04 September 2011

4 September - Saint Rosalia

Today is the feast of Saint Rosalia (date of death unknown, but most accounts say c. 1160), a patron of Sicily, and especially of Palermo, which she (actually her relics) delivered from the plague in the 1620s.

There is no surviving account of her life before the late 16th century, when a story of sorts was cobbled together from traditions and paintings.  In it, she is a beautiful young noblewoman of Sicily (and a descendant of Charlemagne), much sought after by the highest born young men of the land, but fearing for her soul, she renounces her life of wealth and position and instead seeks one of penance and prayer in a mountain cave.  Her first hermitage was on Mount Coscina, near Bivona; next she moved to Mount Pellegrino.  Here she lived and died alone, and was pretty much forgotten.

Until a plague ravaged Palermo in 1624, when she appeared in a vision or dream to various people (one account says a hunter, another says a monk, still another says a soapmaker) and told them where to find her remains.  If her bones where taken to the stricken city and carried around in procession there, the plague would end.  No need to ask twice!  They found the cave with her bones and other relics, gathered them up, and carried them in solemn procession.

And the plague stopped.  The grateful populace venerated her as their patron saint, depositing her relics in a sumptuous sarcophagus in the cathedral, and building chapels in her two mountain hideaways.  An exuberant festival celebrating the finding and translation of her relics is held in Palermo on or around July 14 (or in the first week of June as at Santo Stefano Quisquina); another festival celebrating her natale day is held around now.

(Brewer, in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, snidely remarks that she "was carried by angels to an inaccessible mountain, where she lived for many years in the cleft of a rock, a part of which she wore away with her knees in her devotions. If anyone doubts it, let him know that a rock with a hole in it may still be seen, and folks less sceptical have built a chapel there, with a marble statue, to commemorate the event.")

Sir Walter Scott, describing a pilgrim who has spent years visiting every shrine and relic, refers to the chapel of Saint Rosalia in his poem "Marmion":

"That grot where olives nod.
Where, darling of each heart and eye
From all the youths of Sicily
St. Rosalie retired to God."

Whatever her origins, Saint Rosalia was a person who found it impossible to hear God in the noise of her fashionable life, and so left it to live and listen in silence.  Silence is a rare commodity today.  From the first ringing of the clock alarm, to the constant blaring of television and radio, the public conversations on cell-phones, the muzak in stores, just the bustle of daily life - there is no silence.  To sit alone and listen to God is not impossible, but it takes a greater discipline than most people have to shut off the noisemakers and retire, even for an hour, to a place of quiet.  They want to, but... they can't shut off the cell phone because someone - you know - might need to get in touch with them.  They want to, but... the children need to be ferried to their various activities.  They want to, but... they absolutely must know what is going on in the world today, and which talking head is saying what, and in between that, there are cooking shows to watch.

Rosalia wanted - needed - that silence, and turned her back on everything which interfered with it.  In her honor, set aside a time of silence in your day.

According to "The Front Burner" celebratory dishes for today include a Gelo di melone, or Watermelon gelatin  (a recipe for which you can find here), and Cassata, described as "Ricotta cream studded with chocolate and candied citrus, encased in a rum soaked sponge cake, topped with lemon icing, and wrapped up in pasta reale - Sicily's own marzipan." (Yum)

The author has also invented a nice little watermelon cocktail, christened "La Rosalia" in honor of the saint, which looks wonderfully cool for these still warm days of late summer.

Barring either of those, enjoy some of the last chilled watermelon of the season.  The fruits of autumn cometh shortly.

Artwork: Anthony Van Dyke, Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo (1624). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.