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SANTA MARIA DELLA NEVE
August 11, 2008
 
It's hot here in Florence, but it's hot back in New York, too. It's hot everywhere except in Antactica, I believe, and it's getting warmer there.

We had a wedding at a tiny chapel near Greve in Chianti the other day. The party was British, all of them -- you could tell immediately where they were from, just by looking at them: many of the English turn a startling shade of purple the moment they set foot in Italy. It was hot in the little church, although we had the fans on, and I think everyone was relieved when the brief ceremony was over and people could stand around on the porch and in the garden. The breeze out there was lovely: the church perches at the top of a considerable hill, and I imagine it's breezy up there all the time.

Santa Maria della Neve was its name -- St. Mary of the Snow. We had just missed the festival commemorating the miracle remembered by its name, one involving the Virgin Mary and a sudden snowfall in Rome in the dog days of August, at the end of the fourth century. In Rome, the snow fell on just the spot upon which the Blessed Mother wanted the pope and a wealthy couple to build her a church, the present Santa Maria Maggiore. Not to be outdone, local memory here has enlarged the snowfall: it fell throughout Tuscany, too, the caretaker told me firmly, not just in Rome. That's a miracle that bears repeating, I thought as we began the hot, dusty journey back down the hill. Snow on the ground in summer. Delighted children making snowballs of it and eating them. Puzzled grapevines and olive trees frosted with it. Farm animals stepping gingerly through it. I can see why people would remember that day for more than a thousand years, whether it happened or not.

My grandmother used to tell me stories of cold weather when it was hot. Of how cold it was in Minnesota, where we were from. Of the cat we had whose ears and tail fell off from frostbite. Of how you could toss water from a basin up into the air and watch it come down like a shower of diamonds. Those are good stories to tell when the weather is hot and you can't get away from it. Remember what it is to be cold. Really think about it. It helps you feel differently about the heat. She told me about this every night in the heat of the summer, and it helped me calm down and go to sleep. It may have helped me become a writer.

Miracle stories -- and the Minnesota stories were miracle stories, too, as far as I was concerned, even though they were true -- help people get through hard times. Maybe all stories are really miracle stories. We can paint the world other than as it is, imagine away our cruel limitations, and it helps us to remember that this life is contained by a larger way of being, one in which those things that break our hearts simply do not apply.

It will not always be like this, we think, as we imagine something better.
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The Feast of Madonna of the Snows is August 5th. See some happy Italians tossing white rose petals around Santa Maria Maggiore, and some paintings about it, at www.catholictradition.org/mary/snows.htm.
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