydney the Navigator, sometimes commenting on her own construction of the fiction the reader is reading. Her mother went to a Sacred Heart school in California with the mother of a young Franciscan from Tasmania. This priest, Roland the Good, was delivering a letter to the statue of the Bambinello on the night that the statue went missing. The search for the statue takes the story through several closely related narratives of conception and birth and death and loss, all with a focus on the sacred statue of the Bambinello. The true identity of the statue, the true identities of the characters – these are all questioned. Sydney sees herself as being outside ordinary reality because, in her conception, she lost the history of her own bloodlines, and is deeply interested in the bloodlines of her characters. Like the writers of the Old Testament she has a preoccupation with procreation. And don’t forget the famous found baby – Moses in the bulrushes. There’s a happy ending. Sydney says she takes a ‘biblical approach to character, whereby this one begat that one begat the other – until you get to the one who is really going to do the deeds and make the difference to things.’ Luke’s Gospel gives Mary’s bloodline; Matthew’s Gospel gives Joseph’s. But Sydney says: ‘The idea of bloodlines really appeals to me as a literary device partly because I am totally unbegotten, so that I personally lie outside the Bible, having no bloodline to speak of.’ She goes on to say that in the case of Jesus she can ‘follow the line that leads to Mary. But Mary is simply the Pure Vessel, isn’t she? The uterus. It’s not as if she supplied the Oocyte to the Godly Spermatozoon. As I understand it – and my understanding is possibly flawed here – the miraculous foetus arrived holus bolus, going from the Word to the Flesh in one clean movement. So while I don’t claim to be miraculous in the same way – although I am a modern miracle – I can see a parallel between myself and Jesus in that we are both outside the biblical theory of character.’
And so Sydney begins the story of the Bambinello and her other characters, most of whom have bloodlines, and so could be biblical, she says, were the Bible to be brought up to date.
It all starts like this:
‘Early on a wet February evening in 1994, Roland Bruccoli, a young Franciscan Father from Australia, arrived in Rome. Through the blurred windows of his cab he saw lights misted in greenish haloes around the street lamps as he drove through the dusk. It was Roland’s first visit to Italy, and for sentimental reasons he went swiftly to the Franciscan church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli to pay a visit to the miraculous statue of the Infant Jesus, the Bambinello. His mother in Melbourne had asked him to do this. She believed that Roland’s birth in 1964 had been in answer to a request she made to the statue, and the idea of her son bearing a message to the Bambinello was sweet and deeply satisfying. Such hopes and prayers may be answered in unexpected ways, and the unexpected ways can be so very unexpected.
Things were, you see, more complicated than this pleasant little story sounds, for Roland had a twin, Eleena. When they were four years old, Eleena had run joyfully up a green embankment dotted with pink and white daisies. She ran onto the road and into the path of an oncoming car. This was during a neighbourhood cricket match, and Roland had been running behind his sister. Their father’s voice – Eleena, Roland, Eleena, stop, come back Eleena – died out, the sound of the word Eleena hanging on the air.
Everything stopped. The ball, the bat, the bowler, the conversation of the spectators, the laughter of children playing. Time. The daisies. The sun for a fragment of a second was arrested in the heavens, and one small cloud hung motionless just above the horizon. The car stopped. The young driver rushed forward, fell on her knees over the warm dead child. The air was cold, suddenly chill with disbelief. Cherry-red beads from Eleena’s broken necklace pattered across the road onto the sweet damp silent grass on the verge, bouncing into the gutter, rolling under and over little daisy faces.
I remember the story of Eleena’s death as my mother told it to me over the years. My mother has a catalogue of tales of babies and children lost and gone, one way and another. I think it is a habit of mind she has formed, a kind of accompaniment to her own infertility – children are so hard to come by, so fragile, so easily lost. Eleena was on our prayer list. An old-fashioned Catholic childhood can be a strangely morbid affair at times, with the communion of saints, meaning the company of the dead, forever hovering around, needing support, sometimes supporting in their turn.
Roland’s mother’s request regarding the message to the Bambinello in 1994 was clearly not a simple one, and was inevitably complicated by Eleena’s death all those years before. Roland, her envoy, her courier, had with him in the Roman church a small pink envelope in which there was a letter to the Bambinello. It was Roland’s task to place the envelope in one of the golden baskets provided, to send the message on its way. Heaven knows what was in the letter.
The church of the Aracoeli was empty. A few candles were still burning, conveying hopes and prayers to Heaven. It was almost time, said the Friar who met Roland at the door, to take the Bambinello into the safety of the monastery for the night. But something most strange had happened.
The Baby Boy was gone.
Roland blinked at the empty space where the golden thing should be, was not, and he felt a creeping, billowing fear. Around him an eerie atmosphere of anguish had opened up like some poisonous silver and black flower. Almost all the candles had died, their messages and prayers delivered in warm pinky yellow light to Heaven. The police came, at once, it seemed, in a breathless and vivid silence. But no traces of the thieves were found. They conducted short interviews, took notes, photographs, made diagrams, crossed themselves, looked at Roland with mulberry-black eyes and a quizzical air.
Not quite of suspicion, not quite of respect. What was an Australian doing here?’
The novel then traces the lives of the characters as they intersect with the Bambinello. Of course I won’t tell you the outcome. It ends with a letter from the narrator, Sydney, to you, the reader. She says that you may join in with the characters and pray for those who have died. (People have died in the course of the story.) She says you might be writing letters to the Bambinello yourself, asking for happy future outcomes for your own personal Assisted Reproductive Technology. She signs off with the words: ‘May your oocyte be sweetly receptive, may your spermatozoon joyfully go the distance. Only time will tell, she says, Only time will tell.’
Perhaps this narrative of the theft of the Bambinello may invite readers to contemplate some of the drama of the realm of the sacred. Only time will tell.