My husband and I have returned to Rome for a few days to explore her many mysteries once again, and I wondered what I would discover on this trip, where I would be led, what adventure would unfold.
My novel, The Magdalene Mystery, to be released in May through OakTara Publishers, is set in Rome and Provence. Five of Rome’s extraordinary churches provide settings for the first half of the novel, and I wanted to see these churches again before signing off on the final proofs of the manuscript.
We found Santa Maria Maddalena on Saturday, using the route my protagonists take (to verify accuracy). We climbed the few steps to the simple doors set in the creamy Baroque façade and entered. As always when I enter La Maddalena, I took a sharp breath, for the beauty is tangible, the golds and marbles in such a small space filling my senses. I walked slowly up the central aisle, and halfway up, paused before the sweet icon of Our Lady of Health in the south aisle. I slipped a coin in to an iron box, reached for a votive candle and lit the wick with one already aflame, then set it carefully on the blackened tray. I said the Angelus, prayed for Our Lady’s prayers for my little novel set in this charming church. I then returned to the aisle and resumed my way to the high altar where a red candle burned. I genuflected, turned and saw the southern transept chapel was roped off. This was the Crucifix Chapel, where the scenes in this church are set. I looked around and saw a worker in a blue smock who was cleaning in the north aisle. We followed him into the ornate sacristy.
I asked the young man if he spoke English. Yes, he did, a little. I asked if he could give me the name of the priest-in-charge, so that I could send him a copy of my novel once available. Could he give me a name and address?
Ah, he said smiling, you would like a book about the church?
No, I said, I have written a book with the church in it. I want to give the church a book. As a thank you. (A huge thank you, I thought.)
He looked confused (which seems reasonable now on reflection) but raised his finger and moved toward the phone desk, where the resident clergy were listed on a laminated sheet. He picked up the phone, we waited, and after a minute, he hung up. Ah, he said, no one is home.
I was ready to give up the idea, but he raised his finger again and said, wait here. I go and find him. I think I hear him coming now.
We waited, wondering, and spent our time looking at the fantastic woodwork and paintings in this historic sacristy. Soon a slim dapper man in sweater and slacks approached us and shook our hands with ingenuous warmth. He was Father Paolo, and he was a Camillian, a brother of the Order of St. Camillus. The Camillians, Servants of the Sick, had been in charge of the church since it was built in the seventeenth century, shortly after Saint Camillus died in 1614, and before that in charge of the little oratory on the site. Father Paul didn’t wear the black cassock with the recognizable red cross on the front that identifies the Camillian Servants of the Sick, a red cross that was a forerunner of the Red Cross organization we all know today.
Father Paul spoke excellent English. He soon understood that my novel was set right here in his church.
He smiled. I will give you a tour, he said. You should have a privato tour. It is a big year for the Camillians. We will be celebrating our 400th anniversary! We are building a museum upstairs. It is not finished, but you can see.
Thus began a remarkable hour with Father Paolo who was incredibly gracious with his time and attention. He told us the story of their saint – the dissolute young Camillus de Lellis, converted after being wounded in war, after suffering for many years in Rome hospitals bleeding wounds that would not heal. He studied to become a priest, to help the sick throughout Rome, to comfort the dying, to nurse those with the plague. He gathered others around him who dedicated themselves to God to serve as he did, and the Pope gave them the small oratory near the Tiber dedicated to Mary Magdalene.
Ah, I said, yes, Mary Magdalene.
He nodded. Do you know the story of how the chapel came to be? No, I said. The Tiber flooded, he said, and the people found a wooden statue of the saint on the banks. It survived the flood, you see. They knew it was an image of Mary Magdalene because of the ointment jar she held. It is downstairs in the chapel.
I grinned. So that is how it got there, I thought. Another piece of the mysterious puzzle of Rome.
We were given a tour of the museum in progress – we passed workers upstairs with scaffolds and peered into the saint’s rooms. We saw relics and read histories, even how the wax mask was made of the face. And we returned downstairs where Father Paul led us in to the Chapel of the Crucifix.
I gazed upon the corpus on the cross. Like the crucifix in San Damiano that spoke to St. Francis outside of Assisi, Christ spoke to Camillus de Lellis when he was gathering his first helpers. At the time Camillus was discouraged. Was this really the work that he was supposed to be doing for God? Then he heard Christ say to him, “Keep going, for I will be with you and will help you. This is my work and not yours!”
I loved those words. They spoke to me as well. And as I gazed into the eyes of this joyful brother of St. Camillus, I knew they spoke to him. And I was grateful for this moment of friendship and communion.
So my little novel will be released in May, shortly before the great 400th year celebration of the Camillians, which as I understand, begins in July 2013 and lasts through July 2014, commemorating Camillus’s death July 14, 1614. I have not had a chance to read the thick glossy book our host gave us that is a part of the new celebration, but on glancing through it I can see that today the Camillian family of brothers and lay orders are worldwide, serving the sick and the suffering. They comfort and heal, build, and nurture.
They are bringing the love of Christ to the world’s people, and the people to Christ.
I was glad it was a good year for my novel to be born. As I said goodbye to the simple carving of Santa Maria Maddalena in the Crucifix Chapel and to the Madonna of Health glimmering in the south aisle, I was grateful. We said goodbye to Father Paolo. He gave us his blessing, and we stepped slowly down the aisle to the simple entrance, glancing up to the gilded choir loft with its golden cherubs and saints.
Our first day in Rome was indeed full of mystery and miracle.
Thanks be to God.