Charles Keating and St. Cecelia
It is very hard to tell what Charlie knows. I talked with him for hours once, before his fall from grace and endless riches. He was impossible for me to dislike because he was so alive, so alert to the moment. And he was impossible for me to like because he was so empty. His brilliance was in his knowing his emptiness, in sensing it, and acting on it. He made money meaningless by squandering billions. He made power meaningless by creating nothing but buildings that did not matter even to himself, buildings that will tumble down in a few decades and become lots again. He made power meaningless by having no purpose, no target, no mission. He spent those billions and did not even leave us a huge pyramid or a legend of slave labor constructing some bizarre dream. I can never prove it but I sensed he recognized this emptiness and decided to become a Columbus of this void, sailing out where others did not dare go and all he found was more nothing and more nothing. True, like Columbus he left destruction in his wake, but he failed to mate, to mix, to give rise to some new entity or breed. So he left nothing. Such talk as this is, of course, easy to dismiss. We have a vocabulary for getting rid of it. We say free enterprise, capitalism, and if pushed hard, we say God. Charlie loves to talk this way, especially about God.
I want to tell you about St. Cecelia, but it could be any of them, these early Christian women. They guard their chastity, distracting potential husbands with small, childhood miracles (“Do you smell the flowers that aren’t here? Do you hear the voice of the angel singing?”). They stand like politicians on pedestals in a crowd, describing God’s glory with pentecostal passion. They convert everyone they touch. Except, of course, their eventual torturers, who arrive inexorably at the end of each story with axes and flames, stone-hearted, following orders.
And then still. It’s all so very long ago, and the players themselves not recordkeepers. The times so different from our own: A new messiah has recently walked the earth and miracles are falling from the sky like rain. These are necessarily operas, composed of large gestures. There are no historical persons left to us: just a life turned, in the repetition of the tale, to parable.
This is Rome, then. Ruled by pagans but increasingly, on the sly, populated with followers of that new underground and still-illegal thing, Christianity. It’s the year 220 A.D., when the erudite Marcus Aurelius was emperor and Jesus only a few hundred years dead. The Empire regards Christians as dangerous fanatics, loose cannons, hidden persuaders. Think, for a modern analogy, about those girls in Salem. Think about the Mormons. Think about Jim Jones.
Now think about a young woman, the betrothed Cecilia, daughter of nobles and a Christian since birth, shut up in her room fasting and begging the saints and angels to guard her virginity against the impositions of marriage. Alone with her husband Valerian in the bridal chamber, Cecelia tells him that she has as her lover an angel of God, and that any attempts on his part to consummate their earthly marriage will bring down God’s wrath upon him.
Show me the angel, Valerian tells her. Wouldn’t you say the same thing?
To see the angel, you have to believe, Cecelia says. She sends him off to the countryside to be catechized by her spiritual guide, Pope Urban. Valerian is dazzled and baptized and gains a vision of Cecelia’s angel. Now everything begins to tear at the seams. Cecelia is arrested, for preaching, silver-tongued, on streetcorners. She has converted 400 people.
Examples must be made. Punishments are public events. The Romans plunge Cecelia into a boiling bath. She only smiles and prays. They try to drown her, but she lives. A soldier is ordered to chop off her head, and with three blows he tries, but can’t separate her head from her trunk.
She is dying a miraculous death. She bleeds from the neck for three days, praying and preaching to all who’ll listen. Throngs of her converts come and collect her blood on scraps of fabric. She is a dying woman, a saint in the making.
Those scaps later turn up in reliquaries all over modern Italy and people say those scraps heal the sick, strengthen the weak, make wicked hearts sing with repentance. Cecelia is adopted as the patroness of musicians. They pluck strings and blow horns and flutter their voices in praise of their saint, that she might grant them salvation. Solace. Nimble fingers and strong lungs.
But Cecelia was no musician. The original record of her deeds notes that while an organ played at her marriage, Cecelia sang in her heart to Christ to keep herself pure. Singing is praying, in these early days, but over the years, it came to be told that the sweet-voiced Cecelia sang out loud to her true love, Jesus, on her wedding day. Poor Valerian.
Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including Blues for Cannibals, forthcoming from Northpoint, and Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America, also forthcoming from Northpoint and from which the above is excerpted. He is a contributor to Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, KtB’s forthcoming book (The Free Press).
Kio Stark, a writer in Brooklyn, has also sung the praises of goodness for The Nation, Feed, Pakn Treger, and other saintly rags. By day she works for the forces of evil, writing advertisements.