In the darkness, I follow my parents and brothers through chilly Venetian streets. We’re pulled along with the crowds on a lengthy walk that only ends when we reach a church. It’s November. I’m wearing my pink coat. I’m nine years old. I don’t remember anything else.
Years later, that walk stays in my memory only because my parents bring it up to tease my younger brother. It was the occasion of one of his most comical tantrums when, at four years old, he violently insisted that he did not want to go into any more churches (he is now considering the priesthood). “He kicked me in the shins!” my father recalls, as shocked now as he was then.
If I didn’t know it was November when we visited Venice, I might never have realized in retrospect that my parents had taken us to the city’s annual plague procession. Held every year on the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, the event honors Mary’s victory over a 1630 epidemic that killed a third of the Venetian population. To this day, citizens mark their gratitude by praying as they walk through the city, crossing special pontoon bridges as they wind toward the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. Settled on its little peninsula, this is the church they built in honor of the Virgin – the church they offered her if only she would help them. In college, during a summer course that took me back to Venice, I would see La Salute again, brilliant in the sunlight though it had been shuttered in my memory for a decade.
Gratitude has endured there nearly four hundred years, taking on the wonderful solidness of marble. It is a little incarnation of a memory, a physical Psalm sitting by the water: I will extol you, Lord, for you have raised me up… I cried to you for help, and you have healed me (Ps. 30:2-3). I didn’t see this when I stood before the church at nine years old, and I didn’t know, either, that the pleas of those plague-racked Venetians would be resurrected in my time. Today, we reside deep in the petitions of the Psalms as we wait for the later verses, the saving help, looking for it like the basilica’s white dome rising over the houses of Venice, chasing it like the long steps of the church that run down to the water.
In greatly troubling times, the Venetians made great promises. They allowed gratitude – a thing our pride rejects as burdensome – to become part of their physical life and surroundings, their living tradition; they made it a precious heirloom passed from generation to generation. Most important, of course, are the monuments they created in their hearts, and we will never see those in this life.
The baroque decadence of La Salute is an outgrowing of that interior hope. I look at the pictures I took of the dome a few summers ago, and I wonder if my own gratitude has ever been so strong as that. If I haven’t been moved to basilican heights for the things I’ve already received—Baptism, Communion, the Cross, every moment of my life – what will move me now? Maybe it’s time to let those things impress themselves on us again. It’s time we let churches be built on the narrow peninsulas within us. Save me, we say with the Venetians, who cried out for help from a city built on so much plundered wealth. Save me and I will set your glory on the shores of my soul.
Venice wasn’t the first time in my childhood I crossed paths with the Black Death. Living for a while in southern Germany, my family regularly visited Oberammergau, the village whose famous Passion play is a relic of their own salvation from the plague. They promised to perform it every decade if their people would be spared further death. It is their live-action La Salute, a monument they build and rebuild with their bodies so many times in each generation. They were delivered from their crisis in 1634 – by then, the construction of Venice’s basilica was beginning. Miracles, miracles, miracles, succeeding each other like acts of a play.
It’s summer twelve years ago and I’m still too young to care what the date is. We like it in Oberammergau. It’s beautiful, nestled in the mountains, visibly Catholic, as sleepy in August as in December, if it’s not a play year. There are images and ornamentations everywhere, painted on the sides of houses – a Bavarian trait. Employees at the Passion theatre let my eight-year-old cousin try on a Roman soldier’s helmet; he is elated.
Who would have guessed ours, too, would be a plague generation? That we would arm ourselves against a similar enemy? But our most dangerous opponent has been around much longer, and the victory over him has been won. The people of Oberammergau knew this when, desperate, they pledged to reenact that highest victory every ten years until – well, until forever, until the Judgment. Perhaps that is the part of the story that dazes us the most. No statute of limitations has been built into their Passion play; at La Salute, too, the processions still come, though the people who were saved are now dust in the tomb. Still, their thankfulness persists. Conditions for their gratitude were scrubbed away like infectious materials, and all that contamination – that cap we put on our praise of God – was thrown out.
