XXXI. SOUTHERN SAINTLINESS
Yet they vary in their gifts; each one, as I have said, has his or her strong point. Why? The reason of this diversity lies in the furious competition between the various monastic orders of the time - in those unedifying squabbles which led to never-ending litigation and complaints to head-quarters in Rome. Every one of these saints, from the first dawning of his divine talents, was surrounded by an atmosphere of jealous hatred on the part of his co-religionists. If one order came out with a flying wonder, another, in frantic emulation, would introduce some new speciality to eclipse his fame - something in the fasting line, it may be; or a female mystic whose palpitating letters to Jesus Christ would melt all readers to pity. The Franciscans, for instance, dissected the body of a certain holy Margaret and discovered in her heart the symbols of the Trinity and of the Passion. This bold and original idea would have gained them much credit, but for the rival Dominicans, who promptly discovered, and dissected, another saintly Margaret, whose heart contained three stones on which were engraven portraits of the Virgin Mary. [Footnote: These and other details will be found in the four volumes "Das Heidentum in der romischen Kirche" (Gotha, 1889-91), by Theodor Trede, a late Protestant parson in Naples, strongly tinged with anti-Catholicism, but whose facts may be relied upon. Indeed, he gives chapter and verse for them.] So they ceaselessly unearthed fresh saints with a view to disparaging each other - all of them waiting for a favourable moment when the Vatican could be successfully approached to consider their particular claims. For it stands to reason that a Carmelite Pope would prefer a Carmelite saint to one of the Jesuits, and so forth.
And over all throned the Inquisition in Rome, alert, ever-suspicious; testing the "irregularities" of the various orders and harassing their respective saints with Olympic impartiality.
I know that mystics such as Orsola Benincasa are supposed to have another side to their character, an eminently practical side. It is perfectly true - and we need not go out of England to learn it - that piety is not necessarily inconsistent with nimbleness in worldly affairs. But the mundane achievements, the monasteries and churches, of nine-tenths of these southern ecstatics are the work of the confessor and not of the saint. Trainers of performing animals are aware how these differ in plasticity of disposition and amenability to discipline; the spiritual adviser, who knows his business, must be quick to detect these various qualities in the minds of his penitents and to utilize them to the best advantage. It is inconceivable, for instance, that the convent-foundress Orsola was other than a neuropathic nonentity - a blind instrument in the hands of what we should call her backers, chiefest of whom (in Naples) were two Spanish priests, Borii and Navarro, whose local efforts were supported, at head-quarters, by the saintly Filippo Neri and the learned Cardinal Baronius.
This is noticeable. The earlier of these godly biographies are written in Latin, and these are more restrained in their language; they were composed, one imagines, for the priests and educated classes who could dispense to a certain degree with prodigies. But the later ones, from the viceregal period onwards, are in the vernacular and display a marked deterioration; one must suppose that they were printed for such of the common people as could still read (up to a few years ago, sixty-five per cent of the populace were analphabetic). They are pervaded by the characteristic of all contemporary literature and art: that deliberate intention to astound which originated with the poet Marino, who declared such to have been his object and ideal. The miracles certainly do astound; they are as strepitosi (clamour-arousing) as the writers claim them to be; how they ever came to occur must be left to the consciences of those who swore on oath to the truth of them.
During this period the Mother of God as a local saint increased in popularity. There was a ceaseless flow of monographs dealing with particular Madonnas, as well as a small library on what the Germans would doubtless call the "Madonna as a Whole." Here is Serafino Montorio's "Zodiaco di Maria," printed in 1715 on the lines of that monster of a book by Gumppenberg. It treats of over two hundred subspecies of Madonna worshipped in different parts of south Italy which is divided, for these celestial purposes, into twelve regions, according to the signs of the Zodiac. The book is dedicated by the author to his "Sovereign Lady the Gran Madre di Dio" and might, in truth, have been written to the glory of that protean old Magna Mater by one of Juvenal's "tonsured herd" possessed of much industry but little discrimination. [Footnote: The Mater Dei was officially installed in the place of Magna Mater at the Synod of Ephesus in 431.] Such as it is, it reflects the crude mental status of the Dominican order to which the author belonged. I warmly recommend this book to all Englishmen desirous of understanding the south. It is pure, undiluted paganism - paganism of a bad school; one would think it marked the lowest possible ebb of Christian spirituality. But this is by no means the case, as I shall presently show.