Tuesday, June 28, 2005


I'm fascinated by religion. I'm fascinated by train wrecks too, but I don't really want to get involved in either one. I'm more than willing to stand on the sidelines and gawk at the mass destruction though.

Do-It-Yourself religion appeals to me more than the corporate variety, so I'm always on the lookout for impromptu shrines: Small white crosses in the red dirt beside an Arizona highway; Smooth gray river stones stacked under green ferns in the Smokey Mountains; Sneakers hanging from telephone wires; Play-On Mary, AKA advantage Mary, protecting a small fenced schoolyard....
(This isn't Play-On Mary. This is her friend, Fatima of the Dixie Cup)

My favorite find so far has to be Our Lady of the Vespas.

Maybe we were on Via del Polacchi or Via Paganacia. Someone who knows Rome can (and will) correct me. Somehow, I misplaced Villa Borghese. Not an easy feat. That's like losing Central Park in New York. But is was gone, misfolded in my map, leaving us to wander the deserted, sun-baked streets of Rome in mid-summer.

Process of elimination. We were not Englishmen. Therefore, we were mad dogs.

Whatever direction we were headed, it felt wrong, so we ducked into the first narrow, shady street we passed. In the shop windows were huge baroque candlesticks and heavy goblets like something out of the last Indiana Jones movie. All the stuff a person would need to start up a church was there for the buying.

Like heatstroke, a revelation hit me. Religion is a business.

Hardly a groundbreaking philosophy there, but it seemed like an epiphany. It was wonderful and awful at the same time, seeing the backside of the facade like that. So blantently commercial.

Why do we let them get away with it? What other business in the world could get away with selling something that they've never been able to prove that they deliver - Enternal Life. Not only do they fail to prove their claims, but they use the worst fear tactics on the most vulnerable members of society to sell their snake oil. (Would you like to drop your life savings into our collection plate, or would you rather SUFFER IN HELL FOR ALL ETERNITY?) And they're ruthless competitiors. Don't you think Pepsi would love to be able to burn Coke's executives at the stake, and then tell all Coke drinkers that unless they switch, it'll happen to them too?

We were supposed to be looking for the Temple of Minerva, but there was enough wisdom to go around in front of that plate glass window. I stared greedily at a very cool bishop's chapeau and wondered aloud how much it would set me back. Talk about the ultimate souvenir! A bishop's miter was way more inspired than the Pope bobble-head doll that, up until that moment, had been my Holy Grail tchochke.

My long suffering traveling companion tried to pull me away from the window.

I could feign complete innocence when the need arose - daily - so I batted my eyelashes and said, sweet as you please, "I bet they have those embroidery machines just like Disneyland. I'll get my name on it in gold thread!"

He grabbed my elbow and steered my to an alleyway for one of those stern talks. "Please," he begged. "Just - please!"

What I heard was, "I double dog dare ya!"

Anticipating a problem in translation from weary traveler to toublemakerese, my traveling companion kept a firm hold on my arm. He knew from past (read:bad) experience that the impish gleam in my eye meant that as soon as he let go, I'd make a dash for the shop door. He tried to keep hold of me, but we were sweating and my sunscreen was a slick layer over my skin.

"Okay, I'll go in and ask how much it costs, if you promise to STAY. And be ready to run in case they're offended."

What a guy!

I would have yanked his chain a bit longer, but the picture of the Madonna gazing serenely down at the Vespas at the end of the alleyway caught my eye. I realized that I had stumbled into a rare cathedral of spontaneous occult worship. Urban Shrines were mystical places that could only be seen by the fully aware mind, or one that was woozy from too much heat, strong sun, and lots of Italian table wine.

Intrepid, much put upon, traveling companion went to the door of the store, offered a muttered prayer to the azure sky, and yanked the knob. The door rattled but didn't open.

"Hah! They're closed!" He crowed.

Hallelujah! Another miracle - courtesy of Our Lady of the Vespas.