Even so, sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, their apparent bargaining with God. The play, the basilica…were these only trade deals? We’ll put on this performance if you’ll save us, Lord! How to understand this? How many times have I thought, wrongly, that I could always make “swaps” with God, not recognizing I have nothing to offer that He hasn’t given me Himself? In Venice, in college, I told St. Anthony I’d name a future child after him if he located my missing passport (which he did). That was some bargaining – well-intentioned bargaining – and a good lesson for me when I saw the saint was listening. But was it something hasty like this that brought about La Salute and the Passion play?
How could that be? God doesn’t need a Passion play – He’s been through the real thing. He doesn’t need our construction efforts – He built mountains. We need the play, because this continual practice of gratitude sets us in right relation with Him, helps us throw ourselves into the sacrifice of thankfulness. He’ll do what He knows is best, and we learn to thank Him even if, perhaps many times, the reality tastes bitter. I doubt the Venetians and the people of Oberammergau saw their exchanges as an equal trade, a fair transaction. On the edge of the cliff, they had nothing left but to say, We can’t be saved by our own efforts, and We don’t deserve to be saved by yours, but if you do this for us, what can we do except offer you the highest praise we have? Far from a bargaining chip.
The fact is, this faith (which pledges to build basilicas if Mary will save Venice) seems part of a faith that will thank God even if He does not do what they ask. A people with this faith loves His will no matter the shape; a people like this plays their role because it loves the playwright, even when His work goes over their heads. Death, illness, sorrow, let them take stage. Let all the plans of the people be swept away except the intention to be with their God, and they will still applaud. But if He does grant them this thing they want so much – well! To understand that kind of joy, crane your head up and let the heights of La Salute fill your vision.
Now, on my bedroom wall in the U.S., I have a Crucifix from Oberammergau. It’s the perfect Crucifix, I think – delicately painted, the right size to hold in both hands when that’s what you need to do. And because it’s carved from wood, it’s light and somewhat fragile, like real bodies are, like Christ was – I never brought it to my college dorm rooms because I was afraid to break him. It’s a little relic from the plague town which became the Passion town. Leading up to Holy Week, the Crucifix is wrapped in a white handkerchief like a burial cloth, but it’s days before I remember the handkerchief came from Venice.
Late one night, I’m asking Him why He made me; I tell Him I need to know. And because He understands that sometimes we comprehend images better than speech, I let myself unwrap the Crucifix and look at it. What different answers we can take from that one testament! Do we look at His dying body and conclude, We were made for pain? Or do we think, Only love could have led Him here; we were made for love? One answer kills us faster than the plague. The other inflames a gratitude to last to the thousandth generation.
I look at the Cross and I know that the tales of Oberammergau and Venice are so far from cheap fairytales. They are not about God who watches our suffering with apathy, who is sometimes appeased by worldly gifts if that’s what He wants that day. Weren’t we saying even in the Old Testament, Burnt offerings from me would not please you … my sacrifice to God, a broken spirit: a broken and humbled heart, O God, you will not spurn? (Ps. 50:18-19). We can be sure that the hearts of the plague-peoples were broken, humbled, shrouded for burial. It was these that God accepted. I think that the play, the basilica, must speak to something that happened within the peoples, not to something they built that changed His mind.
Perhaps the gifts they made for God after the plague were not so much an appeasement but a part of the cure – a cure for too often ungrateful human spirits. He heals both the body and the soul, but if He had to choose, He would pick the soul first every time. Every time – and so His body died awhile, since that was the price of our souls. Every time – and so we trail after Him, making our littler sacrifices, playing our smaller parts. Stone on stone we try to understand what He has done.
History has come bounding around us with its pains and its mysteries. I think this is happening for everyone. Things I’d forgotten come back to me now; I ask my parents about the previously negligible origin of objects – my Crucifix, the handkerchief – and I realize what episodes of salvation I’ve been living alongside. They’ve been there, over by my door, and I’ve grown up with them. What will our monuments be? Who will we thank when this ends, no matter when or how it ends? Are we willing to let our processions take place in the dark streets, in the cold night – and what will we add to this strange procession of history?
We’ve inherited the lot of the sick. Each on our own time, I hope we also inherit their cry – Welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me (Ps. 16:6).
Adriana Watkins is a writer from Raleigh, North Carolina. She will graduate, virtually or otherwise, with an English degree from Boston College in May 2020.