Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Presents from above

To me the shrines, sanctuaries and chapels dotted around the Italian landscape form a perpetual enigma. Holy statues and saints peeping out of windows from their holes in house walls are ordinary sights of comfort and wonder. The stone shrines and prayer houses along the roads appear alternately sad and cheerful, depending on whether they have been raised to commemorate a death or a miracle. And then there are the small one-man-chapels in the middle of nowhere that tend to leave a big question mark in my mind.

To a non-catholic entering these sacred places seems like a transgression, but once my curiosity got the better of me, and I went inside a small chapel on a deserted mountain top in Calabria. The cool darkness and bare white-washed walls contained an altar with altar cloth, prayer candles, a wooden cross and – most surprisingly – small plastic trinkets, notes and letters to God. A few of these letters were very private and personal, but most of them resembled wish lists of the material ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a colour tv’ kind.

Perhaps the chapels serve as a divine post office forwarding mail to the world above. Or perhaps the altar corresponds to our shopping centre Santas to whom we whisper a list of wishes that magically manifest themselves as presents in a stocking or under a tree at Christmas. I just hope that all God’s pen pals including those with a laboured and shaky handwriting will have as much success with their wish lists.

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