Tongue Kissing

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Il Santo preaches to fish.

Every story about devotion is a story about waiting. When the devotion in question involves relics–those bits and pieces of saints the faithful have worshipped as long as saints have been dying–it usually is a story about waiting a very long time.

Before I saw my first relic, I stood at the end of a line of pilgrims wrapped around the altar of an Umbrian basilica, down the aisle between the wall and the pews, under the tableaux of a half-relief stations of the cross carved in wood. Each of the stations’ fourteen squares depicted a scene from the crucifixion as large and menacing as a horror movie poster, but no one paid them much attention. Everyone was too busy waiting. The single-file crowd checked their watches, folded pages in their guidebooks, laughed and grumbled and planned in a dozen languages.

In front of me, a young mother with dyed black hair and a matching biker jacket watched her toddling son clap his palms on the polished floor and then warned him in German–”behuren Sie sich nicht!”Don’t touch that!–each time he wandered into questionable territory. The boy had blond hair and spitty wet fingers and was eyeing a dried piece of gum stuck to one of the basilica’s marble columns. Both column and gum seemed to have been there for an eternity, and when the boy pinched the gray wad his mother hissed–Horst! Nicht!–as if its removal would bring the whole place tumbling down.

The line shuffled forward and little Horst fell in behind his parents, tucking his face into the back of his father’s knees. Latching on with one hand to a fold of green denim, reinserting the other in his mouth for safekeeping, he let his feet drag on the ground to show how bored he was with all of this. He seemed to be about two, probably at the tail end of his oral fixation phase, and I wondered if his parents had tried to explain why it was they had brought him to this dark church in the middle of a lovely summer day. Had he been able to understand what he was waiting for, he might have been more excited.

At the end of this queue, which stretched from the entrance a hundred yards behind us to some point beyond where we could see, there was said to be a very special tongue. A human tongue from a human head. A tongue that was believed to have the power to give speech the to dumb and eloquence to the tongue-tied. A tongue so potent, legend and guidebooks proclaim, that it was found whole, pink, and healthy after the body it had spoken for had gone to dust.

It was not just any tongue, of course, but La lingua del Santo–the “Tongue of the Saint.” In the ancient city of Padua, two hundred miles or so north of Rome, “the Saint” refers always and only to Saint Anthony, whose basilica this was. Saint Anthony is the patron saint of lost objects needing to be found. All of us, a thousand tourists on any given day, were there to see what was left of him.

Behind me in line, a middle-aged Italian opened his eyes wide whenever I glanced in his direction. Each time our gazes crossed, the two sides of his bushy brow arced and separated like a drawbridge being raised. With his puffy lips and sagging jowl, he looked to me–uncharitably, I admit–like a man trawling for anonymous sex. When finally he spoke I was not entirely relieved of this suspicion.

“For the tongue you come, eh?”

“Excuse me?”

He looked at me with a wounded expression, as if hurt by my lack of understanding.

“Sorry, my English, it is–” He didn’t finish the thought. Instead he clarified, “Saint Anthony, yes? You are here to see him? You like the Saint?”

“Oh. Yes,” I said, “though I don’t know much about him.”

“Ah!” The Italian grinned like a lottery winner, his confidence restored by the fact that, as far as he was concerned, it was not his English that was the problem; I was merely ignorant. “I know!” he cheered. “I know! All the stories of Il Santo, I know.”

From somewhere behind him, a pilgrim made a pssst noise and others clucked in agreement, raising and pointing their chins in a gesture meant to urge us on. I turned to see that the line had moved forward again. There was now ten feet of empty floor between the German family and me. I put my hand in the air as apology to the waiting throng and half-jogged to close the gap.

In the moment it took for him to rejoin me, the Italian had transformed himself from a possible sex-fiend into a combination tour guide and Borscht Belt comedian. “All the stories I know,” he repeated. “Have you heard the one of the saint and the fishes?”

Before I could say I hadn’t, he was off, launching into an excited monologue that brought beads of sweat to his drawbridge brow.

“They say, once, Saint Anthony, he was at the seaside. And the unbelievers tell him, Anthony you are no good and your God also, no good! And he say, If you don’t hear me I will give my back to you and tell my sermon to the fish. Because the fish they will have better understanding. And Anthony, he says out loud: Fish! You are good because God make you good. You eat all you want, never work. You have the ocean to live in and never worry. Good! Good!

“When the fish they hear this they all swim in close and jump out of the water to listen. Anthony says to the unbelievers, See?

“You understand, yes? It is because of the tongue!” He pointed ahead, toward a place in the basilica where the queue turned a corner and disappeared out of sight. “This tongue!”

We all ambled forward a few feet more. The Italian touched my arm and I took long steps to try to shake him. I kept my eye on the opposite wall, as if something had suddenly caught my attention. It was only by chance that I looked down and saw Horst stretched out on the floor. His mother glanced back then and hoisted him up by his belt, apologizing with her eyes.

