As Father Andrew walked me to the door my eye fell upon it. Stepping back into the door pane’s crystalline, sunny reflections, I was ravished: My mind swelled with the kind of joy that lifts you out of yourself and absorbs you in something else. Words bubbled out that weren’t my own: “Father, I hear the words ‘martyr of love’. Explain them to me.”
He beams like a child. “She is indeed a martyr of love. She died of love for Alessandro. As he stabbed her to death, she did not say ‘stop! You are hurting me!’ but ‘No, it is a sin! God does not want it!’”
Tears came to my eyes. I might have been so impulsive as to reach out and stroke the little copy of the famous La Crosse mural with my fingertips. Crouching in the foreground of the painting, Alessandro Serenelli evokes a primitive image: The muscles of his bare back bulge like our first Father, cursed to grovel in the thorns and thistles of not-the-garden for as long as his miserable life lasted. Chained in a prison so dark it might as well be night, the barred window evincing barely any light, we glimpse into the inner night of Alessandro Serenelli, a resigned sinner. They say that to the days of his conviction, he vociferously fought accusations of responsibility in Maria’s murder, and blamed eleven-year-old Maria for lustful advances on him. They say that in prison he was so irritably violent with the other prisoners to necessitate solitary confinement. "Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself,” Alessandro writes, an old man, a Capuchin in vows of chastity, a day before his death. "My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried. There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.
"When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer.”
The blackness of the prison dissipates into deep, shadowy blue and brown heaths and hedges, much like the sprawling pianuras—plains—of Italy. In the dusky, fading light, rosy wisps of clouds overtake the purpled plateaus, and the eye ascends higher and higher. Heaven overtakes the lonesome, noble heights of man’s soul and consoles it.
Maria came to Alessandro, a man who had never dreamed before in his life, in his sleep. In her hidden union and confidence with heaven, Maria is neither turned toward us nor looking at us. I am not yet beatific enough—blessed enough—to speak to her face to face, to behold her gaze. I look at her and the Blessed Mother and I feel like an outsider. I cannot gaze long upon the cloud of lilies encircling Our Blessed Mother. I feel like a covetous child, looking on a superabundant grove of lilies through a hole in a high fence I cannot climb.
Not just pretty, the symbolism of the lily is rich in our Church’s artistic tradition: Its gold stamen stands for glory, its white, translucent petals for purity. Their trumpet-like shape blares triumph. In hundreds of depictions of the annunciation, from Boticelli to Raphael to Waterhouse, Gabriel offers a perfect, straight, beatified rod of lilies to Our Blessed Mother. Through all the icons and prayer cards of my youth, Saint Joseph holds lilies. So do saints Gemma Galgani, Philomena, Francis Xavier, Kateri Tekakwitha, Anthony of Padua. Lilies are never present without an exchange between heaven and earth: Just as in the mural, Maria gave Alessandro fourteen lilies—for every stab wound Alessandro inflicted upon her.
Alessandro, face hidden away from the beholder, in the mystery of conversion only God and heaven understand, fumbles for them, and in the crux of his crouching figure he holds one lily emitting the brightest, halo-ed orb of light. “I want him (Alessandro) in heaven with me forever,” were Maria’s last words.
Recently, a relatively well-known musician left the Catholic Church, Maria Goretti’s story a subject she was vehemently indignant about. I do not judge her. Maria is radical. I, nineteen, could be her older sister; I look at the eleven-year-old saint and I nearly cripple under the weight of glory. The words “Martyr of love,” persist in my mind, and yet every day I have a bleaker conviction that I am not a martyr. I am more Alessandro than Maria. I give my stomach to the appetites of the world. I serve myself. I vociferously defend myself in my guiltiness. I am irritable to my fellow prisoners. My life can feel like a prison cell no light can penetrate. Alessandro’s story seems real to me, Maria’s is strange and unfamiliar as a fairytale.
And yet I love Maria’s story more than life itself. Dmitri’s prayer in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov so perfectly encapsulates my feeling: “Let me be vile and base, only let me kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded. Though I may be following the devil, I am thy son, O Lord, and I love thee, and I feel the joy without which the world cannot stand.”
I am sustained by this: Looking in on the garden, I know I was not meant to stand outside. I want to kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded. I want to pick lilies. I want to give them. I pray for the gate to be opened to me.
Abigail Herrick is a sophomore studying English and education at K-state. She delights in Jesus Christ in literature, art, and conversation and her love language is dance parties and coffee at unseemly hours of the night.