This week’s blog has been on my mind for awhile. Working from this pleasantly old-fashioned remodeled apartment, a stone’s throw from Chiesa Madrice, I’m motivated, believing today is the obvious opportunity for that posting. Without sounding religious, shoving God down anybody’s throat, I’ll graze over four points: Chiesa Madrice, alongside, Castellammare del Golfo’s history — my melanoma tumor three years ago, and a disguised method pertaining to prayer.
Castellammare del Golfo, its translation: Sea Fortress on the Gulf. A fishing village established by Arabs in 800 AD, then called Al Madarig, meaning The Steps. I sit here 19 miles west of Palermo, nestled by Sicily’s rugged mountainside. Fishermen in the 16th century had a vision of Madonna over Castellammare’s aqua-marine water. Perched a thousand feet above its quaint harbor near the Castello on Piazza Madrice is Chiesa Madrice — erected to honor Maria SS. del Soccorso, Patrona di Castellammare. Each August Castellammare del Golfo celebrates its festa; an evening candlelit procession hoists the Madonna and Child through town, finally boarding a small fishing boat, set off with Maria’s trailing flotilla — one frequently used scene in Italian films.
Of any church or cathedral I’ve entered, this place absolutely sends me. Never caught the acclaim Lourdes nor Fatima did, although if Vatican PR pushed, Chiesa Madrice might’ve received its due press. Crystal-clear light from a cloud-free Mediterranean sky illuminates an unassuming altar from lofty windows. The modest star of this show has her own altar stage right. She gleams white and gold beneath a twinkling halo, her nude infant son cradled in one arm, ornamental wand held by the other hand; both leading personalities bespangled, wearing gem-encrusted crowns — an object of beauty Jeff Koons wouldn’t dare misappropriate. A carved Prince of Peace stands mid-theatre, untouchable inside an inlaid wood and glass case. Soothing eyes, flawless complexion, soft beard, clothed by painted embroidered robe, a platinum heart tied to Jesus’ left wrist; His other hand’s upright index and middle finger touch each other, indicating righteous healing is underway. Holy water, no charge; we receive a double dose for good measure on the way in and out. One rough year I dunked my entire California driver’s license in for a proper soak. Most Saturday mornings at Chiesa Madrice are reserved for weddings, late afternoons dedicated to parishioners who absolve sin through sincere prayers of contrition. The Chiesa Madrice bell rings daily; its crisp note requires no amplified modification. Three black and wicker side chairs are situated against a beige marble column ten or so feet from Jesus in His fancy box. Three summers ago, every day at five, after a broiling sun eclipsed behind Castellammare’s protective mountain, Jeanette, LouLou and I filled those chairs facing that life-size Christ statue. Belief in Buddha works, so does Brahma; I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for ages, however, I’m still mesmerized by Catholicism’s tangible pomp and circumstance.
During that 5pm meditation several widows recited prayers together in Italian before the Virgin Mary; a stupendous backup group for our desperate plea to disintegrate my fuckin’ tumor. At summer’s close, early September, we flew to New York and had it removed; by then the tumor already became gelatinous mush, my doctor commented more than once how astonishing this was. Weeks later, a clean pathology report from UCSF confirmed victory on all fronts: one salvaged limb compliments of Chiesa Madrice — profound prayer, alongside an altruistic Park Avenue dermatologist.
Prayer is quite personal. It could come off proselytizing offering my personal experience, yet if you continue, a satisfying twist is under wraps. I was a thirty-three-year-old man, November 1991; wet behind the ears trying to cope with life no longer abusing liquor and drugs, two habits that prevented me from really living since age thirteen. AA and NA meetings were okay, however, what helped transform my behavior was CCC in Tiburon, California. Community Congregational Church is an interdenominational entity with panoramic views overlooking Mt. Tamalpais, Corinthian Island, Sausalito, Northwest San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Jeanette and I exchanged vows on their lawn fourteen years ago come August 4 — seven weeks prior to LouLou’s arrival redefining our future. During my early, frangible days at CCC, I sat in on every lecture possible: a Native American Indian, rabbi, monk, shaman — dream workshops, meditation classes, anything and everything to make nice-nice with God again after so much self-destruction.
Tossing all the insight gathered from CCC into life’s caldron, letting it slowly simmer another twenty-five years; I’m presently convinced prayer can find momentum. My mistake had always been praying for what I wanted: “God, gimme me a bicycle, I’m too big for my tricycle. Dear God, don’t let Mr. Anderson give me another F in science. Oh God, let the Vietnam War end, I don’t want to end up in a body bag too. Please God, if you get me out of jail this time, I won’t ever do coke again.” Fruitless those prayers. I flunked science, excelling in truancy throughout high school. Lenny, the English cocaine supplier who bailed me out, promptly packed my nose inside his vintage Impala, right outside 850 Bryant Street, in front of San Francisco’s main jail.
Stupid me; if I only knew all those years how the power of prayer could actually be catapulted. Quite some build-up huh, for what undoubtedly makes common sense from God’s perspective. Forget personal desires, not completely, simply put them on the back burner — be specific, I’ve heard God’s a stickler that way. For example, Jeanette may be concerned her right shoulder’s persistent ache might not heal on its own accord — a legitimate cry for prayer. Keeping that concern on hold, we’ll then focus prayer on someone else close losing their home — another’s nerve-racking child custody case — friends struggling through chemotherapy, or a patron’s upcoming surgery.
A miracle response to another’s prayer is the answer to ours. I’m gonna be artful here; famiglia di Schiavo are in no way impervious, we too have unanswered prayers. Because of this, we’re officially taking requests; even if you’ve already asked for our prayers, we’ll take on more. If you haven’t, but don’t want to get into finite details, simply email or Facebook us to enter the prayer list — quieting whatever this is that weighs heavy on your mind.
Besides netting beneath overhead frescoes which prevents peeling paint from falling onto churchgoers, my least favorite aspect of Chiesa Madrice is the absence of red and clear votive candle holders. Instead brass stands were installed some time ago, sprouting nine inch plastic faux candles, topped with tiny electric light bulbs and adjacent switches. You do have my solemn word — I promise not to offer your prayer at Chiesa Madrice’s electric candle stand, only from those three chairs in front of The Anointed One, or pews before Madonna and Child, stage right.