“They say,” the Italian continued, “when Anthony hear confessions one day a man come and tell him, Santo, I have kicked my mother! And Anthony say, Any foot that would kick the mother who made it should be cut off! Saint Anthony tell him more but these words the man cannot forget. When he leave the church, you know what he do? He run home, cut his foot!”

“On the road?”


“Did he cut his foot on the road?” I asked slowly. “On the way home?”

“No!” The Italian made a sawing motion, rubbing the edge of his right hand across his left wrist. “Cut! FFFTTT! Off!

“When Anthony hear what happened, he feel awful, because he know, people believe his words. Whatever he say, they do. The power of the tongue, eh? So he go to the man, put his foot back on.” He pressed his hands together like he praying and then worked his palms back and forth as if grinding something between them. “Like that. And the man, he can walk. He learn his lesson. Never kick his mother again.”

The pilgrims lurched forward, around a bend now, and I followed the Germans into a narrow passage behind the altar. Five yards ahead, the line changed from relative order to a small-scale mob. Some stopped and turned to the left to take a long look while others forced their way through the traffic of bodies, impatient to move on now that the waiting was done. I couldn’t yet see what was causing the commotion, but it was impossible to miss the lightning storm of camera flashes blinking off the walls, despite the repeated warnings we’d all received against photographic desecration.

At least they wanted only pictures. Back in the heyday of the veneration of relics, religious authorities had to keep constant guard over the sacred remains they displayed. A story is told of an English bishop who, while on pilgrimage in France, toured a monastery that had a shrine containing the full skeleton of Mary Magdalene. Impressing the monks with his piety, the bishop stooped to put his lips on the holy lady’s hand. No one noticed that by the end of his kiss, he had bitten off a piece of her finger. He held it in his mouth for the rest of the tour, then returned to England to build a shrine of his own.

So it’s no surprise the basilica guards seemed content to let the tongue photos slide. Not that they could have done much about it. The number and speed of the flashes in the passageway suggested that the crowd of Australians, Koreans, and Americans (and at least six other nationalities I could count) were intent on spending their time in Padua as paparazzi of the dead.

In the middle of the hubbub a family of pilgrims dipped to their knees in front of the entrance to a small chapel, which I could now see was to blame for the gridlock.

La Capella delle Reliquie,” the Italian whispered. From others in line I heard it spoken of in French and Spanish as LaChapelle des Reliques, and LaCapila de la Reliquies, The Chapel of the Relics, but a sign in English identified it somewhat more bluntly as The Treasury. It contained not only St Anthony’s tongue but his jawbone and a small piece of cartilage believed to be his larynx.

The kneeling family had been mostly silent through the forty minutes I’d been in line, so I couldn’t guess their nationality, but their manner and dress suggested they were some variety of Europeans. When they rose, they crossed themselves with the absentminded ease of Crusaders’ distant kin. Wherever they were from in what remains of Christendom, this was their own indigenous weirdness, unchanged for a thousand years.

The Germans fought their way through the throng, and the Italian and I followed close behind, moving easily through the wake created by the stroller the father pushed before him. When the mother reached the reliquary, her mouth dropped slack. She called out to her son, “Horst! Sehen Sie? Eine Zunge!”

But Horst didn’t seem to hear her. He turned and ran into the crowd, disappearing among the tourists’ legs as their cameras flashed like a strobe. When his mother raced to catch him, it was finally my turn to approach the tongue.

Reaching the pedestal on which it stood, I was surprised to see that the reliquary looked like nothing so much as a model lighthouse: a thin tall stanchion supporting a glass cylinder, though in this case the cylinder contained not a lantern but a cone-shaped scrap of human flesh. As the story goes, at the time of its discovery in the saint’s tomb eight hundred years before, the tongue had been so moist and plump it looked ready to deliver a sermon all on its own, lack of teeth or brain or lips be damned. Now though the ornamentation of the gold around it seemed more appropriate for the Hope Diamond than for the chewed piece of licorice the tongue had come to resemble. The pedestal was spotted with fingerprints, and more than a few pilgrims went so far as to stand on their toes to plant kisses directly on the marble around the reliquary’s base. Centuries of such contact had added a greasy bit of color to the gray stone, a soft pink mix of lipstick, finger oil, and spit, evidence that as many people as there were smudges had stood on this spot and tried to make contact with Il Santo, and through him, with God.

I put my fingers to my mouth and then as close to the relic as I could reach. The stone was cold to the touch but slightly slick, like a sweating beer bottle on a summer day. As I drew my hand back, I felt hot breath on my neck and then heard the voice of my self-appointed tour guide, anxious to leave me with one last story.

“They say,” he whispered, “when Saint Anthony preach outside, it never rain. Even the clouds, they stop to listen. Because of la lingua,” he stressed. “The tongue! Pray to it to find words when you need them.”

I thanked him for all he’d told me and then hurried toward the exit. On the way out, I saw little lost Horst out of the corner of my eye. He had wandered alone into the corner of the chapel and now stood puzzling over what all the fuss was about. One hand down his pants, the other up his nose, he looked on the mass of adults crowding the holy tongue like he was the only one with his priorities straight.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.